Gifted athletes set pace

Ilana Grandine, Jon Conti, Bryce Watkins (2)  TBW Newsgroup

Ilana Grandine, Jon Conti, Bryce Watkins (2) TBW Newsgroup
NEW ERA: Mount Gambier Gift women’s and men’s winners Ilana Grandine and Bryce Watkins celebrate their win with sponsor Jon Cotti. Saturday saw the pro-running event return to the Blue Lake city for the first time since 2011. Picture: KATIE JACKSON

PRO running returned to the Blue Lake city over the weekend with the first Mount Gambier Gift held since 2011.

Fierce competitors Bryce Watkins and Ilana Grandine were named the big winners on the day, taking home $3300 each after securing first place in the men’s and women’s 120m finals.

Saturday saw competitors travel from far and wide to lace up their shoes for the revived event.

Over the course of the day, a variety of different events were held including 70m, 1600m and 550m races, but the headline event was the 120m sprints.

The first to run were the event’s youngest competitors, with sprinters under 14 years taking to the track just after 5pm.

Starting from a handicap of 11.75m, Mount Gambier’s Leila Croker stormed past her opponents to take home the sash from Danny Hildyard and Sam Sibbick.

Croker was a favourite to win the final, finishing her qualifying heat 0.221 seconds faster than the second heat’s competitors.

Next up was the Over 35 event, with Luke Buchanan, Adrian Harris and Angela Holmes earning a place on the podium.

The trio all ran in the event’s second heat, blowing the first heat out of the water by a staggering 0.791 seconds.

The sport’s next generation was then put to the test with the Under 18 Boys and Under 18 Girls 120m finals.

Joe Chigwidden took home the gold for the boys, while Eliza Woolley earned the honours in the girl’s event.

Woolley proved herself a fierce competitor, finishing her heat comfortably, with Chigwidden following suit.

Just after 5.30pm, attention was focused on the “main events”.

After competing in heats in addition to semi-finals, the six best women and six best men were announced for the final sprints.

Taking the track for the women were Woolley, Ruby Sulicich, Hayley Orman, Kayla Lemm, Tamara Ng and Grandine.

Staring from the back-marker of 7m, Grandine had a tough race to run, since making her return to the sport less than 12 months ago after 10 years away.

Despite being pushed by up-and-comer Woolley the whole way down the track, Melbourne-based Grandine was able to secure the sash, finishing 0.177 seconds ahead of the youngster, with Sulicich third.

“I started running when I was 13 and did all of the Victorian competitions, but moved to Italy when I was young,” Grandine said.

“This is my first year back and it has been a bit hard to get back into it, but it is really fun – hopefully now I can get a bit faster and grow from here.

“This is my first pro race and I really wanted to see what it is like and experience my first 120m – I did not expect to win.

“Having the handicap system is really different to have that experience of trying to run someone down.

“Eliza was an amazing competitor and a tough one to catch.

“It has been great to see all the young up-and-comers having a go.”

The final sprint of the day was the men’s event, with Watkins facing off against a strong contingent including his brother Clay.

Rounding out the six were Chris Vi, James Boden, Misha Lizoguboff and Nicholas Antonino.

Boden lead the pack early with Lizoguboff, but Watkins made his way to the front, taking the lead around 10 metres before the finish.

The tight finish saw Watkins narrowly take the lead from Vi, beating the sprinter by only 0.05 seconds.

After the event, Watkins said the handicap format allowed him to be competitive.

“I am more of a middle distance runner who has moved up to sprinting,” he said.

“Fortunately for me, the handicapping system actually allows me to be competitive because otherwise I would not be in the best in the state and I certainly would not be in that final.

“That is the great thing about pro running – everyone is ideally given a winning chance and I am very grateful to have had my winning chance.”

Watkins praised his brother for bringing out his competitive side, with the fourth-place recipient starting at 4.25m and finishing only 0.108 seconds off the mark.

“I had my brother back behind me keeping me honest,” he said.

“We have been racing each other since we were toddlers and I think that definitely spurred me on a little bit.”

Grandine and Watkins both agreed they were excited to have pro running back in the South East.

“I first raced here in 2010 and I always loved it and wanted to come back, so I am stoked that its back on,” Watkins said.

“It ran very smoothly and it was so good to see the juniors.

“I actually went out and helped source these juniors from out of the schools.

“What we want is a strong local contingent getting involved in this and being competitive.

“Hopefully in future years they have got a sniff and they want to keep going.”