'A moving experience'
The Weekend Australian 2 October 2010

Keeping pace with local long-distance champion Steve Moneghetti by Ballarat's Lake Wendouree by Kerrin O'Sullivan

On an arctic winter's morning I am striding beside Ballarat's picturesque Lake Wendouree. Rendered a weed-choked dustbowl by 12 years of drought, it's brimming with water and beautiful once again. Looping the lake is the Steve Moneghetti Track, and I'm setting a cracking pace.

The rain however provides the first sporting anecdote of my tour of the Gabba. Just days before, Queensland bowler Nathan Rimmington is purported to have claimed a piece of sporting trivia here in a rain-marred Sheffield Shield game against Tasmania. He took six sessions to bowl the six balls needed to complete an over. When stumps were drawn, the sides had managed just 118 minutes of cricket in three days.

Moneghetti, aka Mona, is a favourite son of Ballarat. The four-time Olympic marathon man, winner of the Berlin, Tokyo and Commonwealth marathons, and reigning record-holder in Sydney's iconic annual City to Surf race, grew up less than a kilometre from the lake. The sandy path skirting the banks was his training track and Mona still holds the record for the 6km circuit: 16min, 10sec.

I lace my runners and pit myself against clock and champion. Ten minutes later, captivated by trackside information boards celebrating Mona's achievements, I can still see my starting point.

Discovering the 1956 Olympic Precinct at the finish of the 2km rowing course stalls my record attempt. Somewhere near here the Russian rower Viktor Ivanov lost his silver medal in the lake; it was found later by a local boy whose reward was a Russian Olympic badge and an invitation to lunch at the USSR team's hostel.

It's a moving experience to wander amongst the plaques paying homage to Ballarat's role as host city for rowing and canoeing in those long ago Olympics. In a distinctively Australian design the Olympic Rings rest aloft a boomerang and a fountain is constructed as an Olympic Cauldron. A bird's-eye view of the commemorative panels depicts an aerial perspective of ripples made by an athlete's blade as it cuts through the water.

The bronze-inscribed words Aspire, Believe, Strive and the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius inspire me to go "faster, higher, stronger" in my conquest of the lake. But temptation arrives at the lake pavilion's Pipers by the Lake, where behind misty windows breakfasters are tucking into pancakes and waffles. Would Mona have stopped, I wonder. No; I push on.

It's busy on the track this morning. Lycra-clad joggers and seniors in woollen-beanies jostle for position. Mothers push prams; birds dip and dive. Every 500 metres a marker quantifies my progress. A magpie warbles as I admire the straw-coloured heritage Jubilee Church, so quaint with its purple fretwork and green iron roof.

As I near the timber boatsheds, graffiti on a painted blue door reads -

"Things just ain't the same for gangsters." On his 1895 world tour, American writer Mark Twain described Lake Wendouree as "a lovely lake". It's still lovely and I have trouble imagining gangsters in this sylvan setting. But who knows? By next morning, the graffiti has gone and glossy blue paint shines supreme. I guess the graffiti gangster was right

Steadily the lake refills where cracked mud lay. I pass the rowing Starter's Platform and now that the water's rising, the rowers will return; so too, the yachties, sailboarders and anglers. A lone Australian flag bats against its flagpole. The wind is picking up and my hands have turned scarlet; even the black swans are shivering. At The Boatshed, tourists are sipping lattes in the warmth. I remind myself that in rain, hail and blistering heat, Mona ran the track, lap after lap. Surely I can complete just one?

By the path now is the Yuille Cairn which honours Ballarat's first European resident, William Yuille. He's famous for asking a local Aboriginal woman the swamp's name.

"Wendaree," she replied, which meant, "go away". And so a version of the name stuck.

Arriving back at my start, St Patrick's Point, I hit the stopwatch. The clock shows 90 minutes, a tad slower, it has to be admitted, than Moneghetti's 16min, 10sec. Then again, maybe Mona never stopped to read the information boards about his achievements.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan