You never know who might be jogging alongside you at your local parkrun and the stories they could tell.
At the coastal town of Port Fairy in south-western Victoria, Olympic bronze medallist and former world record holder Judy Amoore Pollock is a regular.
At the age of 81, her love of running is as strong as ever, even if she doesn’t glide across the ground the way she used to.
“I can’t really run, I call it ‘joggle’ — it’s a half jog and a shuffle,” Amoore Pollock said.
The joggle hasn’t just been seen at Port Fairy’s five kilometre course, where Amoore Pollock has completed almost 90 parkruns.
She’s also turned up for Saturday morning parkruns in Ballina, Dubbo, Wangaratta, Bundaberg and Airlie Beach just to name a few. The others running are often unaware of Amoore Pollock’s decorated athletics career.
“I am so old most of them haven’t heard of me,” Amoore Pollock said with a laugh.
“I’ll be running along puffing away and someone will run past and they’ll go ‘oh, good job, well done’ and I think ‘if only you knew how old these legs are and how many miles they’ve run’,” Amoore Pollock said.
Timothy Marshall was involved in getting the Port Fairy parkrun started and said the support of an athlete who went to three Olympic Games has been a key component of its success.
“She’s an inspiration at her age that she’s still taking part,” Marshall said.
“It’s just a great feeling when you’re next to someone who’s so enthusiastic and takes joy in other people and then you think back to the history of the things she’s done.”
From her parents’ paddock to an Olympic podium
Growing up in the small town of Mount Macedon, north-west of Melbourne, there were few running tracks for the young Amoore Pollock apart from a 100 metre strip her father had mowed in their paddock. As a teenager, she was sent to Mentone Athletic club in Melbourne to see how she went in a race.
“I ran the 100 yards as it was in those days and I won and beat the junior state champion and everyone went ‘wow’ and that was the start of it,” Amoore Pollock said.
She linked up with German-born Henri Schubert, who coached her throughout her career, and won the Victorian titles in the 220 yards and 440 yards in 1963 and 1964. Amoore Pollock qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and took the bronze medal in the 400 metres with her Australian team-mate Betty Cuthbert winning the gold.
The legendary Cuthbert remains the only athlete to win Olympic gold in the 100, 200 and 400 metres.
“That was amazing, I don’t think I’d been out of the country before,” Amoore Pollock said.
“Betty was my hero at that stage, I got to know her then and we remained great friends until the day she died.”
Rock star of the track
Amoore Pollock broke the world record in the 440 yards in early 1965 and a year later won gold (440 yards) and silver medals (880 yards) at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica. Competing in meets around Europe in 1967, she broke the 800 yards and 800 metres world records and was a star attraction.
“I remember saying to my mum ‘I feel like one of The Beatles’,” Amoore Pollock said.
Initially her 800 metre record in Helsinki wasn’t ratified because she’d inadvertently promoted a sponsor.
“I ran with a number on my back which had Finn Coffee on it, I didn’t even give it a thought, they issued everyone with numbers and I put it on,” Amoore Pollock said.
A gold medal looked likely at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. When Amoore Pollock returned from her successful European trip she was called to a meeting with Victorian athletics officials. Instead of being feted as a hero, she was given a cold reception.
Amoore Pollock had offers on the table to compete in the USA and New Zealand but was told she couldn’t compete overseas before the Olympics.
“And I went ‘what?’,” Amoore Pollock said.
“And they said ‘you didn’t get permission to run in Europe, England and Scotland’ and I was absolutely flabbergasted.”
Amoore Pollock maintains she was told by British officials that she’d been given permission by the Australian athletics body to compete in Europe.
“In those days it wasn’t easy to be an amateur athlete,” Amoore Pollock said.
“Things were difficult, we didn’t get the attention or help we get nowadays.”
“They were only going to let me go to Mexico and I was not to be able to run anywhere else.”
“And I remember saying to them ‘so that I can win a medal for you’.”
“I came out of that meeting absolutely devastated.”
“I decided there and then that athletics wasn’t really what I thought it was and thought I’d start a family instead.”
The world’s fastest women’s 800 metre runner fell pregnant and in the year of the Mexico Olympics, her first child Nathan was born.
“He’s my gold medal, I always tell him that,” Amoore Pollock said.
Injury cruelly prevents Olympic comeback
The urge to compete at the top level returned and Amoore Pollock set herself for the 1972 Olympics but suffered a leg injury in the lead-up.
She still managed to complete a trial run to book her place on the team.
Amoore Pollock went to the Munich Games as Australia’s track and field captain.
After missing out on Mexico she was determined to make an impact at her second Olympics and was ramping up her training.
“I was doing a fast run through and boing the muscle went again,” Amoore Pollock said.
“I said to the doc ‘I can run’.”
“And he said ‘Judy if you do that you will have to have an operation when you get home to Australia and you’ll probably never run again’.”
Terrifying experience in the Olympic village
She accepted that advice and didn’t compete in Munich. It didn’t stop her from going for casual runs though. Early one morning during the second week of the Olympics, she set out with Australian 1500 metre runner, Jenny Orr.
“We were running around the park area of the Olympic village and I said ‘Jenny don’t look now but there’s a man up there on the balcony with a mask and he’s got a gun, just keep running until we can turn around and see a bit better’.”
“We took one look and decided ‘let’s get out of here’ and we ran out the gate and went for a bit of a run.”
“When we tried to come back in they wouldn’t let us in the gate and there were people everywhere by then.”
“We went in through another entrance and back to our quarters and that’s when we found out something was wrong.”
Unaware of just how horrific the developing situation was, Amoore Pollock left the athletes village for lunch with her parents.
“When we came back there were people and cars everywhere and we couldn’t get close,” Amoore Pollock said.
The athlete was dropped off and assured her father that she would let him know when she had made it safely into the village.
“I said to dad when I get in I’ll cooee”, Amoore Pollock said.
“So I cooed and he cooed me back.”
“I was walking down the driveway and these German guards with guns grabbed me and threw me under a great big army truck,” Amoore Pollock said.
“They said ‘stay there, don’t move!’.”
“A helicopter flew in and I didn’t realise what was going on then, but I did afterwards.”
Eleven Isreali athletes had been taken hostage by a Palestinian militant group. Two were killed in the athletes village.
“They (members of the Isreali team) came out from the car park on a bus and were pushed along to the helicopter,” Amoore Pollock said.
Nine Isreali athletes would later be killed by the Palestinian gunmen during a battle with West German police at a nearby airfield.
“A lot of us didn’t want (the Olympics to continue) at that stage but when I look back now it was the best thing to have it continue on,” Amoore Pollock said.
One last Olympic comeback
Troubled by the injury, Amoore Pollock retired again before mounting yet another comeback ahead of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. She ran in the faster of the two semi-finals in the 800 metres and narrowly missed the final.
“I was absolutely delighted that I ran under two minutes,” Amoore Pollock said.
“I was pleased that at 36 years of age I’d run my fastest time for 800 metres.”
This time Amoore Pollock retired for good, although she won every race she entered at the World Masters Games in Toronto in 1985. She looks back on her career with pride.
“I wouldn’t really change anything, it’s made me the person that I am, it gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have got normally,” Amoore Pollock said.
“And I wouldn’t change all the lovely friends I made and I’ve still got them now.”
Competitive fire still burns at parkrun
Amoore Pollock has made a host of new friends since entering her first parkrun in 2017.
It’s not all friendly though as former world record holders are always looking to beat the clock. She recorded a personal best of 32 minutes in 2019.
“Very occasionally you see that steeliness and see her thinking ‘I was quick once, I would’ve beaten you’,” Marshall said.
Amoore Pollock cherishes the days when she runs with one of her daughters and her grandchildren. Her advice to the younger generation at the starting line isn’t always taken on board though.
“I always say ‘don’t go too fast’ and they take off like a bullet,” Amoore Pollock said.
“Just the enjoyment of having them there and being able to run with them because my children didn’t really ever run with me when they were growing up.
“My daughter used to say ‘I can’t run with you, you talk too much’.”
Small steps, big gains
In between parkruns, Amoore Pollock swims, walks and cycles. Her message to those who think their running or walking days are behind them is to “give it a go”.
“Just go out, walk to your front gate and walk back again,” Amoore Pollock said.
“Next day walk to the first telegraph pole and walk back again.”
“Just little bit by little bit and you’ll find that you can do it if you just take it easily and gently.”
“Just listen to your body because it’s the best gauge of how much you can do and how often you can do it.”
Judy Amoore Pollock’s mind and body are still telling her to run. It’s the same message she’s received since jogging out to the paddock in Mount Macedon as a young girl.
“I just love to run and I need to exercise because it’s good for my health for a start, now that I’m older I know that I need to keep moving.”
“The fact that I can still do it, even if I walk all the way, it gives me a high when I finish.”
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