2016 – Controversy surrounds Women’s Gift winner, Lauren Wells wins 400m 20 years after Cathy Freeman

Date: 30th March 2022

The 135th running of the Powercor Stawell Gift was shaping up to be an exciting one. The track was in superb condition, another women’s race was giving equal prize money to the winner and a string of elite athletes were on their way to compete at Stawell.

“As usual the work of the Parks and Gardens staff was magnificent and the oval and Gift track were again presented in first class order,” remembers Stawell Athletic Club historian and committee member Murray McPherson.

After the announcement the previous year of equal prize money for the Men’s and Women’s Open Gifts, the Lorraine Donnan 400m Women’s Handicap winnings jumped from $1425 to $4000, the same as the Bill McManus Backmarkers 400m men’s race.

 Australian Olympians Melissa Breen and Lauren were returning to compete at the 2016 carnival, as was teenage sprint sensation Jack Hale who had recently broken the Tasmanian 100m open record with a swift run of 10.31s.

New Zealand’s fastest man Joseph Millar was to make his debut at Stawell this year. 2011 winner Mitchell Williams-Swain was attempting to take home the trophy for the second time along with past Gift winners Andrew Robinson and Matt Wiltshire, with the latter making his return to running after recent injury setbacks. Other notable athletes registered included South Australian Jordan Caldow (trained by Brett Robinson, coach of last year’s winner Murray Goodwin), Nigerian speedster Bola Lawal, former Jamaican sprinter and bobsledder, Khan Marr, 2015 finalist Tjimarri Sanderson-Milera and 400m Australian junior bronze medallist, Liam Proccacino.

Australia’s 100m record holder Melissa Breen had again been handed the scratch mark and was hoping for a repeat of her 2012 win.  World Junior Championship sprinter Hana Basic was competing along with Elly Graf, Kiara Reddingius and 20-year-old Tierra Exum, twin sister of NBA superstar Dante. 2015 winner Grace O’Dwyer was back to reclaim victory, as was 2014 winner Holly Dobbyn and Australian World Juniors sprinter Maddie Coates.

But it was Isaac Dunmall from Brisbane who won the 2016 Open Gift and 15-year-old Talia Martin from Ballarat who took the Women’s Gift.

Isaac Dunmall won by the barest margin from the joint favorite Tjimarri Sanderson-Milera with Jack Hale coming in third from the back mark of 3.25 metres. The win was especially gratifying for Dunmall who had run below his best when he came 7th in the 2014 final. His winning time of 12.17s was from a handicap of 6.75m. Edward Ware, Matthew Rizzo and Ryan Bedford were the other placegetters in the final.

“I have never known the meaning of speechless until now, this is unbelievable,” Dunmall said. “I didn’t know this day would ever come. I really didn’t. This is just crazy. I thought I had blown my chance in that race [in 2014]. I thought ‘I am gone, there is no way in the world I am going to win a Stawell Gift’ but now I have come back and to actually do it, that’s insane.”

Dunmall didn’t know if he had held on to win the race as he thew himself through the gates at the line, both he and Sanderson-Milera sprawling to the turf past the barriers.

“I got a good start and kicked on really well. I saw Tjimarri coming towards me in the last 20 and thought just hold on, hold on. But I wasn’t sure if I got there because he was getting close. I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know when I had it won, that’s why I dipped on the line because I wanted it so bad,” the 22-year-old said.

One of the first to embrace Dunmall after he crossed the line was Luke Versace, the man who won the Stawell Gift when Dunmall finished a disappointing seventh. On that day Isaac was one of the first to congratulate him.

The Strickland Family Women’s Gift result was clouded in controversy when the 15- year-old winner Talia Martin was fined $500 for inconsistent performance after she improved an incredible seven metres on her run at Ararat two weeks earlier. This fine was increased to $2000 after she took out the final.

Her coach Peter O’Dwyer, who was also fined $5000, had now trained the last three Women’s Gift winners.

Talia said after the race on Monday that prior to the Ararat race she had been emotionally overcome by an aunt’s death.

“I just have so many emotions running through me. I am excited and happy and overwhelmed. I can’t believe it has happened. Aunty Barb always came down to Stawell with us and it’s been really hard without her. Hopefully she is watching me from up in heaven and she is proud.”

Talia was the quickest of the women in the semi-final and carried that form into the final, holding on to outlast fast-finishing Tierra Exum in 13.7s off her handicap of 13m. Sarah Blizzard was 3rd followed by Ally Graf, Kate Jones and Jessica Payne.

However, the run of the meeting was put up by the National 400m hurdles champion Lauren Wells who won the Lorraine Donnan Women’s 400m from the back mark of 7m.  It was a fitting victory as it was the anniversary of Cathy Freeman’s memorable victory from scratch in the same race 20 years earlier. Lauren’s hurdles victory had automatically qualified her for the Rio Olympics taking place a few months later.

“The Stawell Gift carnival is always a special event in my eyes; the history and prestige associated with it makes for a great weekend,” said Lauren.

Other women to show out were Mia Gross who won the Jack Donaldson Open 200m and Sarah Blizzard who came second in the Arthur Postle 70m. Sarah’s result along with her 3rd place in the Women’s Gift enabled her to win the Eric Cumming Memorial Cup for the most successful runner over the sprint events.

Khan Marr took out the Chris Perry Memorial Backmarkers Invitation ahead of Andrew McCabe and Nathan Riali.

Scott Shillito won the Hank Neil Masters 100m and was 2nd in the 300m Masters to Grant Reid.

The Herb Hedemann was won by Jack Davies and in 2nd place was Tim Norton with Lochie Connell coming in 3rd.

Liv Ryan and Jake Ireland won the Under 17 Girl’s and Boy’s 100m.

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