Women in pro running: Anna and Bella Pasquali follow in Nicky Coughlin’s footsteps

Date: 11th April 2022

Adapted from a story by David Griffin

Anna Pasquali and daughter Bella are a classic Stawell story of girl power.

Anna had been trying to win at Stawell since 1997 and had made 8 finals when she shocked herself and won the Lorraine Donnan Women’s 400m in 2017. Daughter Bella has been victorious at Stawell winning the Little Athletics 400m convincingly in 2019 and she just took out the U17 Australian 400m title.

But from an athletics perspective, we have to look back to the heady days of 1967 when Katrine Switzer ran the Boston marathon. With women banned from running, Switzer was attacked by race officials in an attempt to stop her finishing.

Switzer made it to the end and in the process ended the ludicrous thinking that females couldn’t run 42 kilometers.

Long the domain of men, professional athletics in Australia has seen very little in the way of female participation. Until the mid-90s, it was rare to see a female run.

Nicky Coughlin is widely considered the pioneer for women running professionally in Australia.

Nicky Coughlin

She was an oddity. Lining up against the men in the late ‘80s, she was a lone female flying the flag for women in pro sprinting.

“I trained with Neil King and a lot of his group ran pro. I asked whether I could try”, Coughlin remembers.

“I first ran at Stawell in the 1987 season and I loved it. I was on the limit and didn’t do very well but it was a great weekend”.

Not wanting to become the pin up girl for feminism in pro running, Nicky is matter of fact about the sport and her involvement.

“I must admit I didn’t really think too much about it. I just wanted to run”, she said.

“Most of the men were really good but I did have a few issues with some runners who thought I shouldn’t be running, it was nothing serious though.

“I didn’t have a lot of success against the guys but I did win a 70m heat at Rye which was a highlight.”

Coughlin breached the frontier that was the male dominated Victorian Athletic League, and whilst not celebrated, clearly led the way for women racing pro today.

“At first the only women you would see at race meetings were the girlfriends or wives of the athletes. When more girls started racing they introduced women’s races, so I didn’t have to run against the men. I ended up winning a few ladies races and it was a great time in my life.”

Women’s races were finally introduced into the Stawell Gift program in 1989 with female sprinters forced to run on the novice or “alternate” track, and for a pittance.

Things have changed. This year, 108 women will be bolting down the premier ‘Gift’ track, a long way from the lone female who took to the blocks in 1987.

The Stawell Gift often throws up great stories. It’s been the same since 1878 and Anna Pasquali is a great example.

Wangaratta’s Anna Pasquali shocked herself when she won the Lorraine Donnan Women’s 400m Handicap.

The now retired mother of three recalled:

“I have two losses I still struggle with. In 2004, I crossed the line with Kimberly Meagher in the final of the women’s 400m. I knew it was really close. Immediately the TV crew came over to me, put the sponsors hat on my head. Within a minute, they had decided Kim had won it, so off came the hat and away went the TV crew,” she shrugged.

“The other big disappointment was of course running second to Grace O’Dwyer in the 2015 Stawell Gift. In some ways I shouldn’t be, but how could you not be somewhat upset in the first ever 120m women’s at Stawell, where equal prizemoney was at stake.”

2015 was the first time that women had equal prizemoney to the males and the competition was fierce.

For Anna, her cool reflection of the race is probably the best indication of why she is so well liked on the circuit.

“If I was going to come second to anyone, I’m glad it was Grace. I have the utmost respect for Peter O’Dwyer, her father and coach”.

Two decades in the making, when she finally breasted the tape in the women’s 400 metres, it was stylish, classy and downright inspiring.

“To win this is like a dream come true. After 20 years and eight Stawell finals, I had finally reached my goal”, she said.

In an event that takes a touch over 50 seconds, it was a dominant performance.

Running off the mark of 40 metres, in a race that went perfectly to plan, Anna took control early and finished almost two seconds ahead of second place runner Kim McDonough.

Athletics is a family affair in the Pasquali family. Anna’s 15-year-old daughter Bella last week won the Under 17 400m national title and regularly runs on the VAL circuit. 12-year-old son Christian won the U14 120 metres at the Castlemaine Gift earlier this year.

Almost like a rite of passage, the Stawell Gift is about family and tradition.

Like the Pasquali family, generations make the trek to Stawell every Easter to celebrate a sport engrained in Australian culture. For Anna, its life.

“An Easter without Stawell is like a Christmas without Santa! We love the build-up, the excitement, the betting, the Friday night drill hall and all the memories.”

“Now the kids get to race, that only adds to our excitement”.

With the first page written by Nicky Coughlin, Anna Pasquali is another chapter in the growing story about female professional sprinters in Australia and has earned her place in Stawell Gift history.

Look out for David Griffin’s book full of professional running stories due out later in the year.

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