Title holders commit to defend victory at Stawell

Date: 15th January 2024

Powercor Stawell Gift champions Ryan Tarrant and Bella Pasquali will return to Central Park this Easter to defend their titles for 2024.

After a busy year post-victory, the teen sprinters are looking forward to the additional challenges that come with returning as defending champions.

Reflecting on his win as a first-time competitor at Stawell, Ryan recalled his triumph as “genuinely unbelievable.”

“I thought it was going to be daunting and intense, but after stepping on to the luscious track at Central Park, I felt nothing but excitement. It most definitely did live up to the expectation of being the greatest footrace in the country.

“It would be extraordinary to win back-to-back, but the greatest part of a returning winner is the feeling of running on the track at Central Park, what a special opportunity that is.

“I’m looking to forward to soaking up the environment which I was able to share with many other athletes on that day, just running was great fun.”

The win has tempted Ryan to compete in more professional races alongside his ongoing commitment to amateur athletics.

“I have dabbled a bit more in the pro running scene whilst still running in the amateurs. I have run the Essendon Gift (200m) off a mark of one metre and was happy to make it to the semis. I might run the Beachside Gift if time permits, but for now the next race coming up is the Canberra Champs over the Australia Day weekend.”

Bella’s recollection of winning the Strickland Family Women’s Gift took a bit more thought.

“Some bits I remember so clearly, and others are such as blur. I can’t remember much of the race though. However, the second afterwards when Layla Watson (who was also in the race) ran over to me and threw her arms around me, that was one of my best memories,” she recounted.

The win was special to Bella whose family has been involved in pro running for generations.

“I grew up in a household where Stawell was the pinnacle of pro running. Mum did both amateur running and pros but by the time I came along, both parents concentrated on pro running, so I was around the Gifts my whole life watching my parents as well as everyone else. Winning the Stawell Gift was talked about a lot.”

Bella acknowledges the impact the win has had on her running career.

“It’s certainly put my name out there a bit more now. Sometimes people stop to chat to me and say they were watching and cheering for me, some of them I’ve never even met before which is really cool.”

Bella is recovering from a hamstring injury so has only competed at the Waverley Gift in mid-December and at the Rye Gift over the weekend.

“I’ve just run at Rye and ran at Waverley last year and really loved that. It’s certainly hard off the new handicaps! I’ll start up running some amateur meets in February in preparation for the Victorian Champs and Nationals, while continuing to run in a few pro meets. 

“Not 100% sure how the season is looking yet, but I’ll get down to as many Gifts as I can around the amateur meets, but yes, I’m definitely coming to Stawell. Haven’t missed one since I was born!

Bella’s mum Anna Pasquali recalled her daughter’s win in the highly prized SYPAQ Lorraine Donnan Women’s Handicap 400m two years ago which she herself achieved five years earlier.

“I remember when she won that race back in 2022 and I thought that was as good as it gets. For both of us to win the same race five years apart, I didn’t think it could get any more special.

“I watched Bella’s Gift win about a thousand times in the month of April still in disbelief. I always talk about how many things must go right in the buildup as well as on the day to win any race at Stawell and she was lucky enough to have it all go right for her.

“Her coach Jason was instrumental in her preparation, transitioning her from a 400m runner down to the shorter stuff, working on her starts as well as her mental preparation. 
Anna believes, while Bella is going from strength to strength in track athletics her heart might belong in pro running.

“As cliche as it sounds, I just want her to keep enjoying her athletics and she’ll decide how far to take it. I know her heart is in pro running and amateur racing doesn’t have the same appeal for Bella, so it’s up to her which direction she heads.” 

Recalling Bella’s first Stawell Gift as a six-month-old baby, Anna is full of stories and memories of the yearly pilgrimage which means so much to so many.

“Wally (Bella’s dad) came second to Todd Ireland in the masters 100m, and halfway down the track I thought he had it so I was climbing the fence, Bella on my hip ready to celebrate! Everyone has so many memories and stories over the years. 

“One of Wally’s best mates is Steve Brimacombe who won back in 1991. I have this gorgeous photo of our three kids at 1, 2, 3 years of age pointing at his plaque in the main street and we sent it to him as he was overseas at the time. To think Bella will have a tree that we can visit every year is really special.

“Stawell already was such a special place for us, now for Bella to have won two sashes by the age of 17 we couldn’t have hoped for anymore.”

On her plans for the rest of the year, Bella will be concentrating on her final year of high school while aiming for World Juniors selection for the 400m.

Ryan will continue his medical studies at Melbourne University, while “running as fast as possible and enjoying the craft.”

“A goal for me at Stawell would be attempting to win the Backmarkers Invitational 120m,” he said.  Despard and Rodrigues Chico might have something to say about that.

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