From bush to beach
12 August 2016
BEACH VOLLEYBALL: Natalie Cook knows what it takes to win gold on the beach volleyball court.
And she says a shy Indigenous girl who grew up 200km from the nearest beach, loving just about every sport available but never considering playing before thousands at the spiritual home of the beach ball game, can repeat hers and Kerry Pottharst’s unforgettable efforts of 16 years ago in Sydney.
She was talking about Taliqua Clancy who will combine with three-time Olympian Louise Bawden to today move into the last 16 of the women’s beach volleyball, against Poland on Saturday.
That leaves them just three more victories away from winning an Olympic Games medal after winning all three matches in their pool.
It’s obvious to ask the question ‘how could this happen’? How could this shy kid from the bush be diving around the sand amidst the noise, music, colour, and ambitions at the 11,800 seat stadium at the home of bikinis, Havaianas and beach volleyball?
How Clancy, surrounded here in Rio by family who had booked plane tickets and accommodation months before she qualified for her first Games because they felt it was her destiny, could possibly be so close to one of the many believe-it-or-not feats of Australia’s Olympic history?
And how a girl from the peanut capital of Kingaroy, more destined for a netball or athletics future, could make it to Rio, considering her background, and be accompanied by her two “mums”?
“It’s unbelievable,” said her older ‘mum’, grandmother Jocelyn Clancy.
“There is absolutely no beach around Kingaroy and to be here on the world stage at the Olympics playing for Australia, how awesome.”
Cook, in Rio with the Australian team as an athletes’ services member, says it is
ntirely believable … as is Clancy and Bawden medalling at the world’s spiritual home of beach volleyball.
Cook remembers well when she first met a 15 year-old Taliqua who had just made the big decision to join the Queensland Academy of Sport program in Brisbane, ending the existence where Jocelyn and Taliqua’s real mum, Shannon, took turns in driving Taliqua the 420km four-to-five hour round trip to Brisbane two or three times a week for training and playing indoor volleyball.
Clancy also enrolled at Holland Park State High which has a volleyball program, close to Cook’s Sandstorm beach volleyball stadium. Cook gave her an internship at age 15 and remembers Clancy was so shy “she wouldn’t look you in the eye and wouldn’t string more than a couple of words together”.
Now she says the proud Indigenous 24 year-old, who has been painting the colours of the Aboriginal flag on her fingernails during Olympic competition, can be the world’s best and her combination with the more experienced Bawden is strong enough to challenge for the gold in Rio.
“She’s got the capacity to be the best in the world,” Cook said.
“She’s following Kerry Walsh Jones’ footsteps and she has won three Olympic gold medals.
“You have to have a good team to achieve that and Lou is a good teammate but, like Kerry and me, she is a bit older and won’t be around much longer so ‘T ‘will have to find a new partner.
“I think they are definitely medal prospects here - USA, Brazil, Germany and Australia are the top four teams. But you see Olympic pressure do weird things to people all the time.
“Our girls are forging success out of the pressure right now. I think they have got what it takes; it’s how much Brazil and USA step up against them that determines where they finish.
“It’s just awesome to see how ‘T’ has blossomed so much. I’m very proud to see what volleyball has done for her and what she has done for volleyball.
“This is the spiritual, sacred home of beach volleyball. And she’s here.”
Clancy’s story has been well told – from Kingaroy to the QAS in Brisbane, the invitation to trial in beach as well as indoor volleyball (she was reluctant at first because it was too ‘girlie’ with bikini-wearing the norm), a move to Adelaide to join the AIS centre of excellence program, then being matched with the 35 year-old Bawden (whose first Games were in the indoor team in 2000) in late 2012 with these Olympic Games in mind … and now being the first Indigenous person to represent Australia in the sport.
Yet if the long journey from the shy girl from Kingaroy to Rio is amazing enough, it’s the story behind the journey that warms the heart even more.
Mother Shannon, also a gifted athlete who competed at state junior titles in athletics and netball like her only child, suffers badly from osteoarthritis.
She moved to Brisbane to join Taliqua when she went into the QAS program at 15. She worked two jobs to ensue her daughter could stay in the program – driving a forklift by day and folding or delivering junk mail at night while Taliqua trained.
When the invitation to join the AIS team in Adelaide came when Taliqua was 17, Shannon again went with her. However, the cold winters were too harsh on her arthritis and so after less than a year she had to go back to the warmer temperatures of Queensland.
Taliqua has always called both Shannon and Jocelyn “mum” and her grandfather Robert “dad”.
Both mums are in Brazil to lead her personal cheer squad along with Shannon’s two sisters, and two of Taliqua’s best friends.
Sadly, Robert is in hospital and couldn’t make the trip and that has only strengthened Taliqua’s resolve to give him a TV viewing experience 10,000km away that he’ll never forget – being on the Olympic dais.
Her guiding light is Bawden, who left home at 16 for Adelaide to follow her own dreams. Now, she is at her third Olympics, maybe her last and Taliqua’s first – an unlikely combination whose destiny just might intertwine.
Bawden salutes from deep down her partner’s tenacity.
“T has such strong determination, a lot of talent and a lot of commitment,” she says of her beach buddy who shares the same music tastes and a love of shopping when on tour.
“At a young age she was prepared to take some risks and leave her hometown and she was so brave to do that.
“I really respect her for that and it set a foundation for her and what she has brought to the sport and also to our team. She was willing to make strong choices and sacrifices and go out and get what we want.”
And what they want is what Cook and Pottharst were the last Australians to get.
Both gold medallists will be at the Beach Volleyball Arena today when Bawden and Clancy hopefully go a step closer to emulating them.
So too will be a big contingent of fellow Aussie athletes making plenty of noise; two mums; two aunties; two best friends and the hopes of a whole town where beach volleyball is as far away figuratively physically, as it is geographically, from Copacabana Beach.