AOC: Olympian Robert de Castella regards the work he does with the Indigenous Marathon Foundation (IMF) as a more important achievement than any of his successes as an athlete.
That’s a big call from one of Australia’s best-known Olympians and World Marathon Champion, not to mention twice Commonwealth Games gold medallist.
On June 16th this year, more than 140 Indigenous runners from 20 communities around Australia gave Robert good reason to be proud as they joined together for a morning fun run and afternoon relay race around the base of an Australian icon, Uluru, in remote central Australia.
“We are coming up to ten years with this project and we have seen 75 people graduate to ultimately run in a major international marathon, including the New York Marathon," de Castella said.
“But this weekend was about people coming together from diverse and rich cultural backgrounds. Each runner will return home inspired by the stories to share with their families and communities."
The Indigenous Marathon Foundation is focused on encouraging running in Indigenous communities as a path to resilience, health and leadership. The 'Deadly Running' groups have sprung up throughout the country, but the Uluru run is the jewel in the crown.
To be selected for this run, each runner must have excelled in attitude, consistency, participation and improvement in their running group. For school children, good school attendance was essential.
This year, Robert’s fellow Olympians heeded the call with five Indigenous Olympians – Kyle Vander-Kuyp (athletics - hurdles), Brad Hore (boxing), Nathan Thomas (water polo), Josh Ross (athletics - sprinting) and Baeden Choppy (hockey) joining forces with fellow Olympians Shelley Watts (boxing) and the PyeongChang 2018 winter bobsleigh team of Lucas Mata, David Mari, Hayden Smith and Lachlan Reidy to run around the rock.
Another Olympian Peta MacKinnon (hockey) also works with Robert at the IMF to pull the event together.
The Olympians were a popular addition to the program, sharing their stories with the runners and encouraging them in their commitment to breaking down barriers to Indigenous success.
“Olympians are some of our country’s most talented, dedicated and courageous young men and women, and they are exactly who we need to inspire our Indigenous community leaders," de Castella said.
Saturday morning kicked off with a fun run at sunrise, with the ever-present Uluru as a backdrop.
But it was the afternoon team relay around the base of the rock that everyone had come for. Teams of four began their journey at the Mutijulu community, the Anangu traditional owners of Uluru and the lands surrounding the monolith.
Hurdler and Indigenous man Kyle Vander-Kuyp competed at two Olympics, making the 110 metre hurdles final in Atlanta 1996. He believes the dusty steps taken around the base of Uluru can change the direction of a young Indigenous person.
“The more you make good choices, you get that ripple effect. We need healthy, strong young people in our Indigenous communities. We need leaders.
“For Indigenous people, there’s something special about Uluru, even if you are not from this country," Vander-Kuyp said.
Australia’s first female Olympic boxer Shelley Watts summed up her feelings.
“To be able to start there, to throw up that red dust is something I’ll never forget. I think what Robert has done is absolutely amazing.”
The Uluru relay ended with each group handing over their baton, a symbolic item from their home communities, to Uluru’s traditional owners at Mutijulu to thank them for making their land available for this event.
When the fine red dust settled, the runners and Olympians gathered together one last time to share experiences, enjoy a meal and celebrate new friendships, before climbing onto planes for long trips home to all parts of Australia.
And they will all have a story to tell and not just once.