Jared Tallent (50km Walk - Silver)
Jared Tallent is one of Australia’s most resilient athletes. Having faced the pain of being denied his gold-medal glory at the 2012 London Games, Tallent cemented himself as one of the world’s best distance racewalkers over the last decade by taking the silver medal in the 50km walk.
At his third Olympic games, Tallent’s achievement places him in esteemed company, notably as Australia’s greatest ever male track and field Olympian, with his four Olympic medals – one of each colour (Beijing: bronze – 20km walk, Beijing: silver – 50km walk, London: gold – 50km walk, Rio: silver – 50km walk).
Whilst it is true the Ballarat-born local would’ve dearly loved gold, Tallent’s silver represents a very consistent achievement for the 35-year-old – his ninth consecutive 50km walk medal at a major international championships. A record that stretches back through three world championships, and of course now, the Rio and London Olympic Games.
In Rio, Tallent was to come up against stiff opposition, with reigning world champion Matej Toth (SVK) and current world record holder Yohann Diniz (FRA) the likely challengers to Tallent’s Olympic title.
The race itself was bizarre and gripping, with Diniz breaking away from the group from the gun. Toth, Tallent and Canadian Evan Dunfee remained together as Diniz pulled clear. Then, disaster struck for Diniz. Struggling with stomach problems, and possibly exhaustion, he stopped at about the 32km point. Inexplicitly, the Frenchman started racing again as Tallent chased down Dunfee who took the lead through 35km.
Tallent made his move to lead at about the 40km mark, but heartbreakingly with only 5km to go, slipped to second place as Toth roared past. With gritted teeth, Tallent held off the final challenges from Hirooki Arai (JPN) and Dunfee to finish 18 seconds behind the Slovakian gold medallist.
Another gutsy performance from Tallent will live long in our memories.
Dane Bird-Smith (20km walk - Bronze)
It’s been almost two weeks now, but for all we know, Dane Bird-Smith probably still has a great big smile on his face.
Nothing could’ve dampened the spirits of the 24-year-old Queenslander after realising his dream of medalling in the men’s 20km walk in Rio.
In his debut games, Bird-Smith tactically held onto the leading pack, wary of not expending too much energy early on. As China’s Zhen Wang pulled away from the group within the final 3km, Bird-Smith astutely timed his finish to overtake Caio Bonfim (BRA) and win the bronze medal, just 10 seconds behind Wang.
In a race that saw the leader change seven times throughout each 2km split, Bird-Smith’s achievement finally dawned on him as he finished. Crossing the line with his now famous ‘Bird-man’ hand gesture, he then began to sob uncontrollably with joy providing an emotional “it means everything man” interview-post race.
In a remarkable coincidence, Bird-Smith was bestowed the honour of Australia’s 500th athletics Olympian, all before winning the Australian Olympic Team it’s 500th Games medal.
After setting a new Australian record in the 5000m walk last March in Melbourne, and with his stunning victory at the Summer Universiade in 2015, we predict we’ll see a lot more of ‘the Birdman’ in the coming years.
After the race, David Smith, a two-time Olympian himself and coach of Dane was so overcome with joy, he leapt the barrier to the official post-race area, before being escorted away by security. Back in Australia, there’s no doubt many others would’ve felt the same urge to congratulate the young Aussie medallist.
Alana Boyd (Pole Vault – 4th)
Sometimes, the manner in which you conduct yourself on the world stage will earn you more praise than your result.
In a heart-warming gesture that was broadcast around the world, Alana Boyd found the courage to hug and congratulate young bronze medal winner Eliza McCartney (NZL) after the final of the women’s pole vault. Boyd and McCartney both had cleared 4.80m, but due to countback, the 19-year-old took the bronze medal.
The embrace would’ve been desperately painful for Boyd, who herself came so close to the medal herself after her years of commitment.
Rio was Boyd’s third Olympic Games, and her fourth place had been her best performance yet. Her finishing height fell just short of her Australian and Oceanian record she set months before Rio at 4.81m.
She may not have walked away from Rio with any silverware, but for Boyd, winning the hearts of two nations as well as the sporting public, was some consolation for her Olympic efforts.
Dani Samuels (Discus – 4th)
Dani Samuels has seen the ups and downs of her Olympic sport more than most.
From dominating women’s throwing domestically for the most part of the last decade, Samuels fell agonisingly short of bronze in the women’s discus throw in Rio. Understandably gutted after the competition, Samuels told the press it was a “missed opportunity”, as she landed just 44cm short of a maiden Olympic medal.
Throwing 64.90m, Samuels entered the competition ranked fourth in the world based on her season best throw of 67.77m.
A nineteen-time Australian champion (6 in shotput, 13 in discus), Samuels greatest international achievement came in 2009, when she won the IAAF World Championships.
Since then, Samuels has focussed all of her efforts solely on the discus and performing well on the international stage – this year alone she had achieved two podium finishes in the Diamond League.
Whilst Rio may have been Samuel’s greatest chance at an Olympic medal, we cannot deny the amazing achievements and presence Samuels has had in Australian throwing landscape. Whilst a medal would’ve been just reward for her effort, Samuels can rest assured knowing she has done herself proud at her third Olympic Games.
The Australian women’s distance runners
The Australian women’s distance running contingent of Madeline Hills (3000m Steeplechase, 5000m), Genevieve LaCaze (3000m Steeplechase, 5000m) and Eloise Wellings (10,000m, 5000m) had many Australians in awe of their performances against the world’s best in Rio.
Punching well above their pre-event rankings, the three women achieved much more than most expected as they collectively qualified for five finals, recorded nine season’s best efforts, six personal bests and five top-10 finishes.
In the 10,000m straight final, Wellings set a new personal best of 31:14.94, obliterating her 2011 best by over 26 seconds, when she finished 10th in a world class field that saw Almaz Ayana (ETH) break the world record.
LaCaze and Hills’ Olympic campaigns began on the second day of competition, with the 3000m steeplechase heats. Qualifying for the final in convincing fashion, they both became the first Australians to make the women’s Olympic steeplechase final.
In hot conditions, Hills finished 7th in 9:20.38 (previous PB 9:21.56), just in front of teammate LaCaze who continued her PB blitz to finish 9th in 9:21.21 (previous PB 9:23.19).
Just one day after, all three women qualified for the 5000m final, collectively becoming the first three Australians to make the Olympic final in that event.
Shining once again on the biggest stage of all, all three women finished in the top-12, with Wellings (9th) running her best time in a decade of 15:01.59, while Hills (10th) and LaCaze (12th) both recorded personal bests of 15:04.05 and 15:10.35 respectively.
Over the weekend at the Paris Diamond League, LaCaze has once against improved her PB in the 3000m steeplechase, although this time she also set a new Australian and Oceanian record of 9:14.28.
It is truly an exciting time of Australian women’s distance running.
Ryan Gregson (1500m – 9th)
Racing late into the final position on this list is current Australian 1500m record holder Ryan Gregson.
In Rio, Gregson was as thrilling to watch as any Australian athlete, whose bold tactics and fast finishing saw him enter the men’s 1500m final after finishing 2nd in the heats and 4th in the semi-finals.
In doing so, Gregson became the first Australian to make the men’s 1500m final since Graham Crouch in 1976.
In a rough and tumble race, Gregson was in a strong position after two laps, but a momentary lapse of concentration saw him swamped by the field and in a struggle for position, eventually finishing 9th in 3:51.39.
Gregson was in near career-best form heading into his second games, finishing within the top-6 of the Rabat, Rome and Birmingham Diamond League meets, as he inched closer to the Australian record of 3:31.06 he set in 2010.
But it was Gregson’s manner in which he made the final in Rio that won him plenty of applause. Each time, waiting until the final moments of the home straight to unleash his devastating kick to soar home in a strong position.
Whilst Gregson himself wasn’t satisfied with his final race, we can be sure that plenty more edge-of-the-seat moments are still to come from the 26-year-old.