HE WAS ONE of Australia’s great cycling coaches as the man behind Anna Meares: vale Gary West, writes RON REED:
MOTOR NEURONE DISEASE, the dreadful affliction that seems impossible to beat, has claimed a second prominent Australian sports personality in quick time. Popular cycling coach Gary West died at the weekend, exactly a month after the same fate befell well-performed tennis player Peter Doohan. West was 57, Doohan 56. Former AFL star player and coach Neale Daniher, who is also 56, continues his well-publicised battle that is raising millions of dollars to try to find a cure.
Like Doohan and Daniher, West was a world-class athlete in his prime, competing in the points race at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as well as being an alternate on the pursuit team that won gold. Earlier, he had won gold as a pursuit team member at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982.
But he made his mark on the sport mainly as a coach, especially in taking Australia’s greatest female track rider Anna Meares to gold and bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He also worked for the Japan and United States cycling federations before being appointed head track coach at the Australian Institute of Sport in his home town, Adelaide, in 2008.
The Meares triumph in London – in which the tough Queensland coal miner’s daughter earned her second Olympic gold by taking down her arch-rival, England’s Victoria Pendleton, in the sprint event — was his finest moment. He master-minded the win with a plan dubbed “know the enemy” which involved using one of Meares’ male team-mates at training to replicate the tactics Pendleton would use on race day.
But as the Adelaide Advertiser’s cycling writer Reece Homfray stressed in an excellent obituary, he had already saved Meares’ career as she recovered from the physical trauma of a broken neck in a race fall in 2008, back injuries that nearly stopped her permanently, and the emotional pain of a broken marriage.
Homfray quotes from a blog that West used to share his thoughts after being diagnosed with MND last year. Recalling what was said in the moments before the London showdown, West wrote: “’I can do this, I can do this,’” I heard Anna whisper to me, half out of breath while I manhandled her and her bike in the Aussie infield pit area of the velodrome. Despite some conjecture over the pending result of race one (of three) and despite that we had never allowed ourselves to be so audacious or bullish with language of winning … we both knew she was on the brink of achieving a goal hatched four years earlier.”
Softly-spoken – except when he wanted to make himself heard during training sessions, when his booming voice would echo around empty velodromes – West never sought or achieved a high public profile, but his 27-year coaching career ensured he was highly respected throughout the sport.
Meares wasn’t the only beneficiary. West coached the men’s team sprint to the world championship in 2012 and Matthew Glaetzer and Stephanie Morton became Commonwealth champions in 2014. Another of his proteges, Nathan Hart, is now one of the finest sprinters in the world.
West knew his body was failing as he accompanied Meares to the Rio Olympics last year but he wasn’t about to abandon her as she raced for the last time. Meares took bronze in the keirin, Australia’s only individual cycling medal. She revealed later that West had convinced her to not to quit while her personal life was in turmoil. After retiring, Meares devoted herself to raising money to fight the disease.
West’s final honour came late last year when he was inducted into the Australian Institute of Sport’s “Best of the Best” awards. “They don’t let just anyone into that exclusive club,” Homfray noted.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.