From Commonwealth athlete to official

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The Commonwealth Games holds special memories for Katrina Morrow. She has attended four games to date – two as a competitor, two as a spectator and now her association with the Games continues on the Gold Coast with her appointment as an athletics Technical Official.

By David Tarbotton

Her interest in athletics started through school.

“I competed as a country school athlete from Mendooran Central (NSW North West) winning a PSSA and then a CHS championships hurdling the high jump bar as the scissors scared me for some reason.”

After her first CHS win, she was quickly targeted by two-time Commonwealth Games high jump medallist, Helen Frith.

“Helen, during a visiting country coaching clinic, told me that if, as a 13-year-old, I could hurdle 1.52m front on, then I really should learn the flop. It was only through the commitment and efforts of my mother, Mavis Gibbs, and Ross Poulton (Dubbo Athletics Club) plus persistence in the face of frustration on my part, that I was able to master the flop well enough to win CHS again three years later. We all worked together following a program that was posted out via snail mail by Ken Steward in Sydney.”

Growing up in the small western NSW village of Merrygoen, located 90 kilometres north of Dubbo, meant overcoming difficulties not faced by athletes in more populated areas – the logistics of high jump training in the country were a challenge.

“My mum handstitched together two hessian and car seat foam landing mats which together were about the size of a queen sized bed. This called for precision high jumping in our backyard. You also learnt to ignore any frogs and spiders that had taken up residence in the mats. In Dubbo, I was jumping in a paddock next to the airport as it was the only place we could find storage for the mats.”

Morrow believes these challenges helped make her a stronger athlete – “It didn’t matter if things weren’t perfect or working properly – it just meant you had to find a way to make it work.”

Then there was the inevitable move to the ‘big smoke’ for university and furthering of her athletics career.

“After completing high school in Dubbo, I moved to Sydney for Teachers’ College in 1977 and started training under Ken Steward with David Morrow, Lyn Jacenko and others in the same jump squad. Ken matched David and I as training partners – it turned out we got along rather well,” noted Katrina about her future husband, who also went on to become a national high jump champion.

Going from two days a week training on grass and dirt to six days of serious training brought results – Morrow won the national senior championship and Commonwealth Games trials in an Australian high jump record height of 1.89m. Next stop was the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. Morrow arrived safe and well, but the same can’t be said for her luggage including a key piece of competition equipment – her high jumping shoes, which was lost in transit. Fortunately, a team mate, Gordon Windeyer, defending men’s high jump champion, wore the same size shoe and he had a spare training pair he loaned to Morrow.

“Gordon Windeyer always delights in telling people that his high jump shoes actually won two gold medals but he was only in them the first time in 1974. The second time was four years later,” recalled Morrow who won gold with an astonishing height of 1.93m. Incredibly that height would have won six of the next nine Commonwealth high jump competitions.

After arriving in Sydney with a modest best of 1.68m off grass, within 18 months she had raised the national record on three occasions a total of five centimetres, raise her own personal best 25 centimetres and won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, while still a teenager. An extraordinary achievement.

Left: Katrina Gibbs 1978 CG high jump champion, Right: Eleanor Patterson 2014 CG high jump champion with Katrina Morrow (nee Gibbs) 2018 CG technical official.

But there would be disappointment the year after.

“In 1979, I badly tore all the ankle ligaments in my take-off foot in a training accident from which I never fully recovered. I unfortunately missed 1980 Olympic selection as, despite jumping the B qualifying numerous times with a heavily strapped ankle, I was still 1-2cm short of the A qualifying. No allowance was made then for injury even though selection was three plus months before the Olympics.”

Despite the injury setback, Morrow would win a medal at the next six national titles, regularly jumping 1.85m plus heights, including a 1.90m in 1981. Aiming to defend her Commonwealth title in Brisbane in 1982, she won the national championships, but in the September trials was beaten by WA’s Christine Stanton. At the Games, she had “one of those comps” where she placed eighth, in the event won by Debbie Brill – Canada’s home town favourite four years earlier whom Morrow had beaten in Edmonton.

During the next summer, Stanton and Vanessa Browne continued the rise of Australian high jumping, pioneered by Morrow over the previous four years. During the ‘80s Stanton and Browne would equal or raise the national high jump record on seven occasions, finishing at 1.98m in 1989. Undoubtedly Morrow’s achievement of smashing the 1.90m barrier in 1978, was a trail blazing achievement for women high jumping in Australia.

Career and family followed for Morrow, including a trip to the 1986 Commonwealth Games as a spectator. She also ventured down to Melbourne in 2006 to share the Games experience with her daughter who sadly lost her battle with cancer later that year.

Katrina and husband David, started a new phase in their involvement in athletics in 2012.

We reached a point in our lives where our kids were finally off pursuing their own lives and interests,” recalled David Morrow. “So, we had the opportunity to follow our own interests. We had been involved with athletics for some years through Chris (their son) at Sydney High. Katrina then started officiating at school carnivals through her work and it came as a sort of natural progression for us to go back to the sport of our youth.“

Last month Katrina and David were announced as Technical officials for athletics at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. For Katrina, this will be her fifth Commonwealth Games in a very different role.

“Being selected in any form of team is something you never take for granted. Since we began officiating, my husband David and I have enjoyed working alongside each other to build our experience and learning. Being selected for Commonwealth Games has been a bonus for us both and it means so much more that we will both be able to share this experience.”

What will it be a like for Katrina to be on the other side – as an official?

“Being an official at the Games will mirror in some ways the experience for that of athletes – undergoing selection, having a team uniform, staying in an officials’ village etc. As an athlete, I remember having a greater sense of freedom to organise my own activities whereas as officials we will be totally governed by timetables and keeping to schedules. For both, there is differing levels of stress in wanting to perform well. As an athlete the stress can be more acute as when you are competing you know the spotlight is on YOU. As an official, our role is simply to do our job well and hopefully keep OUT of the spotlight – remain invisible as they say. For both athletes and officials, there can be a great sense of team which is special in itself.

“Officials from the Olympic/Commonwealth Games speak of the buzz that you get from officiating at these big events. You certainly get a buzz as a spectator and athlete as well, but as an official it will be a different buzz where you are out in the middle of the action playing a small part in helping make the whole event come together.”

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