Olympian Melinda Gainsford-Taylor reflects on her Olympics journey

HAPPY PLACE: Melinda Gainsford-Taylor at McLeans Lookout on Collaroy Plateau. Picture: Geoff Jones
HAPPY PLACE: Melinda Gainsford-Taylor at McLeans Lookout on Collaroy Plateau. Picture: Geoff Jones

Stay patient; there is plenty to look forward to.

That is former sprint champion Melinda Gainsford-Taylor's message for those questioning Australia's track and field future as we head into this month's Tokyo Olympics.

A member of the national selection panel, the three-time Olympian is not predicting a medal rush this time around, but likes what's up ahead.

"I'm super excited about the future. The depth of middle-distance running in this country is pretty special," she said. "And in the sprints I'm seeing there is plenty of talent there. We're getting there but it will take time."

Gainsford-Taylor knows the tenacity and years of hard work, starting in childhood, that it takes to make the Olympic athletics team. Until 1992, it hadn't really been on the radar for the country girl taught by hand-written training programs posted to the family farm at Narromine, in the NSW central west.

It took a 'busted' clock for her to finally realise she had what it took. The time beaming back at the teenager from the athletics track on a warm summer's night at ES Marks Field almost 30 years ago indicated an Olympic qualifying time for the 200m, but coach Jackie Byrnes wasn't convinced.

"She thought the clock was broken," Gainsford-Taylor recalled with a laugh. "But we checked it out and it wasn't ... that was the first realisation that I could actually go to the Olympics."

THE BEST THING: Melinda Gainsford-Taylor with her daughter Gabriella, 16, who has followed her mum into athletics. Picture: Geoff Jones

THE BEST THING: Melinda Gainsford-Taylor with her daughter Gabriella, 16, who has followed her mum into athletics. Picture: Geoff Jones

As she reflects on what came next, three words - in chronological order - best sum up her three Olympic campaigns: fear, disappointment, ecstasy.

Months after the clock malfunction that wasn't, Gainsford (her pre-married surname before marrying Mark Taylor in 1996) found herself on the starting blocks at the Barcelona Olympics. Her rivals in the 200m included legendary figures Merlene Ottey and Gwen Torrence.

The young Australian didn't get past the heats but returned four years later at Atlanta, narrowly missing a spot in the final after placing fifth in the second semi-final. Sydney 2000 proved Gainsford-Taylor's greatest and proudest moment, a fifth placing before a massive home crowd in the 200m final.

"The nerves were pretty big that first Olympics. There was a definite fear factor," she said. "You can get carried away by all the hype and the enormity of it. Atlanta was ....my least favourite. I got a bulging disc six weeks out while doing weight training. I had to pull out of the 100m and I remember walking to the blocks for the 200m thinking I haven't done any blocks starts for six weeks."

Gainsford-Taylor finished sixth in the 200m final, later adjusted to fifth after Marion Jones was stripped of her gold medal for drug use.

While a medal may have eluded her, she rightfully sits near the top of our all-time great female Olympians in track and field.

CHAMPIONS: Gainsford-Taylor in 1995 with her fellow 4x400m relay team members (from left) Renee Poetschka, Lee Naylor and Cathy Freeman.

CHAMPIONS: Gainsford-Taylor in 1995 with her fellow 4x400m relay team members (from left) Renee Poetschka, Lee Naylor and Cathy Freeman.

Away from the five-ring circus, she won gold (1995) and silver (1993) at world indoor championships in the 200m, bronze in the individual 200m and silver as a member of the 4 x 100m relay team at the 1994 Commonwealth Games and bronze in the 4 x 400m relay at the 1995 World Championships.

"Sydney was my best Olympics by far. Competing in front of family and friends didn't unnerve me like it did for some others. I loved every minute of it. Sitting back now I appreciate it but at the time you were caught up in the moment of getting there."

THE BEST THING: Melinda Gainsford-Taylor with her daughter Gabriella, 16, who has followed her mum into athletics. Picture: Geoff Jones

THE BEST THING: Melinda Gainsford-Taylor with her daughter Gabriella, 16, who has followed her mum into athletics. Picture: Geoff Jones

Like mother, like daughter

Gainsford-Taylor admits she did have some trepidation when daughter Gabriella followed in her spike-steps into the highly competitive world of athletics.

"It did worry me and I did ask her early on about the expectations, but she said that's fine," the proud and protective mum revealed. "It hasn't been a problem for her. I'm not sure really what she wants to do in the future - that's her decision to make."

Gabriella, who at 10 was the fastest 100m and 200m runner in the country, is returning to the track after a year out after rupturing her anterior crucial ligament playing netball.

"She's been challenged the past 12 months but I tell my athletes that this is part of the process," Melinda said. "If you do want to continue in your life as a sports person, this is all part of your learning.

"I had stress fractures in my shins and was out of sport for two years. You have to learn to deal with it. If it's easy all the time you don't reach your true potential.

"It's tough but it's a good life lesson."

There are frequent mentions of Gainsford-Taylor's kids Nick, 18, and Gabriella throughout our interview and it's clear she absolutely adores them.

'MY WORLD': Gainsford-Taylor with her family, Nick, husband Mark and Gabriella.

'MY WORLD': Gainsford-Taylor with her family, Nick, husband Mark and Gabriella.

"I love being a mum. It's my favourite thing ever....the best thing I've ever done," she declared. "I probably should have had more kids but my husband Mark tells me he's our third child. I love watching them grow and develop and helping and support them in their lives.

"To watch them work hard and achieve something is really special. They are my world and it's going to be hard when they eventually move on."

But despite her busy family and work life, Melinda still finds time to give to others. It was something her late mother Jill, who died in 2015 after a long battle with cancer, and father Brian, a former chairman of NSW Country Cricket instilled in their kids without knowing it.

"I find myself doing things that my mum would do. She was such a giving person and a definite inspiration for me," Melinda said. "Dad was highly involved in cricket in the country and (brother) David is now doing the same down at Manly (as vice-president).

"It's in you to help others but good role models support that and encourage that. Life would be boring if you weren't helping others. I like being busy and active."

Away from the elite level of athletics, Gainsford-Taylor holds regular coaching clinics for kids just looking to have some fun and put on a bit of speed.

LONG-TIME TIES: Gainsford-Taylor with her coach from childhood through her Olympic campaigns, Jackie Byrnes.

LONG-TIME TIES: Gainsford-Taylor with her coach from childhood through her Olympic campaigns, Jackie Byrnes.

"I love doing them. I get such a kick out of it," she said. "It's not about getting to Olympic standard - that's irrelevant - it's about coaching any child who wants to improve their speed.

"I've got cricketers, rugby players, AFL players...all different sports. I find it really satisfying. You can make such a difference. I see kids that are gangly and not that co-ordinated and all of a sudden you see them on mini hurdles or doing agility work and increasing their speed. If you can get onto it when they're younger, it makes such a big difference."

Life is not always a beach

Approaching 50 in October, Gainsford-Taylor has now lived the majority of her life on the northern beaches after her early years on the family property in Narromine.

At 14, soon after Melinda had clocked the fastest time for her age group in the world, her parents Jill and Brian made the big decision to send their young daughter to boarding school in Sydney's eastern suburbs. Up until then, she had trained "on some pretty rough surfaces as you can imagine. I wasn't on a proper track very often ... the majority of the work was on the farm."

The move to Sydney enabled her to continue her education while being in closer contact with her long-time, up until then long-distance coach Jackie Byrnes, who was operating out of the Sydney Academy of Sport at Narrabeen.

Two years later Melinda moved into a unit at Dee Why with big brother David, who was chasing a cricket career with Manly-Warringah. She'd go to school and he'd go to work and then to cricket training.

"I had to grow up really quickly. Just the two of us living on our own...shopping for yourself, cooking for yourself. Responsibility went to a whole new level," she said.

"My parents had to decide between buying that unit or buying more land in Narromine. It was a big call for mum and dad to do that, but I'm glad it did because it paid off in the end."

GIVING BACK: Gainsford-Taylor with her dad Brian and brother David.

GIVING BACK: Gainsford-Taylor with her dad Brian and brother David.

But there's still a bit of bushie in her.

"I'm not big about getting into the sea," she laughed. "The rest of the family is but I'd rather look at the beach rather than go to the beach. I go running around Narrabeen Lake just about every day and we spend plenty of time in the local area.

"I love the area and the laidback attitude and where we are (Collaroy Plateau) is very community minded. It's very similar to a country town."

When work takes her out of the area, she can't wait for the drive home.

"When I come down Warringah Rd and see that view, it always makes me happy," she said. "I feel so comfortable here."

This story Melinda Gainsford-Taylor on the Olympics, life and love first appeared on Northern Beaches Review.