It was standing room only at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club as we celebrated our biggest Founders’ Day Lunch ever. Having grown from just 82 OWs catching up for dinner in 1882, this year we welcomed more than 200 OWs from across nine decades, among them, nine OW athletes who represented Australia at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Image: Our OW Olympian athletes (L-R): Alistair Guss (OW1982), Jodie Dobson (OW1987), Bob Duncan OAM (OW1949), Natalie Porter (OW1998), Michael Klim OAM (OW1994), Elle Steele (OW2001), Robert Crowe (OW1986), Katya Crema (OW2006), Nick Lavery (OW2016) and College Principal, Nick Evans (OW1985)

An electric atmosphere filled the room, often peppered by hearty laughter, as generations of Collegians enjoyed catching up with family, old friends, teammates and teachers.

We celebrated our newest members of the Golden Lion pride, who were presented with their Golden Lion badges. An emotional President, Kate Evans (OW1998), thanked Principal Nick Evans (OW1985) for his mentorship as she steps down at this year’s AGM, making way for Tom Pewtress (OW2018) to build on the amazing work that she has done in her tenure as President.

MC Mark Hibbins (OW1978) introduced Moderator Emma Carney (OW1989), a Sport Australia Hall of Fame Athlete, multiple world champion and a World Triathlon Hall of Fame inductee, to interview our OW Olympians. Emma credits her success to her time at Wesley, where she learnt the importance of resilience while in the pursuit of excellence. She shared her knowledge of what it takes to be an elite athlete as she superbly hosted the panel that included Paralympic swimmer Elle Steele (OW2001), Olympic rower Jodie Dobson (OW1987) and Wesley’s most successful Olympian, swimmer Michael Klim OAM (OW1994).

Guests enjoyed stories about the highs and lows of sport at an elite level, and how it helped to shape the people they are and the lives they lead today. A common thread among our athletes was that their failures provided the most valuable lessons, and ultimately, led to their greatest successes.

For world champion and six-time medallist Michael Klim OAM (OW1994), it was at his first Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 that he learned the most.

Although ranked #1 in the world in the 200m freestyle, a schedule mix-up saw him miss the team bus and arrive at the venue too late to warm-up, disrupting his pre-race routine and ultimately, costing him a medal.

But rather than focus on the loss, he recognised that ‘controlling his nerves and mindset’ were the key to his success, as he swam best when clear-headed. Michael signed-up to compete in 150 races the following year to ‘practise how he wanted to feel’ before and during a race.

He also recognised that his own physical attributes weren’t enough to achieve the success he desired. He had to innovate. Michael turned to technology and physiology to find his edge, developing the straight-arm swimming technique which allowed for a longer reach and increased forward propulsion with each stroke, and was among the first to test and use the new, 'fast swim' bodysuits.

Coupled with a dogged determination and iron clad discipline, Michael was ‘prepared to do what was not enjoyable; what other people weren’t prepared to do.’ The result, which includes the famous defeat of the ‘unbeatable Americans’ in the Men's 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, is history.

Jess (Year 11) shows her Australian Swimming Team cap to Michael Klim OAM (OW1994)

For Elle Steele (OW2001), five-time Australian swimming representative, gold medallist and Wesley’s first female Paralympian, it was her ‘natural stubbornness’ and ‘athlete’s mindset’ that helped her overcome her biggest challenges. Born with Arthrogryposis, Elle has endured 37 surgeries and has had to learn to walk again five times.

Like Michael, her most significant achievements came from her biggest failures, most notably, during trials for the Athens 2004 Paralympics where an equipment malfunction – her bodysuit split mid race – cost her a place on the team by 0.3 seconds.

‘It was that moment that changed my outlook on life,’ explained Elle. ‘It was then that I decided to live my life, rather than let my life live me, and I became a stronger and better person.’ Today, she works as a professional speaker, using her story of resilience, strength and triumph over adversity to help others explore and overcome their own challenges.

Jodie Dobson (OW1987) has experienced a lot of ‘firsts’ in her life. She was part of Wesley’s first coeducational graduating class, is Wesley’s first female OW Olympian, first female President of the OWCA and the only female Fellow of the OWCA. She was also one of the first members of the Girls’ First rowing crew, recruited by then Head of Glen Waverley Campus, Tony Conabere, for her height and natural sporting prowess. But her first year in the sport was, for her at least, ‘a complete failure’.

‘We came second to Geelong Grammar in every race that year,’ she said. ‘We knew we were getting better, fitter, stronger, but we still couldn’t beat them. Then, the following year, we won every race, including Head of the River!’ she said.

Jodie continued to row at Melbourne University Boat Club while studying dentistry, and later received a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport, where her Olympic dream came true, participating in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. ‘I didn’t win a medal, but I really enjoyed the sport, had a lot of fun and met a lot of really good people that I still call friends today. It’s important to find your passion and enjoy what you do every day,’ she said.

It’s been the support of the swimming community that has helped Michael face his biggest challenge too, diagnosed with a debilitating neurological disorder, CIDP, in June 2020. After two years ‘grieving what he had lost,’ Michael drew upon the mindset he had developed during his career and started making lifestyle changes and choices to help himself and is ‘in a much better place now.’

Celebrating the success of our athletes from decades past invites us to look to the future as the baton is passed to the next generation of rising stars from Wesley College. Swimmer Jess (Year 11, Glen Waverley) and runner Austin (Year 11, St Kilda Road) were thrilled to attend the Founders’ Day Lunch and were inspired by our Olympian alumni who shared their journey to the Olympics, and advice on competing at the top.

Jess made a very big splash at the recent Oceania Championships on the Gold Coast as a member of the Australian Junior Swimming team. A gifted all-rounder whose specialty is backstroke, Jess competed in three individual events and three relay events – winning gold in every single one of them! At just 16 years of age, she is the highest ranked swimmer in her age group in Victoria and is going to the Olympic trials this month.

'It’s never been a goal of mine to make the Australian Junior team, but it was always at the back of my mind that if I put in the effort, I could achieve it. It’s surreal to think I could be representing Australia at an Olympics,' said Jess.

Emma Carney (OW1989) with rising athletics star, Austin (Year 11)

Middle distance runner Austin is nothing if not resilient. After becoming national champion over 800m in the Australian U17 Championships last year, he suffered a broken foot, but made a great comeback to become the Victorian 400m champion in February this year. Following further strong performances in the National U18 Championships in April, he has been selected to compete for Australia in the U18 400m at this month’s Oceania Athletics Championships in Fiji.

For Austin, the goal is clear. ‘I want to qualify for an Olympics. To represent my country in the Olympics, arguably the most prestigious athletic event on the calendar and be called an Olympian would be a dream come true,’ he said.

Asked for advice about how to balance school life with training, Michael, who completed the IB DP over two years around his swimming commitments, said ‘You need to be diligent and have structure in your day. It’s a juggling act and you will miss out on a lot, so you need a strong support team around you as well as a clear purpose about why you’re doing it… sport is such a tiny spec in your lifetime, it goes by so fast. The older I get, the more grateful I become for the opportunities I have had’.

From the most senior OW Olympian in the room, Bob Duncan OAM (OW1947) to our emerging student athletes, and the coaches and staff that encourage them to perform at their very best, it was a Founders’ Day Lunch to remember.

Credit and sincere thanks to the OWCA team: President Kate Evans (OW1998), Jo Bandy-Renkin (OW1996) and Josh Kidd (OW2018), for the best Founders’ Day Lunch ever in celebration of the ‘Best School of All’.

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