A SYDNEY Olympian from Ingham has lamented the loss of the athletics club that launched his career.
Paul Di Bella competed at the 2000 Olympics in Australia and again in Athens four years later.
He says without Herbert River Athletic Club founder George Day he would never have become a national champion.
The Hinchinbrook sprint icon said: ‘I fear I will be the first and the last Olympian to come from Ingham.
‘My heart goes out to the two people who have put in an exorbitant amount of effort trying to keep the club going [Brenda Oats and and Rina Zatta] – I take my hat off to them.
‘If it wasn’t for the club I wouldn’t have kept going in the sport. It kept the dream alive.’
It was announced in June that Ingham’s athletics club would close after more than 50 years of nurturing young talent.
Brenda Oats and Rina Zatta have dedicated close to 40 years of voluntary service between them.
The pair have been managing the flood-plagued club and fighting for funding to relocate the sports institution’s ground.
Brenda was told after a final application this year that funding would be released, but that position changed when the global health pandemic hit – and the pair say they can no longer manage.
The club was founded by George Day, the man who coached Paul and sent him on the road to the Olympics.
The 43-year-old added: ‘George was the one who nurtured my ability. It made me want to try harder. Not just to impress him, but it was partly that.
‘He was the one who initiated the whole thing.’
It is now 20 years since the Sydney Olympics, where Paul competed for Australia in the 100 metres and 4×100 metres relay.
He trained six days a week for eight years after leaving Ingham for Brisbane in 1994 – and made the squad by running the 100 metres in 10.26 seconds at the Sydney Olympic selection trials.
Paul is one of a few athletes who has walked out at an Olympic opening ceremony in Australia.
He said: ‘The enormity of it wasn’t understood at the time. It’s only now I realise how hard it was to achieve.
‘It was fantastic to be in a time when the Olympics was in Australia. All the moons just lined up and everything fell in to place.
‘It really is quite remarkable – and all coming from Ingham.
‘It doesn’t mean you need to come from a metropolis. You just need to put in hard work and be disciplined.
‘It’s a lifetime of training for ten seconds’ running. The gun goes and it’s over in ten seconds.
‘All the sacrifices and hard work were worth it. I wouldn’t change a single thing.’
Much of Paul’s youth was spent at Herbert River Athletic Club.
‘I have fantastic memories. It’s a great part of my childhood. It wasn’t just a club it was more of a community.
‘My parents were committee members. They did it for the love of it and to provide an opportunity for their son.’
Paul now works as a health and physical education teacher at Pimlico State High School and coaches an elite group of aspiring athletes at Townsville Sports Reserve.
One of his athletes – sprinter Jack Doran – has run the 100m in 10.15 seconds and is hoping to compete at the Tokyo Olympics next year.
‘I’m still coaching and trying to give a bit back,’ he said.
It is thought that around 1,600 young people a year used Herbert River Athletic Club to compete at sporting carnivals.