1988 Olympic Gold medalist in the 400 metres Hurdles, Debbie Flintoff-King, has lived on the Mornington Peninsula since she was 11. She moved there along with her family to live in Moorooduc.
“My dad was a publican at a hotel in Frankston and was keen for me to keep away from that environment, so he took me down to the local athletics club when I was 13. It was obviously a great decision.”
Debbie is very emotional when talking about her dad Les, who passed away last year. “Dad was my biggest supporter in my career. I remember at athletics meetings in the early days, the conditions were wet and he would dry socks during races and get a spanner to fix spikes in my shoes. He was fantastic. I was very lucky.”
After she won gold in 88, Les Flintoff said she had a heart bigger than Phar Lap. Debbie appreciates that. “I think Dad was saying, I would never give up and keep pushing to the end,” She says proudly.
That day almost 32 years ago was a great example of that never say die attitude of Flintoff-King, who now lives in Mornington with her husband and coach, Phil. They have three children together, two daughters and a son.
Debbie just loves the lifestyle of the Peninsula. “It’s so nice, you are near the beach, It’s generally peaceful, although summer does get busy, and we have wonderful walking tracks. Mornington is not that far from the city, It’s perfect. We love it.”
Flintoff-King had a disrupted preparation going into Seoul in 88, including the tragic death of her sister just days before leaving for the games.
“I remember there was a race I needed to run as part of my preparation for Seoul and with Noeline’s death, it looked like I would not compete, but there was a part of me that knew I was being helped by my sister to do everything I can to have the best preparation for the Olympics. I ran that race and It was one of my best performances,” She says proudly.
This was the first step for Flintoff-King and her coach, and husband, Phil, being able to compartmentalize once they got to Korea. They did not eat breakfast with the team preferring to have everything like home on the Mornington Peninsula.
“We bought our own food like nuts and muesli and homemade bread, even my pillow that I always sleep on,” She says chuckling.
Although Debbie and Phil did their own thing, they got great support from the team. “They were terrific in the lead up to the race, understanding we knew what we were doing and needed to give me every chance, which was an improvement from the trials earlier in the year when they wanted me to run, even though I was not keen and I was anaemic. I ran in the end and then went back to bed.”
It had been an eventful track and field meet in the build-up to the women’s 400 metres hurdles, with the Men’s 100 metres sprint shrouded in controversy after Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson beat reigning Gold Medalist Carl Lewis in the final, only to be banned when testing positive for taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Although she was aware of it and everyone was talking about what happened to Johnson, Flintoff-King was able to ignore that situation. “That was out of my control. I just moved on and concentrated on my races.” Those performances included a close semi-final, which turned out to be a virtual carbon copy of the final. “I managed to beat Tatyana Ledovskaya of Russia in the semi by the tiniest of margins, 1/100th of a second.”
There was unfinished business for Flintoff-King going to Seoul, after an unfulfilled campaign 4 years earlier in LA. She laughs at the memory. “The starter’s gun went off and I stumbled and fell in the blocks, but even though he did not have to, the starter called us back. To this day, I am still trying to work out why.”
When the race got underway again, Flintoff-King burst out of the blocks and in the words of her husband and coach, Phil, “Ran out like free beer,” She led early but then faded and finished sixth.
“I learnt a lot from that race to get me ready for 88′, and I was determined to go again, I felt confident even though it was a long wait of four years between Olympics,” She says.
Before Seoul, there were plenty of races to help prepare for her Olympic dream. The Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh produced a gold medal in the 400 metres hurdles and the 400m flat, and then the next year, Debbie won silver at the World Champs in the 400m hurdles in Italy.
“Sabine Busch from East Germany, who I came up against at the Olympics, beat me. In another race before Seoul, I was again second between her and another East German, Ellen Fiedler. That was good preparation knowing I would meet them again at the games.”
Flintoff-King felt cool, calm, collected, and confident going into the final, and that confidence rose in the warm-ups when she and Phil saw the other main opposition, Ledovskaya, having trouble putting her hurdle down. “I couldn’t believe that. I knew she was an excellent 400 metres runner on the flat, but when it came to hurdles, she seemed to be a novice and I had been hurdling for more than 10 years, so my self-belief was heightened by that.”
The race started and Ledovskaya was in lane 3, Debbie in lane 5. The Russian Burst out of the Blocks and led Flintoff-King and the two East Germans quite comfortably, but Debbie did not lose faith in her race plan and praised her coach and husband, Phil for implementing that.
“He put little notes in my shoes, ‘The Three Fs’. Fight at the start for the first 150 metres, then flow in the next 150, and then run as fast as I can in the last 100.”
She certainly did go quickly down the home straight as she rushed past Fiedler and Busch, and then mowed down Ledovskaya with every stride to the finish line, she then lunged with the blonde Russian. Most of Australia, including acclaimed broadcaster, Bruce McAvaney, who called the race for the host broadcaster, Channel Ten, didn’t think she had done enough despite a grand display. His immortal words as Flintoff-King hit the line with Ledovskaya, “She doesn’t quite, I don’t think!”
However, there was one person who disagreed with Bruce and the rest of Australia, and she was the most important. Debbie Flintoff-King thought she had won. “I remember seeing Ledovskaya’s name go up as the winner, but I said to myself, Hang on, I reckon I’ve won.”
“The photo seemed to take forever and then my name came up as gold medalist. It was a great relief and the only disappointment was that because of the photo, I did not get the chance to do a lap of honour, which is always a wonderful highlight when you win a big race like I had in the Commonwealth Games in 1982 and 86. Not being able to share it close up with the crowd was a bit of a shame.”
Having her husband as coach could seem like a more interesting dynamic, but Debbie said it worked so well. “Everything he said happened. He would say ‘you would win today’ and I would, or he’d say ‘you are not ready yet’ and sure enough I wasn’t.”
Debbie Flintoff-King describes herself as passive. Having had the pleasure to chat with her for 40 minutes, she came across as very relaxed. She was asked if she and Phil ever argued. She laughed and admits there was one occasion which comes to mind.
“We were doing a training session and my dad was going to time a run for me. After I completed, I asked him, ‘Dad how did I go?’, and he said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t get it.” I said ‘That’s OK,’ and then Phil piped up and added, ‘Gee! You don’t say that to me when I do that!’, So there were times when we got hot-headed with each other,” Debbie says as the laughter continues.
After retirement, which included silver medals in the 400 metres and the 400m hurdles at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, Debbie returned to her happy place, the Mornington Peninsula, and dabbled in coaching sprinter, Lauren Hewitt.
Phil continued his stellar coaching career and guided another champion 400-metre hurdler in Jana Pittman, who won two world championship and two Commonwealth Games Gold in 2002 and 2006. “He had great training ideas and they worked well together, It helped that she looked exactly how you wanted an athlete to be.”
However, that Olympic Gold Pittman was destined to win did not come her way, and Flintoff-King was convinced she was the warm favourite at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
“I remember in training just before the Games, I timed her running the distance, and she ran an unofficial world record. She was so ready, then in the lead-up, tore her Miniscus in her Knee, and there were so many sleepless nights before her race in Athens.”
Pittman ran 5th after having surgery a week before the Olympics. “Athletes often use the words ‘could have’ and ‘should have’ about winning, and ‘it was their time to shine’ and it doesn’t happen, but I believe she was the runner to beat,” Debbie says reflectively.
Although Flintoff-King tries to live an anonymous life on the Peninsula, there is to be, and rightly so, a statue built of her to be placed at the Mornington Athletics Track.
Red Hill resident Robert McCarthy, and Sculptor Stephen Glassborow, who worked together to design sculptures for AFL Legend John Coleman in Hastings as well as sculptures for boxing greats, Lionel Rose in Warragul, and Johnny Famechon in Frankston, are behind this project.
Debbie is almost a bit embarrassed when talking about this. She chuckles nervously, “When he first told me what he wanted to do, I thought he was joking, but it looks beautiful. I can’t wait to see the finished product. There are some mini statues of me lunging on the finishing line to win gold in 88′, and they look great.”
Flintoff-King has only one regret regarding the statue. “The athletics track, where the statue will live is right near where my parents lived, and they both died last year, so they won’t get a chance to see. Like me though, they would have been honoured.”
Talking of being honoured, Flintoff-King was certainly that when she was asked to take part in the carrying of the torch for the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. “I am not sure whether they went in age order from performances at Olympics, with other greats, Shirley Strickland, Betty Cuthbert, Dawn Fraser, Raelene Boyle and Shane Gould all involved, but I was given the perfect leg and that was to pass it to Cathy who of course was lighting the flame. That was so much fun, and a great feeling to be part of it.”
She was also there on the night Cathy Freeman ran and won the 400-metre final in Sydney. “I had seen Cathy the next day after the Opening ceremony and she had been at the stadium very late, she was so sick, but she put that behind her and raced so well. The atmosphere was unbelievable in the stadium on the night of the race, the crowd was the loudest I have ever heard.”
Long after her career has finished, Flintoff-King still keeps fit. “We go on long walks around those wonderful walking tracks here. I teach yoga and do meditation, but not much running, except upstairs,” She also spends plenty of time around one of her favourite parts of the peninsula, and that is the beaches, “I love them,” She says smiling.
Flintoff-King is proud to say she has no long term injuries, and says that Yoga has been a big part of her life since she lost to Sabine Busch in the worlds in 87′. “I felt at the time there were two areas I needed to improve on, my flexibility and nervousness, so I got into Yoga and that certainly helped me in Seoul.”
Although Debbie Flintoff-King’s marvellous gold medal-winning performance in Seoul is 32 years ago, it will be remembered as one of this country’s many great sporting achievements, and the Mornington Peninsula is lucky that Debbie calls this magnificent part of the world home!