Gainsford-Taylor competed at three Olympics and two Commonwealth Games, winning silver and bronze, and only lost her Australian records over 100m and 200m in recent years. The married mother-of-two, now a sprint coach and mentor to young athletes, has been a national selector since 2008.
“While it’s obviously a huge loss to not have Sally there, because she was one of our great medal chances, it’s also a loss to not have someone of her quality there in the team. That can really actually lift a team. We’re all devastated for her,” Gainsford-Taylor said.
Pearson-related disappointment aside, the Rio Games present an exciting opportunity, Gainsford-Taylor said, with many young, upcoming athletes ready to make their mark on the world stage, especially when it comes to the women.
For the first time since the Sydney Olympics – coincidentally Gainsford-Taylor’s last Games – Australia has a female runner in every individual track event – and there are several strong chances in the throwing and jumping disciplines. In total, there are 31 women in the track and field team. “I generally don’t like to pinpoint medal chances, because it puts added pressure on athletes, but most athletes already put massive expectations on themselves. There are definitely a few to watch.”
The 22-year-old 169cm Sydney resident is Australia's fastest female 200m runner since Gainsford-Taylor, clocking 22.53 seconds in February. “She’s very young and very fast,” Gainsford-Taylor laughed. “She’s run some awesome times this year, including the fastest since 2000. She seems to really be benefiting from a few months’ training at ALTIS, an elite athletics program in Phoenix, Arizona.”
Unbeaten in the women’s 400m this year, 177cm 21-year-old Mitchell excelled at netball – making the under-19 Australian side aged 17 – before focusing on athletics. Her personal best of 51.25 seconds in June was the fastest time by an Australian for 13 years. Mitchell was part of the team that secured Australia a spot in the 4x400m relay – the only relay the women have qualified for. “There’s lots of exciting young talent competing for a place in that relay team; Morgan will be up there, but there’s also Anneliese Rubie, Jessica Thornton, Caitlin Sargent, Lauren Wells and Monica Brennan.”
Canberra sprinter Breen, 25, who holds the Australian record over 100m, at 11.11 seconds and is competing at her second Olympics, is definitely one to watch, Gainsford-Taylor said. And the best may yet be to come, because unlike many other sports, sprinters don’t peak until their late 20s, she said. “Sprinting is so power based and it can take a long time to build that strength and power. Experience is a big thing for sprinters too; knowing how to get through the rounds, warm-up properly and recover properly, so her being so young is exciting.”
Olympic debutant, 23-year-old long jumper Stratton is in the mix for a medal, thanks to a personal best jump of 7.05m in Perth in March. It was the second longest jump in the world this year and propelled the Box Hill-born health sciences student into the top echelon of the world rankings. Gainsford-Taylor said like other field disciplines, long jump medals were often “decided on the day”; by how athletes handle things like their run-up, wind, disruptions, round progression and their own mental state.
At 31, javelin thrower Mickle is one of the veterans of the team, but she’s also the Australian record-holder and current Commonwealth Games champion. “Kim had a shoulder reconstruction about ten months ago, but she’s still managed some good throws over 60m recently,” Gainsford-Taylor said. The West Australian is the fittest she’s ever been. “She doesn’t have a six pack, she has a 12 pack! She looks amazing and I am so excited to see what she can do.”
“Very impressive” is how Gainsford-Taylor describes flame-haired 34-year-old javelin thrower Mitchell, 34, who is competing at her second Olympics. “She has been throwing incredibly well and regularly getting on the podium at Diamond League events, which sets her in good stead for Rio,” she said. Mitchell, who hails from Casterton in country Victoria, has a season-best throw of 64.37m – nearly 5m better than her best throw in London, where she placed ninth.
Only a fool would discount soon-to-be three-time Olympian Dani Samuels, Gainsford-Taylor said. The Sydney-based discus thrower – who won bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games at 17, a world championship in 2009 and gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – is ranked fourth in the world heading into Rio. Her best throw this season is 67.77m. When she made her Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008, she was the youngest member of the team, she’s now a veteran at 28. “Dani has an enormous amount of experience and in her event that really matters.”
High jumper Eleanor Patterson is a shy 20-year-old from Leongatha in country Victoria who has refused to move her training base from her home town, where she lives with her parents and trains with her childhood coach. And she could be one of Australia’s best chances for track and field gold. Patterson, who won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and narrowly missed a career-best 1.97cm in Melbourne earlier this year, won her fourth consecutive national title in April to book her place in Brazil. Her chances are boosted by the absence of Russian athletes. The world record, 2.09cm, is held by Russian Stefka Kostadinova and another Russian, Anna Chicherova, is the reigning Olympic champion, with 2.05cm. Gainsford-Taylor is a fan of Patterson. “She strikes me as one of those quiet, unassuming athletes, who just gets out there and does her job,” she said. “She is quite modest. It’s often the case that elite female athletes don’t have a whole of attitude, they just want to get the job done. I love her attitude.”
Pole vaulter Boyd, 32, heads to her third Olympics as Australian champion after clearing 4.81m earlier this month, beating her own record of 4.77m, set in January. The 171cm Queenslander, who won gold at the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games, is the only Aussie athlete in Olympic history to join both parents as Olympians. Her mother Denise was a 200m runner and her father and coach Ray was a Commonwealth Games champion and Olympic pole vaulter. “Alana has been jumping incredibly high. I know there are a few girls getting around that 4.81m mark, but pole vault is one of those sports that comes back to how you compete on the day.” With her recent jump 6cm higher than the mark made by American Jenn Suhr to win gold at London, Boyd has as good a chance as anyone.