USA, Europe … Australia
On Athletics Club Launches in Melbourne
Editor’s note: It’s exciting news that On will launch only the third chapter of their On Athletics Club in Melbourne. TEMPO editor-at-large Riley Wolff breaks down what it means for Melbourne and Australian running before Sean Whipp takes a closer look at the inaugural team members.
I first heard rumours in mid-2022 that On were going to be starting a pro team in Melbourne. Obviously, my initial reaction was excitement; I love athletics and have a deep admiration for those in the professional running scene. My second reaction was something along the lines of “this is huge for Melbourne”. And it is – it further cements our reputation as the running capital of Australia.
For anyone who isn’t familiar, On have seen huge success with the On Athletics Club (OAC) in the US (where Aussies Morgan McDonald and Ollie Hoare are members) thanks to their unique approach to creating a team; they’ve managed to adapt collegiate values around teamwork and being part of something bigger than yourself to get the most out of their athletes. Not only are the likes of Joe Klecker, Alicia Monson and others performing well, they seem to be enjoying themselves doing it.
“The OAC criteria includes more than just being a good athlete – On place equal weighting on cultural fit and having athletes who can add to the program, not just take from it.”
In mid 2022, On also announced the formation of OAC Europe, a developmental squad for young athletes transitioning to open competition.
This week, On have officially announced the formation of On Athletics Club Oceania. Led by coach Craig Mottram, the squad is full of incredibly talented track athletes ready to make their mark on the domestic and world scene.
The inaugural roster is made up of Keely Small, Claudia Hollingsworth, Maudie Skyring, Tess Kirsopp-Cole and Ben Buckingham.
It’s a roster with all the promise in the world. I first wrote about Small back in late 2018; she hadn’t even turned 18, and I got to see the gold medal she won at the Youth Olympics earlier that year. I still think Keely has the most potential in almost any room she walks into – maybe unless Claudia Hollingsworth is in the same room.
To have these two women on the same team, making each other better day in and day out, is not just good for On, it’s good for the sport and good for Australian athletics. The same could be said for any of the young, talented, and hungry athletes on the roster. And then you’ve got Ben Buckingham: wise beyond his years, he’s an Olympian and comes from a long career with the Melbourne Track Club. If On were looking for an athlete who could also help guide their young stars, Bucks is the perfect person for the job.
Interesting tidbit that I’m not sure I can share – sometime in late 2022 I was chatting to some members of the local On office who were responsible for putting the team together. While they wouldn’t confirm any of the rumoured names (I had heard about a few), they did remark that the criteria included more than just being a good athlete – they placed equal weighting on cultural fit and having athletes who would add to the program, not just take from it. Again, it’s similar to what I’ve heard about OAC in the USA.
Despite all its issues (yeah, yeah, the weather, we get it), Melbourne is a great city for running. It’s ideal, actually. Our weather, while fickle, is rarely extreme to the point where it affects training. The city is well laid out, with large green spaces perfectly suited to running, be it The Tan, Albert Park, Princes Park or running along the beach.
These, and other spots like them, are proven training grounds, places where champions have been made. Forty years ago, Rob de Castella was treading a path at Ferny Creek that had been made by Ron Clarke and others, 25 years before that. Today, it’s where our national record holders Brett Robinson and Sinead Diver go to train. Craig Mottram, still Australia’s best ever male track athlete in the eyes of many, has his own favourite spots. Whether it’s Caulfield racecourse or Wattle Park, Mottram sharpened his skills in Melbourne.
Simply put, if you want to reach the top level of Australian athletics, and especially distance running, you’re more likely to get there if you’re based in Melbourne rather than anywhere else in Australia. I should say though, I’ve got a lot of love for other great running cities in Australia, particularly Adelaide. I just think Melbourne has the greatest concentration of talent and the greatest overall conditions to excel.
The new OAC will bring more attention to Melbourne, which is great. Our reputation for being a great running city grows every year, and is a fight fought by many – whether it’s having great retail stores, a healthy amateur and club scene, big races, or good infrastructure, it all counts, and it all leads to the world’s biggest brands choosing to invest here, like On have with OAC. On have shown their commitment to Melbourne running through a series of activations over the last two years, and OAC is their biggest yet. I’m sure OAC athletes will be out in the community, meeting local runners and embedding themselves in what is already a thriving culture.
Despite my obvious pride in Melbourne’s enviable position in the running landscape, we can’t get caught up in the vanity of it all. That’s not what actually matters. What matters is On having their athletes living and training in Melbourne – they’re showing our young runners that it’s possible to make a career out of this sport, and that they too can travel the world racing on the biggest stage while representing the best running city in the world.
Craig Mottram (Coach)
World Championships bronze, Commonwealth Games silver over 5000 metres. Mottram is best remembered for bringing a packed MCG crowd to its feet in 2006 with a move three laps out. Mottram remains Australia’s most recent men’s distance medal at a World Championships or Olympic Games, dipping Eliud Kipchoge on the line in 2005 for a bronze medal in Helsinki. Following a decade at the top of the athletic world, Craig moved into the coaching space. He began his work in the Victorian school system and his most recent protege is Claudia Hollingsworth, who made her junior and senior World Championship debut in 2022.
Ben Buckingham (PR: 3000m steeplechase, 8:19.79)
At 31 years old, Buckingham has taken a less conventional path to representing Australia at the World Championships, Commonwealth and Olympic games. Growing up in a small town (population ~26) along the Rose River in Victoria’s King Valley, Ben developed an early appreciation for being outdoors, local sport and cross country. School athletics led Buckingham to steeplechase, an event that, in the Australian running context, many have tried but few have persisted with. In 2016, Buckingham sat back and watched the Rio Olympics as a 9:08.90 steeplechaser – competitive at a state level but mid-pack at the national level. Come 2021, Ben ran 8:20.95 at the Tokyo Games, narrowly missing the final. Having run personal bests through 2021–22 from 1500m to 5000m, Buckingham joins the OAC looking to join the upper echelon of steeplechasers in a major championships final.
Claudia Hollingsworth (PR: 800m, 2:01.60; 1500m, 4:10.61)
1000m is an odd distance, far enough to make 800m runners second guess themselves while short enough for 1500m runners to feel the punch. For Claudia Hollingsworth, setting the Australian Under 20 record of 2:36.72 at Box Hill saw the junior less than a second behind Olympic finalist Linden Hall, while beating the likes of Catriona Bisset and Abbey Caldwell. In the weeks following that run, Claudia ran under 2:02 for 800m twice, placing second at the Australian Championships in the open division. Hollingsworth’s debut at the World Championship level in her teens is a concept Mottram isn’t entirely unfamiliar with; he found himself in a similar situation in his early twenties. Theirs is a coach and athlete pairing that has, so far, made its way from the school oval to stadiums around the world, and Hollingsworth has a fascinating skill set which is sure to develop in years to come.
Keely Small (PR: 800m, 2:00.81; 1500m, 4:07.89)
It’s easy to forget Keely Small is all of 21, given that she has already made a substantial impact on the Australian record books during her teenage years. Small’s senior Australian debut came in 2018, running 2:00.81 at the Commonwealth Games to set the Australian Under 20 record. Small claimed Youth Olympic gold the same year over 800m in Buenos Aires. Her talents extend beyond 800m: a 4:07.89 run over 1500m in 202, prior to injury, showed signs of her becoming a middle-distance double threat. Keely has made the move from Canberra to Melbourne to join an exciting group of recent Australian World Championship representatives in the OAC.
Maudie Skyring (PR: 1500m, 4:08.15)
An NCAA finalist at 1500m, Maudie Skyring spent her developmental years in Tallahassee, FL, where the Florida State University program – familiar to Australians through the likes of Linden Hall – shaped her into a middle-distance talent. When she arrived in Tallahassee, Maudie had modest personal bests yet now finds herself moving to Melbourne as one of only 25 Australian women to have broken the 4:10 1500m barrier. Skyring and Small appear a perfect fit at that distance, and Maudie’s 4:08.15 personal best comes with years of tactical practice in the NCAA system. The 25-year-old now embarks on the next chapter of her career, racing in the most competitive event in women’s middle-distance running in Australia and sampling the European racing circuit.
Tess Kirsopp-Cole (PR: 800m, 2:01.40)
Kirsopp-Cole is a name much of the Victorian athletics community is already familiar with. A 400m talent throughout her junior years, Tess switched her attention to the 800m in earnest in 2021 and quickly progressed from 2:11 to 2:06 to 2:03 in the space of four races and eight weeks. Capping 2021 with a bronze medal at the Australian Championships, Kirsopp-Cole went on to represent Australia at the World Championships in 2022. For an athlete with all of two years at the two-lap distance, Kirsopp-Cole’s 400m background suggests the 22-year-old has a bright future in the middle-distance ranks.