When Brooke Stratton was too young to join her elder brother Jamie in the most junior program at Little Athletics Nunawading, she had to be content with contesting the weekly under-age race. As Stratton attests, 50 metres is a long way when you’re just three or four years old. Which didn’t stop her. No chance.
“Every Saturday she was first at the line, ready to run, so she was pretty competitive from a young age,’’ says her dad and coach Russell, smiling at the signs that were there, even then. “It was crazy, but she always just loved it.’’
There are some Handycam cassettes of those earliest athletics mornings tucked away – somewhere – in the Stratton family home in Melbourne’s east, awaiting conversion to a more 21st Century-friendly format.
In the meantime, slightly more advanced technology allowed for an impromptu viewing before Brooke and Russell left for the Tokyo Olympics, when someone plucked an old tape from a drawer and, yes, there she was. Tiny six-year-old Brooke dashing down the runway and leaping into the long jump pit.
“It was so adorable to watch, actually – just to see how far I’ve come from that day,’’ says 2018 Commonwealth Games silver medallist. “It’s so special having those memories to look back on, and it’s so obvious how enjoyable it was for me at such a young age.
“That’s what Little Aths is all about – enjoying it. There’s no point doing it if you’re not smiling and having fun. I have some very fond memories of standing on the long jump runway and doing all these clapping activities with my friends.’’
“Just trying to carry that through to now has been hard at times. Obviously things don’t always go to plan, and there’s been plenty of obstacles and injuries to overcome and challenging times, but I try and smile out there as much as I can, even in the most stressful of situations.
“And that’s what Little Aths is all about – enjoying it. There’s no point doing it if you’re not smiling and having fun. I have some very fond memories of standing on the long jump runway and doing all these clapping activities with my friends.’’
There are more vivid recollections from Knox, where Russell Stratton moved his four children a few years later. During that time at Knox Little Athletics, Russell took it upon himself to do some basic courses before taking on the job himself. Athletics Australia’s Craig Hilliard would soon become a key mentor, and remains so. Almost two decades later, both dad and daughter could not be happier with the result.
“My dad just wanted what was best for me, and the great thing about him coaching me is it became such a big part of our family’s life,’’ says Brooke. “We would all go down to training together and have so much fun, and then the squad grew slightly as the years went on. I think that’s why I’m still doing the sport to this day.’’
With an eye to 2024 in Paris, having defied an interrupted preparation to achieve a mighty seventh place in Tokyo, the wedding party for Brooke’s impending wedding to triathlete Nathan Buschkuehl will include a cross-town friend, Ellie Thom, whom she first met in, yes, Little Athletics.
“To be quite honest, she’s made a lot of lifetime friends out of it, and to me it’s just made her the person she actually is now – and I’m more proud of that than her achievements,’’ says Russell.
“She’s so humble and that’s something she’s also taken from Little Aths as well; it’s not all about winning, it’s about socialising and having fun with your friends. That’s what we emphasise and what she’s taken away from it.
“I always say to people ‘get your kids into athletics’, because it also teaches them the fundamentals of running and being competitive, and the motor skills that help them out in the long run if they go to netball, if they go to cricket, to football.’’
“To be quite honest, she’s made a lot of lifetime friends out of it, and to me it’s just made her the person she actually is now – and I’m more proud of that than her achievements,’’ says Russel
Since the special moment that was breaking her first centre record as a super-keen eight-year-old, Brooke Stratton has never gone anywhere else. Never deviated from the athletics pathway. Never wanted to, having become who she is because of her lifelong involvement in the sport.
“I don’t know where I’d be to this day if I hadn’t joined Little Athletics at such a young age,’’ says the Bachelor of Health graduate, citing as the biggest positive the early development of active and healthy lifestyle habits, while teaching fundamental skills to children of all abilities.
“Not only that, it taught me to be really dedicated and committed to my sport. Even when I was young, I would never want to miss a session. I was just so passionate about my sport, being involved in the wide range of different events and wanting to strive for personal bests, week in and week out.
“Honestly, it’s completely changed my life, being involved in athletics. The fact that I get to do what I love every single day is super special and to be able to share this journey with my dad as my coach and all my family and friends means so much to me.
“I honestly couldn’t see myself doing anything different, and I still love what I do. So if I can leave a positive legacy and influence as many kids as possible to go after their dreams, then that’s my job done.’’