Gentleman Jim

JIM McHugh and wife Judy have made Warrandyte their home for almost half a century and the local tennis club life member was once renowned for tearing up the track at the Stawell Gift in the 1960s, among other running achievements. He talks with BRIANNA PIAZZA in our first ‘What’s Your Story?’ column on local sports legends

Q: Jim, have you lived in Warrandyte your whole life?

A: I was born in Heidelberg and I grew up there. I moved to Warrandyte about 45 years ago. I was married young, at about 20, and I had to give away sport to work and pay for a house and that’s when I took on the tennis.

Aside from being a big part of the local tennis community, what other sports did you do?
I played footy and cricket for Heidelberg and tennis for Warrandyte. I’m a life member of the Warrandyte Tennis Club. At Stawell I won The Mile, the Backmarkers and the Two Mile in 1964 (photo far right).

Being successful in sport, did you have a competitive streak?
Yes, I’m a very fiercely competitive person and it started when I was a kid. My brother was the national sprint champion and he won the public school’s 100-200 in record time. He and I would go to the local park at Christmas and join in all the races and between the two of us we would win all the prizes. I went to Parade and always won the cross-country. I was never beaten in the cross country.

Did winning so much drive you with your sporting ambitions?
Yes, and I was also driven by my father who was a mad sportsman. He played footy and cricket. Anything with a ball he was good at and he was also a good runner. He tried out for Collingwood and got picked for the firsts but he was in a really bad accident the week he was picked and he could never play again.

What are your biggest sporting achievements that you can tell us about?
I’ve never kept stats on anything. Whenever I went out to run I couldn’t care what time it was, I just tried to win. I think being the club champion at Warrandyte was a good achievement. I won club champion three years in a row.

Describe to me how it felt when you won the Stawell Gift events?
I felt really good. With professional running you can bet on it and there used be about 24 bookmakers and I put 500 pound on myself, which was a lot of money in those days. That was on the Saturday and I had all that money up on the two mile on the Monday. I just won by a skerrick and the runner I beat was a really great runner. Winning the mile was probably my best achievement. I was over the moon and it was a proud moment for my mother and father. About three years before Stawell I’d run 10 to 15 miles every night of the week in the winter and in summer we’d do track work. I look back now and I wonder how I did it!

Do you think the Stawell Gift has changed much since the 1960s?
It’s not as popular as it used to be and they don’t have as many bookmakers. Also, people only go to see the absolute best. They don’t promote the local guys as much but it’s still a good thing to go to. I went there two years ago and you still get good runners. In my day it used to be amateur or professional. If you ran in that you couldn’t run in the Olympic Games because if you wanted to be in the Olympics or Commonwealth Games you had to take an oath but now you can do both. There’s no such thing as amateur any more, even though you’re meant to do it for the love of the sport.

Has your family been sporty?
My youngest son played State-grade tennis. He played for MCC and he played for quite a few years. He played overseas in Spain, Italy and France. He had all the skills and just lacked a little bit of confidence, but I’m still very proud of him.

What sport did you enjoy most?
I probably preferred football best of all. I just loved playing it and I loved kicking goals. I played in the Preston Junior District Football League club at West Heidelberg YCW and we won four premierships in a row.

Any favourite sports people?
My favourite footballer of all time is Graham “Polly” Farmer, an indigenous West Australian who played for Geelong. He was fabulous – it was like watching poetry in motion with that man. He used to do drop kicks that went for miles. I also like Ricky Ponting and my favourite runner would be Haile Gebreselassie, the Ethiopian runner.

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Brianna Piazza

Journalist and travel writer.

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