Celebrating UQ's Olympic heroes
Caitlin Cronin wouldn’t allow herself to look around. An Olympic medal was within reach, but she knew the slightest lapse in concentration or break in rowing rhythm would see it slip through her fingers.
“Our bow seat, Ria [Thompson], makes the calls and lets us know where we are within the field. It’s my job to set up a consistent rhythm for the crew,” the UQ graduate and UQ Boat (Rowing) Club member said.
“I knew we were in the pack and could feel that the race was going to come down to the wire. Anything can happen in those conditions, so we just had to stay clean and keep pushing. In the last couple of hundred metres, I remember Ria letting us know we were a chance for a medal and throwing absolutely everything at it.
“When we crossed the line, I had a look around and thought we may have come third but couldn’t really believe it.”
The Australian women’s quadruple sculls team of Cronin, fellow UQ graduate Thompson, Rowena Meredith and Harriet Hudson had claimed bronze in a thrilling finish to one of the fastest races in Olympic history.
China won in an Olympic-record time of 6.05.13 minutes, with Poland 6.23 seconds behind and edging out the Australians by just 0.72 seconds.
It capped an amazing Games on the water, with Australia’s rowers winning four medals in one hour – earlier in the day, Australia’s men’s and women’s fours won gold medals, while Australia’s men’s quadruple sculls also claimed bonze.
“It’s hard to put into words how being an Olympic medallist feels, it’s still quite surreal,” Cronin told Contact from hotel quarantine after returning from Tokyo.
“I think the journey to this point is what is most important to me, and then having an amazing result with a medal to show for it is absolutely unreal.
“Australian Rowing had a very successful Olympics campaign and built on strong results at the World Championships each year leading up to the Games.
“A more centralised structure with the introduction of the National Training Centres has given athletes more time rowing together and building combinations. We put in a lot of solid training throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think we just had to back ourselves that we’d done the work to achieve results at the Olympics.
“It was a huge honour to win a medal alongside some incredible crews, and awesome to be able to share the celebrations with others.”
Cronin, who graduated from UQ in 2019 with a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering, said she was particularly excited to share the bronze-medal moment with her UQ Boat (Rowing) Club teammate Thompson.
“It’s really special that we are both able to represent the club and the University on the world stage,” she said.
“We both love UQ and are very grateful for the support we have received. I hope our result encourages more young students to pursue sport while they are studying.”
Image: Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Thompson has focussed all her attention on representing Australia at the Tokyo Olympics since completing a Bachelor of Science degree in 2019.
She said no other feeling compared to pulling on the green and gold, knowing she was not just representing herself and her family, but the entire country.
“It makes all the long days and blood, sweat and tears worth it,” Thompson said.
“I remember watching all the amazing Australian athletes competing at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games when I was a kid, but I never imagined that it would one day be me.”
“Winning a medal at the Olympics is something I never thought possible. We went into the Olympics as the underdogs ranked ninth and came away with a bronze.
"I truly believe the reason we were so successful was because of the extraordinary bond we developed as a crew and with our coach, Dr Andrew Randell. The medal, the incredible memories and that bond will last a lifetime."
On top of all the challenges that come with qualifying for the Games, Thompson recalls the extra barriers athletes faced ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“They say that an Olympic year never runs smoothly, and I think that has never been truer than the 2020/21 saga,” Thompson said.
“We started by having to relocate to Tasmania at the beginning of 2020 because the smoke from the bushfires made it unsafe to train at our National Training Centre in Penrith. At the time, that seemed like the biggest obstacle to overcome. And then COVID-19 hit.
“Since then, we have dealt with our training centre being closed, the Olympics postponed, as well as countless plans changed due to ever-changing restrictions.
“Luckily our crew managed to travel to Switzerland in May this year for the final Olympic qualification regatta, which is where we secured our precious ticket to the Games.
“Travelling internationally during a pandemic was certainly a challenge, as was training alone in a hotel room for two weeks. But I’m actually grateful for the extra year of training and experience we gained before the Games.”
For UQ swimming sensation Thomas Neill, his bronze medal as part of the Australia’s men’s 4x200 metres freestyle relay team was “better than Lego”.
Neill – along with teammates Alexander Graham, Kyle Chalmers and Zac Incerti – helped Australia storm home into third behind Great Britain and Russia.
With the added pressure of anchoring the team, the Bachelor of Advanced Business (Honours) student said he was determined to secure a medal for his team.
“I grew up playing a lot of team sports, and often relays bring out the best in me,” Neill said.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but I also knew the team had faith in me to bring the relay home.
"It was just about finishing off a great set-up from Alex, Kyle and Zac.
“Being an Olympic medallist is a surreal feeling and one that I’m still trying to get my head around. In the post-race interview, I quoted [rugby league great] Matty Johns and said it was ‘better than Lego’ – because it really was.
“To stand on the podium alongside three legends of the sport was better than I ever imagined my first Olympics to be.”
Australian swimmers brought home nine gold medals, three silvers and eight bronze from Tokyo, bettering the nation’s previous Olympic record of eight gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
“We knew our team was going to be strong, but to deliver results when it mattered was the next step,” Neill said.
“So, to come out with the label as the most successful Aussie swim team ever is something the entire nation should be proud of, and I was just stoked to be a part of it.”
Image: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
In total, nine UQ students, graduates and club members competed at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Bachelor of Biotechnology (Honours) student Kiera Gazzard was part of Australia’s Artistic Swimming team that finished ninth, while Bachelor of Physiotherapy student Himeka Onoda helped Australia’s first ever Olympic Rhythmic Gymnastics Group finish in 14th place.
Bachelor of Advanced Finance & Economics (Honours) student Abby Andrews and Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours) student Gabi Palm helped Australia secure fifth place in women’s water polo.
While Bachelor of Engineering graduate (’07) and Tonga’s famous flagbearer Pita Taufatofua finished seventh in the men's heavyweight (+80kg) taekwondo. It was Taufatofua’s third Olympics, having previously competed at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics in taekwondo and the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in freestyle skiing.