RICHARD CHARLES ‘RICK’ MITCHELL (24 Mar 1955 – )
Rick began athletics at age 17 with the Waverley Athletics Club to improve his fitness for an upcoming rugby union season but after two years in the sport he crossed paths with Norm Osborne who became his coach for the rest of his track and field career.
After transferring to Norm’s club St Stephen’s Harriers, 19 year old Rick surprised everyone at the 1974 Nationals in Melbourne with a second place in the 400 metres in 47.7 seconds a feat he repeated in 1975 in a faster 47.0, again behind New South Welshman, Steve Gee.
Like most athletes in those days Rick combined education, employment and athletics, working at Dulux Australia as a research chemist whilst also studying. Despite the workload, he won the 1976 national title in Melbourne in 46.59 and was selected for that year’s Olympic Games.
In Montreal Rick warmed up for the 400 by running in the heats of the 200 metres, easily qualifying in 21.91. However he withdrew from the quarter-finals to concentrate on the longer distance. He finished second in his heat in 46.11 and later that same day won his quarter-final heat in 45.76, ahead of eventual gold medallist Alberto Juantorena from Cuba. Rick improved again to 45.69 for fourth place in the first semi-final, earning a prized spot in the final. There he ran his usual steady race. coming home strongly to finish sixth in yet another personal best of 45.40.
He ran his third event of those Games when he anchored the 4x400 metres relay team which also included Max Binnington, Peter Grant and Don Hanly. Placing fifth in 3.05.75, they were unfortunately eliminated.
Back home in 1977 Rick won another national title in 46.6 and was selected to represent Oceania in the inaugural IAAF World Cup in West Germany. The 400m in Dusseldorf was controversial as Olympic champion Alberto Juantorena claimed he missed the start after finishing third. His protest was upheld with the race re-run the next day but Rick who had finished seventh in the original race in 46.71 declined to run again. He ran in the 4x400 relay team which finished sixth..
Surprisingly Rick was beaten at the 1978 Nationals in Brisbane by 800 metres specialist John Higham, who ran 45.9 to his 46.2. But the main aim that year was the Commonwealth Games, for which he was selected after mid-year Trials in Brisbane. In Edmonton Rick won his heat, quarter and semi-final and then a very windy final in 46.34 over Trinidad’s Joseph Coombs. Later he anchored the 4x400 team to a bronze medal.
Rick missed most of 1979 due to injury but came back strongly in November and produced a fine domestic season, culminating in another Australian title in a fast 45.35 national record in Sydney. He was selected for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow which were affected by the American led boycott over Afghanistan. Rick was in excellent form, qualifying easily in his heat in 46.63 before winning his quarter final in 45.73 and claiming second in 45.48 in his semi.
Not for the first time, the final saw Rick well back in the field as they came off the home turn. But he produced his by-then characteristic strong finish to race past his opponents and just fail to catch the Soviet Viktor Markin who ran 44.60 to Rick’s in 44.84 – a time that would remain his personal best. At that time, it was number 12 on the world all-time list. The absence of the US runners in Moscow did not detract from his achievement, for Rick had beaten them prior to the Olympics and including post-Games races, he was only headed by one man for the year.
Rick ran only in the 200 at the 1981 Nationals finishing third in 21.12 and not at all in the following edition. However after a good European tour, he was back for the selection trials for the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. Again there were four rounds of the 400 due to the large entry list and the semi- finals and final were held on the same day. Rick’s competitive instincts shone as he progressed through to the final in which he took silver behind the powerful Jamaican, Bert Cameron. Rick led the relay team home to silver, a 45.4 finishing leg not quite enough to catch the English team.
By now injuries were a regular battle, forcing him to miss the 1983 Nationals but Rick was there again a year later, finishing third. Rick was selected for his third Olympics - in 1984 to be held in Los Angeles. The individual spots for the 400 were not decided until the runners were in the Village. Rick was disappointed in not gaining an individual berth but there was compensation with a relay spot. He anchored the team to win their heat in 3.03.72, before being rested for the semi-final.
In the final, the Australians ran faster than ever – a national record of 2.59.70, but sadly became the first team in Olympic history to not to win a medal after breaking three minutes. Rick ran a 45.39 anchor leg to complement the excellent runs of Bruce Frayne, Darren Clark and Gary Minihan, but they just fell short of the podium. In a nice touch, Rick hung onto the baton to give to Peter van Miltenburg who had run in the heats and semi-final.
Rick retired after the Games and became the inaugural Director of the Tasmanian Institute of Sport, before become a successful CEO and director of various organisations.
Paul Jenes OAM
Acknowledgements: Mark Butler - IAAF Athletics Statistics Book; Paul Jenes & Peter Hamilton - Australian Athletics Results; Paul Jenes - Fields of Green, Lanes of Gold; Brian Roe