They captivated the nation in 2000 as they converted self-belief into Olympic gold. Now the duo of Natalie Cook OAM and Kerri Pottharst OAM will share another special moment as each is inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame on Thursday this week. They become the first from their sport to be so honoured.
Along with previously announced fellow sporting stars Bill Lawry AM and Michael Milton OAM, swim coach Denis Cotterell and sports scientist Dick Telford AM and two yet to be revealed, they will join the elite sporting club at its annual Induction and Awards Gala Dinner, presented by Etihad Airways.
Induction represents one of the highest national sporting honours that can be bestowed upon an individual, with the dinner the largest collective gathering each year of Australian sporting champions and luminaries. This Thursday’s in Melbourne will be the 30th edition.
Despite Cook and Pottharst having combined in 1996 to win bronze when beach volleyball made its Olympic debut in Atlanta, their sport remained largely under the general public gaze until its stunning presentation on Bondi Beach four years later and their special victory.
Their personalities almost as much as their on-court brilliance, catapulted them to star status and gave their sport a profile in Australia it would not have expected, at least so soon. And it was exactly what the International Olympic Committee would have wanted from its push to profile more contemporary events. Both athletes appreciate the significance of their biggest moment.
“Sydney was the crescendo for Kerri and I as a team. We’d won the bronze medal in Atlanta and won a silver medal at the world championships but to play in front of 10,000 Aussies at home was the moment. To win at home, in front of the home crowd was incredible,” Cook says now.
“Obviously it’s the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics - it was the biggest pressure event we had played in, and in front of our home crowd made it even more daunting. The moment I realised the last ball landed out, I followed it to the line, and all of a sudden I realised what had happened and I just absolutely fell apart,” Pottharst confirmed.
Their partnership also netted 92 FIVB tour victories and on top of the Olympic medals arguably did more than anyone to help lift beach volleyball to elite sport status in the eyes of the Australian public.
Cook - the enduring star
Natalie Cook represented Australia at an extraordinary five successive Olympic Games - not only winning gold and bronze but also finishing fourth (in 2004), fifth (in 2008) and 19th in London in 2012.
Teamed with other partners she took her tally of tour victories to 155. Eleven times a national champion, she won another world championships medal – a bronze with Nicole Sanderson in 2003.
Cook was inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2013 and continues to coach and mentor juniors.
Always a high achiever she was dux of her high school, before embarking on university studies in physiotherapy. Apart from her amazing on court achievements she is also an author, sport administrator - having taken on the presidency of the Queensland Olympic Council and an ambassador for a range of children’s charities.
She was surprised and appreciative to learn of her elevation to the elite group at the Hall of Fame.
“It’s a huge honour. Last year I was inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame, and I thought… well that’s it, it’s all over now. And then I got the call from John Bertrand,” Cook said.
“To be beside the heroes and legends of Australian sport is very humbling and inspiring.”
“Australia has such a diverse history in sport and our success has been amazing, from surfers such as Layne Beachley to our cricketers and footballers. So to be joining them is amazing actually.”
Cook understands that she has been a pathfinder and is conscious of what it means to be one of the first two from her sport to be inducted.
“Volleyball has a lack of history and a celebration of that history. Kids can’t go to a place and celebrate Volleyball’s history so this helps develop the culture before and beyond. I hope it will inspire kids to go on to greatness.”
Pottharst turned adversity into a gold medal winning strategy
Kerri Pottharst was literally an accidental convert to the sporting discipline which delivered her fame and Olympic gold.
“I actually got into beach volleyball because I damaged my knee beyond repair,” Pottharst is happy to reveal.
“I played indoor volleyball for Australia for ten years and I wrecked my knee in one landing off a jump and that was the end of the indoor career. And then a year later I tried to come back and I found beach volleyball was a much better option.”
“I realised that we had this opportunity of maybe going to an Olympics in 1996. That was the first event where beach volleyball was made a full medal sport. I thought I’d get the best partner in Australia and give it a bash.”
The rest is, as they say, history.
Now there is no question that with teammate Natalie Cook, Pottharst can be credited with doing much to elevate beach volleyball to public consciousness. Their global successes in Atlanta and in FIVB events over the next four years raised big hopes for the 2000 Sydney Games.
They outdid the most realistic of expectations held of them - beating Brazilians Bede and Behar in straight sets in the final.
Born in Adelaide, Pottharst’s initial successes at elite level were in her sport’s more traditional code - as a member of the national indoor team for eleven years from 1982 to 1992, the last season as its captain.
She first toyed with the sand court at international level in 1990, before taking it up in earnest as the Atlanta opportunity approached. It proved to be the first of three Olympic appearances - the last of which in Athens in 2004 signed-off on 22 years of representing her country.
Outside the Olympics, Pottharst won eight Australian titles and a total of 92 FIVB world tour events. She preceded her Games partner Cook into the international Volleyball Hall of Fame by six years, being accorded the honour in 2007.
Still the most prominent face of her sport even post her on-court career, Pottharst has now turned her hand to administration and is currently chair of the Australian Beach Volleyball Commission - yet another fine example of a superstar who is prepared to give back to her sport.
But that’s not her only commitment these days – relishing life as a wife and mother, author and an elite level coach.
The honour of the impending induction is not lost on Pottharst.
“I was absolutely blown away. To be recognised not only by our volleyball peers on the world scene, but then all our sporting peers in Australia, was pretty phenomenal,” she said.
And she sounds content in her retirement, albeit with some regrets.
“To tell you the truth I don’t like sand very much at all. When I leave the beach I have to get every last grain off me,” she revealed.
“Do I miss the sand? No.”
“Do I miss the competition and camaraderie and the teamwork, the challenge of working out how our strengths combined together can go get over the top of other teams and win matches? Yes absolutely that’s what I miss.”
Robert de Castella AO MBE, chair of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame selection committee said that both women excelled both as individuals and a combination.
“Natalie Cook and Kerrie Pottharst individually achieved amazing things but together they formed an indomitable team that lifted each other to Australian sporting greatness. From that mantle they made and both continue to make Beach Volleyball a hugely popular and sought after sport,” de Castella said.
In acknowledgement of the special place in the nation’s heart of the 2000 Olympics, fellow Sydney gold medallist, Catherine Freeman will have the honour of making the presentation to Kerri Pottharst and Natalie Cook as part of their official Sport Australia Hall of Fame Inductions on Thursday.
382 sporting stars have previously been inducted as Athlete Members of The Sport Australia Hall of Fame. Along with 143 General Members, there are a total of 525 members of The Sport Australia Hall of Fame. The full list can be found here.
With a vision and values built around the words of the first inductee and Legend of Australian Sport, Sir Donald Bradman AC, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame is determined to carry to all Australians everywhere the symbol of excellence, as represented by all its members across all sports and genders.
For more information about The Sport Australia Hall of Fame, visit www.sahof.org.au
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