Past Stawell Women’s Gift winners Grace O’Dwyer, Holly Dobbyn and Talia Martin will lead Ballarat’s charge at Stawell on Monday – the biggest day on Australia’s professional athletics calendar.
O’Dwyer, who won the 120m crown in 2015, moved into the semi-finals with a resurgent heat victory on Saturday, while defending champion Martin qualified for the next phase with one of the fastest 17 times outside winners.
Dobbyn (2014 winner) is joined by Tara Domaschenz and Kate Jones as other Ballarat semi-finalists who did enough without winning to stay alive.
Canberra-based Ararat athlete Sarah Blizzard is also in the semi-finals after a heat victory in 14.04.
Blizzard is aiming to compete in her fourth consecutive women’s gift final after finishing second, third and sixth.
Ballarat’s Stawell Gift hopes sit with youngsters Mason Keast and Tom Moloney, who each reached semi-finals with seconds in their heats.
Keast (9.75m) was just shaded by leading contender Nathan Riali in the second fastest heat of the day, while Moloney (6m) overcame a break and subsequent one-metre penalty to finish just behind Jojo Kwenin in 12.47.
O’Dwyer was excited and surprised by her performance. “I’m so happy.”
O’Dwyer had taken a while to find anything like her best form after having nose surgery at the end of last season.
She said she had lost a lot of fitness and it had only been in the past two to three weeks that she had felt like she was getting back near her best.
O’Dwyer said a quick start had been pivotal in her heat win.
O’Dwyer and Martin will need to find something extra though if either is to threaten for a second title, with Taylah Perry setting the benchmark with 13.69.
Blizzard said she was pleased to be on track for another final appearance in her seventh year at the Easter carnival.
The 20-year-old said she continued to improved training with national champions Melissa Breen and Lauren Wells at the Australian Institute of Sport and had never been in better shape.
Keast, 17, was rapt with his effort from an outmark.
In his second year out of juniors, the Rob Lehmann-trained Keast said he not go to Stawell with any specific expectations.
He said having had an excellent season all he had in mind was giving it his all.
“I just wrent flat out.”
Keast’s season highlights going into this meet were making the Terang and Ararat Gift finals, and 70m final victories at Trinity and Avondale Heights.
Lehmann said Keast had had a fine season, making real progress.
For Moloney, it was a day of mixed fortunes.
It did not start well when he broke in his heat and was penalised one metre.
Fortunately, he able to recover from the setback and run well enough to get another chance.
Moloney put the break down to nerves.
The 20-year-old said the nerves had also caused him to shorten up in the closing stages of his heat.
The Stawell Women’s Gift heats will be run on Monday from 11.50am, with the Stawell Athletic Club Stawell Gift semi-finals at 12.23pm.
The women’s final is scheduled for 1.50pm and Stawell Gift at 2.20pm.
Other highlights on Monday’s program will include backmarkers’ 400m handicap, women’s 400m handicap, 800m handicap, 200m handicap, backmarkers’ 120m invitation handicap, 3200m handicap, women’s 70m handicap, 100m handicap and frontmarkers’ 400m finals.