"UNLEASH" was the advice veteran rowing mentor Bill Gribble sent to Lucy Stephan on the eve of her Olympic rowing final.
The 29-year-old's fierce gold medal win in the women's four in Tokyo has in turn sparked celebrations at her alma mater Ballarat Grammar, the city's rowing community and deep into her hometown in the Wimmera.
Small in stature for a rower, there were those who doubted Stephan's potential as a junior when the girl from Nhill, a town in severe drought, was determined to learn how to row as a senior student in a time when Lake Wendouree had no water.
Calling direction from the bow seat in the Australian four, Stephan became an Olympic champion on Wednesday. The Australians held off a fast-finishing Netherlands by .034 seconds to claim gold in an Olympic record time of six minutes, 15.37 seconds.
Gribble said he always had the belief Stephan had the potential and the hunger to reach rowing's elite levels.
"I've watched many Olympic events on TV but today, what I witnessed, I had goosebumps on my whole body...Unbelievable," Gribble said.
"I coached rowing for 21 years. Lucy is the first and only Olympian I have coached. Not only is she now a two-time Olympian but she's a gold medallist now and that will be with her forever."
Not only is she now a two-time Olympian but she's a gold medallist now and that will be with her forever.Bill Gribble, former Ballarat Grammar senior girls' rowing coach
Stephan arrived at Grammar as a boarder and spent her first rowing season in the thirds among girls who had rowed in their junior years.
The next year, Gribble approached Stephan to take up the coveted stroke seat in the Grammar girls' firsts. In a coxed crew, this is the rower to set the race up.
"She didn't believe she was good enough but I told her 'Lucy, I would not ask if I didn't think you were good enough," Gribble said. "Lucy is unbelievably competitive."
Grammar captured Ballarat Associated Schools' Head of the Lake that year.
Excitement erupted in classrooms across Ballarat Grammar as the realisation of what Stephan was about to achieve set in.
Grammar rowing director Sam Pullin watched the race unfold from the year nine centre with students. Pullin said COVID restrictions and delays in live streaming created pockets of different reactions across campus.
"It's such a surreal moment for our kids because Lucy is quite tangible to them," Pullin said. "This is a rower who comes up and talks to them at national regattas and is really approachable. This is a person who is happy to sit next to them on the ergos.
"...It's incredible. Lucy fell in love with rowing and wasn't the best at it. Yes, she was in the firsts, and yes, she won Head of the Lake, but she'll be the first to admit she wasn't great. But Lucy shows if you really love it and try hard then you will find success - and Lucy's success was on the ultimate stage."
It's such a surreal moment for our kids because Lucy is quite tangible to them.Sam Pullin, Ballarat Grammar rowing director
Pullin said Stephan was a generous character and community-minded person, who often called into Grammar to speak with rowers.
Grammar headmaster Adam Heath said the school community was immensely proud of Stephan as a person, athlete and now as an Olympic gold medallist.
"Upon graduating, she took her passion for the sport much further, working determinedly to achieve her goals," he said.
"...We are so glad that all of her hard work has paid off with this impressive performance, adding to her world championships and world cup achievements, and her Ballarat Grammar family congratulate her wholeheartedly."
Gribble said there is a stage on the water when rowers' legs burn and feel like they are on fire. He said juniors would sometimes say they would see stars. This was pure physical exertion.
He said there was no doubt Stephan's legs were burning in that final but she kept her cool.
Stephan's dad Gus Stephan texted Gribble to say he played a huge part in Stephan's journey. Gribble said he liked to think he played a small part at the beginning, but hoped he had helped steer her in the right direction.
When Stephan was rowing at Grammar, crews would travel to Geelong to train on water twice a week. There was not much chance to fine-tune on-water technique.
Gribble said rowing was a hard, tough sport. The one thing he hoped to teach all his rowers was to have fun and want to go to training.
"I keep in contact with Lucy and when she was going to Tokyo I told her all I want to do is touch an Olympic gold medal, I've never done that," Gribble said. "She just said, 'I'll do my best'. Now I can't wait for her to bring that gold medal home."
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