On the right track: Canberra's Emily Brichacek planted the seed for Commonwealth Games selection 12 years ago. Photo: Jay Cronan
Minutes before the biggest race of her life, Emily Brichacek's coach, Ted McLean, took the Canberra athlete’s hand and placed an acorn in her palm.
In the lead-up to the Australian championships, doubling as the Commonwealth Games qualifier, McLean had tried to inspire the 23-year-old 5000m runner by showing her footage of Roger Bannister’s world-changing sub-four-minute mile in 1954.
He had mentally shot her with adrenalin, using the motivating words of Bannister's Austrian mentor, Franz Stampfl, who had yelled “shit or bust”. The moment for the unfunded Brichacek was now, Athletics Australia would continue to ignore her if she didn't kick the door down to announce her arrival.
Brichacek training with the University of Canberra John Landy Talent Squad at the AIS athletics track. Photo: Melissa Adams
But then, in a calming moment which they share before every race, McLean unfurled Brichacek's fingers to place the acorn in her hand.
“When she first started out with me, when she was 11 or 12, we were sitting there meditating on what was to come in her first race,'' McLean said.
"I just happened to pick up an acorn seed, put it in her hand and said 'a lot of these fall to the ground and go by the wayside. But what would happen if that was planted in the right place, under the right conditions and had everything working for it – fate, grace of god?'. She said it would grow into a strong oak tree.
Brichacek after winning the 500 metres at the Australian Championships.
“When we first met, I hinted she had the ability to go to the world level and she shouldn’t build a ceiling, but to do that she needed a 16-year program. That’s hard for a young person to comprehend.
“I said would you like to go to the moon and she nodded, the nod of a small child. I’d waited 12 years to give her this next acorn for the next phase ... the look on her face, I choked up. No words needed to be said.
“This is the time, between now and 28, that we’re going to see some of Emily’s best running, but it hasn’t just arrived, it’s been something that’s building over a period of time and now we’re really starting to enjoy the fruits.”
Brichacek has kept the original acorn in a box all these years, along with supportive notes slipped into her spikes bag by her coach, a man who always believed in her when few others did.
She remains unfunded by Athletics Australia, has just one sponsor, studies psychology at university, lives in her family home to save rent and works at a running-shoe store. It's one part-time job in a long line of work she's done to make ends meet, from waitressing to pharmacies.
But for all that, Brichacek is now Australia's 5000m champion, and she's going to her first Commonwealth Games in July, in Glasgow.
“Last year I was overlooked by AA for funding, that was another bit of a kick in the guts when you think ‘oh god, no one believes in me, what am I doing? I should just get a job and finish uni and be a normal person'. So to get the win and qualify for my first major team was so massive for me,” Brichacek said.
“When they do overlook you, it kind of feels like they’ve stopped believing in your potential a bit as well. It’s a matter of being resilient in any sport and having a lot of self-belief.
“A lot of Ted's work is to do with self-belief, he’s very good at getting you mentally prepared for races, so I credit a lot of my success to him.”
Now she's given everybody reason to recognise her name, for the record it's pronounced Brick-a-check.
It's Czech, from her mother's father, Lou Brichacek, who as family folklore suggests, used to compete at the same athletics club as the the "Czech Locomotive" Emil Zatopek, regarded as one of the greatest middle-distance runners of the last century.
“That story may have been slightly elaborated over the years," Brichacek laughed. "I think they were in the same athletics club, but now it’s gone from that to having head-to-head match races.”
As Brichacek would tell it, her story is unremarkable. A Canberra girl all her life, brought up just a few kilometres from the AIS, schooled at Aranda Primary when she first switched from 20-hours-a-week of national gymnastics to running cross country.
But her typical story may also reflect why so many potential Australian athletes drop out in the transition from junior to senior athletics. Even if you're good – really good, as evidenced by the limited funding for 100m Australian record holder Melissa Breen – it's tough the get financial support.
In a land like Australia, there's plenty of other opportunities, so people drop out and athletics potentially loses.
It's only the toughest ones like Brichacek, who once won a 10km race in Burnie, Tasmania after being knocked over by a motorbike at the midway mark, who pick themselves up, clean up the grazes and keep running.
So over the New Year's break, Brichacek and boyfriend James Nipperess – Australian's 3000m steeplechase champion – travelled to Kenya, where distance runners are seemingly the country's greatest crop from red, barren soil.
The primary purpose of the trip was to train at an altitude of 2400m for six weeks, at the specialised but simplistic running facility of Lornah Kiplagat, a four-time world champion.
More than that, it was Brichacek's opportunity to experience what it was like to run for your life.
“Everyone runs in Kenya, so right there you’ve expanded your pool of talent hugely. Running for them is a way out," Brichacek said.
“For the Kenyans, running is a livelihood. If you’re a good runner and you can win a few hundred euro in a road race somewhere, that’s more viable than working all year for a few dollars a day. For them that’s why they run.
"Here in Australia it's opposite, to run you forsake a full-time job and making a real living. That’s why we probably see more of a drop-out from junior to senior ranks."
The Great Britain team, including Somali-born Mo Farah, were also in camp in Kenya at the time. Just as inspiring for Brichacek was running beside Kenyan children, lining up in ankle-high shoes, two-sizes too big and full of holes.
They'd stop, smile and point at her, "Muzungo" – white person.
“They have a Thursday morning fartlek [a form of training] run every week and I think the whole town was there,'' Brichacek said. "There would be two or three hundred people at the start line ready to go at 9am, it’s their way of life.
"The town, Iten, is rural but it’s had a lot of elite runners. They’ve been able to see how well-off those runners now live, so that’s a real incentive for them. Maybe for a lot of them, though, it's an incentive that's out of reach.
“It was completely different to living here. Dirt roads; you’d be going for runs and there’d be people herding cattle everywhere. It’s a very simple life compared to here. I think it's one of the other things, apart from their physique and living at altitude – a lot of them will just be running and trying to find that race that’s going to be their breakthrough and give them enough money to look after themselves.
“Going to Kenya, that definitely set me up for this year, I’ve run better than ever in Australia and I think this was a major part of that.”
“I have an immense amount of respect for them, but I've never felt like the Africans weren’t beatable ... there’s no reason I can’t be there mixing it with them. But to do that, you have to devote yourself to the sport and do it as much as they are. You’ve got to realise you’re competing against people where this race means so much to them and it has to mean just as much to you or you won’t have that extra thing you need to beat them.”
Brichacek does not cry poor. She's thankful for a New Balance sponsorship, her job at The Runners Shop, and support from the University of Canberra's John Landy squad, established this year to support aspiring Canberra runners.
“But if it wasn’t for her mother and father, we would have lost her years ago to the sport," McLean said.
Mclean has seen the difference in Brichacek since her return from Kenya. It was evident in her finish to the 5000m national championships in Melbourne this month, when she chased down what seemed an insurmountable lead to Olympian Eloise Wellings on the final lap.
"They were not going to give her that race and to take the next step in her career, she had to kick that door open and literally do what the Kenyans do where they run because they have to eat and survive,'' McLean said.
"She’s not in that desperate position ... but she had to have that same hunger and aggression to take that race on and know that anyone who took it from her was also going to take her future away from her. She knew she had to be first across the line, to get the job done. She fired up brilliantly.
"That’s the desperation and passion she comes from, she knows behind her is 12 years of sacrifice from her family.”
From little things, big things grow?
“When you’re going to a Commonwealth Games, you’re going there to medal,“ McLean said.