Sport

Sarah Tait remembered as a unique mother, champion athlete

Just a fortnight before her passing, Sarah Tait received an associate degree in agriculture from the University of Melbourne.

Cancer had confined her to a hospice in Kew since December, but the disease that was slowly killing her was not going to stop this milestone.

With the help of technology Tait witnessed her ceremony virtually. From a computer screen. At the Albert Park headquarters of the Victorian Institute of Sport where the world champion and three-time Olympic rower had clocked countless training hours, her husband, Bill, collected her certificate.

"I think it meant a great deal to her," VIS chief executive Anne-Marie Harrison reflected softly on the day the 33-year-old mother of two passed away.

"Sarah really thrived on the intellectual rigor of university and she was really quite determined to continue her studies throughout her illness.

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"She had a great thirst for knowledge that wasn't just about all the technicalities and rigor of being a rower or an athlete. It was about the bigger picture of life.

"She cared deeply for the environment. That was the area that she did her study, and ultimately graduated, in. She had this great determination to ensure that she protected the world so it was a better place for everyone else. You put that alongside this really hard-edged, fierce, fierce competitor and it helps make up the picture of the woman that she was."

Though Tait, born in Western Australia, was a VIS adoptee she became a genuine member of the sporting family. Bill Tait is head rowing coach at the VIS, a position he has maintained – and that has also provided some salvation over the last three years – since his much admired athlete wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer before the birth of their second child in 2013.

The Taits had their two kids, Leila and Luca, in 2009 and 2013 respectively, in the aftermath of two of the three Olympic games in which Sarah represented Australia. She was back in full training when Leila was five months old and so intent on making the team for London that she trained by swimming up to 15 kilometres a week until three weeks before giving birth to Luca.

Eventually, combining with Kate Hornsey in the coxless pair, she ended up winning a silver medal. Tait was also among the three women who made history at those 2012 Olympics by being the first Australian rower mothers to compete at a games.

Daniel Kowalski, a fellow world champion and Olympic medallist though in a different sport, met Tait between the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London campaigns.

Employed as a mentor at the VIS in the lead-up to 2012, Kowalski has encountered and trained with countless athletes but Tait genuinely stood out among them.

Yet to fully grasp, on Thursday afternoon, that the radiant woman who will forever live large in his memory had taken her last breath, Kowalski remembered Tait's unique determination.

Before she retired from rowing, not until 2014 some time after her cancer diagnosis, Tait had made it known she intended to train for, and make, this year's Rio Olympics.

"God she was intense," Kowalski began before pulling a handbrake on his train of thought. "I hate using the word 'was'.

"But what always struck me was just how intense a competitor she was on the water and then the moment she'd get off a boat, or away from a competitive environment, it was like the opposite. She was such a beautiful, placid, young woman."

A candle burned by a floral vigil for Tait in the VIS kitchen throughout the day of her death. Flags outside the institute were lowered to half-mast.

Harrison attended the special academic graduation ceremony two weeks ago but last saw Tait in person, at the hospice, in January. It was an hour she won't forget.

"It was a perfectly normal conversation just in a place I wouldn't normally have a conversation with an athlete," she said. "It was lovely. It was really lovely. And I let her know that everybody was thinking of her, and caring for Bill, and that we will continue to do so."

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