By David Griffin
Professional athletics, like most of the sporting world, took a while to catch on.
Female sport is a hot topic. With the new AFL women’s league, Women’s Big Bash cricket and a revamped national netball competition grabbing prime time TV coverage, female sport has taken centre stage.
Society has come a long way since the heady days of 1967 when Katrine Switzer tried to run the Boston marathon and was almost assaulted by race official’s wanting her to stop running.
With females banned from running a marathon, Switzer finished the course and ending the ludicrous thinking that females couldn’t run 42 kilometres.
Long the domain of men, professional athletics in Australia has seen very little in the way of female participation. Until the mid-90s, it was rare to see a female run.
Female pros were long considered an oddity at any pro race meeting. Barrie Milligan, a long-time stalwart of the Victorian Athletic League, was forced to think hard to find any reference to the first female competitors in the sport.
“There was a lady by the name of Nicky Coughlin that ran for a while in the 80s. This of course is only in Victoria, I have no idea what may have happened in the other States”, Barrie said.
“As best I know, Anne Fiedler was the first to win an open race at Stawell (2001) when she won the Frontmarkers 400m. Kendra Hubbard was also the first to win an open Gift (Melbourne Gift) in late 2008)”, Barrie said.
Whilst Anne Fiedler and Kendra Hubbard continue to race on the circuit, Nicky Coughlan is the pioneer for women running professionally in Australia.
Nicky was an oddity. A lone female flying the flag for women in professional sprinting when she lined up against men in the late 80s.
To Nicky, it was as simple as just wanting to run, but on reflection she opened the door for all females that now run in the Victorian Athletic League.
“I trained with Neil King and a lot of his group ran ‘pro’. I asked whether I could try. Neil supported me and I ran”, Nicky said.
Reflecting back, the 57 year old teacher has fond memories of her time in the sport, with 2017 the 30 year anniversary of her first run in the Stawell Gift.
“I first ran at Stawell in the ‘87 season and I loved it. I was on the limit and didn’t do very well but it was a great weekend”.
“I must admit I didn’t really think too much about it. Most of the men were really good with me and accepted me running against them. I did have a few issues with some runners who thought I shouldn’t be running, but it was nothing serious”.
Nicky Coughlin was a pioneer in the Victorian Athletic League, and whilst not celebrated, broke the seal for women racing today.
“The only women you would see at gift meeting were the girlfriends or wives of the athletes”, she said almost matter of factly.
“The group I trained with were great. I was a high jumper that turned to sprinting and I just loved pro race days”.
“I didn’t have a lot of success against the guys but I did win a heat of the 70 meters at Rye which was a highlight”.
“Once more girls started racing I didn’t race against the men again, I didn’t need too”.
“I won a few ladies races and it was a great time in my life”, she said.
When women’s races were finally introduced into the Stawell Gift program in 1989, athletes were forced to run on the novice or “alternate” track, and for a pittance.
Things have changed. Women now race at Stawell for equal prizemoney and on the same celebrated gift track.
With Stawell leading the way, other Gift meetings followed, which in turn has attracted more females to the sport.
With over 170 men running in the 2018 version of the Stawell Gift and close to 100 women the growth of women racing in the pros, or more particular, at Stawell, is extraordinary.
As a pioneer of the sport Nicky Coughlin has reserved her place in history. She no longer runs professionally but she can look back fondly on a career that started a female revolution, in a sport once strictly reserved for men.