Gowa's Olympic dream on hold
ABC News - Far North Queensland
15 June, 2012
A national champion in 2008, you won't see Otis Gowa
sprinting at the London Olympics and he's okay with that.
Late last year Otis Gowa decided to stop running. He jumped in a truck and started working for a tiling company, embracing a 'normal 9-to-5' that felt so foreign to him, it made it a little exciting.
He'd spoken to other sprinters like Patrick Johnson and Nova Peris-Kneebone and they all seemed to tell him the same thing. He was still going to be fast even if he stepped away for a while but his sanity might be tested if he didn't.
So he quietly retired, less than four years on from winning the national 100-metre championships.
The string of injuries that had hampered him since then, had exacted a cruel toll on his body and mind.
There was the eight centimetre tear across his achilles that never really felt quite right after he tore it. The bursitis in his heels still stung, the stress fractures that hobbled him as he strived to get back on track just another in a long list of injuries.
It wasn't enough that he'd overcome Hodgkin's lymphoma just two years before the 2008 national championships to emerge as the fastest man in Australia.
Question about how fast he could go have never really been answered because he's struggled to stay on the track.
Today though Gowa says he's happily removed from the pressures of running.
"Getting back on my feet after having all those injuries, it's taken a lot of time. I think just mentally it's going to take a good while to sort of get my head straight," he says.
"I still want people to know that I was a great athlete that came from Cairns and strived to be the best that I can. Sometimes it's not always [about] the outcome you get."
"With our sport there's a process and things take time. To run sub-10 [seconds] there's a process that goes into it ... so I don't really know how fast I could've gone but it would've been good to get down there."
One of Gowa's mentors, hurdler, Kyle Vander-Kuyp, first met him on a trip to Samoa in 2006. They chatted while waiting to check-in at Sydney airport and quickly bonded.
"Meeting Otis, I was blown away straight off because he was about to meet his dad for the first time in his life that day," Vander-Kuyp says. "He took that pretty casually. He said, 'Oh, yeah. I've come to meet my my dad, I've never met him before but I'm going to see him in the next few minutes'."
Gowa had grown up with his mother, a Torres Strait Islander in far north Queensland. His story endeared him to Vander-Kuyp who'd dealt with his own issues of identity.
"I thought, 'Wow! This guy has just dropped this on me at the start of the trip'," he says. "We went through that together. Being adopted and going through that journey myself it was nice to be able to walk through that with him.
"Then when we got stuck into the athletics he was pretty driven. He had a good spark about him. He'd beaten some of these guys he was competing against before but then he'd gotten Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"He'd just come out of chemo recently and was still getting the colour back in his skin. His fingernails were still recovering from the radiation but he's like, 'These guys are beating me. Why am I running eleven seconds?'.
"I had to put it into context and said, 'Mate, great that you're hungry but you've got to build yourself back'. That was the beginning of our relationship."
Gowa moved from Cairns to Brisbane soon after. By 2007 he'd run 10.52 seconds in Singapore and was emerging as a leading light in track and field.
He won the Cathy Freeman encouragement award at the Queensland Indigenous Sports Awards and was a member of the Jump Start to London programme.
The programme gave him a scholarship which aimed to help young indigenous athletes get to the 2012 games.
But after winning the national championships setbacks started to come. His times were too slow to qualify for the Beijing Games and Australia chose not to send a 4 x 100-metre relay team.
Gowa moved to Melbourne and the injuries soon followed. In 2010 Athletics Australia scrapped the Jump Start programme.
A fallout with his coach made things worse and his body still wasn't responding the way he'd like it to.
"It got to the point where I was pretty much running by myself. That's a senior athlete to fall down to that level," Gowa says.
A former AFL Queensland employee, senior Aussie Rules figures reached out to him, including the AFL's multicultural officer, Jason Mifsud.
"Jason said to me 'Don't leave Melbourne. We'll keep you here. We'll talk to one of the football clubs to get you right'. By that stage I just said to Jason, 'Look I've had enough'."
Gowa moved to the Gold Coast and slowly started training again. His body was improving but the challenge of getting back to where he was without much help seemed too much.
Now effectively 'retired' he says he hopes other athletes are better supported in the future.
"With track and field there's not a lot of assistance around you when you're at the top. It all goes by performance. It's different to a team sport like AFL or rugby league where there are good coaches and facilities around you," he says.
"I needed to get away from the sport a little bit. I was doing part-time work when I needed full-time work. When I lost the scholarship I was paying the medical bills myself.
"I think there definitely should be some sort of support structure around you. In saying that there's not a lot of finances in athletics these days so it goes both ways.
As for a return to the sport, he's unwilling to rule it out.
"Definitely a come back's in the back of my mind but at this stage I'm not thinking about it too heavily, maybe in a year or so when the mental issues are all stable and I'm back on my feet, I think there'll be a come back in there for me," he says.
Given where Otis Gowa was in 2008, this is a very sad, frustrating & shameful story...and sadly, not uncommon in athletics. Otis was let down by AA when he went to Melbourne. Someone should be accountable for the training that led to the injuries that ruined his career. I reckon an independant investigation should be conducted by AA - with people outside of the organisation determining what happened to Otis once he got to Melbourne and how he was handled.