Kareena Lee Dedicates Dream-Come-True Olympic Marathon Selection To Coach John Rodgers

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Kareena Lee, with Susie O'Neill and coach John Rodgers at the handing over of treasure: a ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games - Photo Courtesy: Ian Hanson

Kareena Lee Olympic Marathon Leads To Tokyo2020 Ticket

By Ian Hanson

“Nineteen years ago a little girl sat watching the 2000 Olympics and from that day she had a dream to be an Olympian herself. She worked towards that dream every day of her life. She had her ups and downs, but….that dream (has come) true and today a new dream has been created.”

Those words were spoken by Kareena Lee after she’d spent 1 hour 54 minutes and 50 seconds battling through every stroke of the 10km marathon towards her Olympic dream at the World Championships in Gwangju, Korea, last July.

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Kareena Lee – the moment she knew that a 7th place finish in the 10km at World titles in Gwangju had earned her a ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – Photo Courtesy: Ian Hanson

Today, the 25-year-old Sunshine Coast primary school teaching graduate who as a child watched Susie O’Neill win gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, finally got her ticket to a life-long dream. Lee’s official selection as Australia’s latest official member of the 2020 team for Tokyo was confirmed in the presence of the man she dedicated her achievement to: Olympic coach John Rodgers.

In a fitting and emotional announcement, two-time Olympic champion O’Neill, the Deputy Chef de Mission of the Australian Olympic team, was on hand in Brisbane to hand over the ultimate ticket to the marathon ace.

Lee becomes the first swimmer named to the team after she qualified by finishing in the top 10 in the Gwangju 10km. She is only the fifth open water swimmer to represent Australia following the inclusion of the 10km event in Beijing in 2008 – joining Melissa Gorman and Ky Hurst (2008, 2012) and Chelsea Gubecka and Jarrod Poort (2016).

Lee’s seventh place finish in Gwangju earned her the automatic nomination – a reward for two decades as a swimmer who was ready to chuck it all away until legendary coach Rodgers turned her career around.

Kareena Lee on the ups and downs of elite sport and the need for perseverance:  

Lee Dedicates Her Achievement to Coach Rodgers

She dedicated her nomination to Rodgers who had been “clinically dead” for three days in the lead up to the World Championships after suffering a 10cm tear to his aorta.

“Nothing really changed except that he wasn’t here, and I just wanted to do it for him. Ringing him after the race and hearing how proud he was just makes it special,” Lee said at the time.

“I felt like I needed to do it for him as well and at the end of the race I spoke to him on the phone and got to share the moment with him and it was quite emotional. We had to get on with the preparation but at the same time it was really hard knowing he was in such a critical state.”

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Kareena Lee, with Susie O’Neill, at the handing over of treasure: a ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – Photo Courtesy: Ian Hanson

Former Rodgers champion pupil and life-long friend, confidant and business partner, Olympic bronze medallist Graeme Brewer, who took over the coaching while “JR” was in hospital, said Lee’s success was remarkable considering the emotional turmoil and interrupted training schedule.

“His (torn aorta) happened a day before they closed the pool so for two weeks before they went away the swimmers were travelling to Sunshine Coast Grammar twice a day for three hours in the car to do training,” Brewer said. “So it wasn’t ideal preparation from that point of view, especially when JR was lights out for a week or so…..(she showed) reward for the work done over the last six months.”

“JR” who has coached Olympians since he first put the late Jimmy Findlay on the 1972 Montreal Olympic team followed by a steady stream of youngsters from Sydney’s eastern suburbs, led by two-time Olympians Max Metzker (1976 and 1980) and Ron McKeon and Graeme Brewer (1980 and 1984).

And now some 13 Olympiads later the legendary coach, trusty and rusty stop watches at the ready, Rodgers has again made a young girl’s dream come true.

Lee has thrived under the guidance of the 81-year-old after connecting with him two years ago.

“After just missing out in 2016 I was thinking about giving up the sport but I just wanted to push on that bit more,” she said and it was after the world championships in 2017 that she linked with the crew at Noosa Aquatic Centre.

“I decided to make a change and go and train under JR. And by doing that I’ve seen major improvements and it’s just the refresher I’ve needed. I’ve just found a new love for the sport and it’s all paid off.

Podium Goal: ‘… absolute dream, especially as it’s something Australia hasn’t done yet’

Lee is just the fourth of an expected 480 team size for Tokyo, with further opportunities for Australian marathon swimmers to qualify at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Swimming Qualifying event in May 2020 in Fukuoka, Japan. Said Lee:

“I think everyone’s goal is to get on the podium at Tokyo, that would be the absolute dream, especially as it’s something Australia hasn’t done yet, but with everyone in this event so close on that finish line, it can really be anyone’s race.”

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John ‘JR’ Rodgers flanked by Kareena Lee and Nick Sloman – Photo Courtesy: Ian Hanson

Kareena Lee – Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Being one of the first athletes selected on the 2020 Australian Olympic Team means Lee only has one thing to focus on for the next 10 months:

“It’s really amazing being selected this far out, it allows me to narrow the focus to just the Olympics now. I don’t have to worry about qualifying close to the event so I will just concentrate on training and selecting races I want to focus on without the extra pressure.”

Today’s selection caps off a 2019 Kareena Lee will not forget in a hurry after graduating as a Primary School teacher from the University of Sunshine Coast, becoming engaged to boyfriend Callum Clark and realising a childhood dream of becoming an Olympian.

And if “JR” gets his way then the dream’s only going to get bigger come 2020.