The Michelle Ford Story, Part One: The Phone Call From Her Mum That Changed Michelle’s Life Forever

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RELIEF: Australia's Michelle Ford overcomes the odds to win Moscow Olympic gold in the 800m freestyle. Photo Courtesy Michelle Ford Collection.

Memories of Moscow 1980 – Today marks the 40th anniversary of the fifth day of racing in the pool at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, where Michelle Ford, of Australia, stopped the East German machine with victory over 800m freestyle. Here’s the first of a two-parter  as Swimming World continues its 40th anniversary coverage of the events of Moscow 1980 and their impact on those who missed out and what the Moscow Games meant for those who made it, even, in some cases, when their Governments did not endorse their participation but their nations did.

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Moscow 1980

Our Moscow 1980 Olympics coverage so far

It was the phone call in the middle of the night that Michelle Ford had been waiting for. A phone call from her Mum that would change her life forever – a call that would stamp the then 17-year-old’s Moscow Olympic passport in gold leaf.

“My Mum rang me at 2am in the morning. I was in Nashville, Tennessee, where I was training under Don Talbot,” recalled Michelle this week as she spoke of the trials and tribulations of the 1980 Moscow Olympics on the 40th Anniversary of the most controversial and tumultuous Games in Australia’s storied Olympic history.

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PRIZED POSSESSIONS: Michelle Ford with her Olympic gold medal and pet koala. Photo Courtesy: AOF

“I ran to the phone in the dark in the house I was staying in with my American family and my Mum said: “Michelle, you are going..you are off to Moscow and I said: “What…what…are we going? Are we really going? “What has happened..are we going…?”

It had followed four months of Federal Government demands on the Australian Olympic Federation for the Australian Team to boycott the Games in support of the USA’s stance against the Russian invasion  of Afghanistan.

The Australian Olympic Federation had met on April 19 and approved a team of 273 for the Moscow Games but Deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony had asked the AOF not to send a team to Moscow and to delay their decision until a meeting of the executive board on May 23, the day before acceptance of entries for the Olympics.

The fractured 11-members of the AOC executive then met at the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne on that day and voted 6-5 to go to Moscow.

But Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser then approached the individual sports and insisted on one final session with the AOF executive on June 19 in a last ditch effort to get them to change their minds and some of them did.

But the AOF executive re-affirmed its previous decision to take part in the Games but conceded that the team would march behind an Olympic flag, so the Australian flag would not be dipped in front of the Soviet leaders.

Following individual athlete and sport withdrawals a final team of just 123 athletes, 27 of them women left for the Games with the swim team losing coach Forbes Carlile, team captain Mark Morgan, world record holder Tracey Wickham and Linda Hanel through illness.

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HAPPY 18TH: Michelle Ford gets the pick of the store on her 18th birthday in Moscow in 1980.Photo Courtesy: AOF.

Ford was in good shape. Australian coach Don Talbot was known as one of the hardest task masters in coaching and that was the reason she went to the US to train and to be ready for the Games.

“Don was an Australian coach and I would be (over there) swimming and racing; we never had any competitions back then and I thought competition was what I needed; hence my decision to take up training in the US with the hype and the competition schedule they were running; in Australia, they had no more competition after the Trials,” said Ford.

“I hit the Sydney training camp because it was really tough in the US to continue training. Even under Don and it was just tough and the Americans were amazing after their Government convinced them to   boycott.

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IN THE SWING OF THINGS: Australian team members Isa Wye (manager), Karen Van Der Graaf, Michelle Ford, Joe King (coach) and Lisa Curry in Moscow. Photo Courtesy: Hanson Media Collection (Russ McPhedran).

Tracey Caulkins (the US superstar) and my training partner said to me look Michelle you’re going to represent us as well; it was this moment of solidarity of athletes; it’s amazing the courage of the Americans; I felt so bad that I was allowed to go and they weren’t. That’s how it (went) down….our squad was made up of swimmers from all over the world, it was really a united nations group.

“You have to remember we were 17 and 18 year olds and some of us we didn’t even have the right to vote yet and we were being treated as absolute traitors to our country; to overcome that and to continue, you needed the force from those people around you.

“I’m always so thankful for those Olympic officials who voted for us to go and gave us the opportunity to go and really fought as they were also under enormous pressure as was Channel 7 and anyone who had anything to do with the Olympic Games.

“It was a really tough moment in sport and it showed the Government was dangling the strings of finances over it to pull people left and right.

“Athletes were offered $6000 at the time not to go which was a lot of money because we didn’t actually receive a cent in those days.

“They were saying “ pull off the team…we’ll look after you..we’ll do this that” and it’s amazing they could pull against the athletes in such an horrific and horrible way.

“To make it so difficult for any athlete to get on that plane to go and that’s why we ended up sneaking out of the country.”

“All we wanted to do was swim and they (the Government) were still trading wheat with Russia,” said Ford.

“The lead up to the Games was just excruciating for the athletes mental power; you need to continue and we had to make the decisions; asking do you keep going? Is the Olympics going to happen..is it not…?” said Ford.

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BLAZER BRIGADE: Australia’s 1980 Moscow Olympic Swimming and Diving Team Photo Courtesy: AOF

“Your training routines were determined by the question marks (hanging) over your head..?

“And that was really tough…for all the athletes living in Australia …and each time we got an inkling we might go to the Games the Government came back and that’s when the death threats started happening and the aggression (against us).

“That was so un-Australian really…but it was forced upon us by some notion and it was very hard for me as an athlete to understand what that notion was.

“Why were we asked to drop our whole lives..all the effort that we trained for…. all those years just in one day….

“I could not understand why I couldn’t just get on that plane and go, there were death threats against me through my parents – but they didn’t tell me.

“But I needed to keep training until Australia finally decided whether we were going or not….Don was telling me to stay…I’m thinking go….and I asked him what’s the use in staying? It was horrible…really bad….

“My parents kept telling me “stay away Michelle don’t come back” it’s terrible here….I was trying to hold my own in the US which was terrible over there because it had absolutely knocked each and every athlete on the head…that they were not going to the Olympic Games…and we still had hope…and to swim next to somebody who lost their hope is really tough.”

Michelle Ford is in the closing chapters of writing a tell all book on her Olympic life.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Sebastian

    LOVED THIS ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you!

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