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July 22, 2024 7:12 AM

Memories of our Olympic Glory

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BY ALEX TIGANI

This Sunday marks 20 years to the exact day that the Olympic flame passed through Singleton.

And it was an afternoon like no other according to the five torch bearers we tracked down for a 20-year reunion.

“It didn’t go long enough; it should have been a two-day event,” Singleton’s final torch runner Neil Hassett declared.

Alexander Gallagher proved to be a fan favourite after the visually impaired teenager was selected to take the torch from Singleton Preschool to the Salvation Army Hall on York Street.

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Malcolm Caslick, Alexander Gallagher and Neil Hassett reunited on John Street this week.

Other health issues saw the (then) 14-year-old undergo nine operations before his fourth birthday.

Thankfully, there were no setbacks on that memorable day.

“I just remember standing and waiting for the torch to come and then I ran off,” he modestly reflected.

On a trip to Sydney the following month, he would cross paths with six-time Olympic shooter Russell Mark just days after he had taken out the silver in the double trap.

“Alexander and the whole family were able to hold on to his medal and it was better than going to an event,” his father Lee Gallagher explained.

On the day of the torch relay, Alexander would pass the torch to another famous Olympian.

Unable to attend our reunion, Kevin Hallett went down in history as Singleton’s most famous Olympian when competing for Australia (swimming) in the 1948 London Olympics (see story).

“He was quite humble,” Elaine Upward recalled.

Upward, a popular junior rugby league coach, would then ferry the torch up John Street to Campbell Street.

“In the 20 years since I have had an offer for my replica torch,” she revealed.

“They offered $4000 but I wouldn’t even sell that for $40,000.”

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Elaine Upward pictured with her late mother during the Olympic torch relay in Singleton.

She did loan the torch a few years later for the 2003 Australian film ‘Marking Time’ which was filmed in Singleton.

“I didn’t know that they were going to use the torch as a bong but that’s another story,” she laughed.

The Sydney Olympics also held special significance for Rosita Coffey, who carried the torch from Campbell Street to the bridge and then worked at the games.

She would pass the torch (and a good luck kiss) on to 85-year-old Elmo McDonald as crowds continued to follow the ceremony along the bridge.

“It was lovely to see him (McDonald) because he was a resident of Singleton for so long and he was the local shoe repair man,” Coffey said.

Though the torch would not make an appearance through Jerrys Plains, the town was represented by well-known resident Malcolm Caslick.

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Former Olympian Kevin Hallett passes the flame to Elaine Upward on John Street.

Interestingly, his distant relative Charlotte Caslick OAM (rugby union) won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics 16 years later.

He would run the flame down the New England Highway from Bridgman Road to White Avenue and received a huge round of applause from the students of Jerrys Plains Public School.

By the time the torch had reached the old ‘Hole in the Wall’ it was Hassett’s time to conclude the Singleton leg.

“I was just blown away,” Hassett explained.

“I was on the bus that picked us all up from the McDonalds carpark and saw the crowds on John Street as they dropped the rest of the torch bearers off.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect anybody other than immediate family to be on McDougalls Hill for my section, but they were all still there and it was huge.”

The torch would finally make its way to Sydney’s Olympic Stadium 16 days later and Australia would finish fourth on the medal table with 58 medals (16 gold, 25 silver and 17 bronze).

Arguably the most famous moment was the women’s 400m sprint won by fellow Olympic torch bearer Cathy Freeman (Australia).

“I could see her that night and I saw her knees shaking from the block,” Coffey revealed.

“I felt as a person, she was carrying the whole weight of Australia on her shoulders and we were all so excited when she won.”

Both Elmo McDonald and the wheelchair bound torch bearer Bob O’Hara, who got out of his sick bed to be a part of that memorable day, have passed away since.

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Singleton’s torch bearers pictured with Singleton Mayor John Martin.

They both forged friendships with their fellow torch bearers in their remaining years.

“Bob O’Hara really took Alexander under his wing and we went out to Bob’s property and spent some time out there and became good friends,” Lee Gallagher added.

“We were really thankful for all of the time he spent with Alexander.”

As our reunion came to an end this week, I asked if anyone else had anything to add?

“Would we do it again, maybe? Bloody oath we would,” Elaine Upward proudly concluded.

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