Yarrawonga Mulwala has produced some brilliant foot runners over the decades but you may not know that Mulwala actually boasts two Stawell Gift winners – Lynch Cooper in 1928 and Tom Roberts in 1934.
Lynch Cooper moved to Mulwala from Moira Lakes near Tocumwal with his parents as a young boy and quickly settled in as a student at the Mulwala Public School. Cooper in his early 20s won the prestigious Stawell Gift off a handicap of 8m winning in a time 11.15/16 seconds.
Tom Roberts, was a pacey footballer who came from a farm at Pine View north of Mulwala. Aged 25-years at the time and off a handicap of 9.5m, Roberts completed the 130-yard Stawell Gift foot sprint in 11, 9/16 seconds.
Both runners were heavily backed in the betting markets bringing home sizeable collects for training connections.
The Chronicle went back into the archives and found some more background about these local foot-running legends.
The classy aboriginal boy who never gave up
Lynch Cooper was born at Moira Lakes, near Tocumwal, in 1905, the son of a prominent Yorta Yorta man and aboriginal activist, William Cooper who had changed his surname from Wilberforce to Cooper somewhere along the line.
In the 1920s William Cooper, a man of strong principles, formed the Victorian Aboriginal Society, which was the forerunner of the Aboriginal Advancement League.
The teen-aged Lynch Cooper acted as his secretary. His itinerant parents had eventually moved to Mulwala, where they ran a fish and chip shop and Lynch Cooper played his part by fishing the Murray River for cod, which would be sold over the counter.
But he had a passion for running.
“As a young boy I always wanted to race someone, no matter how big they were. I was a little crank. While other boys preferred to fight , I wanted to race,” he once reflected.
“I won all my events at school and can remember my father telling me after watching me run that I would one day win the great Stawell
Despite Cooper’s eagerness to test himself, his father wouldn’t let his son concentrate on running until he turned 21.
So his entry to professional running came in 1926, and on his debut at the Deniliquin Carnival he took out every sprint race on the program. Excited that they had a champion on their hands, his joint-trainers set him for Stawell and wagered on him accordingly.
They were devastated when Lynch lost his heat by inches to the eventual gift runner-up.
He made 13 finals the following year and was placed in each. Stawell eluded him again in 1927, even though he was now ranked among the most consistent and successful pro runners in the land.
Cooper then set himself to conquer the famous Easter Gift in 1928, gave up his occupation and sold his boat. He listed himself at the time from Jeparit (where he also played football) and decided that if he wasn’t successful this time - he’d hang up his spikes. He had been in red-hot form that summer and tallied up a list of major gift wins and placings throughout the country.
He decided to back himself with all the money he could muster. Starting off 8 yards in the final, he ran 4 yards inside evens to pip ‘Peggy’ O’Neill on the line.
He collected 250 pounds and a sash for the win and cleaned out the bookies to the tune of 3000 pounds.
“The money didn’t matter at the time. On that day I felt like I owned the world. It will always live long in my memory,” he said years later.
But the money from the bookmakers and the prize-money had certainly changed his financial situation. He had moved to Wangaratta in the late twenties and was in demand from near and far, as he was a charismatic figure in the athletic community.
Cooper’s successful 1928 saw him win 10 other Gifts and finals besides Stawell and he was selected to contest the world professional sprint championship in Melbourne the following year.
It was a classy field which included Tommy Miles, Tim Banner, Austin Robertson, L.C.Parker and Frank Spurrall, all stars in their own right. The championship was held over four distances, from 75 yards to 220 yards. When it came to the final race, the experts were predicting that the brilliant Robertson would win the title.
But Cooper held off a strong challenge from the South Melbourne footballer to take the crown and become the first aboriginal to win a world sporting title. He only received 150 pounds for the win, but it earned him a trip to New Zealand, to represent Australia in a rich international series of races in 1930.
Cooper was a member of the Wangaratta Magpies’ 1933 O&M premiership team and gave the Magpies good service, after previously playing with Wimmera League sides Jeparit and Stawell.
Towards the end of the war, after a long break, Cooper made a comeback to running, but, 21 years after his first race he called it a day. He concentrated instead, on looking after a small stable of athletes and was always sought after for his manipulative skills as a football trainer.
He was rewarded for his contribution to athletics by being named as an original inductee to the Aboriginal Sporting Hall of Fame.
At the time of his death, in 1971, he remained vitally involved in representing his people in the Murray-Goulburn area and was a member of the Aboriginal Affairs Council.
The strength of the Cooper sporting genes was emphasised a fortnight ago, when brilliant Murray Bushranger Nathan Drummond was drafted by Richmond and Joel Hamling found his way onto the Western Bulldogs list, chosen at pick 19. Both are great-nephews of the legendary Lynch.
The pacey footballer who turned professional runner
Roberts was born on December 9, 1909 to parents Oliver and Annie (nee Hinde) Roberts who selected 560 acres at Pine View in 1907.
In 1925 Tom moved to Melbourne with his parents, leaving his brother to run the farm. Tom was employed as a salesman in the household furnishing department at Craig,
Williamson Pty Ltd in Elizabeth Street.
With the Great Depression, staff cuts were made and Roberts returned to the farm in 1932. He played football with Mulwala and in that year obtained a clearance to Yarrawonga in 1933. He was well-known for his pace and played centre / wing for the Pigeons.
Former sprinter and trainer of athletes, Mick McCarthy, knew of Tom’s ability and plucked him from the football field after convincing him to train and try out for professional running.
Roberts quickly showed his liking to running and won many regional shields and gifts including Tungamah, Tocumwal and Narrandera.
A crowd of about 10.000 saw Roberts take out the Stawell Gift in 1934, then the world’s richest footrace. Roberts, who started off the 94 yards mark, was a hot favourite at 3 to 1 on. He had the race well in his keeping 50 yards from home, winning by 13 yards and running 4-yards inside evens.
Newspaper headlines from the Sporting Globe and other metropolitan mastheads following the event read; “NSW farmer takes Stawell Gift in smashing style” - “Roberts backed to odds on – and justified it” – “Roberts has mortgage on the race from first heat” – “NSW farmer backed for 4,000 pounds” - “Amazing sprinter who was discovered on the football field”.