When Steve Moneghetti suits up to be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame tonight, vivid in the memory of the legendary long-distance runner will be a moment on a trampoline 27 years ago that very nearly changed his life.
Moneghetti will be immortalised among the pantheon of Australia’s greatest sportspeople in recognition of his exceptional running career and extraordinary impact as a sports administrator.
His marathon dream was sparked by the 1976 Olympic battle between defending champion Frank Shorter of America and the man who’d snatch the crown: East German Waldemar Cierpinski.
Stephen James Moneghetti – a skin-and-bone, sports-obsessed 13-year-old – was mesmerised by the race.
That two-man tussle, eventually won by Cierpinski in 2:09.55, would set Moneghetti on his way to becoming a four-time Olympian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, all in the marathon.
He’d also win bronze in the marathon at the 1997 world championships in Athens – the proudest moment of his career – and post 40:03 at Sydney’s City to Surf in 1991 to set a record that, remarkably, still stands today.
But Moneghetti’s incredible athletics career went frighteningly close to never coming to be when, at the age of 21 on a June night in 1984, he attempted a backward somersault on a trampoline and got the move horribly wrong.
Later that night it was revealed he had suffered a fracture of a vertabra in his neck, leading to a grave fear.
Moneghetti’s biography, Peter Howley’s In the Long Run, notes his orthopaedic surgeon feared a spinal-cord injury and paralysis.
Now 59, Moneghetti can look back and marvel at his luck, thankful that a nine-week break from running, most of which he spent in a neck brace, was all that ensued physically.
But beyond the broken neck were tears and depression.
His biography, published in 1996, describes that period as “the absolute lowest point of his life”.
“They’re those sliding-doors moments,” Moneghetti tells Wide World of Sports ahead of his Sport Australia Hall of Fame induction.
“I could have been a paraplegic.
“For me it was a defining moment. It steeled me and made me realise that I had some potential to run and I wasn’t going to waste it. I was born with this talent, but you have to work hard to realise it. That was just a turning point in my life at the young age of 21.
“I learnt a life lesson and came back and certainly made every post a winner from there. You can either let it affect you in a negative way, or take it in a positive way and make the best use of it – and I’m glad I did that.”
Running again at an elite level was one concern.
Running at all was another.
“It was really tough,” Moneghetti recalls.
“I remember sitting in a hospital bed thinking I might never run again and certainly not at the levels I hoped to … Whilst I’ve been successful as a runner, I just love running and the feeling and the powerful experiences that I got out of just going for a run. And to have that suddenly taken away from me was a really tough moment. There were dark times.
“It was great to have the support of people around you, but it was almost that once I got out of there and got back going (that I would) push forward, learn from it and make sure I did realise that potential that I had. I think, gladly, I got on the journey and did that.”
Moneghetti grew into such a revered figure that he was installed as captain of Australia’s 1998 Commonwealth Games team, before again skippering his country at the Sydney Olympics of 2000.
After donning green and gold at the Seoul Olympics of 1988, the 1992 Games in Barcelona and the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Moneghetti had the cheers of a home crowd spurring him on as he graced the Olympic stage a final time in Sydney.
In 2006, he was mayor of Australia’s athletes village at Melbourne’s Commonwealth Games, and he’s since served as chef de mission at the 2010, 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Moneghetti also has roles on the Sport Australia board, he’s had three stints as Victorian Institute of Sport chair, and he’s been crucial to the Run for the Kids community event, established to raise money for Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital.
“I suppose I’ve continued to stay involved,” a typically humble Moneghetti says.
“Sometimes with marathon running and when you’re representing your country, you’re a bit self-focused and you don’t think about a lot of other things. You try to share it with the people who have supported you. But since I’ve retired I’ve been able to be in other roles … which has been fantastic. To have been able to give something back to the sport that I have just got so much enjoyment out of is lovely.”
Moneghetti is now set to join a hall of fame including Herb Elliott, Ralph Doubell, Rob de Castella, Betty Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland, Cathy Freeman, Edwin Flack, Derek Clayton, Ron Clarke and a host of other Australian athletics icons.
“It is an amazing list,” Moneghetti says.
“You don’t think about it, (but) now that I’m a member you can reflect on those things. To join an esteemed company of athletes is just very humbling … They’re all household names and, for me, every time I pulled on that green-and-gold singlet I tried to do the best I could for my country.
“You don’t feel like you deserve to join that group, but you can’t do any more than your best.
“So here I am.”
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