Broken Hill's one and only Olympian still calls this desert oasis home.
At the age of just 16, young gymnast Marina Sulicich took to the floor at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. By her own admission, there was a lot to take in – Romanian gymnastic superstar Nadia Comăneci was standing in the wings, a boycott by the American team was front-page news, and she still had that Year 11 homework to finish before breakfast.
Thirty-five years later, Marina Sulicich is now Marina Morris, the payroll officer for Broken Hill City Council. The days of being an international athlete are long gone, but she nonetheless holds the title of being Broken Hill’s first, and only, Olympian.
Ask her what drove her to become a gymnast, and she has to cast her mind back a long way. “I don’t recall being a super-competitive child,” she says. “I don’t remember thinking this is what I want to do, or this is where I want to go – and I don’t even remember thinking, ‘I want to go to the Olympics’. It wasn’t in the equation until it actually came around.”
In truth, Marina’s story is all about friendship and support. She started, and kept going, because her best friend was doing the same. “I wasn’t the sort to go off and do things on my own,” she recalls. “And when you have a good group that wants to do well together, that little bit of success drives them all.”
In the late 1970s, three out of the six state representatives competing at national level were from Broken Hill. “It became a competitive thing between Broken Hill and Adelaide,” Marina says. “They didn’t expect us all to make the state team, and they certainly didn’t like the fact that there was a group of serious competitors from the outback.”
That ‘group from the outback’ rose to further prominence – competing not only at a national level, but also overseas. Their travels took them to New Zealand, Hawaii, Texas and to a rare invitational event in China in 1977 – all of which was part-subsidised by the very town she grew up in. “We were really very lucky as the whole town got behind us. One time, they raised over $10,000 for an overseas competition, which was a lot of money back then.”
Having won the national trial, Marina was selected to compete for Australia in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. “I was a pretty young 16-year-old. I don’t know if I really grasped the full extent of it until years later, when you look back and think: ‘God, I was there’. The competing side was great, but so incredibly nerve-wracking. But to be honest, I was too busy watching the Russian and Romanian gymnasts – they were so beautiful.”
Once back home in Broken Hill, Marina took some time out to mend a minor injury, and using that period of reflection, discovered that the drive to continue simply wasn’t there. In truth, perhaps the very thing that drove Marina to compete in the first place was the catalyst for her early retirement. “My best friend gave up and a couple of the older ones weren’t doing it anymore. I was the only one left,” she says. “I don’t recall any pressure to keep going. One day I was doing it, and the next day I wasn’t.”
But even though Marina had seen more at the age of 16 than most people see in a lifetime, there was only place she wanted to be, and she’s remained in Broken Hill ever since. “Broken Hill is a great place to raise kids. At one point, my kids were doing gymnastics, dance, swimming, basketball and soccer. In the city, distance and cost doesn’t allow you to do all those things at the same time – but here, it’s easy. You see a lot of people coming back to Broken Hill, and when you ask them, they say: ‘We’re having a family, and want to raise them here, because life is so much easier.’”
Talking to Marina, you can’t help but come away with the impression that she’s almost the accidental Olympian. Her talent and dedication are undeniable, but ultimately she did it for, and with, the community around her – her friends, her team and the people of Broken Hill. She says she tends not to talk about her story too much, and the photo albums and tracksuits remain locked up in the shed. However, the town – quite rightly – won’t let her forget it. “Normally every four years, when it’s Olympic time again, someone knocks on the door to ask me about it – but otherwise, I manage to hide from it!”