Twenty years later, Australia’s medal tally from the Sydney Olympics is still rising.
The history books show Australia won a record 58 medals in 2000 – including 16 gold – but that doesn’t take into account the medals won since by all the kids inspired by what they witnessed.
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LIVING THE DREAM
Before she captained Australia to win gold in 7s rugby at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Sharni Williams was a talented hockey player. Given tickets to the Sydney Olympics to watch the Hockeyroos, when she got home she announced to her family she was going to be a gold medallist herself one day. She was 12 at the time.
“That was where the journey sort of started, when I first pictured myself being on the podium,” Williams said.
“I was a country girl and definitely out of my comfort zone just going to Sydney with my Mum to watch the Olympics but it made me realise if you want to achieve something you have to go outside your comfort zone.
“When you’re young, you just have this crazy imagination and people think you’re kidding yourself so you have to surround yourself with people who think you are going to get there, that know you are going to get there.
“It’s pretty crazy that I’m living that dream now.”
Williams wasn’t the only future Australian 7s star at Sydney. Three when he went to the Games with his brother Nicholas, Henry Hutchison was still a teenager when he made his Olympic debut in Rio.
Cate and Bronte Campbell and Emma McKeon – who teamed up to win gold in the freestyle relay at Rio – were also bitten by the Olympic bug in Sydney.
Born in Wollongong, McKeon was six when her grandparents took her and her older brother David – a double Olympian – to Homebush.
The Campbell sisters were still living in Malawi when their lives were transformed by what they saw on television.
“I was eight at the time but I knew that our family was going to be moving from Africa to Australia the following year so I kind of watched all the Australians really closely,” Cate said.
‘I still remember watching the boys smash the Americans in that 4x100m freestyle relay, that’s one of the iconic moments in Australian sport, but one of my strongest memories is of Eric the Eel because just watching him swim all alone, and looking so pleased with himself, that really struck a chord with me.
“My dad’s name is Eric so I thought it was doubly funny but I think it spoke to the inclusiveness of the Olympic Games.”
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Sailor Mat Belcher unexpectedly got to play a small part in the Sydney Olympics. Still in high school, he was invited to carry the Olympic flag at the closing ceremony, aged 17.
“It was quite pivotal in my career. It was a real eye opener for me and from that moment I decided I wanted to represent Australia at the Games,” said Belcher, who won gold at London in 2012, silver in Rio and has already booked his place for Tokyo next year.
“I didn’t think it would take 12 years but it was just an awesome experience. It was a long journey but that’s the thing about the Games, there’s no time frame because you’re on your own individual journey.”
For Kaia Parnaby, one of Australia’s leading softballers, her lightning bolt moment came while she was dancing and singing as a back-up performer to Nikki Webster.
Just 10 at the time, she had no idea what to expect when Newport Public School was randomly selected to participate in the Opening and Closing ceremonies – but ended up performing with her classmates in front of a worldwide television audience in the billions.
Next year, she could be heading to Tokyo as a competitor.
“I really took that opportunity and ran with it,” Parnaby said.
“My school was Perth to Broome on the outline of Australia. I was only in grade five but it was really incredible.”
The two gold medals Australia won in team events at Sydney have spawned a wave of new Olympians from kids who watched them.
Tom Craig, Jocelyn Bartram and Greta Hayes and are now key players in the national hockey teams while Aidan Roach – the son of NRL legend Steve ‘Blocker’ Roach – and Bronte Halligan – the daughter of New Zealand Test star Daryl Halligan – are both established members of the Australian water polo teams.
Bronwen Knox, the current Australian captain, was 14 when she drove from Brisbane with her parents to watch as many events as they could get tickets for at the Sydney Olympics, including the women’s water polo final – where Australia won gold with a thrilling win over the United States.
A promising swimmer at the time, Knox had only played one game of water polo in her life before then, but knew instantly that it was her calling. Now 34, she’s already got two Olympic medals of her own and will compete at her fourth Olympics in Tokyo next year.
“It was such an unbelievable atmosphere when they won that I just remember thinking to myself ‘that’s what I want to do, I want to be one of those girls down there playing in front of a crowd and matching it with the best in the world,” she said.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life and it changed the course of my life, who knows where I’d be without seeing the Sydney Olympics.”