Runs on the board

Academy chair has hands-on experience in elite sports

MARGARET Keech was once known as the woman teaching male cricketers how to bowl.

In the mid-1980s, she was the first physiotherapist employed by the New South Wales Cricket Association and worked with the state’s Sheffield Shield side, including Geoff Lawson, Mark Taylor, Greg Matthews, Doug Walters and the Waugh twins.

“I was there when Steve Waugh played his first state game,” recalls the 56-year-old who these days lives in Strathfieldsaye and continues her involvement in elite sport as chair of the Bendigo Bank Academy of Sport board.

While providing hands-on help to some of Australia’s cricketing legends, Margaret also used her sports medicine expertise to investigate the spate of back injuries plaguing fast bowlers of the era - think Dennis Lillee - often resulting from their front-on, twisting action.

“I did some research with adolescent players looking at why bowlers were breaking down and what was causing it, and presented some papers at conferences,” she says. “It was often mechanical - the way they bowled, as well as lack of stretching and fitness, and over-bowling.”

Margaret’s project came to the attention of the Sydney Morning Herald and she featured on their back page on September 20, 1985, as “the woman who teaches the men how to bowl”.

Then NSW coach Bob Simpson was quoted, saying he considered her “part of the team”. 

Even after she finished up with the Sheffield Shield squad in 1989, she stayed involved with the state’s elite junior teams.

“A lot of pioneering work was being done out of Western Australia and I was doing it in NSW, trying to translate it back to adolescents because we were seeing 12 to 16-year-olds breaking down with back problems.

“I tested every junior NSW fast bowler until I came to Bendigo in the mid-90s. We’d film them pre-season, screen them and help correct any problems. 

“Unfortunately we didn’t have the digital equipment available today... we just videoed them and analysed the video by eye to check out what they were doing.”

Margaret was one of few women back then directly involved in elite male sport.

“I was the only female, other than the secretary, involved at that level and when there was a dinner or a presentation lunch, I was often the only woman in the room,” she says.

“When the team won the Sheffield Shield, the players would be presented with something like an engraved beer mug. I got a tray one year and a set of candlesticks the next.”

Margaret grew up in Sydney and attended Methodist Ladies College, representing her school in athletics and captaining its Second XI cricket team.

She studied physiotherapy at Cumberland College of Health Sciences, now part of Sydney University, and later did a post- graduate course in sports science. 

“Sports medicine in that era of physiotherapy wasn’t terribly widespread and I didn’t discover it until I went to work in Canada after initially graduating. 

“They had more specific physios working with sports teams. I was there for almost 12 months and was involved with a few college teams. When I came back to Australia, it was starting to come into its own and I enrolled in a brand new post-grad sports science course.

“It was through that I got involved in elite cricket. The NSW Cricket Association coaching co-ordinator was doing the course and we were sitting around chatting one day and he said they had never had a physio and asked me to go along. 

“I started attending NSW shield training ad hoc on a voluntary basis at first. 

“It became a paid position but it was a minimal contract - no one was doing it for the money and the players weren’t even being paid much at state level in those days.”

Margaret’s commitment grew to eventually include training, games, camps, off-season work and all state teams from under-13 level up to first-class cricket.

She left about a year after the birth of her first son and moved to Bendigo in 1995 when husband Garth bought a foundry and moved Keech Castings here.

She worked on and off in physiotherapy in the region while raising children Thomas, Bronwyn, Phillip and Matthew, who are now teens and young adults.

Though she spent a lot of time watching from the sidelines, Margaret didn’t play much sport after high school until fate intervened at Christmas 2004.

Keech Castings had just donated a custom-built trolley to help the Dragons Abreast crew of breast cancer survivors get their dragon boat from the shed into the water when, two weeks later, she was diagnosed with the illness herself. 

Margaret endured surgery, chemo and radiotherapy and treatment with the drug Herceptin, before joining the dragon boat racers several years later when her health improved.

Her fellow paddlers are now among her closest friends.

“We compete in two or three regattas a year and always go to the Australian Masters event,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun. Sometimes when I am dragon boating I think to myself, if you’d asked me 10 years ago I don’t think I’d have seen myself out paddling on Lake Weeroona.” 

Apart from that Margaret doesn’t think her cancer journey has changed her much as a person, though she went to great lengths to ensure her kids didn’t miss out because she was sick.

“Our mindset was that we would battle through and no one would stop us from doing anything. I don’t let things get in my way now, and if I want to do something I will just go out and do it. But I think I was always like that anyway.

“I don’t think of myself primarily as a cancer survivor, but I am. 

“It doesn’t colour my life, though I now do several things related to breast cancer, like Dragons Abreast and the Breast Cancer Network Australia. There’s a group of us going down to the Field of Women event at the MCG on May 10 and that’s a great day.”

Margaret has invested heavily in her local community.

She is group leader for the 1st Strathfieldsaye Scouts group; she is president of the Girton Grammar School Parents and Friends Association; and she’s been Bendigo Academy of Sport board chair since 2006. 

Her sons were all members of the academy volleyball program (Phil and Matt represented Victoria), so she knows first-hand its benefits and is proud to help govern its administration.

“It was the first regional academy of sport in Victoria and was created to assist regional athletes who had nowhere to go but Melbourne to pursue their sport,” she says. 

“If you make a state team, of course you have to go to Melbourne but there is now another level of training that can be done here to assist elite sportspeople to take that next step. 

“One of the things I discovered moving from Sydney to a regional area is how city-centric Australia is from a sporting point of view. But some of the elite training can be done here and a lot of the underpinning of that training can, too. 

“If the academy didn’t exist, in a lot of sports there’ be nothing between the grass roots level and the Victorian Institute of Sport.”

There are now six regional sports academies under the VIS umbrella, following the model established here in 1994.

Bendigo offers programs in baseball, canoeing, cycling, golf, volleyball, tennis and netball, with soccer moving in and out of the academy according to the needs of its governing body.

“Our academy motto is ‘making our best youth better’ and I think that probably encompasses what we do, and that’s what motivates me,” Margaret says. 

“I don’t think there’s been a year I have been involved that we have not had several volleyballers in state teams and we now have one or two in Australian junior squads.

“We have had three Olympians (cyclist Glenn O’Shea and badminton pair Glenn Warfe and Ross Smith) and many Australian representatives (including volleyballer/netballer Caitlin Thwaites and beach/indoor volleyball star Eliza Karley Hynes).

“It is not a bad roll call when you look at our population.”

One of the things I discovered moving from Sydney to a regional area is how city-centric Australia is from a sporting point of view. - Margaret Keech

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