The Fastest Man You’ve Never Heard Of
By Paul ConnollyJune 28, 2012
The incredible highs and lows of a six-time national champion looking for riches, spiritual fulfillment, his indigenous heritage, and a crack, at last, at the Olympics 100m. Josh Ross says running is just him against the clock — and against himself.
On the morning of the day he hears he's been picked for the athletics team that will represent Australia at the London Olympics — a keep-the-cork-in-the-bubbly moment, since he's not assured of going just yet — Josh Ross has me over to his place.
Even a silver-tongued realtor would have difficulty talking these digs up. For 10 months, the fastest man in Australia this year — Ross is the current 100m national champion, no less — has been living in a friend's office, in a glorified shed in a Melbourne light-industrial estate.
Ross greets me with a handshake and a warm smile, then invites me inside and shows me around. It doesn't take long.
In front of a black desk is where he rolls out a mattress at night. Opposite is a radiator for warmth; that is, it's warm if you sit virtually inside it. There's some office furniture, a desktop computer, a whiteboard, some bookshelves, a printer and Ross's laptop. A television sits on the thinly carpeted floor. There's a toilet in an adjoining room.
Is there a shower? Yes, he says: outside and across the car park in a neighbouring warehouse. Given that the morning's temperature had been just 3 degrees C, that seems quite a journey. As for nights in a place like this, they would surely feel long, cold and lonely.
The tour over, we push a couple of plump office chairs up to the radiator where Ross, who is lean, long-limbed, radiantly healthy, and aftershave-advertisement handsome, looks out of context in a tracksuit. First, I address the elephant in the room; that is, the room itself.
While Ross's living arrangements say something about the status of athletics in Australia (something along the lines of: "No wonder only one Australian has ever broken 10 seconds for the 100m", and "No wonder so many of our best young athletes flock to the football codes — there's obviously no money in track and field"), they also say something about how the lives of even the most talented among us can easily go off track.
After all, back in 2007, Ross was living up to his nickname: The Boss. The talented indigenous athlete from the NSW Central Coast had won two Stawell Gifts (scooping him $64,000 in total), secured sponsors including Nike and Australia Post, and claimed four consecutive national 100m titles. He'd also been part of the 4x100m relay team that finished sixth at the 2004 Athens Olympics; he'd made the semi-finals at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki; and in the lead-up to the 2007 World Championships in Osaka he'd run a personal best of 10.08 seconds for the 100m. It was the fastest time by an Australian on home soil, the third-fastest time by an Australian, ever.
"It's been tough," he says of his current living arrangements, established to make his meagre Centrelink payments stretch further as he trains at coach Piero Sacchetta and advisor Loris Bertolacci's high-performance training centre in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. "At the same time, living here breeds hunger. I know this is just a short-term thing. But it's definitely made me more determined to succeed. On the track and off it, I've got big plans."
Ross always has been an unusual mix of introversion and brashness; personable, quiet and unassuming on one hand, yet prone to making bold declarations of his talent on the other. It can lead you to wonder whether he's not so much trying to convince us, but himself.
Such contradictions are later borne out when he draws my attention to his "vision board," one of the few personal items he has in the office. It's a small corkboard to which are pinned images of a luxury sports car and boat, and a sweeping Mediterranean vista, as well as three handwritten notes.
One says, "I run 9.80 sec." Another is a touching self-exhortation to be the best version of himself he can be. The third, headlined "My burning desire for money," pertains to his hopes for two internet businesses he's about to launch: "[By] 2014 I will have $100,000,000."
He sees my raised eyebrows, and I'm not sure myself what has raised them highest — the 9.80 seconds or that hundred million dollars.
"Aim high, right?" he says with a smile.
JOSH ROSS IS 31 and enjoying his third 'second-coming.' Both his breaks from sprinting, in 2007 and 2009, were brought on by disillusionment and disappointment. Both ended in the re-flickering of a flame he thought had sputtered out. Empty pockets played a big part, too; when you're broke and rudderless you tend to turn back to what you know.
Growing up in Woy Woy with his mum, Sharon McCartney, and sister, Melanie (Ross's indigenous father, Marvin, left the family home when Ross was about four), the young Ross showed a gift for athletic pursuits. At 10 he won an Australian title in the long jump, but he soon switched to rugby league, making local representative sides before trying out for the Canterbury Bulldogs when he was 16. "In a trial game I set up a try and scored one myself but they weren't interested," he says. "Their loss. They could have had the fastest man to ever play the game in their team."
Having returned to athletics at 20, it was in 2003 that he made the sprinting community lean forward on its knees when he won the 120m Stawell Gift, Australia's oldest footrace. Two years later he won it again, becoming only the third athlete since 1878 to win it twice, and only the second to win it off the back marker (runners are handicapped according to form).
By 2006, following his semi-final appearance at the 2005 World Championships, he'd won his third consecutive national 100m title. It was at this time that Ross, "feeling stale and in need of a change," surprised his long-time coach Tony Fairweather — who, with wife, Alison, had put Ross up in their home for three years — by leaving for Sydney and then taking up with a new coach, Emil Rizk.
"He had it all," recalls Fairweather, who runs a sprint school in Newcastle, NSW. "He was running well, he had sponsors, a free car, but he had his head turned and thought the grass was greener. If he'd stayed I honestly think I could have got him to 9.95. That was the time I'd always had in my head for Josh. I don't think he realised what he had."
Fairweather remembers Josh fondly and says they learned a lot from one another. But he says money had always been an issue with Ross: "He was always looking for a quick dollar."
Girlfriends also proved a distraction in Fairweather's opinion. "They made him lose focus on what he was supposed to be doing, what he was best at. The balance wasn't quite right. And Josh is someone who runs best when everything off the track is working for him."
Ross's move to Sydney paid early dividends. Under Rizk he won, in March 2007, his fourth consecutive national 100m title in his fastest-ever time, 10.08 seconds.
That year's world championships in Osaka were meant to be his greatest moment. Instead they became his biggest disappointment. He seemed a shell of himself in his two runs, and immediately quit the team, pulling out of the 200m and the 4 x 100m relay, and thereby burning bridges with Athletics Australia that are only now being rebuilt. Afterwards, he shut himself off from the world.
Rizk told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2008 that Ross was "mentally frail" and "too busy focussing on girls and alcohol and going out". Ross, however, says he has had relationship ups and downs like everyone else. Rather, he blames his Osaka disaster on burnout brought on by a three-month, European-based training programs in the lead up to Osaka. "I remember before my heat seeing everyone excited and pumped up but I was thinking, 'I don't want to be here. I've had enough.' I've never had that feeling in my life".
Ross returned to his mother's home a "ruined man". His sponsorships, which had been enough to allow him to train fulltime, were not renewed and he'd split with Rizk. All too soon he was broke. He says now that he was not educated enough before the bottom dropped out of his life to make what money he'd had work for him.
Was he depressed? "I was never diagnosed," he says. "I'd just say I was sad and had no drive, and no passion."
Eventually, however, the competitive itch returned. Time was the big healer, but Ross was also buoyed by the support and largesse of family and friends — including radio broadcaster Alan Jones, who continues to support Ross however he can. "I met Alan in 2003, but in 2007 I went to his place for dinner and he started helping me get back on my feet again, off the track. He wants me to become the best I can be and without his support — and the generosity of Piero Sacchetta and others — I don't think I'd be where I am today."
Also playing a surprising role in Ross' recovery — surprising because he didn't see it coming — was a newfound exploration of his Aboriginality. It happened when he moved in with his father for a time in his late teens. What he discovered there gained a broader canvas when he took up Aboriginal painting.
"They [his paintings] were terrible at first but I went to art galleries to look at the style and structure of Aboriginal art. I experimented, finding my own style. I've sold a couple. It's been amazing to discover my heritage and I feel proud to know I have in me the blood of the oldest living civilisation on earth."
Rejuvenated, Ross drove to Melbourne in October 2008, his life's possessions shoved into the back of his old car. Under new coach Adam Larcom, Ross won the 2009 Australian 100m title — his fifth — and was shaping up for the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. He was in decent shape, but behind the scenes he continued to battle to put food on his table and petrol in his car. When he erred on the side of food and petrol, he copped fines in the thousands of dollars because he then couldn't afford to register his car.
Amid all this instability, Ross made the Australian team for the 2009 World Championships — but only as a relay runner. And it was on the plane coming home he questioned his life's direction. "I was asking myself, 'What am I doing? Why am I wasting my time doing a sport that gives you nothing in return?' I was still wearing my Nike gear from years earlier. I still am, actually. I see now it was frustration speaking, but at the time I thought I was wasting my life."
Sharon McCartney says she believes her son has always struggled to reconcile his efforts with the rewards. "Because of all the work he's put in, I think he does get disheartened, that he doesn't get more recognition, that sponsors don't pick him up. He's a six-time national champion. He's not a sore loser about it, but there's no doubt he's had to struggle."
On his return from Berlin, Ross announced his retirement. "I was sick of the struggle and wanted to be rich. But really I just wanted to be able to go to the shop and buy a chicken. Ha! Buy some fruit and yoghurt and have a fridge stocked with food for once in my life. But I didn't know where to start or what to do."
MEETING PIERO SACCHETTA in 2010 triggered the latest chapter in Ross's life.
Having decided to become a personal trainer, Ross was introduced to Sacchetta, a former national javelin champion, physiology major and secondary school teacher who now runs Advanced Athletes Performance. Sacchetta recalls their first meeting and being struck by Ross's physicality: "He's an amazing human specimen."
Although he was happy to help Ross become a personal trainer, Sacchetta felt he could do that at any time. First he wanted to see whether there were any competitive juices left in Ross while the window for him to perform at the highest level was still open. "There was something there. I could see that he still wanted to leave a mark," says Sacchetta.
Between them a plan was hatched for Ross to work towards becoming a 'wide receiver' in the US National Football League. This position requires speed, agility and good hands-attributes Ross has in spades. "I thought, give myself a challenge, do something no Australian has done before," says Ross.
It was a nigh impossible task, to leapfrog the thousands of American college athletes who gear their lives to getting in to the lucrative NFL, but Ross turned a few heads. A video Sacchetta made of him blitzing NFL-designed speed and agility tests was enough to have him invited to the US for 'combines', or trials.
Again, he impressed the selectors, but a torn calf muscle meant he wasn't at his best. He was again stymied by injury, as well as the NFL player's strike, on another month-long trip that was funded by Alan Jones.
On his return from this second trip, Ross, better able to handle his disappointment, continued working towards getting his qualifications as a personal trainer. He also attempted to get "a real job " as a sales assistant at Cash Converters. He lasted one week. "I got up at 6am, in the cold, and wondered, 'How do people do this every day?' I called the manager and said, 'I think I'll go back to running.'"
Sacchetta says it has taken him a long time to understand Ross, to understand which buttons to push. He encourages Ross to explore his passions, such as music and painting, and to look at the wider world with open eyes. He describes Ross as a "gentle soul", and recalls accompanying him to a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at Southbank early in 2010 when Ross was "freaked out" to see how much one man could accomplish in a lifetime. "He took motivation out of that, to know that he could still build a body of work in track and field and leave a legacy."
Sacchetta believes that helping Ross tap into that has benefitted his running. So too has Ross's burgeoning interest in the internet which, Ross says, has taken some of the worry out of what life will hold for him when his body can't keep pace with his dreams.
"For two years now I've been studying internet marketing," he says. Studying where? "Self-education… I've put in thousands of hours. I've just set up a couple of businesses online [one, a membership site offering private-label rights products, the other is marketing oriented] and they're just about ready to go live. All I need to do now is send traffic to them, and I can do all that, on my laptop, without compromising my training."
There's an endearing fragility to Ross that has me hoping his business plans are not a pipe dream, that they'll bear fruit. Whether or not they'll make him that $100 million is debatable, but at least it seems that for the first time Ross can envisage being able to earn a living and have a future.
Not that he's done with running yet. In April, just seven months after resuming his running career, Ross won his sixth national 100m title at Melbourne's Lakeside Stadium, romping home in 10.23 seconds. While it was small print in the newspapers, even in an Olympic year, Ross says he'd proved a point to himself and everyone else — that the sporting world shouldn't count him out.
Ross's season-best time of 10.23 seconds is an Olympic B qualifier (meaning the Australian Athletics Commission could use its discretion to select him for an individual berth in the 100m in London). While he hasn't bested the 10.18 second A qualifier (which guarantees Olympic selection), Ross has been picked in Australia's 4 x 100m relay team. Currently ranked 15th in the world, the team needs to stay in the top 16 by the IAAF's (International Association of Athletics Federations) July 7 cut-off date, to compete in London.
Should the relay team gain selection it is conceivable that Ross may win a late bid to run in the individual 100m.
Whether or not he runs in London, Ross says that he intends to keep going until he's sweated himself dry and become "one of the greatest sprinters this country's ever seen".
With a record six national titles to his name you could argue he already is, but you feel Ross craves something that will make the nation love him and remember him. Something like a 9.80 hundred, for instance.
And if that doesn't happen, if it's all too late? Looking around, remembering where we are, this office that is his home, I ask if he'll then regret he never went down another path, that he didn't, say, participate in a more lucrative sport?
"No," he says. "I've had an amazing career and it's still going. I've travelled the world, and I like athletics. It's a personal sport. It's pretty spiritual as well. It's you versus seven other guys, your past performances and the clock. But mostly it's just you against yourself. That's why I like it. It suits my personality."