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Well orientated

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

Elite athletes of a different kind will represent Australia and the University of Melbourne at the World University Orienteering Championships this July, reports David Scott.

Two orienteers are set to become the latest University of Melbourne students to represent Australia in what’s turning out to be a successful year for “Blues” reps.

Aislinn Prendergast and Vanessa Round have been selected in an Australian University Sport team to compete at the 2010 World University Orienteering Championships, being held in Borlange, Sweden from July 19 to 23. For the uninitiated, that’s five days of hundreds of competitors running, jumping and generally traversing all types of terrain in a bid to find the various courses “control points” in the quickest time possible, all with just a basic map and a compass.

The Championships will involve a long distance race across technical terrain, a spring distance race of up to three kilometers in urban terrain, a middle distance race in very technical terrain and a relay.

Ms Prendergast, who will compete in both the middle and long distance events, says her dad was her inspiration to get into the sport. “My dad has always been a running nut and he took up orienteering in his thirties,’ she says.

“So my parents were orienteering before I was born, and I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to read a map, but I really began to enjoy it when I got to high school and was given the opportunity to compete for my school and my state.”

“As there are just four women in the team this year, I will have the opportunity to compete in both the middle and the long distance – winning times are usually 60 minutes and 35 minutes respectively. However the sprint and relay allow only three women so I’m not really sure when it will be decided who will miss out, but I guess I’m still a chance there.”

“I was in Sweden for the Junior World Championships in 2008 and last year for O-Ringin, the world’s biggest orienteering carnival, so I’m really looking forward to returning to their extremely challenging terrain. I am currently taking Swedish Language as a breadth subject as well so it will also be great fun to try out my skills.”

The chemical engineering student says that the sport is full on misconceptions, thanks mostly to early experiences at school where it’s generally portrayed as either a “slow walking group sport, or as a nerdy exercise in pace counting and compass bearings.

“Most people don’t realise that it is a sport which combines high levels of fitness and speed with an ability to make quick, smart decisions and stay calm under pressure. I’d recommend it because it is so much more fun than regular running, it is a mental challenge at the same time and it’s a sport which is instantly rewarding by simply finding the controls, whether you do it quickly or not.”

And like any competitive sport, it’s all about the training. For Ms Prendergast that means on average seven hours of running a week, while getting out in the forest to practice running while navigating, alongside a few hours of swimming and cycling to increase overall fitness and help aid recovery. “Orienteering carnivals often involve several days of hard competition – the World, Junior World and World University Championships can involve qualification and finals for four different races over just a week, so endurance is essential to survive!”

Despite the obvious health benefits, not to mention the chance to sample the sights and sounds of the outdoors, orienteering is still relatively small-time in Australia, though Ms Prendergast says it is a growing sport. “Our biggest events probably bring about 1000 competitors, but that is in older and younger age-groups as well as at an elite level. Our elite and junior elite classes at the moment have between 20 and 40 people in each.

“Sweden, and Scandinavia in general, is where it all happens in orienteering; the biggest events, O-Ringen and 10-Mila in (Sweden and Finland respectively), usually attract around 30, 000 people. The Swiss and the French have also seen a lot of success recently, and generally the medals in World Champs stay within Europe…though Tasmanian Hanny Allston has won gold at both Junior and Senior level.”

Aislinn Prendergast in competition in Western Australia

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