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Aussie flagbearers set for Games opening

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Squash royalty Rachael Grinham will join three-time hockey gold medallist Eddie Ockenden as Australia’s flagbearers at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Birmingham tonight.

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Following on from dual flagbearers at the Tokyo Olympics – where Cate Campbell and Patty Mills had the honour – 45-year-old Grinham and Kookaburras veteran Ockenden will lead the team into Alexander Stadium on Thursday night (Friday morning SA time).

Tasmanian Ockenden and Queenslander Grinham were unveiled by Australian Team Chef de Mission, Petria Thomas in front of over 300 team members inside the Birmingham University Athletes Village.

Ockenden follows in the footsteps of another Kookaburras co-captain, with Mark Knowles the flagbearer four years ago on the Gold Coast.

He also joins Knowles as only the second Australian hockey player to go to four Commonwealth Games.

Grinham – who has two golds amongst her eight medals – is the first squash player to carry the flag as she prepares to compete at her sixth Commonwealth Games.

She made her debut in 1998 in Kuala Lumpur as a 21-year-old, winning silver with Robyn Cooper in the women’s doubles, while she paired with sister Natalie to win gold in the women’s doubles in Melbourne in 2006.

“These decisions are not just based on how many Games they have been too – they have to be model athletes and both Eddie and Rachael certainly tick that box,” Thomas said.

“Although we don’t actually have team captains, they do become our unofficial team leaders so it is a great honour.

“We saw the dual flag bearers in Tokyo last year and so often there is more than one stand-out athlete and it’s great to have that equal representation.”

Thomas urged Australia’s Commonwealth Games athletes in Birmingham to fight, but have fun.

“We really just try and reinforce that sport is supposed to be fun so you should be enjoying what you’re doing,” the former swimmer said.

“In environments like this it’s all about soaking it up … the competition is the fun part, this is why you train.

“So that’s a really key message: get out and enjoy the competition because that is why you do all the hard work.”

And secondly, fight.

“We have made no secret of the fact that we would love to stay on top of the medal tally,” Thomas said.

“But we know when you travel to an away Games on English home soil that it’s certainly not going to be easy to maintain that position.

“Every single athlete knows that they have to get in and fight for the result.

“And Australians in the past have certainly proven that we do that.”

Thomas baulks at setting an aspirational medal target for her 430-strong team – the largest Australian team to contest a Commonwealth Games outside their home shores.

“Regardless of any medal tally, all we can ever ask from them is that they try their best and represent us with pride,” she said.

Australia’s athletes – from the youngest, 14-year-old diver Charli Petrov, to the oldest, 63-year-old lawn bowler Cheryl Lindfield – will contest all 21 sports on the program in Birmingham with the over-arching goal of retaining the nation’s status as the Commonwealth’s sporting superpower.

Australia has topped the medal tally at 11 Games, England seven, Canada one.

And since 1994, Australia has only been eclipsed on the tally once – by the Poms at the last Games on British soil, Glasgow 2014.

Thomas warned that host nation England would be primed to repeat that feat – but adoring home crowds could be a proverbial double-edged sword.

“It’s really hard to quantify but there certainly is an effect from being at a home Games, just the support you have from the crowd and the atmosphere and excitement,” she said.

“But competing in front of a home crowd, particularly if you’re a medal favourite, there are expectations and they can be challenging to deal with at times … it definitely can create extra pressure.”

– AAP

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