A sporting champion, civic leader and community stalwart: there's not much that Bill McConnell hasn't achieved in his 82 years.
Multiple football premierships, a prestigious Maskell Medal, a term as mayor during a decade on Warrnambool council, key roles in Deakin University's development and countless other sporting triumphs including national and world cycling medals won in his 70s, all figure in a remarkable list of accomplishments. With his characteristic humility, Bill sums up the key to his success in a single word: determination.
Forged from the daily struggles of a difficult childhood determined to make good, for Bill, it's always been about giving it his best shot.
"Whatever I tried I was filled with a determination that I had to do the best I could," he reflects. Unfailingly, he made a pretty good fist of it. Now, it's with that same dogged determination that Bill is facing his biggest challenge of all.
Nine months ago on Christmas Day, the former accountant underwent emergency brain surgery. The previous week he'd tripped over the family dog and then sustained a fall after a bike ride. A precautionary visit to the GP and follow-up scan revealed an aggressive grade four brain tumour, or Glioblastoma (GBM).
The otherwise fit and healthy grandfather was rushed to St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne where, in a five-and-a-half-hour operation, surgeons removed 95 per cent of the golf ball-sized mass in his head.
In a sad coincidence, the couple's ailing cherished 14-year-old Collie-Kelpie-Shih Tzu-cross, Riley, was put to sleep the same day. Nine days later, Bill went home to Torquay where he and his wife Norma have lived since making the move from Warrnambool in 2001 to be closer to family. Both their children Kerry and Stephen and their families live close by.
The post-operative prognosis was encouraging, however, subsequent courses of chemotherapy, radiation and drug treatments have failed to halt the tumour's regrowth. His balance, muscle strength and memory have all been compromised by the condition and Barwon Health's palliative care team are supporting Bill with increasing levels of home care.
Nevertheless, the couple and their medical team have no doubt that Bill's physical fitness and mental toughness have been a factor in slowing the disease's progression.
"The fact that up until December 23 he had no underlying health conditions and even now is on minimum medication has been a big help," says Norma. "I believe my fitness and mental attitude helped me cope with diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, cancer is a law of its own," Bill concedes.
Sport has always been an integral part of life for the former footy, tennis and squash champion, but it wasn't until his retirement that he discovered cycling. At Norma's suggestion, the pair bought bikes to ride around Torquay's cycle paths. Bill was 68 and a first-time bike rider, but as usual, determined to give it his best.
He excelled. Over the following two years he rode the Great Victorian Bike Ride and the equivalent in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania.
By 2008 he'd joined the Geelong Supervets and went on to take out the Victorian and Australian veterans and masters time trials on multiple occasions. He was also a three-time winner of the prestigious Russell Mockridge age-based time trials.
It was on the world stage that Bill truly proved his mettle. In 2014 in Slovenia and 2016 in Perth, he snared bronze in the World Masters time trial for 70-to-74-year-olds, collecting another bronze in 2017 at the World Masters classic time trial for the 75-to-79 years section in Austria.
Bike-riding tours through France, Spain and New Zealand with his son Stephen are among his treasured family memories. During his competitive cycling days, Bill would clock up about 500 kilometres a week training. Even after he'd stopped competitive riding in 2020, daily rides would still tally about 300 kilometres a week.
Since Christmas, Bill has sold his two road bikes and a time-trial racer. Outings are now made on four wheels instead of two with a wheelchair replacing his bike as transport.
Christened "the chariot" by his many cycling buddies, they joke that the wheelchair gives him an unfair advantage of an extra two wheels. Bill disagrees.
"He says he wishes it had a motor to go faster," quips Norma, who, on sunny days now pushes her husband along the Torquay esplanade to Point Danger. Sometimes they pack a picnic or just enjoy a coffee outdoors.
With his typical determination, however, Bill refuses to give in to negativity.
"He's accepted the situation and he's staying positive," says Norma, clearly in awe of her husband's attitude. "Bill is just being Bill. I think he's wonderful."
It's 60 years since 17-year-old Norma Rayner met Bill at a football function in Warrnambool. She remembers the date because it was September 1961 and he'd just won Warrnambool Football Netball Club's best and fairest award. To this day it remains a highlight of his 10-year career with the club which included playing in five premierships. Both Bill and his father, also Bill, were named in the club's team of the century. A year later in 1962, he took out Hampden league's coveted Maskell Medal.
Bill was an allrounder on the sporting field, but footy was his first love.
As a junior he played with West End, a club he returned to as playing coach in 1965 after leaving Warrnambool. Playing and coaching roles followed with East Warrnambool until 1967, before returning to coach the Blues' under 18 side.
The dynamic player was also noticed by Hawthorn and signed with the club as a teenager. He played several practice matches with the Hawks, but homesickness got the better of the self-confessed "country boy" who has no regrets about throwing it in to return home.
Life wasn't easy for Bill as a child.
His father died when he was four and his mother struggled to care for him and sister Vanessa before remarrying when he was eight.
After leaving school at 15, he took a bank job before studying accountancy by correspondence, leading to positions with the Fletcher Jones factory and the then Country Roads Board.
In 1988 he was appointed business manager for the Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education before taking on roles with the newly created Deakin University as deputy secretary and head of campus and student services.
Bill's decade as a Warrnambool City councillor from 1984-94, culminating with his mayoral election in 1993-94, is a period that he recalls as one of great satisfaction.
Despite the pressure of local government amalgamations, it was, he says, a period of real growth and included highlights such as the Mary Rose Tudor exhibition.
"We had a well-balanced team of astute councillors and excellent council officers," he recalls. Despite her husband's health battle, Norma says she and Bill feel blessed to have the support and care of such committed health professionals, friends and family.
"Friends from Warrnambool and cycling mates and friends from here in Torquay have been a big part of keeping me positive," says Bill.
"And my family, with their love, is immeasurable."
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