There was a time in the 1980s and ’90s when Russell Stewart was better known on London’s streets than in his home city of Canberra.
When he walked into a pub in England, there was instant recognition.
That’s not to say that he didn’t have a profile in Australia as he rubbed shoulders with fellow elite athletes such as Rob de Castella, Michael Bevan and Laurie Daley at sports awards nights.
Recognition in the UK was due more to the fact that darts was treated as an elite sport, with television coverage to match. In Australia, there was a perception of overweight men in a smoke-filled pub, with a pint in one hand and darts in the other.
But nothing could be further from that image. Darts has grown to be a serious sport with competitors, such as Russell, dedicating hours of preparation, discipline and concentration to achieve at the highest level.
“When I was world number two, I trained six to seven hours a day, seven days a week, as well as working at the Bureau of Statistics,” says Russell.
There was little difference between the professional approach taken by Russell and elite athletes in other sports.
And it paid off for him with considerable success – he won over 250 tournaments around the world.
In 1988 he finished runner up in the world’s richest darts tournament at the time in Tokyo. Back then, the winner pocketed around $30,000. Nowadays, the prize money is close to $500,000 for the major tournaments.
By 1989 Russell had reached number two in the world.
Says Russell: “I was living out of a suitcase in the 1980s and ’90s, travelling from tournament to tournament around the world.”
It was hard to make a living though from the sport in those days.
“There really wasn’t enough to live on playing darts in Australia. I still had to keep my job at the Bureau of Stats. I was there for 37 years, and they were very supportive.”
Around that time, Canberra hosted several major darts tournaments, including the Grand Masters, which was held in the ACT for almost 40 years. Russell won six times across three different decades.
With signature walk-on music – usually AC/DC or INXS – Russell, or ‘Rusty’ as he is known, had rock star status. I remember witnessing this for the first time at the Grand Masters at the Labor Club as he walked on backed by a raucous home crowd.
Major darts tournaments in Canberra are now few and far between. When Russell was growing up in the city, it was different.
“Back then, Canberra had a lot of little pubs and clubs with dartboards,” he remembers. It was an environment in which he would become familiar as he honed his skills in the sport over many years.
Before settling in Canberra, his parents had immigrated to Australia as ‘10-pound Poms’ with Russell and his sister.
His father played darts for Australia, and he guided his son into the sport.
“We played out of the Yowani Golf Club in the fathers and sons competition; I made the ACT team when I was 16 years old.”
Because he was underage, and with the Australian Championships being played in licensed clubs, he had to wait until he was 18 years of age to compete.
By 23 he made the Australian team for the World Cup, and he was on his way to becoming one of the world’s top players.
Fast-forward to the present day and Russell still plays in the Canberra League on Wednesday nights: “It’s hard to do it now without doing the hard training. It takes a lot of work to get to the top.”
At 60, he is enjoying life in retirement with his family but remains passionate about the sport which has given him so much.
“I’m the captain of the Darts Players Australia men’s, women’s and youth teams. Twelve years ago, I wasn’t making the team as a player, so I pulled back. When we go away with the team, I am basically the manager.”
Talking to Russell about the sport he loves you get the impression he will never completely walk away. But how could he walk away when it has been a major part of his life, providing so many experiences that add to life in so many ways?