12 December 2022

This Canberra triathlon legend pretended to join the national games to escape Yugoslavia

| James Coleman
Start the conversation
Radovan Leovic

Radovan Leovic in action. Photo: Triathlon ACT.

The oldest triathlete in Canberra has made it to legendary status after receiving the coveted Legends of the Sport Award from Triathlon Australia.

Radovan Leovic (or Rad, for short) might now be resigned to a nursing home after suffering a brain tumour, but the 95-year-old’s CV is bursting with impressive achievements across the fields of running, cycling and swimming. It all started with a brazen escape from his Communist birth country as a teenager.

Rad has been an active member of Triathlon ACT since 1990. Board member Steve Hough tells the story.

“Rad was born in 1927, in the city of Nis in what was then Yugoslavia – now Serbia,” he begins.

READ ALSO Young, fit and suffering from sleep apnoea – it can happen

After World War II, the country was moulded in the Communist image of the USSR. Rad, keenly into sport from a young age, was desperate to get out from under the oppressive regime, so tried his hardest at cycling. He reasoned that if he could be selected to represent Yugoslavia in the European games, they would be his ticket out.

“But he just wasn’t good enough,” Steve says.

“He managed to get hold of a national team uniform anyway and so – leaving his family behind – travelled to the north of the country where the games were held, and pretended to take part.”

Under this disguise, Rad cycled across the border into Austria with the rest of the group and began his long journey through West Germany to Australia. He arrived in Victoria as a refugee in 1952.

Radovan Leovic

Ninety-five-year-old triathlete Radovan Leovic. Photo: World Harmony Run.

Steve says Rad is already regarded as a living legend by members of Triathlon ACT, so it was fitting he received the national award on Saturday, 10 December.

“The Legends of the Sport Award recognises athletes who have not only distinguished themselves at a high level of sporting performance, but also who have made a greater impact on the sport of triathlon in Australia and around the world by inspiration or example to others.”

Steve describes Rad as a “quiet guy who refuses to blow his own trumpet”, but his impact is doubtless.

Not only has Rad competed in national and international games over the years, but he also became somewhat of Australia’s face of multiculturalism.

“He represented the Department of Immigration on a couple of trips to Europe to tell potential immigrants about the benefits of living in Australia, and spoken on a few forums about multiculturalism,” Steve says.

READ ALSO ‘I was cheeky’: meet the Kambah woman who fooled the Stasi to escape East Germany

He moved to Canberra in the 1980s and landed a job in computer statistics with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) despite being almost completely computer illiterate.

“He soon caught on, however, and undertook a tertiary qualification in economics through ABS,” Steve says.

But underneath the suit and tie, he was a runner. He held several records within Athletics ACT – including in its highly competitive Masters program – before a similar-aged peer set him on the path to gold, silver and bronze medals in duathlon and triathlon.

Lachlan Lewis, 85, also received a Legends of the Sport Award this year and grew up in Melbourne during a similarly uncertain time to Rad’s.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but my family moved out of the city because of the threat of Japanese bombing,” he says.

“There were even floats in the sky and dug-out trenches in the schoolyard.”

Lachlan Lewis

Canberra triathlete Lachlan Lewis. Photo: James Coleman.

From their new home in the country, it was a five-kilometre hike to and from school every day but Lachlan was not one to lose the race to his two older sisters. Within a matter of months, he could “run the legs off other kids”.

This turned into cross-country competitions and then international marathons as he grew up, fitting it in alongside his day job as an oral surgeon. While living in Canada, he hurt his foot and took up triathlon as a gentler sport. This stayed with him when he moved to Canberra in 1986 and joined Triathlon ACT.

“It’s a great climate for it here, especially after the cold bite of Canada,” he says.

“The roads aren’t too bad either, and there’s a few challenging hills.”

He might be pushing 90, but ”Lucky Lachie” doesn’t have plans to give up anytime soon either.

“I was schooled in the ways of the Bible as a child and remember reading about how the years of our lives are three score and ten, or four score ‘by reason of strength’,” he says.

“I’ve pushed four score and five. They used to call me ‘Lucky Lachie’ in school and I think I’ve had a lucky life.”

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.