STAWELL - Hawthorn East sprinter, Luke Versace has defied all odds to claim victory in the 2014 Australian Post Stawell Gift.
Versace, at the age of 19, was seriously injured when he ran with the bulls in the Spanish event in 2002.
The former South Australian described himself at the time, as a young bulletproof teenager who learnt that he could take a beating as well as anybody.
The damage of the bull incident left him with two massive holes in his leg, one of which opened up enough that his femur was visible.
He spent five days in a near unconscious state before he realised the extent of his injuries.
Both physically and emotionally it was a tough comeback for Versace, who found comfort in holding the Stawell Gift trophy and winner's cheque aloft.
"I promised myself before surgery that if I got myself right I would win the Stawell Gift," Versace said.
"Apart from today the bull accident was the only other time I've been speechless."
"This is insane, I just can’t believe it."
The 31 year old has previously ran in the Gift four times having finished third in 2005.
"Without coming third in 2005, I never would have been here today," he said.
"That gave me the belief that if I worked I'd get here."
Versace this year ran off 10 metres in the seven man final, after a protest following the fourth semi final resulted in John Adams gaining the seventh spot. Adams believed he had crossed the line first and after viewing video footage, stewards agreed to call the semi final a dead heat.
Versace got out of the blocks well in the final, maintaining a slight lead for the majority of the race, that was until the final metres.
“Honestly Ryan Camille came in the pink and seemed like he was getting a fair bit in front of me at one stage,” he said.
“When I saw yellow on the inside it was just magical.
“I cannot believe I won,” he said.
Favourite Gus Carty-Cowling and Versace both lunged for the line with Versace losing his feet and some skin off his right leg.
There were several anxious sighs from both runners, family and friends and the massive crowd that was in attendance, as the judges took plenty of time to declare a winner.
After what felt like a lifetime, the black flag was raised and Versace was victorious, being declared the 2014 Stawell Gift champion in a time of 12.27.
“I believed I had lost,” he said.
When Versace first started out as a young up and coming sprinter, he had set his sights on the Stawell Gift.
“It has been amazing,” he said.
“I came into this sport and this was the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.
“It was about this and only this.”
He admitted to not having made enough of the sacrifices earlier in his career, but for Versace the penny dropped twelve months ago at Stawell’s famous Central Park.
Versace shared a story of his experience last year at the Gift and has used that as his motivation and determination for this year’s carnival.
It was at Stawell last year where his wife told him he looked overweight running in his heat.
“Another runner last year said I’m going to beat you and I thought you know what, no you’re not,” Versace said.
“My wife tells the story that I was so fat I couldn’t get the bib over my stomach.”
Versace blew out to a whopping 98.5 kilograms before last year’s event and has since dropped 12 kilograms and gained 45 percent extra strength.
A combination of a desire to succeed and a little bit of vanity were his reasons for being able to win the Stawell Gift.
Versace will not give himself the chance to put his name alongside legends such as Bill Howard and Joshua Ross as two time winners, as he will now hang his spikes up.
He knew before not only the semi final and the final, but before his heat that this year was it.
“I’m done,” he said.
“There is no coming back. This was win or bust.
“It didn’t matter if I came second, if I came twentieth, I’m done,” he said.
Versace was ever so thankful to his coach Brad Armstrong and his family.
“It isn’t everyday that the coach is younger than the athlete,” he said.
“Coaching wise he has the head of a 50 year old.
“He is that good, so don’t go thinking you’ve seen the last of him.
“There is no doubt he will have more gift winners.”
Versace now plans to return to practising law, as he is a qualified lawyer. He also plans to take some time with his wife who is 12 weeks pregnant.