Sydney Catholic teacher’s place in Olympic history

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Nikki Webster performs at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Photo: Craig Golding, Fairfax Syndication
Nikki Webster performs at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Photo: Craig Golding, Fairfax Syndication

Every four years, St John Bosco College teacher Maria Millward is reminded of her Olympic success.

She didn’t win a medal, break a record or represent her country in the pool, track or field.

But her work was witnessed by an estimated 3.6 billion people around the world as part of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

Maria, together with her brother Damien Halloran, composed Under Southern Skies, which went on to become one of Nikki Webster’s iconic performances of the opening ceremony.

The Engadine English teacher drew on her Catholic faith, the Australian landscape, Indigenous cultures, and the potential of young people in crafting what she calls a “deeply spiritual song”.

“When I wrote it I wanted to incorporate the idea of the connection with the land, and the Indigenous perspective,” she said.

“There is a line that says, ‘There is a great spirit rising from the desert to the sea’, and that is very meaningful.

“For me, the Olympics represents a time when everyone comes together. No matter where you are in the world, people come together to celebrate opportunities for peace.

“It was written with a focus on young people, how young people are the future.”

Maria enlisted members of the Bosco choir to record a demo of the song, which was selected from more than 4000 submissions.

“We were very excited,” she said. “I was especially excited for students and the community, who had put so much into supporting it.”

“It goes to show that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things.”

While most of her current students weren’t born when Sydney hosted the Olympics, one member of the choir which recorded the demo has since joined Maria in the English department at St John Bosco College.

With every new opening ceremony, Maria is reminded of her little place in Olympic history.

“It’s always exciting, and it always brings back that joy,” she said.

She has been following Australia’s success in Rio, and took time out from marking to watch 18-year-old Kyle Chalmers win gold in the 100m freestyle in his maiden Olympics.

“That was inspiring,” she said.

“I really feel that with young people that their lives are so full of potential, and we need to empower them to believe that they can make a difference in the world.

“That’s what the song was about.”