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In the running for Tokyo gold: Meet the inspiring Australian female athletes heading to the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games

The games kick off on July 23.
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It’s been a long and fraught training season, with some of Australia’s top athletes confined to quarters during lockdowns and others felled by injuries.

But finally they’re off to Tokyo, pitted against the best in the world at a very different kind of Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The Weekly meets some of our brightest hopes.

(The Weekly)



A star in the making.

As the youngest of six children, Bendere Oboya was always sprinting to keep up with her older siblings, never realising that one day she would parlay this into a word class athletics career.

“We used to run everywhere,” the Ethiopian-born athlete recalls. “My brothers would just run off ahead so I was always racing to catch up.”

Still, the young Bendere never gave much hint of the talent that has since seen her compared to 400-metre legends Cathy Freeman and Jana Pittman. “Running wasn’t something I was particularly good at,” she says. “I used to lose at school. I didn’t make my first state championships for so long!”

So why did she persist? “I just loved it,” she explains. “I was never a great student and I was very shy. With athletics, I could close off and be myself. My confidence started to come out and I just knew that if I trained well, I would get there one day. I knew there was so much more in me.”

Bendere, who moved to Australia as a three-year-old, also made a critical observation in her teenage years: all of the winners at the Little Athletics meets had coaches. She duly found herself one, and her times dropped so dramatically that she seemed to burst onto the national athletics scene out of nowhere.

In just over a year, Bendere had sliced more than 22 seconds from her 400m personal best (PB) to become the 2017 Commonwealth Youth champion.

Since then, she has gone from strength to strength. In April, on her 21st birthday, she won the national title with a time of 52.20 seconds to secure her spot in Tokyo.

Two years earlier, at the World Championships in Doha, she’d posted a Tokyo qualifying time and current PB of 51.2 – just outside Cathy Freeman’s under-20 PB of 51.14.

“I look back at that race and know I had so much more,” Bendere says. “I just never realised I was that close to her.”

While the comparisons to the Sydney 2000 gold medallist are flattering, Bendere says she would rather be known as ‘the first Bendere Oboya’ than ‘the next Cathy Freeman’.

“I look up to myself,” she says. “I know it’s weird saying that, but I know what I have gone through and how many times I’ve had to pick myself back up. Nobody else has been through that.”

Bendere is open about the mental health struggles she endured in 2019, which saw her almost give up athletics and her Olympic dream. It took a change of coaches and perspective to reignite her passion. “I now have a coach who really cares about my mental health,” she says.

John Quinn was the sprint and relay coach for the Australian track and field team at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and is renowned as a good guy.

At 21, Bendere is still a relative baby in the 400m event, where athletes tend to peak in their late twenties. Cathy Freeman was 27 when she won her gold medal with a time of 49.11. Yet Bendere is not letting her youth limit her ambitions.

“My coach always tells me, ‘You are not here to volunteer, you are here to compete,'” she insists. “I am going to put everything on the line in this race. My goal is 50 seconds.”

Laughing cheekily, Bendere adds, “Of course, anything faster than that I will take too!”

(Jessica Atkins)



“I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Emma Booth knows better than most the courage it takes to get back on the horse. In 2013, the budding equestrian was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left her with paraplegia, a fractured skull, a punctured lung, a fractured sternum, severe abdominal injuries, a broken ankle and serious internal bleeding.

Despite this, she never questioned whether she would get back in the saddle – only when. After six months of physiotherapy and rehabilitation, she finally got the sign-off from doctors.

“When I got back in the saddle, there was no fear, only excitement,” Emma tells The Weekly. “I had been waiting for that moment for six months. It was hugely motivating after a really traumatic and tragic event.”

Almost immediately, Emma began training for the 2016 Rio Paralympics, where she placed fifth in dressage. Two years later, at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in the US, she finished fourth. In Tokyo, accompanied by her loyal sidekick, a Danish Warmblood named Zidane, Emma hopes to go one better.

“I am competitive by nature,” she admits. “Of course I am excited just to be a part of the Games but I want to do the best performance I can.”

Emma, who recently turned 30, has been obsessed by horses since childhood. Her family wasn’t at all “horsey” so when Emma begged for a pony, her parents assumed it was a passing phase.

“But I never stopped asking,” she admits. Aged 11, Emma entered a competition on the television show, The Saddle Club, winning a horse for 12 months, as well as a year’s worth of horse riding lessons. She was hooked. Within three months, she had started competing in small events, and had begun to dream of one day representing her country.

Her love of riding took her to Germany in 2011, where she rode and trained horses for international dressage rider Holger Schulze. After returning to Australia, she continued with the sport until her fateful accident in April 2013. She and her friend Courtney Fraser were returning to Melbourne from the Albury Horse Trials when a truck jackknifed, hitting their car and float. The other driver and Courtney’s two horses were killed.

“I have loved riding my whole life, but it’s a different kind of love since my accident,” Emma says. “As someone who is physically limited by their body on a 24-hour, daily basis, to be able to get in the saddle and feel the horse’s movement underneath me, it’s like he becomes my legs for the moment. It’s such a freeing and liberating feeling.”

Without the use of her legs to drive the horse forward, Emma has had to learn to communicate with Zidane in different ways. She believes this has created a special understanding between the two.

“I love the bond you create with your horse,” she says.

“When you can communicate with an animal that’s so large and has a mind of its own, but in riding it you become one unit, then that’s exhilarating. It’s unlike anything else I can describe.”

Although Tokyo 2021 represents a different version of her childhood dream, Emma insists she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I still believe that everything happens for a reason,” she says.

“This was where my life was supposed to take me and what I was supposed to be doing. I wouldn’t change any of it. I have another level of joy and appreciation for what I have achieved because I have had to overcome so much in order to get here. It’s a great feeling.”

(The Weekly)



It was a throw-away line from her daughter that put Eliza Ault-Connell back on track to Olympic glory.

The wheelchair racer, then 34, was watching the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games on television with her three young children, when daughter Eva remarked, “So that’s what you used to do, Mum. Wow, you used to be so cool.”

Eliza (whose identity as an elite athlete had been subsumed by her role as mother since halting her career in 2008 to start a family with Australian Paralympic gold medallist Kieran Ault-Connell) realised two fundamental truths.

First, she could be both a mother and a competitor. And second, her daughter did not, at that point, find her cool.

Almost five years of intense training later, Eliza will be on the start line in Tokyo for the 100m, 400m and marathon wheelchair events, watched on by her very own cheer squad: Eva, 12, Elka, 10, and Jensen, 9.

“As mothers, everything we do is for our children,” says Eliza, who had both legs amputated above the knee as a teenager after contracting meningococcal disease.

“What I have learned in recent years is that it is OK to have children and to still want to do stuff for yourself.”

When she hits the track in Tokyo, it will be 17 years since Eliza last represented Australia at a Paralympics, but it may not be the last time. Despite her looming 40th birthday, Eliza has no plans to retire.

On the contrary, she has her eyes fixed on such far-off horizons as the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Eva, who also trains at the Australian Institute of Sport, suggested that they work towards competing there as mother and daughter.

“I thought to myself, ‘Dang, I will be old’,” laughs Eliza.

“But I see no reason why we can’t – as long as my body and mind continue to hold up.”

(The Weekly)



Leap of faith.

It is just three months out from the Tokyo Paralympic Games and Vanessa Low, the long-jump legend, is coming off a week of bed rest in the Canberra home she shares with her Paralympian husband Scott Reardon.

“I do all this sport and training without getting injured – and then I go and fall over on the way to the toilet,” the 30-year-old says ruefully.

Yet the Rio gold medallist and reigning world champion is pragmatic about the setback.

“Obviously I would like to be training at 100 per cent before I go, but I have learned over the years that life changes happen and you just have to adapt and accept things as they are.”

Vanessa knows what she is talking about: she was just a month shy of her 16th birthday when she stumbled on a railway platform in her hometown of Ratzeburg, Germany, and fell into the path of an oncoming train.

Two weeks later, she woke from a coma to discover that both her legs had been amputated above the knee. Before the accident, Vanessa would have believed she’d rather die than live that way. Afterwards, she discovered the “beauty within the change”.

“We grow into any situation,” she says.

“You just have to find the new opportunities. Getting involved in sport was a big turning point for me. Through it, I have got to live in three continents, travelled to 60 countries and got to know so many amazing people.”

Chief among them is Scott, Australia’s 31-year-old Paralympic hero, who lost the lower half of one leg in a farming accident as a youth. The couple met in 2013 in London, while waiting for the medal ceremony at the Anniversary Games, and dated long-distance while Vanessa trained in the United States and Scott in Australia. Since their marriage in 2018, they have lived in Canberra, training together under the watchful eye of Ukrainian coach Iryna Dvoskina.

“So we have gone from one extreme to the other – from being in a long distance relationship to spending 24 hours a day together,” Vanessa jokes.

Tokyo 2021 will be Vanessa’s third Paralympics, but the first at which she will don the green and gold. Given she recently jumped a whopping 5.32m (in what would have been a world record had the event been ratified), she is one of our greatest gold medal hopes.

She would love to repeat this effort in Tokyo, but insists she is not fixated on her distance. “Championships are there to win, not to break records,” she says.

Vanessa says Team Australia is one of the best in the world. “It’s very positive and supportive – everyone is excited for everyone else to do well. I am really proud and excited to be a part of this little family.”

Speaking of family, Vanessa and Scott have long talked about retiring after Tokyo to start one of their own. However, as the deadline draws closer, Vanessa has become less certain about quitting the sport that has given her so much. She has become increasingly convinced that she can balance her athletics career with children.

“And besides,” she says with a wide smile, “I don’t want to finish my career not knowing whether I have reached what I am truly capable of.”




Born to swim.

Emma McKeon is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Dolphins teammates Cate Campbell or Ariarne Titmus, but that looks set to change with Tokyo. The 26-year-old stunned at the recent Olympic trials and is tipped to add some serious bling to her four-medal haul from Rio in 2016.

“It’s her time – she’s in the form of her life,” predicted swimming legend Grant Hackett even before Emma took out the 50m-100m freestyle sprint double, as well as the 100m butterfly at the trials in Adelaide. Her second place in the 200m freestyle means she could compete in up to eight events in Tokyo.

“No one in Australian swimming will dare say it out loud for fear of jinxing her, but Emma McKeon could be on the verge of becoming Australia’s greatest Olympian,” trumpeted Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.

“I don’t really think about that,” she tells The Weekly matter-of-factly. “I’m just focusing on training hard, preparing well and putting my best race together.”

It helps that Emma comes from a family accustomed to the intensity of elite swimming. Her dad Ron, brother David and uncle Rob Woodhouse were Olympic swimmers, while her mother Susie competed at the Commonwealth Games.

Growing up around her parents’ swimming school in Wollongong, Emma always looked poised for stardom in the pool. However, when she narrowly missed out on a spot on the 2012 team, she considered throwing in the towel.

“I was so upset,” she admits. “But I don’t think it was a bad thing. I realised I love the thrill of working towards a goal.”

Four years later, when she and David were selected for Rio – becoming the first brother-sister duo to represent Australian swimming since John and Ilsa Konrads in 1960 – she did selectors proud, claiming the 200m freestyle bronze, along with a gold and two silvers for relay events. In Tokyo, Emma will be chasing that elusive individual gold.

“COVID gave me the chance to catch my breath,” she admits. “I went back home to Wollongong and spent time with my family, and I am feeling much better prepared.”

There will, however, be one downside. Emma says it will feel strange to finish her race, look up to the stand and not see her family there. “That will be tough. But I know I have their support from wherever they’re watching.”

(Matt Roberts / Getty Images)


Jo Brigden-Jones & Aly Bull

Frontline kayakers.

As a paramedic and firefighter, Jo Brigden-Jones and Aly Bull were already heroes to thousands of Australians, but their selection to our Tokyo Olympic paddling team has made them legends twice over.

The kayaking duo will compete in two events each at their second Olympic Games: Jo in the K4 500m and K2 500m, and Aly in the K2 500m and K1 500m.

While most Olympic hopefuls spent early 2020 just trying to keep their training on track during lockdown, Jo was on the frontline of Australia’s fight against COVID-19 as a paramedic with NSW Ambulance Service. Aly and her colleagues at the Queensland Fire Service, meanwhile, were reeling from the aftershocks of a horror bushfire season.

It may have been a juggle for the women to combine their training with the intensity of their full-time jobs, but both are quick to acknowledge the cross-over benefits in their dual roles.

“In both, you need a clear mindset and an intense focus on what you’re doing,” says Jo, 33. “You need to be able to perform under pressure and work as a team.”

Aly agrees. “Teamwork is a massive cross-over,” she says.

“In kayaking, you have to have complete trust and faith in what your partner is doing. It’s the same with firefighting. When you go into a burning house, you have to rely on the other person to watch your back. And you have to have the courage and determination to keep going and always give it your best.”

(Diving Australia)



Into the blue.

As Melissa Wu limbers up for her fourth Olympic Games, she is barely recognisable as the tiny 13-year-old diving prodigy who burst into our national consciousness with a stunning silver medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

“I am definitely a very different competitor,” says Melissa, now 29. “Obviously I have a lot more knowledge and experience, but I have also worked very hard on my self-confidence and self-belief.”

Now a veteran of the Australian diving team, Melissa hopes to use her experience to mentor younger athletes. It is a support system she lacked as a young diver, instead feeling bullied and resented by older teammates.

“I remember how I felt at that age and how much I struggled in that high performance squad,” she tells The Weekly. “It was a tough time and I don’t want the young athletes to feel that way. I want them to know they have someone they can go to.”

Melissa started diving at the age of 10 after being dragged to the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre to watch her sister’s swimming races. She was captivated by the divers tumbling from adjacent platforms.

“I just fell in love with it,” she says. Within three years, she had won silver at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, and the medals kept rolling in. She took out silver at the 2007 World Championships and another silver at the 2008 Olympic Games. But behind the scenes, the joy had gone out of diving for Melissa.

“I had this feeling that I wasn’t what an athlete should be – that’s why I couldn’t tell anybody,” she has since said about her battle with depression in the wake of Beijing. “You’re meant to be doing everything to better yourself, not hating yourself. You look at all the athletes around you and they look strong and confident. I was feeling pretty much the opposite.”

While Melissa has worked with psychologists to improve her mental game, her body has had to contend with stress fractures and bulging discs.

Yet Melissa has never lost her motivation or hunger for perfection. She heads to Tokyo a stronger competitor than the little girl who wowed Australia in 2006. Yet there is one aspect of her youthful mindset that Melissa envies.

“There was that feeling of not having any pressure on me,” she says. “I could just go out there and focus on my diving. I look back and think, ‘There is so much I could learn from that little girl.'”


Dani Stevens


Back from the brink.

A year ago, Dani Stevens couldn’t lift a hairbrush – never mind the discus with which her name has become synonymous over the past two decades. The 33-year-old former world champion had been lifting weights in February last year, when she felt her neck tighten. A week later, an MRI scan confirmed that a disc in her neck had “exploded”. Following urgent spinal surgery, Dani was warned by doctors that she may never regain function in her throwing arm.

“To be honest, discus throwing was the last thing on my mind,” she says. “There were too many other questions going through my head: Is this my new normal? Will I ever be able to drive again?”

Dani threw herself into her rehabilitation, motivated only by a desire to regain her quality of life. “I thought if I could ever throw a discus again, that would be the cherry on top,” she admits.

The road to recovery was long and tough. There was “a lot of frustration and a lot of tears”. When she finally threw her first discus, it travelled just 30 metres – almost 40 metres shy of her personal best – but she persevered.

And being a true champion, Dani won her 14th straight national discus title in April this year, securing her spot at the Tokyo Games. As she sent the discus sailing more than 62 metres, it was hard to believe that just months earlier she hadn’t been able to throw a discus at all.

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