Athletics Australia

Indigenous students striding for success

“I could never believe that a little girl from Coober Pedy could go all the way to Melbourne University, and be trained with Olympians who competed at Rio!” says Year 12 student Evanna Williams. “It was mind-blowing.”

Evanna, 17, is that “little girl from Coober Pedy”, the opal-mining town in South Australia’s central north with a desert climate and a dearth of opportunities for the young people among its 3,500 inhabitants.

Cassius Loo and Evanna Williams
Cassius Loo and Evanna Williams enjoying the Raise the Bar celebration dinner at the University of Melbourne.  Photo courtesy of Athletics Australia

The talented sprinter is a boarder at Adelaide’s Immanuel College, on an Indigenous scholarship and Athletics Australia selected her for this year’s Raise the Bar Academy, after the school’s Indigenous coordinator suggested she apply.

Raise the Bar, part of the Athletics for the Outback program run by Athletics Australia, is open to Year 11 and 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from all over Australia, is a five-day residential camp held in Melbourne in January. Up to 35 kids are chosen and their attendance, including travel, is free thanks to the support of the Australian Government and sponsorship from corporate partners, including GE.

“I love the fact that Athletics for the Outback is promoting healthy and active lifestyles, while at the same time encouraging indigenous kids to aim high with their education,” says Geoff Culbert, CEO of GE Australia, New Zealand and PNG. “Through our partnership with Athletics Australia we want to extend the reach of the program and inspire more kids to be their best both physically and academically.”

Participants train with some of Australia’s best athletes and learn about how they can access the University of Melbourne’s Indigenous pathways.

Now in its third year, the idea for Raise the Bar Academy was cooked up “over the dinner table” by Athletics Australia’s Indigenous Participation Coordinator Bridgid Junot and her American-born husband Carl. Both elite athletes, they had attained university degrees in tandem with their sport, only later realising how vital that education was. With a shared “passion for equity in sport,” says Bridgid, they came up with “an idea to provide access to education through athletics”.

“The name comes from my pole-vaulting background,” says Bridgid, and neatly “captures the mission of the program, which is to inspire Indigenous young people to elevate their athletics and educational ambitions; because by doing both they will set themselves up for a prosperous life full of opportunities and positive experiences.”

Hurdler, scientist and Torres Strait Islander Shannon McCann has been a Raise the Bar mentor from its beginning and cites her experience in Jump Start to London, a program for elite Indigenous athletes for which she was selected. “Those mentors changed the way I saw my future and the way that they believed in me helped me believe in myself,” recalls Shannon. “To be able to give that back as a mentor is full circle, and I hope the kids coming through today will be the mentors of the future.”

Shannon McCann
Raise the Bar mentor Shannon McCann is completing a science degree, with aspirations of joining CSIRO. Photo courtesy of Athletics Australia

“Raise the Bar also gives students and mentors the opportunity to connect back to our culture,” she adds. “These kids are from all over Australia. Some of them rock up to camp shy and reserved, and English is their second language. By the end, they’re loud and the centre of attention and having a great time. It’s not just about the educational sporting and pathways, it’s also about development on a personal level, and empowering them.”

Shannon, 29, is doing a triple major Bachelor of Science at Murdoch University in Perth. “I represented Australia at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and the huge message I like to convey is that my athletics doesn’t pay the bills,” she explains. “When my athletics is over, I need an education to fall back on.”

Shannon says programs such as Raise the Bar are helping to upend the paradigm that Aboriginal kids are expected to fail, “to not finish school, not go to university”

The week with Raise the Bar shows them that there is “another option … and a lot of kids turn around and say this is something I’d like to do, which is our main focus for the week”.

Memories of Melbourne Uni still spin in Evanna Williams’s head: “… the things they provide, and the subjects, technology and science…”. For now, though, she’s focussing on finishing Year 12, and becoming the first in her family to do to. “I’m really trying to be a role model to my community and all my family,” she says with quiet pride. “Me coming to Immanuel College, I’ve influenced other Indigenous students back in my community.”

Her example is also inspiring her three younger brothers. “I had two jobs when I was living in Coober Pedy, and a teacher who said she’d help me get to Immanuel, as long as I stayed out of trouble, sat in front of class and put my hand up to ask questions … I was really shy,” she says. “My younger brother is 13, and he has two jobs and is listening in class, and he really wants to come to Immanuel, too. You have to get yourself out of Coober Pedy to become something big, and I stepped my game up and got myself out.”

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