Interviewer Nahum Gale
Images courtesy of Alex Porter, Katarina Kowplos, and Flynn Ogilvie
The Olympic Games – the world’s largest sporting event. An event inspired by the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD ancient Olympic Games based in Olympia, Greece. An event which brings together over 200 countries for both a Summer and Winter clash of talent and skill. An event which occurs every four years… until COVID-19 said, ‘No, no, no, I don’t think so.’
When the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world early last year, I doubt anyone suspected the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be one of the major losses of the year. Delayed to the calendar year of 2021, finally, here we are now, and the Olympic Games we all waited for has come and past. So instead of dwelling on what may have been in a COVID-less world, let’s instead just bathe in the now and celebrate the accomplishments we as a society, as Australia, as UniSA, as our very special students, have achieved in this international event of near impossible magnitude.
Verse caught up with three awesome Olympian students who made the trek to Tokyo, kicking butt in their chosen fields. Over the next few pages, we will be deep diving into the lives and pursuits of Alex Porter, a Team Pursuit Cyclist and Bronze Medallist, Katarina Kowplos, a Target Rifle Shooter placing 45th in Women’s 10m Air Rifle, 36th in Women’s 50m Rifle 3 positions and 22nd in 10m Air Rifle mixed team, and Flynn Ogilvie, a Perth-based Hockey player and Silver Medallist. These three students have portrayed exceptional strength, tenacity, and power from their training to their eventual performance on the world stage. Working closely with UniSA’s Elite Athlete and Performer Program, the trio have managed to live out their dreams and embark on, quite literally, an adventure of a lifetime.
But firstly, what is UniSA’s Elite Athlete and Performer Program you ask? Well, we also touched base with Brooke Zabrowarny, the coordinator for the program, to understand how these students managed to juggle both their studies and the Olympian experience.
UniSA’s Elite Athlete and Performer Program with Brooke Zabrowarny
What is UniSA’s Elite Athlete and Performer Program
UniSA’s Elite Athlete and Performer Program was formed in 2004 through partnership with the Australian Institute of Sport’s Elite Athlete Education Network (EAEN) Program. The goal of UniSA’s program is to support athletes and performers, from emerging to elite, to achieve academic excellence while also pursuing a professional career in sports or performing. The program provides tailored academic support to a cohort of approximately 250 current students who represent around 50 different sports and performing disciplines.
In short, the program has three main components:
- Facilitating flexible study arrangements
We understand that performance and competition commitments may impact program participants’ studies, so we work with students, and Academic and Professional staff to facilitate flexible study arrangements.
- Providing financial support
In addition, we also offer Elite Athlete and Performer Program specific grants to provide helpful financial support both in times of financial hardship, or to help recoup some costs from travelling for competitions.
- Industry engagement
We also undertake an Industry Engagement role with a variety of sporting organisations to provide advice to prospective students, and to help facilitate the application and admission process for elite athletes looking to start study.
How can students get involved?
Athletes and performers can apply to join the program via an online application form on the UniSA website. A letter of support from a relevant sporting or performing institution/ association and a copy of a current training/ rehearsing and competing/ performing schedule should accompany an application.
What have you found to be the biggest successes of the Elite Athlete and Performer Program?
In my experience, the biggest successes of the program are where we can assist a student with an assessment extension or rescheduling, a placement scheduling variation, or providing advice on flexible study options. It may seem like a simple thing, but students are always so grateful when we can help work around their training schedule with their placement requirements, or when a competition has meant last minute travel, and we work together to figure out when and where assessment can take place.
We aim to help strike the right balance between work, life and sporting and performing commitments and understand that anything can change at a moment’s notice when it comes to an athlete or performer’s schedule. We also receive great feedback from recipients of our Elite Athlete and Performer Program grants; reimbursement of some of the costs for travel, accommodation, registration fees and official uniforms for competitions makes such a meaningful difference to grant recipients.
What has the process been like preparing students and helping them on their journey to the Olympics?
In addition to the students and graduates who participated at the Tokyo Olympics, there were a number of students who were in training for the Olympics and attended National training camps for the Olympic selection process.
Understandably, it’s a hugely exciting opportunity to prospectively participate in the Olympics, so we wanted to help as much as possible when students got the exciting call up to attend National selection camps. It was around Olympic selection time that there was a flurry of activity, to either arrange alternative assessments, drop enrolments, add enrolments in future study periods, provide advice on online study opportunities, and subsequently to assist with media enquiries.
I felt so much pride watching UniSA’s five students and recent graduates compete at the Olympics; I have so much respect for their drive and ability to successfully coordinate the complexities and workloads of both study and competing at such an elite level.
How does the Program relate to UniSA Sport?
UniSA Sport offers an innovative Athlete Development Program which is specifically available to elite athletes studying at UniSA. The program offers unprecedented access to UniSA Sport’s high-level facilities and training environments with support from highly qualified staff. In addition, students in the Athlete Development Program will have access to on-campus allied health services and fitness testing facilities, in the areas of physiotherapy, podiatry and exercise physiology. You can see a list of the 2021 Athlete Development Program participants here.
Why did you initially pursue cycling?
I had hardly ever ridden a bike until I was about 15. When I was at school, the South Australian Sports Institute did fitness things around different schools and we were just having to do it as a part of PE. They said from all the testing they did that I had the right makeup to be a cyclist. I originally turned it down, because I thought, ‘Why would I want to be a cyclist? That sounds stupid.’ Then they asked me again the following year. In between that, I had watched the Tour de France with my uncle and thought, well they asked me again, so I may as well see what it is about, and it kind of just snowballed from there.
How did you become affiliated with UniSA’s Elite Athlete and Performing Program?
After about two or three years, after school, I kind of wanted to do something a bit different, away from the bike to help me switch off, because I was getting pretty bored. Literally for three years, all I would do was ride a bike, watch Netflix and play PlayStation, which was good for a time, but after a while I got pretty sick of that. We have sport coordinator type liaisons who help us with uni and they just recommended me to do the Business degree at UniSA, because it’s a really broad degree and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So, then I went into the Business degree and, from that, I really enjoyed the accounting subjects, so I switched across to Commerce and Business Finance.
How does one train to get to an Olympic level?
A lot of time and effort. On average, every week, I train anywhere from 22 to 26 hours. So, most days you are training either morning or night and you get maybe one or two days a week where you can have a day off or just ride for a little while. Then, if you are doing one session in a day, it can be from a 4 to 6-hour ride and then you basically just have to do that day-in, day-out for pretty much your whole career. At the moment, I have two months where I can just kind of do my own thing, but I think up until this point, I have been riding for about 10 years and the longest I have had off a bike is three weeks.
Addressing the elephant in the room, with COVID-19 pushing back the Tokyo Olympics for about a year, did you feel any uneasiness around the event being cancelled?
Definitely. Up until we left, we were still preparing for it to be cancelled. Once it got postponed and we knew it would be a year later, and that was pretty hard at first. Then it was just rumours. I remember we were racing in January, and there was an article that came out saying the Games were cancelled. So, we pretty much just had to focus very short term and worry about what we could control. We were running the mantra of, ‘It’s better to be ready and it not be on, then not to be ready and it goes ahead.’ So, we just played ball, as per usual, and you just had to block out that outside noise from the media and people constantly asking if it was going to be on. As far as we were concerned, it was always on.
What was it like travelling overseas during a pandemic?
It was crazy! I remember when we flew from Brisbane down to Sydney to head up there, and we were in Sydney International Airport, I reckon I saw 30 people in the whole airport. So even leaving the country was weird. It felt bizarre being on a plane. I hadn’t really been on a plane in ages. And then, once we got to Tokyo, because it was so regimented and everything, it took us 4 hours to get out of the airport. We had to go through six or seven different screening checkpoints. Then we had to wait in a room and wait to be allowed to leave. But it was definitely strange going over there. When we arrived at the airport in Tokyo it was empty. There wasn’t a single person in the airport, which was surreal. It felt like when you see airports in zombie movies and there is just no one there. It felt exactly like that.
Tell us a bit about that hazardous fall you had on the track. For anyone who doesn’t know, the handlebars on Alex’s bike detached midrace at the Olympics.
Well, they’re still trying to work out exactly what happened to it, but that was not something I was expecting. We had a really good prep; everything was going according to plan. Everyone was feeling very confident that we could get a gold medal; we were excited to race. Everything was going normal, I got out of the gate and I was really happy with my start. We were all moving well, the team was going really fast, and then, I was literally coming into the track and I felt my arms disappear away from my body and I could see the track getting closer to my face. But my brain didn’t piece together what was happening; you could have given me a billion guesses and I would never have guessed anything like that would have happened. It wasn’t until I was this far away from the track that it clicked in my head that something at the front of my bike had just snapped in half. By the time I could process it, I was sliding across the ground on my face.
How do you come back from that as a team and as yourself?
The main thing that got me through was the support of the team. After it happened, I was pretty frustrated at first that something like that could happen there, but we had all put in so much effort and so much work.
Us, as a group, had been together for five years. For the five years leading into that, I wanted to go out there and, for me personally, do the best I could for the team. So that was what was maybe motivating me to get back out there. The other boys, once they saw I was up and fine and I was walking, they were all coming up to me, telling me, ‘I would be good to go; let’s go out there and rip it again.’ It was definitely having them around and thinking of everything we had all been through. That was one of the main things that helped me switch that mindset back from that being a really bad situation and wanting to have it be the end of our Olympic story at Tokyo, to wanting to try and help them turn it around.
“When you put on the green and gold tracksuit, at first, you can feel the hard work has paid off to get it on…”
And to still walk away with a Bronze Medal… How euphoric did that feel at the end of the day?
It made it feel so much easier to deal with what had happened. To go through all of that and get a bronze, it was as close to a gold medal, without getting a gold medal. And I had moments after, back in my room, later that night, where I had to clean my arm for like the fourth time and it was just covered in blood, absolutely burning, and I just looked at my arm and it didn’t hurt as much, knowing we were able to turn it around and bring that bronze home, as opposed to not having anything.
To look back on it now, and when I look at the medal, I am just really proud of what we managed to do. It just showed what our team had tried representing for five years of resilience and never giving up. So as much as I would love to go back, I am almost prouder of it now, looking back on it, then if it had just gone to plan.
What does it feel like representing your country in something as big as the Olympics?As cliché as it sounds, it is hard to put into words, because when you put on the green and gold tracksuit, at first, you can feel the hard work has paid off to get it on. But then to be able to walk around wearing the green and gold, seeing photos of yourself in it and especially coming from a country like Australia where we are so passionate about sport, there is just this immense feeling of pride. It’s a very special feeling that whenever you put [the tracksuit] on, it doesn’t diminish its impact at all. You can put it on 1000 times and it doesn’t feel less special to know that you are representing everyone.
What was it like receiving the news you had qualified for the Olympics?
It was completely surreal!
I found out last year in 2020, in either March or April, I can’t remember for sure, but I was completely expecting the phone call I was getting to be like, ‘Oh you haven’t been selected’, even though I was in the top of the people who were listed. I was completely expecting that even though I was on the top of the rankings for three positions, which were the events I qualified for officially, I wasn’t expecting them to use my quota for that. I was just completely expecting it to be a not qualifying phone call but when they said I did I was just in shock for a while. I wasn’t even allowed to tell my parents immediately.
Who has been your biggest support base over the years, leading up to the Olympics?
Over the years, it’s not exactly been a single person, but I would say my home club, SSAA (Sporting Shooters Association of Australia) Para. They have really helped push me to where I am now. Obviously, my family, I can’t discredit them. My grandma last year even had a Channel 7 news report done on her, following how she helped fund a rifle for me to go over [to Tokyo]. I actually qualified with a borrowed rifle I didn’t own. Also, people at uni I have met this year. I have been stuck on very long phone calls with them over in Tokyo. Like 4-hour phone calls or longer; they have definitely been there emotionally for me while I was over.
How did it feel knowing the Olympics would be delayed a year as well?
It was kind of surreal. I don’t think I fully processed the fact I was still going, and it actually took until a couple of months ago that I thought, ‘Wow, this is getting close.’ There were all these posts on Instagram saying, “50 days to go”, and I was like, ‘Ah… that’s close!’ But honestly it was really good for me. I am younger, so I needed that extra bit of training, even if it was all in Australia.
“It was a bit shocking, the fact we were flying out of our little safe bubble…”
What was it like travelling internationally during a pandemic as well?
I was lucky enough to have both my vaccinations a bit beforehand, so they were at their max sufficiency. It was a bit shocking, the fact we were flying out of our little safe bubble. In Australia, we were really taking for granted the cases we had in the country and the fact we were leaving that. The flight to Japan, considering we were all on the same flight, I was sitting there thinking like, ‘This is fine, we are all from Australia, we will be COVID negative’, but you don’t really know that when you are over there. We were all really careful with masks everywhere (we also had Australian masks – I loved those masks), and hand sanitiser, using it on seats if we were sitting down in places, especially in the first few days. But the number of precautions they took over there was pretty full on, which was definitely good. We even had daily COVID tests.
Did it feel like a big weight on your shoulders representing your country on the world stage?
Prior to going over there, I already understood that, at the level that I am at, I was already lucky I had been given the opportunity to compete for Australia at such a young age. I mainly wanted to go over there to do as well as I could, and I understood I wasn’t aiming for perfection or to be at the top of the rankings or anything like that. I just wanted to do well on the day. So, I think I lost a lot of pressure from that. A lot of people had high expectations and as soon as you can’t reach those, it breaks you down.
What was the Olympic experience like for yourself in general?
We actually had a temporary range set up there. It wasn’t exactly how it would have looked. Sometimes they use temporary ranges and sometimes they use permanent ones they build for the game. They do that for a lot of structures, so they aren’t wasting facilities. Honestly, the thing I liked about competing the most over there were the volunteers; the Japanese hospitality. We had to have specific volunteers for us because we used firearms, so these people who had been helping us out for the last two weeks, waving us goodbye at the airport with these big purple signs… the games, there was just this incredible environment around it.
What did a typical day at the Olympics look like for you?
I had to wake up at 10am and then there would be a 45-minute bus to the range. You walk to the bus depo and, once you finally get to the range, you are kind of stuck with a little bit too much time. So, you go from rushing earlier only to slowing down as soon as you get to the range. Rifle shooting is set up in qualifications and finals, so everybody shoots in the qualifications and the top 8 people make it into the final and the qualification is maybe an hour. You get to the range about an hour and a half before that time and you prepare, you stretch, kind of chill out and get into the right headspace for it.
How do you focus when you are shooting as well? How do you get into a ready mindset right before you pull that trigger?
Honestly, it’s a lot of practice and learning how to get your head down into it. So, if you have a bad shot, you really have to push it behind you, because you cannot do anything to change that and it’s now on the screen. There are electronic targets, just for reference, so you can see how you shot the shot before or any other shot before that. You just kind of have to accept it’s there, acknowledge it and just push it away and try and get back into that headspace and not blow your lid, because once you have done that, it’s really hard to close it back in.
Being a uni student as well, how did you juggle these two massive commitments?
Definitely have made use of the Elite Athlete program because I definitely needed it. I am still a full-time student so I am doing four subjects still, even though I competed [at the Olympics]. It’s really been having to work around assignment due dates. Speaking directly with teachers has helped out a bit. Also, there has just not been a lot of sleep. A mix of the three.
What advice would you give students wanting to pursue a spot in the next games?
I would say go to your local come and try; there is really no pressure. For people who are already in elite levels, make sure you get close to your [course] coordinators because without their assistance it’s really hard to do anything and the fact they help you one on one or via email at dumb times, it is just definitely helpful to ask a few things. And just make sure you get into asking teachers earlier, and not even just in learning. They want you to succeed in any way possible, and if you are going to give them the opportunity to work around you then they are just as happy to do it.
Hockey, being a team sport, have you always found more comfort, success and confidence in a team environment rather than a singular sport?
I never really did any individual sports. As a kid, I always played hockey and cricket, they were the main two, but then I also tried touch footy and basketball and things like that. So individual sports never really appealed to me. I think I just prefer to be a part of a team then just be by myself and I am pretty happy about that decision now because when we go to training at 6:30 in the morning, it’s much better to go with some other guys than go by yourself.
Being from Wollongong, affiliated with a South Australian university and having moved to Perth, how did all this moving around for Hockey work and feel for you?
It’s sort of the thing you have to do with hockey, because the whole squad is based over here [in Perth]. So, as you start to move up through the ranks in Hockey, and if you want to make the Kookaburras, you have to eventually move to Perth. It’s just sort of something I had to do. It still isn’t an easy decision having to move away from family and friends, but I was lucky because my sister and her now husband were over here when I moved over. So, I lived with them. It made it more comfortable and easier for me to move. But it was difficult moving away from family, in particular, but it was just something I had to do for hockey. It’s all been worth it.
What are the processes like for qualifying in the Kookaburras and then qualifying for the Olympics?
So, every year, the Kookaburras pick a 27-man squad. We usually play with 18 players on the field, so for every tournament they need to cut that squad down to 18, but that 27 will train all year in Perth and they will take different people to different tournaments. There’s not much difference in an Olympic year, they will still pick the 27 players at the start of the year to train until the Olympics, but then they pick the Olympic team of 16, because the rules at the Olympics are different with the amount of players you can have. They pick the Olympic 16 about a month out from the Olympics and then that’s the Olympic team. So, whoever is picked in that 16 gets ratified by the AOC (Australian Olympic Committee) and then they are a part of the Olympic team.
How did it feel finding out you were going to the Olympics?
A bit weird. I live with my girlfriend over here now and my mum came over to visit, so she was in our little apartment with us the day I found out, but she went for a walk because we knew when we would be getting the email. The whole household was a little bit nervous, because we didn’t know what the outcome would be; either, very disappointed or really, really excited. When I found out though, I was really excited. So was mum. So was my girlfriend. But it was a bit weird, because we are all mates with everyone in the squad and obviously 11 of those guys missed out on the team. So, you do feel for them at the same time as being excited for yourself. We are all really close; we train together, get coffee, play golf. So, it’s super exciting reading your name on the email, but 2 minutes later you begin to realise 11 names aren’t there and you feel pretty sad for them.
What did international travel during the pandemic do to the stress your team was presumably already facing?
Before we went was definitely the most stressful, because we really didn’t know what to expect. We were getting information from the AOC about all the restrictions and such that were being put in place and we, expecting the worst, thought we would probably be sitting in our room besides when we were at hockey. So that was probably the most stressful, but once we got there, we were really cautious as a team – both the hockey team and the whole Australian Olympic team. The first few days we were really, really cautious and didn’t want to go anywhere near anyone else; even going to the dining hall was stressful, because other counties just weren’t being as cautious as we were. But as you settled in and got used to the protocols the Australian team had put in, it started to feel more comfortable. You felt much safer being in the Australian team than some of the other teams. The building was very clean. Rules were in place and people were sticking to them. Whereas you would see other countries walk around without masks sometimes and not doing the right things in the dining hall, not distancing themselves from other countries. So, I think the Australian team and the AOC as a whole did a really good job making us feel safe. We really weren’t that stressed about coronavirus after the first couple of dates.
What were the facilities like when accommodating athletes as well?
They were really clean. When we travel, we usually stay in a room with one other person, in sort of hotel rooms, but at the Olympics it is always a bigger apartment. We had six of us in a room which was different and a bit busy, but it made it fun. The accommodation was really nice. Japan did a really good job of putting the village in a really nice area. In a lot of other Olympics, the village is usually just put where it can fit, but Japan reclaimed some land in the Tokyo harbour. We were right in the middle of the city. They reclaimed the land and put a nice little village on it. I think they are now selling the hotels as high-end apartments. So, it was all very nice, it was just a shame we had no fans there to share it with.
“2.9 million Australians watched us in that game, so we reached a lot of people and hopefully influenced a lot of people…”
Did you guys have any struggles during play as well?
We definitely had things go wrong. In the first game, one of our players tore his hamstring. We were pretty lucky that this year, due to coronavirus they changed some of the rules. Normally you have sixteen players and two reserves and those reserves can only come in once a player is completely out of the tournament, but this time they gave us 16 and 2 reserves, but the 2 reserves could come in for any game and swap back out. It was a lot more flexible, just because of coronavirus.
Were the Games more a positive or negative experience for you?
I think just because the Olympics is the end goal of a four-year cycle, during those four years you are stressing about being selected and playing well and you don’t want to miss out on teams and all that sort of stuff, but once you are selected in the Olympics, that’s sort of the end goal and you don’t have to stress about selection pressure and playing well too much anymore. You are there. You have been selected. All you have to do is play. So, for me, it was a really fun tournament and I think that’s just because the pressure was off and I could just go out, play hockey and do what I do.
Coming back with a Silver, what emotions came from achieving that?
Initially, we were very disappointed. There were a lot of upset guys in the change rooms straight after and I think that disappointment has carried on. I think the boys are still disappointed when they look at that Silver Medal because we realised we didn’t win the Gold. But the biggest thing for us is the support we received during the Games and after that it makes you realise the Silver Medal is a huge achievement even though we wanted to win the Gold. And even though we still have a bit of disappointment when we see the Medal, we realise it is a massive achievement. 2.9 million Australians watched us in that game, so we reached a lot of people and hopefully influenced a lot of people. I think we did, because we were getting messages from people that we had never spoken to saying they teared up or that someone is starting to play hockey because they watched the Kookaburras play. I think things like that are more important than the Gold Medal.
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