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What is it like to be a sportsperson in Australia today?

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Written by Tito Ambyo

Sports in Society

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Sports in Society


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Becoming an elite athlete is not easy. It takes determination, courage and hours of hard work. This piece traces the lifespan of an athlete from the initial aspiration, to the profession, and then to life after sport.

It all starts with “The Dream”. For 20\-year\-old, Blake Mott, the dream is to become a top\-ten ranked tennis player.

Meanwhile, cricketer Sophie Molineux is on “The Cusp” of the professional sporting world, in a time where womens sport is on the cusp of equality with mens.

Once making it as “The Professional”, theres a different set of challenges. AFL player Mark Blicavs has learnt how to ignore the media, stay dedicated, and commit to a good work ethic.

Behind every successful athlete are a number of hardworking people, without whom professional sport would cease to exist. We talk to Clare Johnston, a cricket bat\-maker and an “Unseen Hero” in the industry.

But for some, finishing a sporting career can be just as difficult as beginning it. Former AFL player, David Schwarz discusses “Life After Sport”, and the transition from AFL footballer to retiree.

Recognised as one of “The Legends” of AFL, Gareth Andrews reflects on how the professional athlete has evolved over time.

The Dream

Whether its making it to the Olympics, playing in a Grand Final, or becoming the next Ronaldo, every kid has a dream. For 20\-year\-old Blake Mott, its to one day compete on the big stage at Rod Laver Arena.

I really want to make the top 10 or top 20; its something Ive always dreamt of as a kid, and so Im going to try and pursue that.

Since picking up a racket at the age of six, tennis has ruled Blake Motts life.

After growing up on the coast of New South Wales, the 20\-year\-old now hopes to make the game his career, and has dreams of making it as far as his idol, Lleyton Hewitt.

But, it doesnt come without difficulties: behind the tournaments and glamour of professional sport come many sacrifices and years of hard work.

Last July, Mott gave the game away for a couple of months, unsure of whether he would be returning to the harshness on the road, being away from family and not getting the results he wanted.

That time was the most difficult for me, but it also was something that I needed to do to find that love for the game again.

Early in his career, Mott spent his time on the court coaching junior kids at his local tennis club, and he now says its something he can see himself doing again in the future.

But for now, hes focused on completing a coaching course and training, with hopes of becoming a professional tennis player.

Im very single minded, so I really like to focus on my tennis.

Motts family has sacrificed a lot to give him a chance at his dream. His parents moved from Sydney to join him in Melbourne to support his growing tennis career.

Mott claimed the Optus Spring Nationals junior title in 2009, represented Australia at the World Junior Tennis Competition in 2010, and won the Challenger tournament in Launceston in February.

Currently ranked 302 in the singles, he aims to finish the year strongly and get inside the top 200.

Despite the challenges many aspiring athletes face, Mott believes its important to stay focused and enjoy every minute.

You can get really caught up in some of the stuff. I remember I did as a kid, thinking about if I was going to make it or not. I think when youre that young you just have to love playing the game.

The Cusp

Sophie Molineux is a promising VicSpirit left\-arm orthodox allrounder.

Growing up in the rural Victorian town of Bairnsdale, Molineux learnt the game in boys teams.

As she got older Sophie represented Gippsland Pride in VicSpirit Pathway Championships and Victoria in national championships. Last season she led Victoria U18s to the National Title, claiming the Betty Butcher Shield for the first time in 16 years and putting an end to New South Wales 11\-year title run.

This tournament was in the middle of January, when the inaugural Womens Big Bash League \(WBBL\) where she represented the Melbourne Renegades was in full flow. Here Molineux had the option skipper your States U18 side, or play in what would probably prove the last few fixtures for the Renegades that season.

What was probably a very tough decision paid off as she not only led a victorious squad but also had a stellar personal tournament. Molineux scored 375 runs at an impressive average of 62.50 and claimed four wickets at 14.50. While for most, Canberra is memorable because of politics, for Molineux the U18 Title and playing in the first Governor\-Generals match are likely to hold greater importance.

Growing up, Sophie found few female role models. She wanted to play cricket because her father did a way many cricketers fall in love with the sport. Now with her first full VicSpirit contract, Molineux is relishing the opportunity to train and hopefully play alongside Meg Lanning the Southern Stars, VicSpirit and Melbourne Stars captain and former Australian international and ex\- Renegades Sarah Elliott.

Molineux can now look up to the likes of teammates Lanning and Kristen Beams both played important roles for Australia on their recent tour of Sri Lanka. Sophie would love cricket to be her career an ambition which is certainly viable. Perhaps she will be a role model for the next generation of female cricketers.

Sophie Molineux will be playing in an era so different to many of her VicSpirit predecessors. She is on a paid contract and supplied with training and playing kit something yesterdays players could only dream of.

In her first VicSpirit season as part of a talented squad, Molineux has realistic aims. She wants to break into the XI and then secure a permanent spot. Having toured with the Shooting Stars \(Australia A\) earlier this year there is a strong chance Molineux will become a mainstay of the State side.

Having delivered for the Melbourne franchise with both bat and ball last season, it is no great surprise she has been retained and the Renegades will hope she can once again shine in red.

The Professional

The siren sounds, marking the end of the Preliminary Final match and the end of the 2016 season for Geelong. The Geelong players run their hands through their hair, looking heartbroken over the 37\-point loss. Their eyes are downcast, pain and exhaustion plastered across their faces as they try to comprehend the end of their Grand Final hopes.

Five years ago, the scene looked very different for Geelong as they celebrated a Preliminary Final win against West Coast Eagles, before moving on to win the Grand Final a week later.

While many players would remember this moment clearly, others could only imagine the feeling. One such player is Mark Blicavs who only just missed out he was signed to the club one month later, in October 2011.

In fact, five years ago Mark was not playing football at all. In his childhood, he competed in athletics, basketball and cricket but unlike most AFL players Mark played little football, just one season of Under 11s for the Sunbury Lions and a year of Under 13s for Taylors Lakes.

At the age of 16, Mark decided to focus on athletics as a distance runner. This remained his ambition into his early 20s, with hopes of making it to the 2012 London Olympics for the 3000m steeplechase.

But it was around this time that his friend Cam Guthrie, who was drafted to Geelong in 2010, recommended him to Geelong recruiters. The idea of a 198cm athlete who could run 3km in under eight and a half minutes certainly sparked their interest. He came down to the club for a trial, and was signed as a category B rookie.

After joining Geelong in 2011, he continued to pursue athletics for a few months, competing in meets in Europe, before returning to Melbourne in mid\-2012 to learn how to play footy at an elite level.

Having not played much football previously, Mark dedicated many hours to learning the game.

But with both his parents representing Australia at basketball, his sister playing for the Womens National Basketball League and his brother playing for South East Australian Basketball League, sporting prowess clearly runs in the family, and Mark was able to pick up the game much faster than anyone could have imagined.

Only a few months later, in round one of 2013, Mark got the call up for his first AFL game, due to a number of injuries among the clubs ruckmen.

Now, three and a half years later, he walks off the field from the Preliminary Final loss against Sydney with 20 extra kilos on his frame, 90 games under his belt including seven finals and a position on Geelongs leadership team.

But getting to this position demanded determination. His teammates and coaches commend him on his willingness to learn.

This commitment paid off for Mark, who was honoured to win Geelongs best and fairest award in 2015, the Carji Greeves medal.

On top of the hard work, athletes need to be willing to make sacrifices.

One challenging aspect of the job is learning to deal with media attention or in many cases, learning to ignore it.

Despite the challenges, Mark considers himself lucky to play sport for a living.

To be paid and to have your full time job to train, to exercise, to work out game plans on ground and just be involved in the sport its unbelievable.

His path to AFL is different to most, but he now typifies the modern athletic footballer, and will play his 100th game next season.

The Unseen Hero

Every sport has its unseen heroes, ranging from umpires to mascots to scorers or equipment manufacturers. Clare Johnston is a cricket bat\-maker a profession she entered just 18 months ago. She is passionate about the role, and would love it to become her full\-time career.

Bat\-making is not a well\-known industry, and it was a newspaper article passed on by her mother, meant for a friend, which sparked her interest, and led to a new hobby now turned part\-time job.

Clare is an accredited bat\-maker who uses Australian\-grown willow and hand\-crafts her bats under the name de Lacy Cricket. Though there is a variety of bat\-makers, Clare reportedly the only female in the industry has found a gap in the market: she would like to target women cricketers. With the launch of the inaugural Womens Big Bash League \(WBBL\) last season, this is a growing market and she would love to visit clubs and work with their players to create their ideal bats.

Though Clare would be thrilled with any player using one of her bats, her ultimate aim is for Meg Lanning Southern Stars, VicSpirit and Melbourne Stars skipper and number one batter in the world \- to take a de Lacy bat to the main stage. If the skipper ever used her bat, Clare said, “thatd be awesome”.

With more female cricketers becoming professional recently the New South Wales Lend Lease Breakers were awarded full\-time contracts there are certainly more opportunities for players, staff and those around the womens game, including bat\-makers such as Clare. It is an exciting time in the cricketing world and it will be interesting to see how Clares career crafting de Lacy Cricket bats develops.

Life After Sport

Its the dream of many kids across Australia to grow up and play sport for a living. They fantasise about the glitz and the glamour of fame, the exhilaration of winning a premiership in front of thousands of adoring fans.

But part of the dream that is so commonly overlooked is what lies ahead after the fun ends. David Schwarz grew up as one of those kids, and learnt the hard way of just how brutal life can be once the boots are hung up.

Nicknamed The Ox due to his solid build, Schwarz played 173 AFL games for Melbourne from 1991\-2002. Plagued by injury for much of his career, he managed to claim one best and fairest and was able to represent Victoria in State of Origin.

Although he was able to compete successfully at the highest level for more than ten years, Schwarzs life was far from a dream.

He had been battling a gambling addiction throughout his career, which left him in a difficult situation after his retirement in 2002.

Ive always been a numbers man. I think I would have got lost \[without football\]. It would have been hard to find what I really wanted to do. I put all my eggs into that basket and luckily it paid off.

Over the years, Schwarz accumulated $4 million in gambling losses.

“I guess being a punter you become pretty resilient and you kind of block a lot of the negative thoughts about the future, you can always make it up.”

It has been 11 years and five months since his last punt, and he has never looked back.

“It took a lot of hard work to get off the punt to understand that theres a lot of stuff to get right and to get that balance between working hard and doing the right things for your future,” he said.

Football continues to play a large role in Oxs world, with his media involvement during his career carrying into post\-footy life.

He has settled at sports dedicated station SEN 1116, where he co\-hosts _Breakfast with Frank and Ox_ and commentates AFL games.

He has been at SEN for 12 years now, joining them around the time he gave up gambling.

Using his role in the media, Schwarz has become an ambassador for responsible gambling.

He stands as a role model for those who are struggling with their addiction, to show that it can be beaten.

The 44\-year\-old now has a wife and two children, and although he’s busy with work and other commitments, he says they are his “life”.

“Family is everything. For me its paramount. Its everything. If I dont have family I dont have work, SEN, whatever, they become irrelevant. They come first and everything else is secondary.”

Schwarz has some pragmatic advice for those who are now in a situation he was in nearly 25 years ago:”Dont be a prick.”

“Its really important that you respect the game, respect the people within the game and know where you stand. We’re a very small part of history and youve got to understand that you arent bigger than the club or the organisation that youre working for. You make up a part of it, and if you respect that youll go a long way.”

The Legend

When Gareth Andrews speaks, the gentle wrinkles adorning his eyes fluctuate with rhythmic precision. When he smiles as he does often the furrows on his brow briefly align; each one a tell\-tale rendition of a life lived to its greatest potential.

At 70\-years\-old this December, Andrews presents an interesting definition of an Australian sporting legend. In his prime, he was a very good footballer: a premiership winner as a hardy back\-liner. Yet, some of his greatest accomplishments have been off the field.

In 1974, Andrews co\-founded the revolutionary AFL Players’ Association. He also served as CEO of Richmond until 1979, and was more recently Vice\-President of Geelong. A figurehead of the sport, Andrews has witnessed the game change immeasurably over the course of his lifetime.

Most drastic has been the rise in club turnover from $5 million in the 1970s to $60\-70 million in the modern game, resulting in an increased responsibly to sponsors.

Professional football in the 1970s was the epitome of the ‘blokes mentality’ familiar to Australian culture. The sport was rough, as were those who played it.

Today the work they do in the pack is enormous, and theyre fitter for it. But you just dont get the sly hit\-behind play. Some of the great stories of my time were guys who were just poleaxed behind the play.

Physicality was always at the heart of Andrews game. An accomplished player, he retired on a high at the age of 29, only 12 months after winning a premiership for Richmond.

Throughout his twenties, Andrews was restless. He felt the need to push his own boundaries. So, after suffering a heartbreaking Grand Final defeat playing for Geelong, a then 25\-year\-old Andrews left football in his prime to spend a year travelling the world. It was a decision he says these days would be “unthinkable”.

I was slightly random as a professional footballer, he admits. I just wanted to be what young blokes are and just get away for a year. I risked everything: footy, my career, a pretty girlfriend.

But, his hiatus from the game was short\-lived.

Left them all, came back and got back into footy and got another girlfriend, Andrews beams. If youre determined, you can do anything.

Yet it was what Andrews provided after football that cemented his place within the AFLs upper echelon of iconoclasts. Before Andrews, there was no protection for the rights of AFL players. The Players’ Association is now the largest representative body for athletes in Australia, and acts as a model for all other sporting codes to follow.

Its influence on the modern game is clear: the AFL is now verging on breaking the $2 million mark for a single annual salary. Given the average footballers career lasts just four years, Andrews legacy today is more important than ever.

If legendary status is judged upon sporting achievements, Andrews has a glorious and varied catalogue from which to choose.

If based upon historical importance, there are few others who have so drastically changed the face of Australian sport.

Most admirable, however, should be the courage he’s shown to use his own hardships as inspiration to change the lives of others.

For the unassuming man himself, being celebrated is of little importance. He appears content as long as he remains involved with the game he has always loved.

Luckily I stayed involved with football, working for the ABC and writing for _The Age_. I think if I had just focused on business I would have gone mad.

Andrews pauses for a second, then smiles. Probably have.

Monica Ireland
Georgia Isaac
Uma Rishi
Lachlan Williams
Lucas Radbourne\-Pugh
Jacqueline Kennedy

Photo and video credits:
Tim Fleming, SEN Inside Football, AFL media, Tennis Australia, Cricket Victoria, Jeff Wray Photography, Gabrielle McDonald

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About the author

Tito Ambyo