As we celebrate International Women’s Day, the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) has sought the passionate testimonies of some of our highest achievers to provide their raw insights into what gives them the strength and the character to continue pushing themselves when others give up.

While NSWIS has handpicked the insights of just eight of its athletes, there’s literally hundreds of just as equally stirring stories among the women who are either scholarship holders or who work at the Institute where they provide the athletes with world class support.

With preparations ramping up for the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games, the soundbites that appear below from Eleanor Patterson, Mali Lovell, Tara Rigney, Rhiannan Iffland, Lauren Parker, Jessica Fox and Nicola Olyslagers cast a light on the inner strength . . . the true grit . . . that allows each of these incredible women to believe they can win whenever they’re called upon to take on the world . . .


Melissa Wu (Diving)

At 16, Melissa Wu became the youngest Australian diver to ever win an Olympic medal when she struck silver at the Beijing Olympics.

The 31-year-old, who has set her sights at competing at her fifth Olympic Games, says the values her family instilled are what underpins her drive, strength and commitment.

“My family values have had a huge impact on me from a young age. I think being so close to my grandparents, especially my grandpa who came to Australia from a different country [China] and had to work really hard from the ground up.

“I’ve always looked at my grandparents’ work ethic and I’ve admired that a lot from young age and my whole family had a good work ethic.

“My older sister was a really big role model for me when I was younger, and I always wanted to be just like her and follow in her footsteps. So, I think that that she set the bar really high from a young age and then coming from a generally very sporty and very successful family, we always push each other that little bit further as well.

“So, I think just those values of work ethic and dedication and commitment, they even to this day, every day, drive me and make me want to always be better than I was the day before.”

Wu won the silver medal at the 2021 Beijing Olympic Games, and the bronze at Tokyo. Wu has also won three gold and two silver Commonwealth Games medals: two silver and a bronze world championship medals as well as five World Cup medals.


Tara Rigney (Rowing)

Tara Rigney’s childhood dream was to make the grade in netball, and she was well on track when disaster struck in the form of two torturous injuries.

However, the New South Wales Institute of Sport scholarship holder’s sporting aspirations were reignited when she was invited to row a single scull.

“I was playing for the Under 19 state netball team in 2016 and 2017 and both times I ruptured my ACL.

“The first time I did my ACL, I couldn’t play netball for 12 months. By the time 12 months had come around, it was time to trial again for the team. So, I tried again for the team and was selected. I played four weeks. Then [at] a training session, I ruptured my ACL the same way for a second time.”

“There was a lot of soul searching that, in the end, made me go to rowing.

“About six months post-surgery, [Sydney University rowing coach] Alfie Young had remembered me from school. I hadn’t rowed for about three years. He reached out and asked: ‘Do you want to come down and try rowing?’ I was like ‘this will be a really good way to keep my fitness up for netball’.

“I went down and hopped in the single scull. I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed rowing at school but more because of the friendships. I didn’t have the passion I have now for the sport. As soon as I jumped in the single, I thought ‘this is awesome’.

Rigney won 2023 world championships bronze medal, which joined her World Cup silver and bronze medals. She finished the double sculls event at the Tokyo Olympics in seventh place.


Rhiannan Iffland

Whenever cliff diver Rhiannan Iffland launches herself into the 22 metres of great nothingness between the platform she’s perched on and the turquoise ocean below, she knows that in the three seconds it will take for her to hit the water she’ll hurtle through the air between 75 to 80 km/h.

And while Iffland – who was a trampolinist before receiving a NSWIS diving scholarship as a 15 year old – may appear to have ice water coursing through her veins, she admitted fear is a constant companion whenever she competes. Controlling it, she reasons, is the key.

“Everything about high diving scares me, but that fear keeps me in the sport. It’s such a cool feeling to know you’ve overcome your fears. It’s a feeling that lifts you; makes you motivated.

“It’s such a hard thing to explain. I even find at 10 metres that when you accomplish something it makes you realise you’re capable of pushing past the barriers . . . the mental barrier, the barrier of fear . . . it’s such a good feeling.

“It’s just about reassurance and talking to myself. I learnt [in 2022] to draw back on not only the last couple of years’ experience, but the last 20. Sometimes I think of myself being a little kid from Newcastle jumping off the board. The one thing I do think as I wait [to dive] is ‘OK, you’ve put in so many days, so many hours, to get to this point’.

“You know it’s a good dive when it really hurts. It’s really cool. You have so many thoughts, feelings, and diving before the actual dive, but once you hit the water the world goes silent. You just think ‘OK, that felt great, let’s go again’.”

Iffland has won four gold medals at World Aquatic Championships and is a seven-times Red Bull World Cliff Diving World Series Champion.


Jessica Fox (Canoe Slalom)

With a mother who won the Canoe Slalom bronze medal for France at the Atlanta Olympics, and a father who finished fourth in the sport for Great Britain at Barcelona, Jessica Fox – and her younger sister Noemie – were most likely destined to try the sport.

However, for Jess, watching the Canoe Slalom at the Sydney 2000 Olympics at the White Water Stadium at Penrith – a place where she estimates she’s spent over 10,000 hours of her life – decided she’d become a champion. However, it took some time – and an injury – to settle on which sport.

“I was six years old during the Sydney Olympics, and six is really young. But, Noemie and I were always sporty kids, and I knew both my parents had been to the Olympics. I suppose the fact I was around a high performance environment from a young age, and seeing an Olympics on our doorstep, made it feel more real and made it a possibility. Maybe I could see that was possible – after all, ‘you can be what you can see’ is that old saying.

“So, I imagine Sydney 2000 ignited some excitement about the Olympics, and after that there was Athens. I was 10 by then and glued to the television. I was into sport, wanting to go to the Olympics myself.

“I think having swimming and gymnastics as ‘foundation’ sports were amazing. Especially swimming, because you learn to ‘feel’ the water, and you learn that work ethic. You feel what it’s like to work hard and to really push yourself. In gymnastics you get that special awareness, and you build your strength and your core.

“After breaking my arm my physio, Tony, said I should paddle for rehab, and that’s how I started.

“You have to get over the fear, get over the challenging pieces [as a young paddler learning on the Nepean River]. I remember going down the rapids with mum and dad, following them down and hopping down each stopper, thinking to myself at the time ‘oh wow, I made it down that part’.”

With an Olympic gold medal, a silver, and two bronze, 14 world championships, and 40 World Cup gold medals, Fox is universally regarded as ‘the greatest paddler of all time’. She came first at the Tokyo Olympics.


Nicola Olyslagers (Athletics)

Central Coast high jumper, Nicola Olyslagers, who won the 2024 Glasgow World Indoor Championships gold medal last weekend, said her opponents doing well have played an important part of her stunning success.

The committed Christian also attributes her strong faith for providing an ‘eternal perspective’ regarding everything she does.

“When I have a competitor who is jumping the same height as me it means I’m going to be able to do something I haven’t been able to do myself. When I see a woman jump over two metres, I get excited. I’m like, ‘OK, we’ve got another one in the mix!’

“Some of my favourite competitions are like [Tokyo Olympics] when Yarolslava MahuchikhMariya Lasitskene and I were challenging for spots on the podium – we were just going for it.

“I mean, I was coming third jumping 2.01! It was amazing because even when I didn’t feel like it, they kept pushing and helping to carry me to the next place. I just cherish those moments. My competitors aren’t barriers to my own success, they’re drawing something out of me that I could never do on my own.

“Eternal perspective, having a perspective of eternity, [means] I have confidence in God for everything I do – including the biggest things in my life. I believe this life isn’t just for this life, it’s for eternity. I’m with Him. I have faith that what He’s done is enough to cover my entire life, and I want to meet Him. When I’ve got faith big enough for that then what’s centimetres on a high jump bar?”

Olyslagers added last weekend’s world indoor championships gold medal to her silver from Tokyo, her 2023 bronze world outdoor championships medal, and 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze.

Daniel Lane, NSWIS

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