The many . . . man-made . . . obstacles Dr Rachael Gunn, overcame to take her place in the Australian Olympic Team should make the fiercely contested ‘Break Battles’ she’s certain to contest at the 2024 Paris Olympics Games seem like a leisurely stroll by the Seine.

Gunn, who lectures at Macquarie University in Sydney’s north-west, and who has written notable academic papers on her sport’s culture, speaks openly about the early days of her career when she’d lock herself in the bathroom at competitions to cry because she felt so intimidated by the macho atmosphere.

When the breaker, who goes by the moniker ‘Raygun’, started out in 2008 there were no other women strutting their stuff in what was then a male dominated pursuit. The moves were designed by males for males; women were dismissed as physically too weak to break, and those who did were subjected to taunts about such things as body image. Their shoulders were supposedly too big, they dressed too much like a dude, – they had no right to be there.

And while Gunn was aware of all the comments and attitudes, her love for the sport was matched by both her incredible resilience and a stubborn willingness to tough it out until changes to attitudes slowly – but surely – came.  

“It was totally hard,” said the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) scholarship athlete. “For years, I wouldn’t come across another woman who was breaking in Sydney.

“I trained; it was all guys. The competitions; all guys. I knew there were other women who’d done it before, [and were breaking] in other parts of Australia and the world, but it was so rare for me to see that. It would be really, really intimidating, and often I would cry in the bathrooms because I was so overwhelmed and intimidated.

“But I did have a really good support structure. I had my crew – my team – who always backed me up, and who always pushed me to keep going. They supported me. That makes such a big difference when you’ve got allies like that to help you push past those barriers.”

While Gunn will make her Olympic debut at 36, she said ‘misconceptions’ about what the female body was capable of impacted her training during the formative stages of her development.

“I don’t think I spent enough time getting stronger because I thought I couldn’t get stronger; that those sorts of moves weren’t for me,” she said. “But time and time again we’ve seen international B-girls just prove that wrong and completely blow us away in what they can do.

“I mean, B-girls beating men in men-dominated competitions . . . in a power move battle which is mostly acrobatic style moves . . . it’s phenomenal! It’s taken me a long time to get over those really embodied assumptions about what I can do, it’s just keep pushing past that to get stronger. It’s [a case of] ‘You know what? I’m going to do it’.”

One of the most jarring aspects Gunn needed to overcome was the issue of body image, an unwelcome byproduct of being a woman in a man’s world.

“I’d be criticised for dancing too much like a girl, or too much like a guy,” she said. “Girls would be criticised for having shoulders that were ‘too big’ or dressing too much ‘like a guy.’ There was so much policing of women’s involvement that it really discouraged girls from participating.

“It was hard to push past that, but I think, broadly, as a society, we are more embracing of women in sport, which is fantastic to see, and we continue to improve – and the strength women can build. It was something people didn’t encourage . . .”

While Gunn has proven she and other women have their place in the sport, she’s been stunned by the negativity that followed the announcement breaking would join swimming, rowing, cycling and athletics as an Olympic sport. It represents yet a new battle for acceptance – and Gunn is up for the fight.

“I think most people don’t know what breaking is,” she said patiently. “They haven’t seen a breaking battle in the last 20 years, so they don’t know what the level is . . . how complex it’s become, and how athletic it is.

“They’re thinking it’s just someone who does The Worm and they win that battle, or they do a head spin, and the battle is over. There’s a lot more to it than that. It doesn’t bother me personally . . .  I’ve always taken a different path in things; doing my PhD, I’m an arts academic as well, so I think most people think I’m a bit of a weirdo!

“[But for] other people who break, [hearing] a negative is disheartening for them. It’s not going to help Australians get better at doing the things they love, and it’s not going to help give us more opportunities when it’s shut down before people even have a chance to learn about it.”

Gunn, who is a teacher and researcher with interests in dance performance, media, autoethnography and post structuralist and feminist theory, fervently believes people – especially the younger generation -will like what unfolds in the break battles at Paris.

 “I’m really excited for people to see what breakers can do because there’s so much joy that comes from it,” she enthused. “There’s an unexpected display of athleticism in a breaking battle, and every breaking battle is different. I’m excited you’ll all get to see that.

“There is a huge interest in young people to take up breaking, same with skateboarding . . . suddenly there’s skateboarding classes which was never a thing before Tokyo. And I think it’s no coincidence that a lot of these sports [entering the Olympic movement] you can easily do in your backyard or the local park.

“For breaking you just need your body, for skating you just need a board and [three on three] basketball, just a ball. These are accessible to a wide variety of people. I think, because of that, we’re going to see a lot of young people get involved.”

And for those who give it a whirl, Gunn said they should prepare to be charged by the thrill – and excitement – that comes with self-expression.

“In breaking there is just so many different things you can excel in,” she said. “You could be someone that specialises in head spins, for example. You could be someone who specialises in spinning on your hand or jumping from hand to hand. You could specialise in the development in the creation of new moves and vocabularies, or you could be someone who moves so beautifully with your style – and I just think that’s so exciting because you get to see this individual expression from each person.

“You can go ‘Oh my gosh, look at how they’re using their body! This tall person is able to use their height to kick their legs, this short person can spin from one side of the stage to another!’ I think that’s such an amazing tool break dancing offers for you to be able to develop that self- expression and find those distinct strengths you have to be able to beat your opponent.”

And, if nothing else, the effervescent Dr Gunn has proven time and time again she possesses the strength of character – the true grit – to overcome what many others might have found to be dream-crushing opposition.

Daniel Lane, NSWIS

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