Nurturing Our Sporting Elite

Image: Nurturing Our Sporting Elite

As London 2012 approaches, a focused group of athletes is finely balancing end-of-year exams with preparations for one of the biggest achievements of their sporting career – the Olympic Games.

Thanks to the UTS Elite Athlete Program (EAP), they are able to perform at the highest level both in competition and in the classroom. If training or competition takes them interstate or overseas – think up to 10 weeks at a time – they can sit their exams there. And if they need some flexibility in their study program, they will get it. They are awarded a Union scholarship of up to $3000 and receive Fitness Centre membership.

Now, more than ever, the world championship medallists, Olympians and Commonwealth Games representatives passing through UTS are studying here for a reason.

"We are one of the most elite athlete-friendly universities in Australia," says acting UTS Union CEO Elizabeth Brett, a 2000 Olympics volleyball representative.

"We offer flexibility with their study up to the point where it doesn't compromise the integrity of their degree practically – we can assist with alternative exam periods, extension of assignments, and more recently we've had athletes sit exams overseas."

Athletes competing in sports as diverse as clay target shooting, mountain biking and acrobatics, to golf, cricket and swimming, get all the support they need because the bulk of their study is completed on campus – not through distance education.

Beijing Olympian Scott Robertson studied in Melbourne and Brisbane before settling on the UTS Elite Athlete Program.

The 24-year-old diver had undergone wrist reconstructions following the 2008 Olympics and spent all of 2009 in rehab. It had been a difficult period for the 3m springboard and 3m synchronized specialist, who also lost his long-time coach and friend Doug Walton that year. Robertson's passion and motivation for the sport were dwindling.

However, while in the final stages of rehabilitation, the Victorian decided to move to Sydney to enrol at university and reignite his career.

Along with an EAP scholarship, Robertson was supported by a full scholarship with the NSW Institute of Sport, where he now trains under Salvador Sobrino.

The Bachelor of Construction Project Management student, a bronze medallist at the Delhi Commonwealth Games and dual Australian champion last year, capped a stellar 2010 by claiming the UTS Sportsman of the Year title. Now at the peak of his career, he is focused on London.

"Scott decided that he wanted to train down here in Sydney, and he chose UTS because of the program we offer," says Brett. "It's something that has really developed in the past decade. We had such a large contingent of athletes competing in the 2000 Olympics, so I think that really flagged a gap in the university sector that we needed to be supporting our student athletes. From that, this style of program really developed."

The UTS Elite Athlete Program has more than 100 athletes on scholarship this year, with a further 40 benefiting from the Emerging Athletes Program.

"We recognise that younger athletes who are yet to break through to the elite level often need the same support services academically that our elite athletes need, if not more, because at times they are not supported by their state or national body at this point."

EAP scholarships are tiered, with criteria ranging from Olympian, world champion or top 5 in the world, to state representative. Brett says the ability of elite athletes to balance study with intensive training through the program is vital both in competition and life after sport.

"I think it's slowly being recognised more and more by our elite coaches that the best athletes are those who have balance and something that is stimulating their brain as well as every other muscle in their body. This is critical in them being not only elite athletes but more rounded people."

This has also been recognised by the University and the academic community, thanks to the work of Brett and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Teaching, Learning and Equity) Professor Shirley Alexander. "Most UTS faculties are now intimately aware of the special needs of our student athletes," says Brett.

While the UTS alumni who have made a mark on the sporting world number in the hundreds, it is the balance that sets them on track for life after uni, says Brett – whether it is in sport or in business. "I think when looking at the business side of things some of the best leaders in our community, business, finance and other industries are those who have been involved in sport at a high level.

They have that ability to work effectively and efficiently with other people; they often have great communication skills; they've certainly got drive and passion; and those traits that make them great athletes so easily transfer into the business world."

Scott Robertson

Image: Scott Robertson

Diving (Construction Project Management)
The 2008 Olympian overcame wrist injuries to win bronze at the Delhi Commonwealth Games last year, as well as the 3m springboard and 3m synchronised national titles. He was named 2010 UTS Sportsman of the Year.

Gavin Woods
Image: Gavin Woods

Water polo (Business/Law)
A member of the Australian men's water polo team for more than 16 years, Woods has competed in three Olympic Games, and is currently in contention for London 2012. He will be one of the few athletes in the world to have competed at four Olympics. Woods combines sport at the highest level with a Business/Law degree, full-time work and a young family. His wife, Caroline, competed for Australia in swimming.

Peter Proctor
Image: Peter Proctor

Waterskiing (B Engineering, 1991)
A member of the Elite Athlete Program for fouryears until he graduated in 2008, he was named UTS Sportsman of the Year following his whitewash at the US Open Waterskiing Championship during his final year. He won all five rounds there, and also took out the Sydney Bridge to Bridge Race, recording the second-fastest time in history. Procter has assisted in the promotion of the EAP since graduating, presenting at the 2010 Blues Sporting Awards.

Hannah Campbell-Pegg
Image: Hannah Campbell-Pegg

Luge (BA Human Movement, 2006; B Education, 2009)
The two-time Winter Olympian reached speeds of up to 140kph as she raced down the 30-storey Vancouver ice track in 2010. The luge competitor, who also competed in the 2006 Turin Olympics, held an Elite Athlete Scholarship in 2008 in the final year of her B. Education at UTS. She continues to be an ambassador for the Elite Athlete Program.

Joanne Brigden-Jones
Image: HJoanne Brigden-Jones

Kayaking (B Nursing, 2011)
A World Championship bronze medallist in the women's K2-200m in Hungary in September, Brigden-Jones was only half a second off winning gold. The 2008 and 2009 UTS Sportswoman of the Year, and the first UTS student to win the NSW Institute of Sport Academic Excellence Award (2009), she is now preparing for London 2012.

Words: Caroline Jenkins