Inspiring young women to be their best
It was at the tender and somewhat awkward age of 14 that an Australian gymnast named Ashleigh Brennan – a small and nimble competitor with a big heart and acres of potential – made her debut on the world stage at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Forced to maintain a level of composure beyond her years in front of a roaring Melbourne crowd, Brennan admits she was “a little bit naïve”. This lack of experience was countered by her rare determination and skill, and she went on to claim a silver medal on the floor apparatus and gold as part of the Australian team.
“In some ways, I think my naivety helped me,” declares Ash, now 30. “At the time I really didn’t have any expectations, so I didn’t put much pressure on myself.”
Incredibly, Ash wasn’t the youngest Australian athlete competing at the tournament; the Sydney-born diver Melissa Wu was just 13 at the time. But she remembers being conscious of the fact that very few girls her age would ever have that type of experience.
“I think I was pretty lucky,” says Ash, who went on to win two more Commonwealth medals at Delhi in 2010. “I was still a school kid, doing something that not many young girls were doing, and that’s something that I’m really grateful for.”
Despite going on to compete at the Olympics in Beijing and London, Ashleigh still looks back at her international debut in Melbourne as her career highlight.
“That first Commonwealth Games really stands out quite dramatically for me,” she says. “My parents were there, it’s my hometown, and I just remember the stadium going absolutely nuts when we walked out as a country. It was a special moment and nothing since has ever felt quite like that.”
Trials and triumphs
At age 17, fresh from Beijing where she was part of the most successful Australian gymnastics team in Olympics history, Ashleigh Brennan felt she’d achieved everything she wanted to in the sport.
The joys of competing as an elite gymnast don’t come without costs – the sport is well known for the toll it takes on competitors’ bodies. There’s also the mental and emotional stress which is a common side-effect of performing at such a high level.
With all this in mind, Ash weighed her options and decided she would retire.
Less than a year on, however, she realised she missed the sport that she had put so much energy into, and with the support of her parents and her mentors, she made a comeback.
Despite many months away from training, the hiatus was a blessing in disguise.
“My body had completely changed, so I went from being a really tiny athlete to quite a strong female who had essentially grown up,” says Ash, who returned to the gym with her mind firmly focused on the London Olympics.
“In the end it worked to my advantage. When I went back into competition, I was a lot stronger both physically and mentally, so my body didn’t break down as much, there were less injuries, and my maturity helped as well.”
In the lead up to the 2012 games, Ash added another string to her bow, enrolling into a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science at ACU.
While the combination of sport and study was a juggle at times, she says it put her at ease to know she had a life outside of gymnastics.
“Knowing I didn’t have all my eggs in one basket, that really helped,” says Ash, whose athletic career almost ended at 13 after a serious elbow injury.
“I think that experience, getting badly injured so early on in my career, it was a bit of a wake-up call that my gymnastics career wasn’t going to last forever, and so I needed a fall-back plan. My university studies were really important to me, and they confirmed my passion for exercise physiology as an area of focus that I really enjoy.”
Competing at the London Olympics was a homecoming of a different kind for Ash and her family, allowing her to reconnect with her English heritage. It also signalled the end of her competitive career in gymnastics – a sport that had been the biggest part of her life since she was seven years old, and which taught her many life lessons.
“I would say that gymnastics taught me how to be very resilient, because I had to overcome many different challenges from a really young age,” says Ash, who still teaches gymnastics in Victorian schools.
“I also learned that I have to surround myself with really good people, and even today, I still rely on people to help me to be the best possible version of myself.”
Empowering young women
After completing her bachelor’s degree at ACU and pursuing postgraduate study, Ashleigh Brennan set her sights on a new goal: to use sport and physical movement to help others to be the best versions of themselves.
“I just love helping people move,” says Ash, who since 2015 has worked as an exercise physiologist, gymnastics mentor and sports ambassador in schools and the broader community.
Ash and Steph
“I love seeing the benefits that a change in a lifestyle can have on someone’s overall health and wellbeing. It’s really about helping people to feel good, and using exercise to guide people towards the kind of movement that’s right for them.”
In mid-2020, Ash sharpened her focus even further to concentrate on mentoring girls and young women.
Concerned by the increasingly high numbers of girls who stop participating in sport by their mid-teens, she decided to do what she could to reverse the trend.
Along with her former teammate and fellow Olympian Stephanie Moorhouse, she founded the business Find My Balance, with a mission to “connect young females by providing a platform to share experiences and provide strategies to encourage a balanced life”.
Both Ash and Steph are thankful for the mentors they had as young female athletes, and they see their new venture as a way of paying it forward.
“We know that young females who are engaged in sport can become leaders in their community or within their professions later in life, and we really felt this was an area that needed a bit more focus,” Ash says.
“Sport can give people a sense of belonging, and it can help them to feel accomplished, and we really enjoy empowering young girls to be confident in their bodies, and to use movement as a vehicle towards overall confidence during what can be an awkward and difficult time of their lives.”
As for her own journey through sport, Ash is grateful for the opportunities it gave her. While she occasionally misses the thrill of competing, her burning desire is to help others to find balance in life.
“Every four years when the Olympics are on, you might think, ‘Oh, I’d love to be competing right now’,” she says.
“But day-to-day, I guess I’m able to appreciate the things I have right now, and I’m at peace with what I’m doing with my life. If I can continue to mentor young girls and empower them to feel confident in their bodies and to have belief in themselves, that would make me feel really happy and fulfilled for many years to come.”
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