Culture and connection for Indigenous sports champs
They say that sport brings people together, and this proved to be true in mid-2022 when students from ACU gathered to defend their championship title at the Indigenous Nationals event. After four days of competition in basketball, volleyball, netball and touch football, ACU was crowned as the overall winner for the second year in a row – a rare feat in the tournament’s 26-year history.
But while success is sweet, for many of the players in the winning university team, the highlight of the event was bonding with their fellow students.
“It was an awesome experience,” says touch football team captain Zane Ratcliff, an ACU education undergraduate who was raised in the Queensland town of Gayndah, and has Wakka Wakka and Torres Strait Islander heritage.
“A lot of us ACU students only met a couple of days before the event, but the chemistry was there straight away. There was a lot of respect for each other and a really strong connection, which is just an amazing feeling.”
Team members joked that ACU’s victory at the previous Indigenous Nationals event in 2021 was “by accident”, as expectations were modest. But as reigning champs in 2022, the pressure was on for the team to defend its title.
“I think last year we came in with the mindset of just having fun and doing our best, and we were kind of surprised when we came away with the victory,” says physiotherapy undergraduate and netball team captain Jaimie Bryant, who was raised in the Northern Territory and has Wiradjuri heritage.
“This year it was a lot more competitive, so when we did win it, it was just really exciting and also a bit of a relief.”
Jaimie has experienced more than her fair share of success as a sportsperson in both netball and Aussie rules, recently playing in the grand final-winning Red Lions team in the QAFLW.
Growing up in the outback town of Katherine, she was a star athlete, representing the Northern Territory in football, and touring Barbados as part of the Wanderers Australia netball team.
Jaimie in action.
While her sporting goal is to be drafted in the top-flight AFLW competition, her current focus is university study and pursuing her passion for physiotherapy.
“Growing up super sporty, I just found it fascinating how I could go to see a physiotherapist with a sore ankle and they’d say, ‘Okay, this is what’s wrong with you, and this how we’re going to fix it’,” says Jaimie, who in 2021 was awarded the coveted ‘Puggy’ Hunter Memorial Scholarship, for Indigenous students studying health-related disciplines.
“I thought that if I’m not going to be an athlete myself, I still want to be involved in sports, and that’s one of the other reasons I chose to study physiotherapy, this desire to be around sport and to be engaged with it.”
Research has shown that participation in sport can enhance cultural connectedness, values and identity amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
This seems to gel with the experiences of the 16 student-athletes from ACU who were selected to compete in the Indigenous Nationals, which aims to “celebrate the rich sporting culture” of First Nations people, while also acknowledging “the heritage and history of the participating student-athletes”.
“When Indigenous students come together, we always have a strong connection or a bond, and I found it really great to compete alongside my fellow students and get to know them,” says Jaimie, who hopes to be chosen in the ACU team for the next tournament in 2023.
“When I was growing up, you didn’t really see that many young Aboriginal people aspiring to go to university, so to see hundreds of Indigenous students from all over Australia, studying and participating and following their dreams, it’s really inspiring.”
Both Jaimie and Zane are conscious of their status as role models to younger First Nations people, and have been active in their respective communities.
Zane was the first-ever Indigenous school captain at Burnett State College, and played a mentoring role with young First Nations students. He has won awards for his community work, which has included volunteering for not-for-profits to help with homework, teaching traditional dance, and coaching sporting skills in his specialties of rugby league and swimming.
Zane Ratcliff with his team.
“Gayndah has quite a large Indigenous community, and being a mentor to the younger kids and helping them through their schooling was never a chore, it was something I really enjoyed,” says Zane, who plans to follow in the footsteps of his mother and work in education.
“I was really lucky to have people who stressed the value of education to me, and if I can pass on that value to other Indigenous kids, to my future students and my little brothers and people in my community, that is something that I’d definitely be keen to do.”
For Jaimie, growing up in a remote part of Australia was often a barrier to her sporting goals, with a lack of access to resources and opportunities. She is thankful, however, for the support of the Stars Foundation, a mentoring program that opened doors for her.
“I wanted to be more of a role model to show young people in my community – especially young Indigenous girls – that even in a small place that is so far away, you can definitely achieve things,” she says.
Zane echoes that message, stressing the importance of promoting the idea that young Indigenous people can achieve their goals – whether those goals are on the sporting field or in the classroom.
“It’s about letting Aboriginal and Torres Islander kids know that even if they’re from a small country town, they can make it,” he says. “As someone who’s come from a tight-knit community, I think it’s important to pass that message on, so more people around us can follow their dreams and achieve the things they want to achieve.”
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