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Indigenous sports stars gain deserved recognition after 20 years waiting on the sidelines

Andrew Mathieson -

Cricketer Ashleigh Gardner has been presented the historic first National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sportsperson of the Year honour to the backdrop of the MCG.

Gardner's award came as part of the National Indigenous Sports Foundation awards, which returned for the first time in 20 years on Saturday night.

The recognition of Indigenous excellence in sport had previously ran every two years from 1986 until 2003 before the presentation lost support and abruptly ended.

The revised format at the 2023 ceremony has since stripped male and female awards in favour of naming the one winner each category from either professional or grassroots sports.

The Muruwari woman and all-rounder got the nod for the award ahead of respective Australian Test cricketer Scott Boland, NBA veteran Patty Mills, Diamonds netball goal shooter Donnell Wallam and NRLW dual premiership hero Tamika Upton.

Gardner was rated the world's best female cricketer this year after winning the ICC player of the month four times, confirming her status further in the game from posting a match haul of 12 wickets – including a women's record best figures of 8-66 – in the one-off Ashes Test in England.

While her presence stood tall at the ground she won the 2020 T20 World Cup, Gardner reassured the mob in attendance via a pre-recorded video message between WBBL matches that she was honoured to stand for Indigenous people on the cricket pitch.

"I guess the most important thing to me, and also the proudest moment, is being able to represent my culture and our people," she said.

"That makes me think about the times I have used my voice in my sport.

"Sometimes I have copped backlash, but I would never shy away from doing that.

"I am proudly representing my foundation's heart and hopefully I can change trends and statistics through that as well to benefit our people."

Gardner's win and speech drew strong applause and respect, but she had to take a step back for the final award of the night.

The late Kevin Coombs was named the inaugural recipient of the National Trailblazer Award recipient, the distinction coming just 38 days after his sad passing.

Both of the Wotjobaluk Elder's daughters present on the night spoke both emotionally and evocatively about the achievements of their beloved dad in a touching tribute.

"Dad would be really overwhelmed with this award and certainly to be acknowledged in this company," Rose Falla, who is also Victoria's first Aboriginal magistrate, first said.

Coombs was the first Indigenous athlete to represent Australia at either a Paralympic or Olympic Games, although the non-citizen suffered the indignity of being forced to travel with an honorary British passport.

The phenomenal wheelchair basketballer went to five Paralympic Games, including one of 12 Australian athletes listed at the 1960 Paralympic Games, and again in 1968 and 1972, also as a track and field athlete, before focusing just on the court in 1980 and 1984, while captaining Australia in 1972 and 1984.

"In our eyes, dad was always a trailblazer in many aspects of his life, including Koori health and Koori justice," Janine Coombs said.

"Of course, he's more known for his sporting achievements and like many of you, dad just fell in love with sport.

"In his case, it was basketball because he loved nothing better than being on the court and holding court."

Cathy Freeman was given a stirring standing ovation over the confirmation of her capturing this year's National Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Kuku Yalanji and Birra Gubba woman, who is still best remembered in Australian sporting history for the 49.11 seconds that won gold in the Sydney Olympics 400 metres, required a walking stick to the podium after recovering from knee surgery.

"Looking at Mark Ella and Lionel Rose, it's pretty special to see my name down there – it's pretty overwhelming, actually," Freeman said looking at the award.

Freeman earned the unique tribute on the back of an unequalled five-time National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sports woman awards, including four straight from 1995 to 2001.

One of the few awards remaining for Freeman to accept, the 50-year-old dedicated the delicate glass-like boomerang to her "great grandparents, grandparents and parents".

"To anyone with a dream or interested in the untapped potential within you, I just say look to the ancestors," she said.

Ronnie Griffiths added to the ongoing list of victories after the back-to-back Newcastle Knights women's mentor was announced National Sports Coach of the Year.

The Gomeroi man took over the rookie wooden spooners in 2022 and has incredibly only lost on two occasions in 18 matches across his two NRLW seasons in charge.

He was also appointed coach of the 2023 Indigenous All-Stars side that won in New Zealand 26-22 against the Maori All-Stars.

"These awards from a coaching perspective are usually won on the back of coaching some really great teams, so I must acknowledge those teams I've coached this year," Griffiths said.

Griffiths had beat out South Australian cricket coach Jason Gillespie, Richmond's AFL assistant Xavier Clarke, Jillaroos rugby league assistant Jess Skinner and Torres Strait under-17s girls rugby league coach Dienna Mosby.

The 45-year-old attributed much of his on-field success to his mother and four sisters for "helping shape me as a man", but also thanked his wife and two daughters.

"Football coaching has taken a lot of time away from my family, but it has allowed us to do some wonderful things together," he said.

But he reserved special praise to watching "his greatest influence", Rick Griffiths, motivating his Newcastle All Blacks for years inside the sheds, through to mentoring hundreds of Aboriginal teens at clinics and onto coaching the New South Wales under-17 Indigenous teams.

"Those lessons stay with me to this day – they've molded my coaching philosophy," Griffiths said.

"We haven't had a yarn for 13 years and I haven't felt your embrace for 13 years, but I hear you every day and I feel your love every day, and I feel you around me.

"There's no greater influence in my coaching career. This one is for you, dad."

The National Indigenous Basketball Association was announced the National Sporting Competition of the Year winner ahead of the established Koori Knockout tournament and National Indigenous Cricket Championships.

The brainchild of Patty Mills has only evolved since 2021 to help improve the lives of Indigenous teenagers, both on and off the court.

The acceptance speech brought out the most laughs and smiles among some nervous words.

"I'm Benny Mills, Patty Mills's dad," Benny Mills slowly introduced himself to the audience, who broke out into loud cheers and hollering.

"So unfortunately, Patty is unable to be here to join you.

"He's in another season, I think, he's in his 15th, of the NBA.

"So his mum and I are here to accept the awards on his behalf, I'm sorry."

The judging panel for the awards included prominent former sport stars, Wallabies rugby great Mark Ella, NRL and AFL veteran campaigners Dean Widders and Neville Jetta, and Olympic sprinter Kyle Vanderkuyp.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award Winners:

National Sports Volunteer of the Year – Jenny Pryor (Bindal Sharks Indigenous rugby league)

National Sporting Organisation of the Year – Torres Strait Youth and Recreation Sports Association

National Sportsperson with a Disability of the Year – Amanda Reid (paracycling and multisport Paralympian)

National Sports Official of the Year – Jacqui Dover (NBL/WNBL referee)

National Sports Media Representative of the Year – Jake Duke (Fox Sports reporter)

National Sports Coach of the Year – Ronald Griffiths (rugby league)

National Junior Sportsperson of the Year – Jessie May-Hall (basketball)

National Sporting Competition of the Year – National Indigenous Basketball Association

National Sports Team of the Year – Walgett Aboriginal Connection (Koori Knockout rugby league)

National Sportsperson of the Year – Ash Gardner (cricket)

National Senior Elder Sportsperson of the Year – Pam Pedersen (running)

National Lifetime Achievement Award – Cathy Freeman (athletics)

National Trailblazer Award – Kevin Coombs (Paralympics basketball)

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