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Scholarship program empowers First Nations coaches to inspire next generation of Indigenous Olympians

Andrew Mathieson -

The Australian Olympic Committee has come around to adopt the well-worn adage of "you can't be what you can't see" by advancing opportunities and knowledge for First Nations sporting coaches to filter through to their mobs and the respective communities.

A dozen of the country's best cultural mentors across athletics, hockey, and swimming were recently approved to join the intensive Australian Olympic Indigenous Coach Scholarship program and to ultimately deliver more homegrown medallists.

The first session was completed this month at a sports day for Indigenous children of remote communities at a RAAF base on the outskirts of Katherine.

AOC chief executive, Matt Carroll said the landmark but ongoing scholarships course of its kind provided practical support to further their careers, and offered technical and skilled instructions to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sports leaders.

The select group of coaches were chosen by Swimming Australia, Hockey Australia and Athletics Australia – including in the latter's case a partnership with the Indigenous Marathon Foundation.

"These coaches will receive training in the early part of each week before they put their skills to good use," Carroll said.

Hockey is one sport that has boosted its popularity with increased Indigenous participants since a 2012 submission was made to the Federal government from game's national body over its plan of how to contribute towards ensuring both the wellbeing and mentoring of competitors was paramount in their communities.

For more than a decade, inspirational Torres Strait Islands hockey coach Dawn Baira has remained focused on skill development, pathways and competition opportunities at Tagai State College and through the Migi Kokan Deadly 5s program.

Baira has also progressed to assist in talent identification programs and is committed to the pathway programs from Torres Strait Islands for good albeit personal reason.

She has always held onto a dream to eventually mentor one of her juniors on their way to reaching the Olympics ahead of Brisbane 2032.

"I wish – well, I am hoping," she said.

"We are just grassroots on Badu (Island).

"Hopefully we can get our kids down into the (Queensland) state trials.

"It's all for the kids – that's the best we can do.

"Every step of the way, help where I can – starting from the basics and even to helping the families out along the way."

Shana-Ann Casimiro, who heralds from Darwin, has already got a lot out of the program's initial first stage from just learning the technical skills better, believing the shortfall is critical to being a more successful coach.

She has been in charge of the Territory Stingers academy program for years, and has also guided the Stingers' men's program for this year's series against Brisbane Blaze, in addition to being appointed the 2023 assistant coach for the NT under-15 girls' side.

"It was good to pick up the knowledge on how to coach the girls and treat the girls and keep them involved in sport," Casimiro said.

"I really like to get to know my players.

"So learning how to approach different players helped me further that knowledge.

"You can't treat everybody the same because we all react differently to how we are treated."

Libby Cook-Black was once a Jillaroos rugby league forward, but after running a first marathon she has switched to mentoring athletes around Cairns.

After crashing and tackling opponents on the field for Australia, a new perspective in a new sporting field came about soon after the moment the head-strong Torres Strait Islander joined the Indigenous Marathon Foundation in the first year of the pandemic.

The isolation to train for a marathon from scratch and through Zoom calls with former Olympian Rob de Castella and Indigenous coach Adrian Dobson challenged her resolve.

Andrew Thorpe, another appointed scholarship-holder in athletics, had a similar but arguably tougher experience for the same IMF program while living in Victoria that year under Australia's harshest Covid-19 state restrictions.

"Incredibly honoured to be a part of the Australian Olympic Committee Indigenous Coaching Scholarship 2023/24," Cook-Black wrote on social media.

"Incredibly honoured to also be surrounded by strong First Nations women on this journey.

"I cannot wait to bring this back to Gimuy (Cairns area) and work with our female athletes of Far North Queensland.

"Big things to come.

"Because our women deserve it."

The inaugural scholarship holders completed their equivalency training in basketball last year, while in conjunction with the Indigenous Basketball Australia organisation run under the guidance of Indigenous NBA legend Patty Mills.

But the AOC had to turn to corporate support to get its pilot program off the ground towards bolstering a greater Indigenous representation for future Olympic Games.

The scholarship holders are:

Dawn Baira (QLD/Torres Strait Islands) – Hockey

Tiana Brockhurst (QLD) – Athletics

Simone Carre (VIC) – Athletics

Travis Carroll (NT) – Hockey

Shana-Ann Casimiro (NT) – Hockey

Ben Catley (WA) – Athletics

Libby Cook-Black (QLD) – Athletics

Kim Eulenstein (NSW) – Swimming

Michael Faccin (NSW) – Swimming

Keegan Popowski (QLD) – Hockey

Timothy Stephens (QLD) – Athletics

Andrew Thorpe (VIC) – Athletics

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