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Stepping up to elite sports

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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to step out on the oval in front of a crowd of fans? For Curtin student Hayley Miller, it was a moment that changed her life.

“It will be something I will remember for the rest of my life and tell my kids and grandkids about in the future,” says Miller, who was the Fremantle Dockers’ first draft pick for its inaugural women’s team. “I thought about how lucky I was to have this opportunity and about all those who helped me get there.”

Miller, a physiotherapy student, is one of four women from Curtin University selected for the Dockers women’s team, who played in the popular new AFLW competition.

“The level at which they played was amazing,” says Curtin Elite Athlete Coordinator Tarryn Dickerson, whose passion for the women’s game is clearly visible. “I stood trackside and watched that first game and they were just hard at it.”

As an elite-athlete-friendly university, Curtin supports more than 150 athletes who are pursuing some level of study, including Olympians, developing and emerging athletes, and high-level coaches and officials.

The students receive assistance with course applications, and managing conflicts with training, classes and exams, with Dickerson central to negotiating flexibility around the athletes’ studies.

“I’ve been able to get allowances, and defer exams and assessments when I have been away on a sporting trip,” says Miller, who, along with the other women in her team has also had support with adjusting to an elite athlete environment and the subsequent media attention.

“They got into the thick of their competition just as uni was kicking off, so we’ve been making sure they have got that balance right, and have support systems in place to help them,” says Dickerson, who is also the Player Development Manager for the AFLW Dockers team. “They have had to really step up.”

Dickerson has regular one-on-one meetings with every athlete on the program to make sure they have a study plan that suits their needs, whether they are playing, training, tapering for a competition or building up for one.

Exam timetables frequently clash with competition meets, with some athletes opting to take their exams while they are competing in other parts of Australia or overseas.

“They can defer the exam or we can have them sit their exam under our special consideration policy, wherever it is they are going,” says Dickerson. “In the last exam period back in November we facilitated lots of support for athletes in these circumstances with around 20 exams being sat in cities all around the world.”

The Elite Athlete Program is supported through Curtin’s partnerships with many sporting bodies, including Hockey Australia and the Fremantle Football Club, with the latter giving students access to the club’s facilities in Cockburn and the Fremantle Dockers AFLW team.

The Fremantle Football Club AFLW/ Curtin partnership also offers work-integrated learning opportunities in social media, public relations, physiotherapy, exercise science and occupational therapy for other Curtin students.

Dickerson is hoping to make further improvements to the program and expand elite athlete scholarships though new philanthropic opportunities.

“Our athletes are so grateful for the support Curtin provides, so that they can continue to compete at the highest level but also invest in their future,” she says. “It’s about developing the person as a whole.”

Last year the value of the program hit home when Dickerson proudly watched several Curtin athletes compete at the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

“When I watched our athletes perform at the Rio Olympics and be part of the Australian team, it brought tears to my eyes,” she says. “You can’t put anything on that, that’s really special. And you know that in some way, the support that Curtin provided to them at some point in time helped them to get there. That’s what it’s all about.”

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