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From the Commonwealth Games to Nationals

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

UniSport CEO, Don Knapp reflects on the success of student-athletes at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, and the buzz leading to the launch of the Nationals event series…

Q. The Commonwealth Games showcased a striking number of student-athletes dominating several events. More than 200 of the 473 athletes who competed were student-athletes. Can you tell me why this success is so exciting for the university sport sector?

A. The overwhelming success of student-athletes at the Games is really exciting for the university sport sector. The most significant aspect of that excitement is that of those student-athletes who formed part of the team, almost 100 were former Uniroos. This is clearly evidence of the consolidation of the pathway from Uniroo to Commonwealth or Olympic Games success, which has been an aim of ours for quite some time.

Q. Are there any particular programs - university or otherwise - that you believe the success of these student-athletes can be partly attributed to?

A. First and foremost, I need to credit our UniSport members for the work they do on campus with elite student-athlete programs, and for their increased investment and contribution to national sporting events such as the Commonwealth and Olympic Games. In my opinion, one of the most successful programs is University of the Sunshine Coast’s Paralympic athlete program. A substantial amount of success in the Paralympic pool can be attributed to this program. Bond University’s partnership with Triathlon Australia is also bearing fruit.

Q. I understand University of the Sunshine Coast and University of Technology Sydney have made considerable advances in the last few years. Not to mention, Griffith University and Bond University sent an impressive contingent to the Games this year…

A. Absolutely, University of the Sunshine Coast and University of Technology Sydney tend to lead the way in terms of elite student-athlete programs, along with The University of Sydney, The University of Melbourne, The University of Western Australia and Bond University, to name a few. Duncan Free’s elite athlete program at Griffith University and Bond University’s Gina Hope Reinhardt swimming scholarship are fantastic. Not to mention, all of the universities participating in the Aon Women’s Uni 7s Series are strengthening the elite pathway. Overall, there are too many programs to mention, which is just awesome.

Q. The Rugby Union Players’ Association published an article which found almost 70% of Australia’s rugby players are currently undertaking some form of higher-education study, with a number of up-and-coming stars explaining that studying while playing elite sport assists them in maintaining a balanced lifestyle. How do you believe universities’ contribution to achieving sporting goals also improves the broader student experience?

A. The data is overwhelming in indicating to us that student-athletes who are pursuing a dual career in both sport and university study tend to be better retained in the system, achieve stronger academic results and generally demonstrate greater employability upon graduation. It’s an all-around package. The AIS through their student wellbeing program has recognised this, along with a number of national sporting organisations.

Q. That’s quite a staggering number of rugby players completing higher-education study…

A. It’s very impressive. It’s always been the case that rugby is inherently a very collegiate sport. Look at the strength of the teams from The University of Queensland, The University of Sydney, Griffith University and Bond University. In saying this, women are still earning less than men in the professional circuit, so to have this dual career really supports them in that capacity. However, the growth of the Aon Women’s Uni 7s Series is extremely encouraging for women, and we anticipate it could grow to 12 teams over the coming years.

Q. Drawing closer to the beginning of Nationals Div 2, do you believe the buzz following the Commonwealth Games will encourage students to participate and up their level of competition?

A. Absolutely I think it will. A large multi-sport event like the Commonwealth Games certainly engenders competition. The other factor the Games delivered was higher quality sporting facilities and improved transportation methods. Essentially, there were two main reasons why we chose to keep the Nationals series on the Gold Coast for the next two years. Better facilities was one, and the fact it is an extremely popular location for students was another. There is every reason to be positive moving towards Div 2.

Q. Do you believe the Nationals Series will further facilitate student-athletes on their pathway to elite sporting careers? Will the potential outcomes of this event be worthwhile for students who are already making a name for themselves on the national and international sporting circuit?

A. Definitely, and the desire to achieve this has been a strong driver of our change. The feedback we were getting from elite student-athletes who craved a stronger level of competition, coupled with the growth of elite programs on campuses really prompted us to make these changes so the sporting outcomes would be more worthwhile. It will be a work in progress, but when competitors are up against the best athletes in the game, it will absolutely be valuable for them.

Q. The UniSport Australia National Conference is fast approaching at the end of May. Can you tell me a bit about what this will entail? Who can we expect to see in attendance and what will the major outcomes be of bringing this group together?

A. It is always fantastic to get all of our members together and it is a really fun time for them to share ideas. General Manager – Education, Training and Risk, Donna Spethman, summed up what we can expect quite concisely, “All of us at UniSport are looking forward to welcoming members, stakeholders and international guests to our national conference starting 21 May. It is an exciting opportunity to not only network with our colleagues from sport departments across the country, but also a platform to share ideas and discuss issues that impact the university sport sector. We expect over 130 delegates in attendance. Our gala dinner will also see the launch of our ‘Road to Italy’ campaign.”

Q. The majority of this group will also be in attendance at Nationals Div 2. Why is it crucial to bring them together prior to the launch of the series?

A. Our National Conference is about sector development and sector specific idea sharing, rather than being sport specific. It’s more about professional development of the individuals. Sure, we will talk a lot about our strategies for the Nationals series and our sport programs, but it is much more mixed and varied.

Q. Indigenous Nationals is just over five weeks away. How is UniSport’s preparation for this event progressing? What can we expect to see when the event kicks off on June 24?

A. Our preparation is going really well. The event grows from year to year and we have a lot of confidence in Macquarie University as a host this year. To give credit where it’s due, Eloise Ayre, Sports Coordinator – Nationals, has been driving the organisation of the event, and I think she summed up our excitement best: “Preparations are well underway for this year’s Indigenous Nationals. This year will see 32 teams competing to be crowned the 2018 champions. We are excited to offer increased match durations in all four sports this year and are looking forward to seeing which universities will rise to the challenge!”

Q. There has been great emphasis put on the cultural changes UniSport is aiming to bring about as an organisation. Are you feeling confident heading into both Indigenous Nationals and Nationals Div 2 that change will be evident?

A. Yes, and I say this because we began the transition last year and saw a lot of positive outcomes from implementing these strategies among both students and members. I know in particular members are very supportive of the change, and the way they are managing their teams is reflecting this. In my opinion, these two factors are catalysts in achieving cultural change.

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