As the Opening Ceremony draws ever closer, Australia’s representatives are feverishly preparing for their team or individual sports. Whatever their background, these talented sporting superstars have one thing in common: they want to win a gold medal at the Games.
It’s in our blood to barrack for those who don the green and gold but so often we don’t actually know the people representing our country. Here’s your chance to learn all about some of the athletes you’ll be cheering for come August.
Rhys Howden, captain of the Aussie Sharks men’s water polo team, has been to the Games twice before – Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.
“Each time has been so different and I know Rio will be too,” says Rhys. “I feel this time around I have a lot more experience and the key is to accept the things I can’t control. You can’t worry about everything all the time.”
Rhys attributes a lot of his success to an incredible support network. “It’s not just my success – my family and friends have been amazing my whole career. My friends and teammates are always supportive and pushing me to be a better player. And if my parents hadn’t driven me to and from training in my early days, I might not be where I am,” says Rhys.
According to Rhys, his father (former British water polo champion Phil Howden) was a driving force when he started out.
“He was my first ever coach and taught me the basic skills of water polo,” says Rhys.
From humble beginnings to national acclaim, Rhys has managed to remain level-headed.
“It’s a huge honour to play for Australia,” he says. “I am very proud to stand up and sing the National Anthem before every game. I still get goosebumps.”
Danielle Prince is no stranger to high-pressure environments: she is the only rhythmic gymnast in history to have represented Australia at six World Championships, and she competed in the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and 2014.
“I started rhythmic gymnastics when I was 11 years old,” says Danielle. “My dance teacher suggested it because of my natural flexibility. From my very first class I loved everything about the sport, from the apparatus to the leotards to using my body to express myself. It’s such a creative sport and I love being able to create new skills.”
When asked about being chosen for the Rio Games, Danielle says, “Words can’t describe how happy I was when I found out the exciting news. There is a lot of hard work to be done between now and August but I am soaking up the whole experience as these Games will be my first and last.”
Bronwen Knox helped Australia win the bronze medal for women’s water polo in 2008 and 2012. Her 12 goals earned her the title of third leading scorer in the tournament.
“I came from a swimming background and had never heard about water polo until I was 14,” Bronwen reveals. “That year, my parents drove us to see the Sydney Games and my mother and I saw the gold medal match. I was in awe of the speed, skill and agility needed to excel. I don’t remember sitting down once during the game.”
Just eight years later, Bronwen led her team out onto the pool deck as the captain for the Beijing Games.
“Knowing that I am representing my country at the highest sporting level, putting on the green and gold and having an entire nation supporting you is amazing,” says Bronwen. “While [water polo] may not be the most popular sport, during the Games the support from home comes in tidal waves.”
When asked what she’s most nervous about, Bronwen says it’s whether or not she will be ready for Rio.
“After being injured at the end of 2015 it has been a daily battle to get back to full fitness,” she says. “I couldn’t swim for eight weeks, which is the longest break I’ve had in my entire sporting career. Having that in the middle of preparation was less than ideal. So while I’m back training and playing at 100 per cent, there is still that risk of re-injuring myself.”
While Bronwen would love to stand on the podium with a gold medal around her neck, she knows that Rio could possibly be her last appearance at the Games.
“My greatest hope would be that I finish the Games off with absolutely no regrets,” Bronwen says. “That I leave absolutely everything I can in the water and walk away knowing I’ve played the best polo I’m capable of.”
Bronwen is currently undertaking a law degree and hopes that her academic career will flourish long after she steps away from the sporting spotlight.
“I enjoy the different aspects of training, the gym, swimming and skill,” says Bronwen. “I can barely remember missing a single session growing up but it wasn’t until after my first Games in Beijing that I even considered calling myself a professional athlete, aside from the lack of money.”
Many people are surprised to learn that elite athletes have to fit their training in around a day job. Rhys makes a living as a franchise owner of Tropical Plant Rentals in Brisbane, while Danielle is currently studying to become a physical education teacher and working part-time to help her parents fund her gymnastics career.
“Rhythmic gymnastics is not part of the QAS or AIS high performance program,” Danielle says. “Unlike some of my European competitors, I don’t have access to world-class training and recovery facilities. I train in a local school hall alongside gymnasts as young as five.”
While their lives may be far from the glamour that the uninitiated envision, our Australian representatives are grateful for every second of their journey.
“There’s nothing quite like hearing your name announced in a huge stadium in front of thousands of people,” says Danielle. “If I had to describe it in one word, it would be ‘goosebumps’.”
What’s their advice for hopeful young athletes?
Rhys: What you put in is what you get out. If you want to achieve greatness, you have to work hard at it.
Danielle: The only thing that matters is that you pick yourself up, brush it off and try again. It’s about shaking off adversity, overcoming negativity, being positive, persistent and resourceful.
Bronwen: Follow what you are passionate about – what drives you, what excites you, what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. If you don’t put everything you’ve got into pursuing your dreams, you’ll always be wondering “What if?”