Evania Pelite: 'Rugby sevens is driving standards for women’s sport in Australia'

With a year to go before the Tokyo Olympics, Australia’s women’s sevens team is out to defend its title, and take revenge on New Zealand

Heading to Rio for the 2016 Olympics, Evania Pelite’s focus was not solely on returning to Australia with a gold medal packed in her luggage. She and her teammates were equally intent on exposing the game of rugby sevens to the rest of the world and doing their best to inspire a new generation of girls to pick up an oval-shaped ball.

Fast forward three years, and with the Tokyo Games just 12 months away, things have changed for the 24-year-old from Brisbane – and the sport. After Australia secured that gold medal when the sport made its debut appearance at the Games in Brazil, sevens is on an upward trajectory, and Pelite can allow herself to concentrate fully on winning back-to-back Olympic titles in Japan.

“We did our job in Rio in establishing rugby sevens not only as a male-dominated sport, but a female sport,” Pelite tells Guardian Australia. “You’ve got young girls that now understand rugby sevens and that there’s a pathway to becoming an Olympic rugby sevens player.

“We came out with that goal. Winning the gold medal was amazing for us, but this year the pressure of having won that gold medal – and now having to back it up – has shifted the focus.”

Pelite, who took up the game only after transitioning from touch football at the late age of 17, sees herself as something of a pioneer in a sport that has struggled for mainstream exposure, despite a long and storied history dating back to its roots in 19th century Scotland. The women’s game in particular has emerged into the spotlight only relatively recently, helped largely by its inclusion as an Olympic sport for the first time in Rio – and the subsequent feats of Pelite and her teammates.

The men’s game was included in the Commonwealth Games for the first time in 1998, but women had to wait to make their debut until last year on the Gold Coast, where the tournament proved a huge success even if it ended in gut-wrenching defeat for Pelite and Australia in the final against New Zealand.

“Sevens is definitely on the up,” Pelite says. “We’ve always looked at sevens being the front runner for women’s sport – we were one of the first to become full-time professional [female] athletes in Australia; we also last year got pay parity with the men. I feel sevens is really driving the standards for women’s sports in Australia at the moment.”

The number of athletes Australia dispatches to Tokyo may eclipse the contingent of 482 sent to Athens in 2004, to date the most sent to an overseas Games. And next year will be Australia’s most gender-balanced Games in Olympic history, with women making up 49% of the athletes.

“It’s amazing for young girls to be able to look up and know that there’s an equal opportunity for them to represent Australia in an Olympics and to know women are competing for 50% of the medal tally,” Pelite says. “It’s amazing recognition for the hard work the girls put in.”

Pelite understands her position as a role model to young people across Australia and the world, an honour she does not take lightly. “We all know being in the limelight you’re going to have to promote it in a positive way,” she says. “There are always people watching you – grown men and women, but also young women and boys – that also have aspiration. We can show them that hard work does pay off. Five years ago, I would never have imagined I’d be an Olympian now, so anything is possible.”

The women’s sevens team is one three Australian teams, along with artistic swimming and men’s archery, to have secured their place in Tokyo. The next 12 months will be spent preparing for a tilt at a second consecutive Olympic gold medal, and with nine members of the squad remaining from 2016, they have the experience to know how to go about it.

But there is something else spurring them on: the disappointment of that epic Commonwealth final defeat at Robina Stadium last year, when Australia lost to New Zealand’s golden-point try deep into extra-time. “That was a heartbreaking loss,” Pelite says. But despite the heartache, a year on she is able to see the positives from what was a fantastic advert for the game and women’s sport.

“As hard as it was to lose that gold medal to New Zealand, it was amazing for us to showcase what rugby sevens is. It was one of the best sevens finals you could have asked for,” she says. “As much as it hurts my heart to lose, we’re still pioneers for the sport and still have to put on a good show for everyone.”

Contributor

Mike Hytner

The GuardianTramp

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