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Former Olympian Sally Hunter is helping young athletes protect their mental health

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Sally Hunter knows intimately the extreme pressure placed on elite athletes when performing at the top of their game.

The former Olympic breaststroker competed in the Beijing and London games and won a silver medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. 

These days, the West Australian is using her post-swimming career to mentor young female athletes and help them navigate the challenges of elite competition.

While the Tokyo games have highlighted the issue of mental health, which has long plagued elite sport, Hunter said more work needed to be done to better support athletes' wellbeing. 

A swim instructor pictured from the back coaching girls in the water. Ausnew Home Care, NDIS registered provider, My Aged Care
Hunter mentors female athletes early in their elite sporting careers.(

ABC News: James Carmody


"I think that's probably the most important thing … it's not just one day of their career, it's not just two weeks of an Olympic Games," Hunter said.

"They work their entire lives to get to that point and they need to have an incredible support network around them.

"[I want them to] know that I've probably been through the same things as well and be there to support them and help them grow their mindset to become stronger athletes mentally." 

'Everybody's human'

This year, Hunter has been working with Meg Hopkins, 16, who is aiming to make it to the Commonwealth Games trials. 

Sally Hunter chatting with Meg Hopkins close
Meg Hopkins, 16, says watching elite athletes prioritise their mental wellbeing is encouraging.(

ABC News: James Carmody


"Sally and I are really close, we go on walks together … it's kind of like she's a big sister to me," Hopkins said. 

The teenager said seeing some of the biggest names in sport — including Simone Biles, Liz Cambage and Naomi Osaka — prioritise their mental wellbeing had been encouraging to watch.

"Simone Biles is very influential, so I feel like her stepping aside because of her mental health is very inspiring," she said. 

Sally Hunter medium close up
Hunter says having positive role models is key to helping young athletes thrive. (

ABC News: James Carmody


Hopkins is hoping to follow in her mentor's footsteps to one day represent Australia on the world stage. 

"My coach Wayne and I are working towards the Commonwealth Games next year, so hopefully I can enjoy that experience," she said.

"But one day, I'd like to get an Olympic gold medal. See how we go." 

Sally Hunter coaching standing
Hunter says it is vital athletes have an "incredible support network around them".(

ABC News: James Carmody


Hunter believes having positive role models is key to helping young athletes thrive. 

"You always idolise people and see them to be something greater [than you], but they're just human," she said.

"I think [it's important] to have someone who's a role model or a mentor, to look up to and go, 'you know what, if they can do it, why can't I?'

Sally Hunter coaching girls
Hunter says athletes are their own "best advocate".(

ABC News: James Carmody


Hunter wants more coaches to focus on supporting athletes' mental health. 

"I think it's just important that we listen to athletes … they are their best advocate, they know themselves better than anybody. 

"So they need to have the confidence and the ability to come forward and say to people, 'I need help', or 'I'm not capable of doing this right now'." 

'Quite toxic behaviour' normalised 

Psychologist Courtney Walton, who researches mental health in elite sport at the University of Melbourne, said conversations in the sports realm were slowly shifting. 

A head and shoulders shot of a smiling man with a shaved head and beard, wearing an orange jumper.
Courtney Walton is a psychologist at the University of Melbourne’s elite sports and mental health team.(

Supplied: Courtney Walton


"We've normalised [in sport] kind of quite toxic behaviour and quite unrealistic expectations of what athletes or people should be doing," he said. 

"A lot of people seem to think mental toughness means just putting up with anything and doing whatever it takes to win and I think that's kind of a culture that's just grown in elite sport, and we've kind of all just gone with it, but I think that's starting to change." 

Sally Hunter walking by pool with Meg Hopkins
Hopkins is hoping to compete in the Commonwealth Games with the help of her mentor.(

ABC News: James Carmody


Dr Walton, who works primarily with athletes and performers, said many well-known sportspeople battled crippling mental health challenges behind closed doors. 

"A lot of athletes … very elite athletes that we all know well and who performed well to us will speak about just absolutely debilitating anxiety before performances … vomiting in the bathroom, just minutes before they enter the field.

"I think it's easy for us to forget just how much pressure is placed on these people." 

Creating a pathway for more female coaches

Hunter, who only had male coaches in her career, said one of the biggest issues for young female athletes was having predominantly male coaches, which often prevented them from opening up. 

"We just saw on the Olympic [swim] team that there weren't any female coaches, but there are a lot of female coaches in Australia. 

"I think it's just it's a really hard industry. I think a lot of industries that are extremely male-dominated [are] hard for women to break into, hard for women to get credit for the things that they do. 

"I came from an amazing program as a startup coach … in South Australia and they had a female high-performance coach.

"We were the only club in Australia to have all female coaches, so we've got a lot of support and a lot of kudos for doing that. 

"We just have to keep making sure that we're setting the right pathways for elite female coaches." 


Source: ABC

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