Achieving on & off the sporting field

Evonne Goolagong Cawley

Deadly Vibe Issue 108 February 2006

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Four talented young tennis players head to Timor with an Aussie legend.

Evonne Goolagong-Cawley holds a special place in the history of Australian sport, being our greatest ever female tennis champion. During her career, Evonne won two Wimbledon titles as well as four Australian Opens and French Open, and while she may be no longer be lifting trophies, her contribution to Indigenous sport continues.

Evonne was recently involved in leading a group of talented young Indigenous tennis players to Timor-Leste where they promoted health and community involvement through tennis.

Run by Australian Volunteers International and sponsored by Adecco and the Victorian Government, the Timor-Leste Tennis Clinic was held over eight days and provided young Timorese people with an opportunity to improve their tennis skills and learn important life skills.

The four Aboriginal players who took part in the tour were hand-picked from various clinics conducted by Evonne, including the tennis development program at Box Hill Secondary College in Victoria.

The group included 16-year-old Kyah Stewart, a recipient of the Goolagong Scholarship and quarter finalist at the National Junior Clay Courts Championships held in Victoria during March of last year. Joining Kyah on the tour were 16-year-old Steven Tomilson from Beudesert in Queensland, 16-year-old Michael Charles from Wodonga, who has previously travelled to the US with a group of young regional tennis players, and 13-year-old Keiryn Lenoy, an exceptional junior player from Cairns.

The group travelled to Dili with Evonne and her brother Ian Goolagong, and participated in round robin tournaments, skills development and fitness training sessions with young members of the Jospat and Bastian tennis clubs.

“It was just awsome,” says Kyah, who began playing tennis when she was just nine and who has already toured in England, France and Germany.

“When we arrived there was a big group of kids holding up this huge banner welcoming us and they were all screaming and waving. Then when we were on our way to the hotel there were truckloads of kids following us, screaming like crazy. We all felt like celebrities!”

Each day, Kyah and the rest of the team would train in the mornings with the older participants before spending their afternoons working with the younger players. But while the team was helping the young Timorese players with their tennis, they were also learning plenty in return.

“We got to travel around Dili and learn a lot about the culture which was really good,” Kyah says. “I’ve known Evonne for a while now, but this was the first time I’ve ever travelled overseas with her and that was a great experience. We did a lot of public speaking, and she was there to give us plenty of advice and she helped us to stay calm.”

Upon her return, Kyah attended the National Goolagong Tennis Development Camp, and plans to spend the rest of the year competing in more tournaments around the country. After finishing high shool she hopes to head to the United States to attend a tennis college.

“The Timorese people were just awesome,” Kyah says. “I can’t wait to go back. I’d love to return and do some more coaching and continue to help them out. I made some really good friends.”

The clinic was a success not only for the game of tennis; it was also a victory for reconcilation, as two Indigenous cultures came together to share knoweldge and improve understanding, as well as creating better oportunities for their young. Playing tennis has shown to have a positive effect on at-risk Timorese children, and it is hoped that the tennis clinic can become an annual event in future.

(story 1/2/2006 end)

Deadly Vibe Issue 88 June 2004

One of the greatest Indigenous sportswomen of our time, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, is a two-time Wimbledon champion. She also won the Australian Open four times, and the French Open once.

In total, this quietly spoken woman from the Wiradjuri nation of NSW won 92 professional tennis tournaments.

“When I was at high school, the one person who really kept me going was Lionel Rose,” says Evonne. “Seeing him win his first world title fight, I thought to myself, ‘If he can do it, I can do it too’.”

Evonne has been voted Australian of the Year and Australian Sportsperson of the Year, as well as being awarded both an AO and an MBE.

Evonne now spends her time inspiring young girls to become involved in tennis. The Tennis Australia Evonne Goolagong-Cawley Getting Started Program targets young girls with potential who have never played tennis before, while the Goolagong Cup is a junior federal cup competition for country girls who don’t have the competition experience of their city counterparts.

“I tell these young girls that I won 92 tournaments, that I met the president of the United States and the Queen of England, and that I travelled all around the world,” Evonne says. “Then I bring out a little piece of wood, just like the one I used to play with as a kid, and tell them how I got started.

“I tell them you can start anywhere and with anything if you have a dream. And if you want that dream bad enough, you’ll get it.”

(Story 1/6/2004 end.)

Twenty years after her third Wimbledon triumph, Evonne Goolagong Cawley is still winning hearts and minds – as a role model and sports ambassador. She talks to Deadly Vibe about her passion for making kids smile, her need to connect with the past and her love of fishing.

Before Marcia Ella, Nova Peris Kneebone and Cathy Freeman, there was Evonne Goolagong. A shy girl from the Wiradjuri nation of New South Wales’ Riverina district, she went on to win two singles (and one doubles) at Wimbledon, four Australian Opens and one French.

At a time when ‘Aboriginal’ was a dirty word, Evonne was the Sunshine Supergirl, a world-famous tennis star who was upfront about, and proud of, her identity. While some chided her for not being political enough, in the end her actions spoke louder and more eloquently than words ever could.

“Some people used to say that I should make a stand and put my fist up,” says the 49 year old from her home in Noosa Heads. “But that’s what I was doing, in my own way. I was doing what I knew I could do to the best of my ability – and I still am.”

You can say that again. Evonne may have retired from the professional tennis circuit, but as a sports mentor and exemplary role model she’s busier than ever. Since joining the Australian Sports Commission as an ambassador in 1997, Evonne’s busy schedule has taken her right around the country many, many times.

Evonne is involved in three different sporting projects. The Indigenous Sports Program sees her travelling to Indigenous communities – some of them quite remote – and introducing the kids there to a sport they may not have yet had the opportunity to play.

“My job is also to raise funds for sporting equipment in rural areas,” she says. “Dunlop are helping me, which is great – they were my first sponsors when I was playing tennis! It’s very important to get the equipment out there so the kids can use it. Sport builds confidence and self-esteem, and it’s great for their health.”

Each year Evonne is involved in a mentoring camp at Uluru, where she teaches young Aboriginal kids about sport and also about their cultural heritage. “We teach them to respect themselves and their culture. A lot of them are being exposed to it for the first time and that’s a great benefit to themselves and to whatever sports they play.”

The Tennis Australia Evonne Goolagong Cawley Getting Started Program targets young girls with potential who have never played tennis before, while the Goolagong Cup is a junior federal cup competition for country girls who don’t have the competition experience of their city counterparts.

“Kids competing in the Goolagong Cup go to the Australian Open and a play round robin tournament there,” says Evonne. “Then myself and the other selectors pick out six girls whose skills we feel can best be developed and invite them to Noosa for a four-day Goolagong Camp.”

Evonne knows how beneficial a mentor can be when you’re just starting out in life. Spotted in her hometown of Barellan by tennis coach Vic Edwards when she was just 13, he immediately recognised her potential and convinced her parents to allow her to live with him and his family in Sydney. Although she was homesick and painfully shy, Evonne knew it was the chance of a lifetime. After all, she had decided at age 10 that she would win at Wimbledon one day!

“When I was at Willoughby Girls High School, the one person who really kept me going was Lionel Rose,” reflects Evonne. “Seeing him win his first world title fight I thought to myself, ‘If he can do it, I can do it too.'”

It’s hard not to feel humble when you hear Evonne talking about her brilliant career. Considering her first tennis racquet was a bit of board torn from an apple crate and her first court a brick wall, her meteoric rise is all the more impressive. This is a woman, remember, who was voted Australian Of The Year and Australian Sportsperson Of The Year, and who has been awarded both an AO and an MBE.

But Evonne’s not interested in impressing people – she’d rather inspire them. And she’s well aware that many of the youngsters she meets probably don’t know who she is to begin with.

“It’s probably better if they don’t know,” she says. “That way they can relate to me easier. I tell them I won 92 tournaments, that I met the President of the United States and the Queen of England, and that I travelled all around the world. Then I bring out a little piece of wood, just like the one I used to play with as a kid, and tell them how I got started. Their eyes just grow so big! I tell them you can start anywhere and with anything if you have a dream. And if you want that dream bad enough, you’ll get it.”

It’s not all selfless toiling and labouring for Evonne. In fact, for her, being a mentor and ambassador doesn’t feel like work at all. “I love it. It’s very satisfying and it gives me a lot of pleasure. Just to see the excitement on their faces when they actually connect! They look so pleased with themselves and that’s what keeps me going.”

Something else that is very important to Evonne is her family tree. When her mother passed away in 1991, Evonne realised that, while never having denied it, she knew very little about her Aboriginal heritage. The fact that her mother had travelled around Australia during her last years recording traditional songs and stories spurred Evonne on to learn more about Indigenous culture.

“I was standing there at the funeral with all my extended family and I thought, ‘I don’t know any of these people’,” she remembers. “So I decided to do a family tree. It was good therapy for me, finding out more about my parents. In a way, I feel like I know them more now than when they were alive. And I kind of feel like they’re still around – in fact I talk to them all the time!”

An added bonus of learning more about her ancestry is that Evonne’s extended family has swelled considerably. Every time she travels around Australia more and more relatives seem to come out of the woodwork. “I feel like I’ve got family all over Australia now,” she laughs. “I’m claiming them all.”

It’s only fair. People have been claiming Evonne Goolagong Cawley for more than half her life. When she started out, she was portrayed as a novelty in the media because she was Aboriginal. But once she started winning tournaments she was promoted – people began describing her as only ‘part Aboriginal’.

“I didn’t really read the papers because my coach said I needed to believe in myself, not what others said about me. But I did notice that the more successful I became, the whiter I seemed to become.”

Evonne is possessed of a wry sense of humour that she acknowledges is what got her through her career. “My mum never learned to read or write, which is why my name is spelt with an ‘E’ rather than a ‘Y’. So when people gave me a hard time over my skin colour my mum would say ‘Don’t worry bub, they’re just igorant.’ And she was right, even if she couldn’t quite say the word! When you concentrate on growing within yourself, nothing else can really harm you.”

After living in South Carolina and Florida in the ’70s and ’80s, Evonne and her family returned to Australia in 1991. She remembers being excited at the quantity and range of information on Indigenous culture that was becoming available.

“I opened the newspaper one day and there was an Aboriginal person saying he was proud to be Aboriginal. It made me so excited to hear that. When I was playing tennis it was all so hidden. They’d have looked at me funny in those days if I’d said I was proud to be an Aborigine.”

Thankfully, those days are well and truly gone. Evonne is nothing short of a national treasure, an Indigenous Australian of whom we can all be proud. And she’s proud, too.

“We’ve come such a long way, although we’ve still got a way to go,” she says. “Walking over the Sydney Harbour Bridge for Corroboree 2000 was such a wonderful feeling. In fact it was a better feeling than either of my two Wimbledon wins!”

2000 has been a big year for Evonne. In April, Charles Sturt University presented her with an Honorary Doctorate in recognition of her sporting achievements and many contributions to the community, particularly with Aboriginal youth.

She also sat on the National Indigenous Advisory Committee for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, and took 10 Aboriginal young people to the athletics as guests of Westpac. She threw the first pitch at the baseball competition, jumped up and down at the soccer final and saw Cathy win gold. “Watching her run up to her parents after the race was what did it for me. That really made me cry.”

Now it’s summer and Evonne is taking a well-earned break. That means spending time with her husband Roger, her daughter Kelly, 23, and son Morgan, 19. So what’s her family like?

“Kelly’s an actor and she’s a lot like Roger – they’re both chirpy morning people,” she chuckles. “Morgan plays for Queensland’s youth soccer team and he’s more like me. We like to sleep in and we don’t talk as much in the morning!”

Summer means taking the dog (“a Rottweiler, but she’s really a big pussy cat”) for long walks along the beach at Peregian, drinking in the tranquillity and enjoying the cool sea breezes. “It’s calming after all the tripping around that I do.”

So what else does Evonne do to relax?

“Fishing. I’m a real fisherperson! As a little girl we used to go camping along the Murrumbidgee. We’re river people – my dad and gran both fished. Fishing is very calming and it’s the only thing I like to get up early for.”

And when it comes to fishing, Evonne Goolagong Cawley can sure reel them in.

“I’m a member of the Tyee Club, which is the club you join when you’ve caught a salmon that weighs over 40 pounds. I caught that one in Canada. But really, I just like to putter around, even if I don’t catch a fish. I’ll just sit there for two hours or more thinking, ‘Oh, I’m sure one’ll be along any minute now!'”


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