SS17 Fettle Girl — Gemma Etheridge
This blog has been written by our very own Fettle girl: Australian Rugby 7's player Gemma Etheridge. It gives you an insight into her Olympic Gold Journey. It was full of character building challenges.
We think you are a dead set amazing athlete and person Gemma!
Journey to Rio
In 2014 I made the decision to chase Olympic gold. Although as a little girl I had dreamt of being an Olympian at the age of 25 the chances of me reaching this height were a very distant reality. That was until Rugby 7’s was added to the Olympic program and I was talent identified and asked to give rugby a go.
So in 2014 I began my journey to the Olympics. At the time it was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make. I had to leave my career as a radiographer, leave my fiancé and friends and move from Toowoomba to Sydney’s Northern beaches (living at the beach wasn’t such a tough decision). Although we were lucky to be given the opportunity to become full time athletes there is no hiding the fact that women get paid significantly less than their male counterparts, so the decision to move also meant huge financial sacrifice. However, I also believe that this lead to our success. We were all there with a goal, to chase an Olympic gold, we weren’t there for money or an elusive contract with another team.
At the beginning I tried to juggle some part time radiography with my training to help with the financial strain, but as we drew closer to the Olympics the demands of rugby became to high. A crucial part of being a full time athlete is recovery and working meant I was missing the soft tissue work that allows you maintain high intensity training day in day out, so I stopped work to focus on Rio.
We were extremely lucky with the opportunities we were given. We played in a world series and got to travel the world to countries and cities like Dubai, Canada, London, South America, Amsterdam, USA and China. We had a very good year leading into Rio winning 3 of the 5 series events and finishing the season as 2015/16 World Champions ahead of New Zealand who had dominated for the previous 2 years.
The best way to describe being a full time athlete is to compare it to school. We would train four days a week, with our 5th day designated recovery with soft tissue work, pool recovery etc. We would arrive round 7.30am for our daily monitoring, which involved weighing and certain measurements relating to sit and reach, groin strength and ankle range. Following this we would strap and prep to train. Have a short meeting about the goals for the session and then head out on field for 1.5-2 hours of skills and fitness. Following this we would do ice bath recovery and refuel our body with high protein food. After lunch and a small break, which was often used to review footage from training (or get a coffee) we would hit the gym for an hour and then head back out on field for a short skill session depending on what each individual athlete needed work on.
Having put on hold my life for the previous three years I was rewarded with Olympic selection four years after playing my first ever game of Rugby. The road to Olympic selection didn’t come without its challenges. In March this year, just 18 weeks out from the Rio Games and 16 weeks from selection, I ruptured my ACL (Anterior Crucitate Ligament) for the third time in an innocuous training incident. I guess one thing you learn in three ACL ruptures is what it feels like and I knew instantly that my dreams of Rio were gone and the past 3 years where for nothing thinking that there would be a 8-12 month rehabilitation with a traditional reconstruction.
After going through the medical process we decided that my only chance of making the games would be to undergo a Lars (Ligament Augmentation and Reconstruction System) surgery. This process involves the ACL ligament being replaced with a synthetic ligament which is at full strength from day one, hence training and rehabilitation can begin much sooner. I knew I had given up so much in the previous years to try and achieve this that I had to exhaust every avenue to try and reach Rio. I was fully aware that having the surgery didn’t assure me a spot on the team but if everything went well I would at least make myself available. I had 4 days off post surgery and with my stitches still in I began my rehabilitation, six days a week. I was the first to arrive and the last to leave and, even after a minor hiccup and a second surgery, I made it back into full training three days before the Olympic team was announced.
On the announcement I was in the Olympic team I was flooded with relief and satisfaction, I had achieved what a lot thought wasn’t possible after my injury. I did not have the easiest road and the last 14 weeks following my injury were some of the loneliest and mentally exhausting times I had ever faced. So, to hear my name read out had meant that a lot of the sacrifices and choices I had made in the previous three years and then, more recently, with my injury were all worth it and I hadn’t even stepped on the pitch yet.
The Rio Olympics were an amazing experience and one that I will treasure for the rest of my life. We played some tough rugby in the round games and finals before meeting the Kiwis in the Gold Medal match. When the siren sounded and we beat the Kiwis to win the gold medal and make history I didn’t feel elation, I felt relief, it had all been worth it. I had my family, fiancé and close friends all there to support me and to stand on that dais and receive my gold medal in front of them is something I will never forget. It was a very sereal feeling standing on that dais, it was something I had watched on TV many times before and now I was that person on TV that some young child was watching and dreaming of emulating. The Olympics are also a very humbling experience. They make you realise there are many amazing stories of courage and dedication and our path to the Olympics was relatively simple. It is amazing to be an Olympian and part of the Olympic movement that will hopefully inspire many generations to come.
Now that we are back from Rio, I have had time to reflect on my career and am extremely grateful for all the help I received from so many people. Its only now that I realise how much my life had changed and how many life events I had missed. It has also shown me how amazing my friends are.
As for the future…. I think I owe my knees a break.