Excitably bouncing down a packed Harris street in Sydney, the first thing you notice about Elana Withnall is her lovable attitude that very quickly becomes infectious. She greets me with a big hug as bystanders look on in bemusement about how someone can be so happy on a cold Tuesday afternoon.
I was fortunate enough to study a Certificate IV in journalism at Petersham TAFE last year with Lani and was quickly encapsulated by that infectious personality and the unwavering commitment to success and family she has.
Lani is chasing a dream that only a select few of us could day-dream of, the goal of Olympic glory.
Born in the country town of Old Bar on New South Wales’ mid north coast (also home to Sydney Roosters and New South Wales Blues rugby league player Boyd Cordner) Withnall was involved in sports from an early age after persuasion from her parents.
Her father Len is a former body builder and also coached Lani after taking a keen interest in his daughter’s passions.
“Family means so much to me, my mum and dad have been there for me since day one. They have traveled all over Australia watching me and supported me in every decision I have made”
It was her decision to take up Little Athletics that paid dividends for the 24-year-old however as her undeniable talent as a runner was quickly noticed.
Withnall recalls to me that she was only nine years old when her first offer came in.
“I was nine years old when I first got an offer from a coach. I had just won the 60 metre hurtles at a meet up in Old Bar I think, and I was offered the chance to go and train with other athletes, which at the time was very exciting”
From there, doors continued to open for her as she continued to dominate at her prized event: hurdles.
A Junior Championships in 2012 presented a superb opportunity, only for a broken ankle to derail Lani’s hopes of representing Australia. “Unfortunately I broke my ankle for the first time! Which was disappointing, however I managed to qualify for the 2013 Oceania Championships in Tahiti, which was pretty cool getting to travel to compete”
The foreign land of Tahiti and its rigid stadium presented a daunting prospect for the then 19-year-old Withnall who revealed to me was the most nervous she had been at any sporting event ever.
“Just wearing the green and gold was a phenomenal experience but its also made me very nervous. Being in a foreign place also was very difficult, thankfully I had some really good friends that were cheering me on and lifted my spirits”
The Oceania Championships has been a highlight for Withnall in her athletics career despite it being more than four years ago. Unfortunately injuries have played a big part in her life as she has broken her left ankle five times. What has made it even a more bitter pill to swallow has been that some of the injuries haven’t directly come from athletics training. Accidents at home, mucking around with friends and other activities have played a part in the injury process which unfortunately has dogged Withnall for the good part of the early stages of her adult life.
However, her desire and commitment to bounce back and not let injuries define her or break her is perhaps the shining light in the life of this courageous young athlete. She continues to hit the track five nights a week, whilst juggling work, study (she is still focusing on a degree in journalism) as well as trying to live her life to the fullest.
Heptathletes generally don’t reach their peak until their 30’s so there is plenty of time for Withnall to reach her lifelong goal of representing Australia at an Olympic games.
You would think that someone like Lani who has had the injuries she has would try and rest up or recuperate when she isn’t on the track. How wrong is that!
Over the past 12 months, she has started another journey that she hopes may bring her even more success than athletics.
Joining the ranks of many women playing Rugby Union, Lani completed a season with Sydney University in 2016 and has recently trialed for the National Universities Women’s Sevens team. She hopes this attempt can help her break into the Australian Sevens team for the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
“It started when I watched the Australian Women’s team perform at the Olympics, I thought to myself hmmm, this could be a good backup plan if I keep getting injured on the track!”
Despite still being fairly green at her new found sport, Withnall has shown her ability to find the try line. In her first game playing 7’s, she scored six tries in a game where she demonstrated her elite pace and ability to back up team mates.
Lani says the last couple of years have been important in her deciding what her future path looks like. Still two seconds off qualifying for the Commonwealth Games for athletics, she has invested in a back up plan in case that doesn’t work out. Still very adamant that athletics still is and will forever be her first love, her faith in God has helped her look at things a little differently as she progresses through her sporting journey.
“As a Christian I trust God’s overall plan for my life regardless of what sport I am competing in. It’s really through these trials and tribulations that my faith has been reaffirmed in God’s power and his plan for each individual. Our family has had more trials than none! Both my parents are cancer survivors so how can I not believe in a God that delivers them from that?”
With opportunities to represent Australia in both athletics and Rugby, don’t be surprised to see Elana Withnall light up your tv screen in the coming years, much like she is lighting up defences out on the playing field for Sydney University.