Olympians reshaping the future for female athletes

A global pandemic wasn’t the only thing to impact the Olympic preparations of Australian women’s water polo player Lea Yanitsas.

The Aussie Stingers goalkeeper competed at the 2016 Rio Games, but this will be her first Olympics since becoming a mother.

“It’s been challenging competing and training as a mum,” Yanitsas said.

“But I’m very fortunate to be a mum, firstly, and secondly, to have such a supportive family while trying to train and look after my son.”

Prior to arriving in Tokyo, the 32-year-old was in Cairns in a pre-games camp with the national team, while her husband and family looked after two-year-old Dino in Sydney.

“The training part and going hard, I’ve always known how to do that, but the juggling act of trying to look after my son and do it all, can be difficult,” she said.

With COVID further compounding that challenge, facetime and video calls have become a common routine when Yanitsas is away training.


“We’re using that a lot. I just need to try and catch Dino when he’s free, like when he’s not in the middle of his blocks or colouring in,” she laughed.

Female performance and health initiative

Yanitsas is part of a new athlete advisory group launched by the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) to shape the future performance and health of elite sportswomen.

The AIS Female Performance and Health Initiative (FPHI) consists of 14 female athletes, including Tokyo-bound pole vaulter Nina Kennedy, Hockeyroo Stephanie Kershaw and Paralympic swimmer Jessica Smith.

The initiative aims to provide support, research and education on issues such as pregnancy and returning to sport, menstrual cycles and menstrual abnormalities, hormonal contraception and other medical conditions that impact the health of females.

Athletes, coaches and health practitioners working with female athletes will be able to access the resources through online learning modules.

Breaking the barriers for mothers returning to elite sport

Yanitsas’ experience as a first-time mum is one of the reasons she’s passionate about her involvement with the AIS female performance health initiative.

She is also a physiotherapist and though her background helps her understand the literature, even she admits she couldn’t always find the information she needed.

Yanitsas’ son, Dino, is already following in mum’s footsteps.(

Supplied: Lea Yanitsas


“As a mother, I faced many barriers in returning to elite sport,” Yanitsas said.

“All that advice was verbal from amazing girlfriends who are elite athletes.”

So how did she breastfeed and train?

“Oh, it was very challenging and very messy,” Yanitsas said.

“I think everybody will have a different story but for me, being in the pool, I had to figure out how to express and then go to training and make sure it all worked around my son’s feeds.”

Australian Sports Commission chair Josephine Sukkar said it’s crucial female athletes feel heard on matters that directly relate to them.

“The AIS FPHI was created to address a real need in the high performance sport system and ensure that this important resource remains relevant,” Sukkar said.

“I look forward to seeing the impact the group will have in guiding us to the next stage.”

Emerging sportswomen set to benefit

2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Nina Kennedy said emerging female athletes will also benefit from the initiative.

Female athlete in the middle of pole vaulting
Nina Kennedy competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.(

Getty: Michael Steele


“Female health has a significant impact on performance.

“The more coaches are aware of this and have resources available to learn from, the implementation of strategies for elite performance will become more accessible and less taboo.”

Kennedy catapulted onto the global stage at the age of 17 when she broke the junior world record at the 2015 Perth Track Classic.


The now 24-year-old admits the biggest challenge she’s faced in and out of sport is her mental health.

“I’ve had a few occurrences of major depression,” she said after injury sidelined her 2019 season.

Kennedy is back in peak form as she prepares to make her Olympic debut.

She looms as one of Australia’s best medal hopes in Tokyo, after setting a new Australian pole vault record of 4.82m at the Sydney Track Classic last March — a feat she described as having “no words” for.

Stinging for success

The Australian women’s water polo team finished sixth at the Rio Games but Yanitsas is optimistic the Aussie Stingers will improve in Tokyo.

The team won bronze at the 2019 FINA World Aquatic Championships in South Korea, which was the last major international water polo tournament before COVID.

Yanitsas said the result remains a confidence booster for Tokyo.

“Absolutely, you will always draw from your most memorable and wonderful experiences and the world champs was one of them,” she said.


“It was a big moment for our group and we’ll be taking that passion, energy and excitement into the Olympics.”

The teacher who inspired her

Yanitsas will also draw inspiration from the high school teacher who encouraged her to take up the sport two decades ago.

“I was very much a runner but when I started high school my roll-call teacher was Debbie Watson, the Sydney 2000 Olympic gold medallist,” she said.

Watson was part of Australia’s first women’s water polo gold medal team at the Sydney Games. She was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 2006 and is still regarded as one of the nation’s greatest-ever female water polo players, having won gold at World Cup, World Championship and Olympic level.

Watson went on to coach Yanitsas and they remain in regular contact.

“So that’s how I got into water polo. Even until this day I think she’s one of the most incredible women in the world.”

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