Australian rowers will be flying the Pride flag on the world stage at the 2023 International Para Rowing Regatta at Gavirate in Italy to celebrate Pride Month this weekend.
Inspired by the personal journey of Tokyo Paralympian Nikki Ayers, the entire Australian contingent – including athletes, coaches and support staff – will wear white socks topped with the rainbow rings of the Pride flag over three days of competition.
Ayers, an Australian Rowing Team member since 2018 and a 2020 Tokyo Paralympian, is an ambassador for the Australian Institute of Sport’s (AIS) Thrive with Pride program and wants to show aspiring young rowers their sport is a safe space that will celebrate them for who they are.
The 32-year-old said she was bowled over by her teammates’ enthusiasm to support her idea to mark Pride month with a statement of positivity and strength.
“I wasn’t going to really do anything this year, but then chatting with my teammates [about] the Thrive with Pride program and being a gay athlete, I was saying to them that, for me, it’s about being visible and showing others that it’s okay,” Ayers told Rowing Australia.
“And they were like, ‘What can we do to help, let’s do something, let’s all help out.
“So straight away, the Para community around me is like, let’s all be visible allies with you, [they] didn’t think about it twice. This is what we all came up with together.
“It wasn’t just me driving this. It’s the allies around me as well. That was really touching and heartfelt so that’s what we came up with the idea to do a Pride regatta at the Gavirate Regatta.”
A two-time participant in the Thrive With Pride program, Ayers was saddened by research reporting that 87 per cent of gay men and 85 per cent of lesbians are partially or completely in the closet when playing youth sports.
“They’re really confronting (statistics) … I just felt if I can be that one person that changes one person’s life, who is identifying as a gay athlete or exploring, and help them feel safe and then confident and strong enough to be who they are, then that’s what I want to do,” she said.
“The way I thought I could do that was being visible and being out there and saying ‘hey, look, I’m a successful elite athlete, who rows for Australia and became a Paralympian, and I’m gay, and I did all this being gay’. It didn’t stop me.”
Ayers thanked Rowing Australia for throwing its support behind the initiative and said it was a meaningful step towards a more inclusive future.
“I think it’s amazing. It is a very important step forward for Rowing Australia as an organisation, we are working towards being more inclusive and this is that first step. And we are doing more work to make this more inclusive and sustainable and make it long-term.”
Rowing Australia Chief Operating Officer Sarah Cook said the sport was proud to support diversity and inclusiveness across all levels.
“Rowing is a sport for all and we are incredibly proud of all our amazing athletes. We strive to provide a safe, inclusive and supportive environment to allow them to be who they are and to be their very best,” Cook said.
Ayers, a Canberra product, has a postgraduate diploma in critical care and is an intensive care registered nurse and registered midwife. She is a member of the Capital Lakes Rowing Club and the South Australian Institute of Sport, currently training under coach Nick Mitchell in Adelaide.
Ayers was an active rugby union player until she dislocated her knee and permanently damaged her Peroneal nerve and Popliteal artery in 2016. As a result, Ayers developed complete drop foot and had a staggering 16 surgeries to remove the dead muscle and undergo a knee reconstruction to repair three ligaments.
Ayers found para-rowing after attending one of Rowing Australia’s #Train4Tokyo Talent ID days at the Australian Institute of Sport as it was a sport identified to suit her impairment.
“I gave it a go and have loved it ever since,” she said.
Nikki will join Jed Altschwager in the PR3 Mixed Double Sculls, which is a new Paralympic boat class. Altschwager said their focus was on high performance but sport also provided a platform to share important social messages.
“Our job is to win medals for the Australian Rowing Team but we also have an opportunity to put a message out through our sport that inclusion and a safe environment for all people is not only the right vibe, but required for all people to become their fullest self,” Altschwager said.
The 2023 International Para-Rowing Regatta will be held from June 9-11 and is a key stepping stone towards the World Rowing Championships in Belgrade from September 3-9, where Paralympic qualification is on the line.
You can read more about the AIS Thrive with Pride program here.
2023 AIS Thrive with Pride ambassadors:
- Alyssa West, Water polo Australia, South Australian Sport Institute
- Amelia Catt, Sailing, West Australian Institute of Sport
- Charlotte McShane, Triathlon, NSW Institute of Sport
- Greta Hayes, Hockey, NSW Institute of Sport
- Heath Thorpe, Gymnastics, NSW Institute of Sport
- Kalinda Robinson, Cycling, South Australian Sport Institute
- Katerina Paul, Snow, Victorian Institute of Sport
- Kaylia Stanton, Netball, Victorian Institute of Sport
- Maria Strong, Athletics, Victorian Institute of Sport
- Matthew Mitcham, Diving, NSW Institute of Sport
- Natalya Diehm, BMX, Queensland Academy of Sport
- Nikki Ayers, Rowing, ACT Academy of Sport
- Poppy Starr Olsen, Skateboarding, NSW Institute of Sport
- Rowie Webster, Water polo, Victorian Institute of Sport
- Ruby Bakewell-Doran, Netball, Queensland Academy of Sport
- Serena Bonnell, Bowls, Queensland Academy of Sport