UNSW Active Women's Strategy Chair Hannah Davis on resilience in tough times
Hannah Davis is no stranger to challenges. The dual Olympian, who competed in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Games, didn't have a straightforward road to the top but persistence and resilience saw her through the tough times and she was able to realise her Olympic dream.
Published on the 04 June 2020 by Megan Maurice
Now the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the UNSW Business School and co-chair of Active Women: UNSW 2025 Women’s Sport & Active Recreation Strategy, Hannah spoke to UNSW Sport and the elite athlete community about the challenges she faced throughout her sporting career and how she got through them.
In her early years, Hannah was passionate about surf lifesaving and dreamt of moving to the Gold Coast to become an ironwoman. However a talent search program run by the South Australian Sports Institute (SASI) set her on a different path.
"I was at school one day, in year nine when SASI came to one of our PE classes and facilitated a series of physical tests and measurements with the entire year level," she said.
"We didn't really know what was going on other than it was sort of a good excuse to get out of a whole morning of classes! But as it turns out, they were running a very deliberate, well orchestrated talent search program statewide and, and as an outcome of those tests, I was offered an opportunity to try sprint kayaking only a matter of weeks later."
Although Hannah had never heard of sprint kayaking, she was intrigued and tuned in to watch the event at the Sydney Olympics. She was pleased to recognise some of the Australian team because they too had been involved in surf lifesaving and she realised this was an opportunity to take her sport to a level she had never believed was possible.
"That was really where my Olympic dream began," she said.
"So it was really all just by chance, but I persevered with the sport. It took me well over a year to even learn how to sit in a kayak. I was very ready to quit before one day it clicked. It's a bit like riding a bike, you just keep falling and you keep getting back up and then one day you stop falling - the kayak is very similar to that."
Once she fell in love with the sport, she started to progress very quickly and was soon competing for Australia.
"In 2005, I made my first senior national team at the age of 19," she said. "Traveling with that team was a huge eye opening experience. I was surrounded by other senior athletes who'd raced in the Olympics and I was suddenly a 19 year old sitting on the start line, racing Olympic medalists. It was just mind blowing.
However it wasn't all smooth sailing and Hannah was soon forced to decide how badly she wanted to make it to the top when it became clear that elite sport and an active social life weren't entirely compatible.
"I came home and I rested on my laurels a bit. I assumed I would just keep making that senior team now that I'd made at once," she said. "But in 2016, after a summer of too much indulgence as you do as a 20 year old, distracted by all of the social, exciting happening things around me and not doing enough hard work. And I was left out of the team. And that was a real blow, especially to my Olympic aspirations. Suddenly, the Olympics was in three years, and there were at least 10 women who were ranked better than me."
Left behind in Adelaide without her usual team and coach around her, Hannah needed to decide quickly what she wanted to do with this time and how she would use it to shape her future. She decided to knuckle down and work hard with a few male training partners and push herself to keep up with them.
Hannah's hard work paid off when she was selected in the women's K4 team for the world championships, where they qualified for the Olympics and from there, the team won a bronze medal against all odds and expectations. She continued her successful career into the necxt Olympics, but it was that time when she faced her biggest challenges that really shaped her as an athlete.
"I had to learn how to adapt and to look at things differently and take ownership of my actions," she siad. "I had to really define and build a team around me in the absence of my normal team not being there."
Reflecting back on her time as an elite athlete, Hannah believes there is plenty that elite athletes can take from the current challenges being faced to determine their path forward.
"It's recognising the other opportunities you're being presented with and and the silver linings that come with that," she said. "So had this situation not occurred, I doubt any of our athletes would have taken some time to allow their body to rest and recover which, unless we're often forced to do that we don't do well as athletes, we've constantly got this nagging voice to keep going, keep going.
"But rest and recovery is so incredibly important. Especially when it comes to avoiding burnout and injury and in times of heightened stress, you're likely to get sick, you're likely to get injured, you're likely to lose motivation. It's been a real opportunity for people to embrace rest and recovery, which will allow athletes to return to their normal training regime with a renewed vigor and also an appreciation for what you may have once taken for granted, which I think in itself is really humbling and also very motivating."
Hannah also highlighted the need for athletes to have each other's backs and reach out when they need help. While many athletes struggle to ask for help because they feel like they need to be superhuman, Hannah believes it is important to acknowdge your humanity and see it as a sign of strength, rather than a weakness.
"This is not long term, this is not forever," she said. "We're in this together so check in on each other, if you feel a mate who would normally be very outward and and connecting and chatting all the time starts to withdraw or doesn't attend those Zoom team sessions, reach out to them, ask people if they're doing okay.
"And on the other hand, if you're feeling crappy and you're not doing okay, don't be afraid to also to say that, because you're not the only one feeling like that."