In the realm of sports, there are individuals who not only excel in their chosen disciplines but also change the narrative for women in sport within this country. Dr. Jeni Saunders, a new inductee into the UNSW Sport Hall of Fame, is one such remarkable individual. Her journey from a passionate athlete to a prominent figure in sports medicine is a testament to her unwavering determination, relentless pursuit of knowledge, and unparalleled commitment to the well-being of athletes. In a recent interview with UNSW Sport, Dr. Saunders' provided us with some insights on her experiences and the profound impact she has had on the field of sports medicine.

Dr. Saunders' passion for sports began early in her life representing UNSW in water polo, hockey, basketball, squash, and cricket. Her involvement in multiple sports provided her with a unique perspective and a deep understanding of the physical demands and challenges faced by athletes. Her journey into the realm of sports medicine was serendipitous yet driven by her insatiable curiosity and a desire to help her teammates. 

Her relentless dedication to advancing the field of sports medicine led her to become a founding member of the College of Sports Physicians in 1985, a ground-breaking institution that revolutionized sports medicine in Australia. Through her pioneering efforts, she established a strong foundation for the discipline, shaping the future of sports medicine in Australia and beyond. Dr. Saunders modestly acknowledges her contributions, saying, "I kept finding new ways to do things. If there was a brick wall, I would find a way around it or under it. It's much harder to get through it. I developed some good skills for that." This tenacity and determination became the guiding force behind her extraordinary career.


Reflecting on her education at UNSW, Dr. Saunders emphasizes the profound influence it had on her journey. Dr Saunders went on to complete her Doctorate in 2019 from University of Notre Dame, where she believes that the depth of knowledge, she gained during her studies set her apart from many of the current generations of medical professionals. One of Dr. Saunders' core beliefs is the significance of clinical examination. While acknowledging the value of modern imaging techniques, she stresses the importance of a comprehensive physical assessment to complement diagnostic tests. Dr. Saunders explains, "Clinical examination is becoming less important in the teaching... We were always taught that we should only have to confirm what you think in the first place."

Dr. Saunders' contributions to sports medicine extend far beyond her remarkable career. She has dedicated herself to teaching and mentoring professionals alike, ensuring that her knowledge and expertise continue to make a lasting impact. As a professor at UNSW, she has inspired countless students to pursue careers in sports medicine and has been instrumental in developing curriculum and programs that emphasize a holistic approach to athlete care.

"If there was a brick wall, I would find a way around it or under it. It's much harder to get through it."

Additionally, Dr. Saunders has been actively involved in research, constantly pushing the boundaries. Her studies on injury prevention, rehabilitation techniques, and performance optimization have provided valuable insights and evidence-based practices that have influenced how clinical examinations are performed today. She has published numerous papers and has presented her findings at international conferences, cementing her reputation as a leading authority in the field.

In recognition of her outstanding contributions, Dr. Saunders has received numerous accolades throughout her career. Recognized for her outstanding achievements, Dr. Saunders was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2000 for her contributions to the field of sport medicine. Additionally, she has played pivotal roles in community service, such as her involvement with the Helicopter Rescue Service and as a founding director of the CareFlight Helicopter Service in 1986. Dr. Saunders is highly respected among sport’s associations, including being a Life Member of the NSW Rugby League Doctors Association, Fellow of the Australasian College of Sports and Exercise Physicians and Honorary Life Member for the UNSW Hockey Club and UNSW Basketball Club. Her exceptional contributions to sports medicine and commitment to community welfare have cemented her as a revered figure. Yet still she remains humbled by the countless honours and achievements and hopes that it will inspire others to continue pushing the boundaries of sports medicine and advocating for the well-being of athletes.

As Dr. Saunders reflects on her journey, she expresses gratitude for the opportunities and experiences that have shaped her career. She acknowledges the support of her colleagues, mentors, and the athletes she has had the privilege to work with. During her early years, Dr. Saunders faced unique challenges that highlighted the gender disparities prevalent in the field. She shared a powerful story about her experience working at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). As a woman in a predominantly male-dominated environment, Dr. Saunders encountered resistance and had to navigate unfamiliar territory.

"I vividly remember the day when I had to enter the male dressing rooms at the SCG for the first time" Dr. Saunders recounted. "Being the only woman among a sea of men, I was denied entry at first as the secretary of the SCG was not aware a woman was allowed in”. Once the committee members had proven she was the team’s doctor they were all left a little red faced. Driven by her determination and passion for equality, Dr. Saunders forged ahead, breaking down gender barriers and earning the respect of her peers and the athletes she cared for. She went on to represent Australia as a medical officer for the Australian Olympic Team in Athens 2004 and Barcelona 1992, the Australian Swimming World Championships in Barcelona 2003, and the Commonwealth Games in Manchester 2002, among numerous other prestigious National and International events.

Dr. Jeni Saunders' pioneering work in sports medicine has transformed the way athletes are cared for, making a profound impact on their performance, well-being, and long-term health. As her legacy continues to guide the next generation of sports medicine professionals, Dr. Saunders' contributions will be remembered as a cornerstone in the advancement of athlete care and the pursuit of excellence in sports. As she takes her rightful place in the UNSW Hall of Fame, Dr. Saunders’ will continue to lead for women’s success within the sporting world, both on and off the field.