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Dani Stevens – From Little Athletics to the Olympics, with every life moment in between

Dani Stevens – From Little Athletics to the Olympics, with every life moment in between

If Dani Stevens ever becomes the mother of children who join a Little Athletics club like both their parents did, the four-time Olympian and 2009 discus world champion is confident the involvement will teach perseverance, determination and commitment, bring joy, close friendships and a sense of community, and the chance to try events purely for enjoyment’s sake.

And then there’s distance running. Which was never young Dani’s thing.

“It’s finding ways to do things that you really don’t want to do – like the 800!’’ laughs Stevens, who loved pretty much everything except the middle-distance races as a junior athlete. “And they found a way; they dangled a Zooper Dooper over the finish line, so it made me finish.’’

The fact that only the least popular flavors were left by that late stage, she jokes, hardly mattered. 

So sweet are the memories from those summer Saturday mornings with her three siblings and parents at Greystanes Little Athletics Centre, where they moved when Dani was six. Mum, Tracy Samuels was the club secretary for a handful of years, and would spend hours typing results into a computer during the old glue-tickets-into-your-record-book era, long after the competition had ended.

“I didn’t think I could throw a discus for a living when I was seven or eight years old; it was just something that I did because I loved it, and I loved going to training, I loved the people and I loved competing”

“We were there pretty much from 8am to 12pm every Saturday morning. We would all hang around and run through the sprinklers and help pack up,’’ says Stevens.

“It was built on families, Little Athletics, and parent volunteers to be age group managers, to measure, to rake, to explain the rules, to take you to carnivals, to keep the clubs running.’’

From Stevens’ experience, there is so much to be gained.

Many of her closest friends, including Jaimee-Lee Starr, whom she met at the under 13 nationals in 2000. A husband, thrower-turned surgeon, Joe, who was at that same meet, although neither of them knew it at the time. 

And a veteran coach, Denis Knowles, whom she met at Little Athletics when working with his son Hayden, before coming under his wing at the age of 10.

There she remains, the pair sharing a dance at the Stevens’ wedding in 2016, plus the long road to world championship success, three Olympic finals and dual Commonwealth Games gold medals. All of it. “It’s really special,” says Stevens. “The relationship went a lot further than just athlete and coach.’’ 

“It was seeing senior athletes compete on the world stage that made that connection with what I was doing at Little Athletics”

Stevens also feels fortunate to have attended Westfield Sports High School in Sydney, initially in the basketball program, and – while still active at Greystanes – to have been shepherded towards dual registration at Westfield’s senior athletics club.

“Being part of the school, it was explained to me that there was a club that I could be a part of, and you’d just go on the weekend and do seniors and pay your $5 and pick what event you wanted to do. That was a whole new concept as well – ‘oooh, the fact that I don’t have to do the 1500. This is great!’,’’ she recalls.

“So I was very lucky in that I was guided towards that and I knew that was an option, but the majority didn’t, and they thought athletics just ended at under 15s, once you had finished Little Athletics.’’

“This is something that’s been a long time coming. and it’s what the sport has needed.”

Hence the importance of the OneAthletics initiative in helping with athlete retention, Stevens believes. Particularly amid the ongoing Covid disruptions, and also while there is such fierce competition for talented teenage girls – especially – from the growing number of team sports that have opened up to both genders at the elite level.

“This is something that’s been a long time coming. and it’s what the sport has needed. I think what you’ll find is people still playing multiple sports; still doing athletics in summer and netball or basketball in winter,’’ she says, citing the track and field basics learnt that are the foundation for a whole lot more.

“You never know what you’re going to enjoy or what you’re going to be good at. I didn’t think I could throw a discus for a living when I was seven or eight years old; it was just something that I did because I loved it, and I loved going to training, I loved the people and I loved competing… So hopefully we can get more athletes and get them more pumped up about athletics and competing in it for longer.’’

For Stevens, now 33, the moment it all clicked was in 2000, during the Sydney Olympics. “I was watching the men’s discus and I thought ‘oh, that’s what I do at Little Athletics, that’s pretty cool. You can do that at the Olympics. Maybe I’ll do that one day’. 

“It was seeing senior athletes compete on the world stage that made that connection with what I was doing at Little Athletics on a Saturday morning and the ability to represent my country and do something that I love for a long, long time.’’

As to what she thinks seven-year-old Dani would think if she knew she would go on to become such a celebrated athlete, one who represented Australia with such distinction at major events around the world: “I have no idea! Maybe ‘oh, that’s pretty cool. And do they give Zooper Doopers out at those as well?’.’’