What it's like to be a top-level sportswoman

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Lindy Alexander talks to three women who have climbed, pedalled and punched their way to success – against the odds.

On the up: Andrea Hah challenges preconceptions with her prodigious climbing abilities.

On the up: Andrea Hah challenges preconceptions with her prodigious climbing abilities. Photo: Simon Madden

Women are constantly reminded what their bodies look like, but can easily forget what it is their bodies can do. Sport can change that. Research by UNESCO has shown that participation in sport encourages women to enjoy freedom of movement, and increases their self-esteem and self-confidence. A 2013 global survey by Ernst & Young further found a strong correlation between women's participation in sport and their success in corporate environments.

Danielle Warby, a journalist and advocate for women in sport, says girls need more powerful, athletic and strong sportswomen in the public arena to look up to. Federal government research in 2008-09 found that reporting on women's sport made up only 9 per cent of all sports coverage on Australian television news. "Girls aren't able to see that they can use their body for something other than conforming to someone else's idea of what it means to be a woman," Warby says.

Very few Australian women earn a living from playing sport, and when they do their pay packet doesn't compare to male athletes. Warby says most female athletes hold down one or more jobs to fund their passion: "Lack of media coverage, sponsorship and equal access to resources are all challenges for women who participate in sport at a high level."

Pedal power: former pro cyclist Bridie O'Donnell is now a doctor.

Pedal power: former pro cyclist Bridie O'Donnell is now a doctor. Photo: Justin McManus JZM

So what's it like to juggle a demanding career and athletic aspirations in a society that doesn't see women's sport as equal? We meet three women whose sport gets their hearts racing all the same.

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ANDREA HAH, 28
Rock climber and exercise physiologist
Claim to fame: one of Australia's best rock climbers.

"I think it's surprising for people once they see me start climbing. There is quite a stereotype that if a girl is climbing with a boy, the girl is just tagging along. They assume the girl is doing the belaying [holding the rope].

This sporting life: Simone Bailey is a lawyer with a talent for the "sweet science" of boxing.

This sporting life: Simone Bailey is a lawyer with a talent for the "sweet science" of boxing. Photo: Eddie Jim

I've had people point to a climb and ask, 'Are you going to climb that next?' and are surprised if I say yes. If a group of boys are on a route that I might warm up on, I'd ask if I can climb after them and they might say something like, 'You do know that's a hard climb, don't you?' And I just say, 'Yes, I do know that!'

I don't expect them to know my climbing ability. I don't think of myself as a famous person, or as someone people should know. I would say I'm one of the best female climbers in Australia, but when I meet people climbing, of course I don't mention it.

There are probably a few people who wouldn't want to go climbing with me. There might be a few men who would be a bit intimidated, but I do try not to intimidate them!

I don't think there are any climbers in Australia who make a living from climbing. I have some sponsors who give me climbing gear, but it takes time to build a reputation.

After a few years in Australia I went climbing in Europe and when I came back I approached a few companies to try to get sponsorship, but I wasn't successful. I guess I hadn't been around very long and didn't have the exposure sponsors wanted. But after I started to do a few hard routes in the Blue Mountains, some companies approached me to give me some gear. That was so encouraging, to be approached by a company.

Even if I weren't sponsored, I'd still be doing what I'm doing. There's not much money in climbing, so regardless of sponsors I'd still have to work and support myself and pay for my climbing trips.

In the past year I've started my own business as an exercise physiologist. Some days I really struggle with trying to prioritise where I want to spend more of my time. I want to be the best exercise physiologist I can be, but at the same time I also want to be the best rock climber I can. Finding that balance is tricky."

DR BRIDIE O'DONNELL, 40
Cyclist and doctor
Claim to fame: former professional cyclist in Italy and the US.

"When I raced professionally between 2010 and 2012 [after resigning from a job in an intensive care unit assisting orthopaedic surgeons], I was racing on a salary of €10,000 to €15,000 a year. I was living in Italy and I had to pay for my accommodation, food, everything.

I was given crappy equipment and if something broke, they'd say, 'There's no spare bike for you' or 'Get another pair of shoes yourself'. At that time, 60 to 70 per cent of professional women cyclists were racing for no money. There are some really awful stories from women's road cycling of sexual assault, bullying and horrible abuse.

I've been terribly bullied and abused and been deprived of things because I have underperformed. I didn't get the equipment I was supposed to have; I've been left at the end of the race to find my way home because I finished too slowly for a stage at the Giro d'Italia. I've been screamed at and not given food.

Often women are isolated, disempowered and are just desperate to get a contract and get selected for a team. If you don't want the contract, you're reminded that there is always another girl who will have it. It's been really hard - not just for me, but for lots of female cyclists.

I often felt ashamed. Here I was, a 30-something doctor, being screamed at and humiliated. That's not the kind of thing you want to tell people. You want to say, 'Yeah, I'm in a pro team. It's cool. I live in Italy and I'm riding for the world champion and life's great.'

People used to joke and say to me, 'Well, you've got your medical career to fall back on.' That was annoying. No one said that to Cadel Evans. I wonder if having options means that women in my situation don't take as big a risk. They don't ride like their life depends on it, because they think, 'Oh, well, I can come back and be with my partner again, or take up my career.'

Last year was the first year I made the decision to not be part of a team [she now works as a health-check clinician at Melbourne's Epworth Hospital]. I felt heartbroken and exhausted about that. It felt like a bit of a failure that I hadn't been able to make more of a success out of five years in racing.

Of course, when I look back on it now, I'm kinder to myself. I don't think I failed. I think I entered the sport at a difficult time, got some great results and had some extraordinary experiences. But if someone rang me tomorrow and said, 'This is the team you want and you will be getting paid,' I would go back in a flash."

SIMONE BAILEY, 32
Boxer and barrister
Claim to fame: has won 22 of her 27 fights, and occasionally turns up to court with a black eye.

"This is such a girly part of my story but when I was 24 I went to a new gym and there was a kickboxing class, so I went in. As soon as I saw the good-looking instructor, I fell desperately in love. That was a good enough reason for me to keep going back. We ended up dating and our first ever date was at a kickboxing championship where he was fighting.

I was a private-school girl who grew up in Brighton. I was vegetarian. I'd never seen anything more than a drunken skirmish. During the fight, I had my hands over my eyes, sneaking a look every now and then to see what was going on. It was such a confronting experience.

We dated for a year and by the time we split up, boxing had become this huge part of me. I became obsessed with it. It took me four years to be mentally ready to fight, though.

My first ever fight was kickboxing at a nightclub. I sent out a big email to my friends, saying, 'Come watch my fight.' I broke the girl's nose in the first round. The next day I received an email from one of my best friends, saying, 'I'm so sorry, but I just can't look at you the same way any more.' She meant it. She was horrified. I think people think it's going to be like pillow fighting.

There's one area where I've experienced gender inequality being a boxer. The 2012 London Olympics had female boxing for the first time but, compared to the men, where they have a weight category every two or three kilograms, there are only three categories for females.

I'm about 55 kilograms, which places me right in the middle of two weight categories. So I missed out on going to the Olympics. I desperately still want to go but I don't know if I'll have the chance.

Australian women had to fight like absolute hell to get to the Olympics and the wage levels are nowhere near the men's. I doubt that's ever going to change. As female boxers, we've really had to prove ourselves. There are heaps of amazing fights on television but they're all boys. If you're lucky, once every three months you'll get a televised female fight.

I have broken my nose four or five times this year but you don't do this sport to be glamorous. In my first few years as a barrister, I used to laugh because I'd walk into the Magistrates Court with a black eye and I'd wonder if the judge thought I was the client. But I love it.

So many people immediately think of a brawl and the blood, but if you watch real boxers it's beautiful. I can't think of any other sport where you use your mind as much as you do in boxing."