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Aussies return better for the Ashgabat 2017 experience

29 September 2017

ASHGABAT 2017: The Australian team has returned home from Ashgabat 2017 with two bronze medals, an additional nine top-10 performances, and a unique international experience that will inspire the athletes to strive for greater sporting ambitions.

It was unexplored territory when Australia made its debut at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) in the Turkmenistan capital in the sports of taekwondo, weightlifting and wrestling, however the 18 athletes thrived off the Olympic-like atmosphere, world class venues, bustling athletes village and the chance to mingle with athletes from outside their individual sports.

“The whole experience has been incredible for our athletes,” said Australian Chef de Mission John Saul.

“The majority of the team were emerging young athletes and what they have learnt at these Games from the competition and interaction with the high-level athletes from Asia and Oceania will help them at a professional and personal level.

“Each of the athletes have acknowledged that this experience makes them want to work harder to contend more competitively at this high international level,” he said.

27-year-old Keshena Waterford made history by winning Australia’s first AIMAG medal with bronze in the women’s -49kg taekwondo on Day 3 of the Games.

“I feel very proud to have had this opportunity to be in this place where I am the first person to do this,” Waterford said.

“As an elite athlete you’re always looking for the next big thing, so I want to take a bit of time to really appreciate what it means to win this medal and that it is quite a big deal and to celebrate in the moment,” she said.

The following day Australia won its second taekwondo bronze with Ruth Hock in the women’s -67kg division.

The 32-year-old only returned to international competition in 2016 after a six-year hiatus which saw the birth of her two daughters and the opening of her own taekwondo gym in Adelaide.

“It’s my first medal out of the Oceania region since I’ve come back to competing, so reflecting on that it’s a really big step for me and I’m excited about what will come in the future,” Hock said.

“I’m probably double the age of some of my competitors today, and because so many people say there is an issue with the big age gap I am just trying to prove them wrong, and I am slowly getting there.”

With an average age of 22, Australia’s emerging weightlifting athletes lifted to new heights at Ashgabat with a number of personal best performances amongst both the snatch and clean & jerk.

Competing in the weight division above her regular class, Sofia Zudova was the best placed Australian lifter with 5th in the women’s 90kg category as she matched her total PB set at the Oceania Championships the weekend before heading to Turkmenistan. 

21-year-old Ridge Barredo was also a standout in the B-Group as the 105kg lifter recorded a 3kg snatch PB, successfully cleared five out of his six lifts and trumped some of the competitors in the A-Group to finish 8th overall in one of the most competitive categories.

Australia’s wrestling team performed in Ashgabat’s 15,000 capacity Main Indoor Arena on the final two days of Australia’s AIMAG campaign in front of the biggest crowds they have ever faced.

Wrestling is one of Turkmenistan’s national sports, so Connor Evans and Liam Neyland knew they were up for a challenge when they drew the host nation in the opening round.

While neither advanced through to the second round, they relished the opportunity to have all eyes on their match.

“At first I was a little out of my comfort zone,” 20-year-old Neyland said.

“Everyone was cheering for my match, granted it wasn’t for me, but it’s not bad having a room of several thousand people cheering.

“Whether it be Nationals or Oceania, you don’t get crowds like this so it was definitely a new and unique experience,” he said.

Inspired by Hock’s taekwondo bronze medal performance, women’s -58kg wrestler Ariadne Burkhart said that although she was defeated by Guam in the opening round, the Ashgabat experience has made her realise age is not a barrier to greatness.

The 34-year-old former Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter only turned to wrestling two years ago when she discovered it could be her ticket to the Olympic Games.

“Tokyo honestly seems like it is a possibility now, where before I thought I might be too old,” Burkhart said.

“I keep taking it one step at a time, but after this experience competing against this broad field I really think I could have a crack.

“Look at Ruth! She’s 32 and a mother of two and she is still winning medals, so why can’t I?”

The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) extended an invitation to Oceania NOC’s to compete at Ashgabat 2017, making the 5th installment of the AIMAG the largest ever held with 63 participating delegations.

During the Games the OCA announced Oceania athletes will be invited to participate in the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China in the sports which will have their qualification paths for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games go through Asia.

Ashgabat was the second time Australia as competed at an Asian Games, with that nation making its debut at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo in February, but it was the first time Oceania nations were eligible to win medals.

You can read all about Australia’s Ashgabat 2017 performances and see the full list of results here.

Georgia Thompson

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