On this day 20 years ago the Australian women’s water polo team beat the United States to claim the first-ever women’s water polo gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Elite sport is part of the fabric of the Wallace family.
In 2008, Bernadette Wallace’s brother Ken made history as Australia’s most successful male Olympian in Beijing. Ken won two gold medals in the K1 500 and 1000 events.
Now, Bernadette will follow in her brother’s footsteps having earnt selection for Tokyo when she won the C2 500-metre event at the Oceania Canoe Sprint Championships alongside teammate Josephine Bulmer. In Tokyo, Wallace will be one of just two Australian women to compete in an Olympic canoe event as the discipline makes its debut for women in Tokyo.
When canoeing made its debut at the Olympics in 1936, the C1 and C2 events were male-only events. In 2017 this changed, when the IOC announced that women would be able to compete in the C1 200 and C2 500 events in Tokyo for the first time.
This Olympics will not only be significant for gender equality, but also significant for Wallace, whose journey to Tokyo has had its ups and downs, which makes her selection even more impressive.
As a child, Wallace competed in many sports including figure skating, surf lifesaving and figure skating, but after watching her brother travel the world, she also developed a keen interest in kayaking.
And she was very good at it.
Wallace made her first national championships at just 16 years of age. In 2013, Wallace and Olympian Naomi Flood won World Cup medals in the K1 5000 and K2 1000.
With such strong results, Wallace was powering towards making her Olympic debut in Rio. But then a standard skin check revealed something frightening.
“When I was 25 years old, I underwent my first skin check. We found a freckle on my neck that had to be removed. A year later it was discovered that it was actually a melanoma growing on my neck,” Wallace said.
“When I went to get my health check I was a bit nervous because I had not done one of these before. I thought I was young and fit and healthy, an athlete who loved the beach and never really had anything wrong. But I also knew that I am in the sun everyday, so I had to start somewhere, and I am glad that I did.”
The most confronting thing for Wallace was her consistent performances on the water despite having cancer.
“What I thought was just a scar that was growing back and growing back was this monster growing on my neck,” she said.
“I raced the World Championships in my kayak and raced in all the World Cups. I was one of the best paddlers in the world, but I had this melanoma on my neck.
“But I was tired all the time because my body was trying to fight this thing off. Strange things started happening; I was sleepy all the time and it was taking me longer to recover.”
This all happened weeks before selection trials for Rio.
Fortunately, Wallace was not lost to sport. Wallace beat cancer and took up a coaching position in Canada and started canoeing to keep up with her squad. This marked her return to sport, albeit in a different kind of boat.
After the Australian paddle team visited her club in Canada and noticed how well she had picked up the sport, a fire was reignited and Wallace wondered whether she might still have a chance to compete at the Olympics.
That was when her preparation for an Olympics berth began. She came back to Australia and relocated to South Australia to paddle with race partner, Josephine Bulmer.
And the rest is history.
But alongside her preparation for Tokyo, Wallace is passionate about sharing her journey with others, not only to raise vital funds for cancer research, but also so young people feel confident enough to see their doctors when something isn’t quite right with their bodies.
This August, along with several other athletes, Wallace is encouraging people to donate a virtual daffodil in support of Cancer Council’s Daffodil Day Appeal, the annual fundraising campaign that culminates in Daffodil Day on 28 August 2020.
Cancer Council is Australia’s leading cancer charity. This year the organisation is trying to raise more than $2 million across Australia with the digital Daffodil Day Appeal.
While we may have just missed Daffodil Day on Friday 28 August, there is still time to pledge support for an extremely worthwhile charity, but also to recognise survivors like Wallace, who will hopefully still have her chance to make history in 2021, just like her brother Ken did 12 years ago.