March 21, 2024

March 21, 2024



HerStory Through Sport feature

Para sports star Ella Sabljak gives athletes a voice off the field

Increasing athlete representation in all aspects of Paralympic sport drives elite wheelchair rugby player Ella Sabljak as much as her drive to compete.

A Minerva Athlete since 2021, Ella is stepping up to ensure the athlete voice is heard all the way to the boardroom. She has recently been introduced to her second Minerva Mentor to provide specialist guidance as she embraces new roles in sports governance as well as a career off the court in sport and education.

Ella has travelled a long way since her initial, short-lived taste of para sport at age seven. The logistics of distance and scheduling were too challenging at the time and it wasn’t until she was 15 that she returned and tried wheelchair racing. By her own admission, it wasn’t much fun just going round and round in a loop and not talking to anyone. Determined to get involved in sport in some way, Ella then gave wheelchair basketball a whirl. Just three years later in 2011, she was representing Australia at international level.

Off the back of winning silver at two U25 Wheelchair Basketball World Championships in 2011 and 2015, Ella cites her sporting career highlight to date as winning the silver medal in the inaugural 3x3 wheelchair basketball competition at the 2022 Commonwealth Games – the first time wheelchair basketball had been admitted to the Commonwealth Games program.

“Often you hear people talk about losing the gold medal. But for us, we won the silver medal because of the group of girls we were with. We’d grown up together since juniors and everybody had written us off and didn’t think we’d perform well. But we just went out there and dominated. I’m really proud of how well we did.”

While Ella concedes that gold medals are nice, it’s her love for competing and a desire to be the best she can be that keep her motivated.

Following the Commonwealth Games, Ella was eager for a new challenge and transitioned into wheelchair rugby. She quickly enjoyed success on the international stage as a member of Australia’s gold medal-winning team at the 2022 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships and the 2023 International Wheelchair Rugby Cup.

“I love the power of Paralympic sport,” Ella says.

“I love what it has given me, a sense of community, and a sense of belonging. It’s made me super proud of who I am and my disability.

“And I just love competing!”

For Ella the positive outcomes from para sports also extend well beyond what they give individual athletes.

“When we see athletes competing at the Paralympic Games, the social impact of having a person with a disability in the public eye allows us to break down misconceptions of disability and discrimination and fosters conversation about accessibility and creating an inclusive society.

“Being able to show young girls who have a disability that you can do anything, has always been at the forefront of what I do, and I know the incredible mentors at Minerva will also be able to assist me in promoting this message along the way.”

World Champions!

Off court transitions

Introduced to Minerva by another athlete, Ella discovered Minerva’s mentoring program at a point when she was considering another big transition.

“My first Minerva Mentor Libby Marshall came into my life when I was transitioning from the classroom to the corporate world, which I had little experience in as a primary school teacher.

“So, trying to figure out this new world could have been difficult, but Libby was awesome in helping me build up my skills and confidence in the corporate workplace, as well as helping me to understand and develop my strategies and visions for my professional development.”

Ella is now well established in her role as a full-time Education Manager with Paralympics Australia.

She has also leapt into some impressive sports governance roles. She was recently voted by her peers into the WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) Athlete Council, the only Australian representative (able-body or para), and into Paralympics Australia’s Athlete Commission. She has also served on the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) committee and is a member of Sport Integrity Australia’s Athlete Advisory Group.

Ella is passionate about implementing para sport perspectives throughout the decision-making process in sports governance.

“Often Olympic athletes and able-bodied people forget about the struggles that Paralympic athletes have to go through. So, I’m trying to make sure that our perspectives are brought to the table. That’s how I see my role there.

“Being part of Minerva and working with my mentors has really helped show me how I can influence people in these governance roles where Paralympic sport isn’t always taken seriously. If it wasn’t for Minerva, I probably would never have been able to meet the people who have helped me personally and professionally in leveraging my position on these boards and committees.”

Minerva is proud to be walking in step with Ella to support her in the world of sports governance. Ella has recently connected with her second Minerva Mentor, Eugénie Buckley, who has extensive experience as a director, CEO and corporate adviser in sport.

“Eugénie has a lot of understanding about the Paralympic world and where we come from, as well as that experience onboards and sports governance,” Ella said.

Aligning with Minerva’s goal to support 1,000 professional sportswomen by 2025, Ella actively encourages other professional female athletes to get involved with Minerva Network.

“Minerva Network is focused on providing real world advice to assist athletes in setting ourselves up for life outside of sport.

“The Minerva Mentors are great in working with athletes to develop a career plan and increase networking opportunities to support sportswomen in their endeavours post-retirement. By connecting with other athletes and getting to know their own journeys, I've come to realise that our experiences as female athletes are quite similar and that we are not in this journey alone,” Ella said.

Ella enjoys her off court career as an Education Manager with Paralympics Australia

Overcoming challenges

Despite recent progress and achievements in women’s sport, Ella says there are still challenges.

“We still hear conversations about women’s sport, getting the dregs of the uniforms, suboptimal scheduling, and limited investment. I think we experience that 10 times worse in wheelchair sports,” Ella said.

Such challenges make Ella even more determined to ensure athletes’ voices are heard throughout the entire decision-making process in sport. Codesigning future sports programs and committees with athletes from the beginning rather than just consulting athletes at the end of the process isa suggestion she supports.

Soaring together

Minerva Network and the Queensland Academy of Sport are partnering to support and empower women in elite sport, providing female athletes with access to mentoring, networking and development opportunities to enable them to achieve their full potential on and off the field.

Ella says more athlete networks could take inspiration from the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS), with their investment in resources and genuine care for athletes evident in their programs.

“As a professional athlete, it feels great to be supported by QAS. Their facilities, like the QAS gym, have been beautifully built with much of the facility made accessible for para athletes to train in.

“Being part of the QAS program over the last 10 years, I’ve witnessed the growth in the QAS and the investments they’re putting into athletes and we’re really seeing that pay off.

“I know it’s not necessarily like this for other sporting associations, so Queensland athletes are very lucky to be receiving such a high level of support and a genuine care for athletes at the QAS.”

With support from organisations like Minerva and QAS, Ella looks forward to seeing more athletes with lived experience get involved in sports governance and decision-making in Australia.

Aussie Steelers teammates Ella Sabljak and fellow Minerva Athlete Shae Graham are changing the face of wheelchair rugby (Photo ABC News Patrick Stone)