Spirits soar as Raise The Bar catapults Indigenous young guns to academic and sporting success

An innovative program is helping talented Indigenous teens balance promising athletic careers with education.

As many as 38 Indigenous teens from all corners of Australia attended the third Raise The Bar Academy at the University Of Melbourne.

Program co-founder Bridgid Junot says it provided an opportunity for the talented athletes to expose themselves to the benefits of sport and the many doors participation can open. 

“The purpose really is to show our participants that through the sport of athletics that gives them the opportunity to engage in an education system. We know that with education ... health outcomes, economic outcomes, [and] social outcomes are improved,” Ms Junot said.

Among the talented youngsters in the 'Class of 2017' was Paige James.

At just 16, she knows better than most that sporting dreams don't always come true.

The one-time gymnast and Olympic hopeful was left devastated when she was overlooked for Rio.

“Basically my whole life had led to that moment. I'd trained 36-and-a-half hours every single week and to find out that our team didn't qualify was a big upset,” she said.

Now, in an attempt to revive that dream, the versatile teenager has turned her hand to the discipline of pole vaulting. She spent time under the watchful eye of Bridgid Junot - herself a talented pole vaulter who won Bronze for Australia at the Manchester Commonwealth Games.

Ms Junot says gymnastics provides a solid grounding for the challenging sport.

“Gymnastics is an incredible sport that provides really good fundamentals in acrobatic skills, strength, power, [and] agility and Paige, as an Australian representative, she obviously has all of that,” Ms Junot said.

But the key - as reinforced at Raise The Bar - is finding balance between academic and athletic pursuits, so Paige says she hopes to also study zoology or sports science.

Paige James
Degree in her sights: Paige James.

“I want to do something I love as well and if I don't get an education I won't be able to do that -  I obviously like sport more as most people do, but I know how important education is so I try and prioritise both [an] equal amount.”

Perhaps the poster boy of this year's Raise The Bar program was 16-year-old Roneld Baragud from Yam Island in the Torres Strait. The island is closer to Port Moresby than Queensland and has a population of about one hundred people.

The promising 400-metre runner is under no illusions as to whether a professional athletic career is for him – but he happily challenged himself with his first-ever attempt at pole vaulting.

“Flying over the bar with the pole vault, it was a bit cool - it was a bit weird at first. You felt like [you were] floating in the air,” he said.

Junot says Baragud's attitude epitomises the essence of the program.

“It's absolutely fantastic - he's had a really new experience today and he's seen how, quite literally and figuratively, when you raise the bar, what that can do for your spirit.”

But Roneld sees his future as being firmly on the ground. Raise The Bar opened his eyes to the opportunity of tertiary study and once he graduates from high school he wants to attend Melbourne Uni to pursue a social work degree.

“I just want to help ... my people from the street,” he said.