In 2017, Griffith University’s GAPS team was introduced to a talented, strong young woman living in a small village on an outer island of Vanuatu.
Eighteen months later, after participating in the GAPS programme and despite never having thrown a javelin before, Friana Kwevira won bronze in the women’s F46 Para Javelin at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
This was the first ever Commonwealth Games medal for Vanuatu.
Success stories like this are driving the global expansion of the GAPS programme, the team having just returned from Singapore in an effort to advance GAPS Asia.
The successful programme presently spans multiple continents, partnering with Commonwealth Games Federation and international universities to deliver GAPS activities in Oceania (Griffith University), Africa (Stellenbosch University), and the Caribbean (University of the West Indies).
However, pioneer of GAPS Associate Professor Clare Minahan said establishing GAPS in Asia would ensure it is operating in every region of the Commonwealth.
“We’ve had Asian athletes to our camps, including those from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India, but we definitely need a GAPS Asia,” she said.
“For a lot of athletes in these communities, particularly girls and women, it is really hard for them to access opportunities and part of that is due to societal conventions.”
“GAPS has the potential to impact society and community perception. It’s a catalyst for social change and an opportunity for sports diplomacy.”
Griffith’s GAPS programme prioritises talent transformation of sports people from developing regions, creating inclusive pathways to see them recognised on the global stage.
The programme’s objectives also include the empowerment of promising athletes and coaches whilst equipping them with additional skills, knowledge and resources.
The principal activity for the recent GAPS Fiji and Samoa trip involved the delivery of a coach identification workshops and the development of already identified coaches.
“We brought over a dual Olympian female weightlifter from the Cook Islands, as well as a world class Para powerlifting coach from Australia, to identify new coaches in Samoa and also to mentor Cook Islands coach Luisa Peters,” Associate Professor Minahan said.
“The sports we were working with included Para athletics, Para powerlifting and Para table tennis because they’re identified as being sports with high participation in the regions, as well as sports that have the potential to reach international events such as the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.
“We try to work with sports that need very little equipment and facilities because countries may not have those resources.
“We can provide them with some assets, but essentially all you need is an open field to get athletes working.”
Associate Professor Minahan said training and keeping coaches in country is important to maintain the longevity of a high-performance system and ensure best possible outcomes for the country’s homegrown athletes.
“Once we do transfer the relevant knowledge and skills, they can pass it down to their next generation of coaches and athletes.
“A lot of previous programs take athletes and coaches out of their home country and bring them to Australia, and they don’t necessarily return and pass on their knowledge.
“This can really jeopardise the development of an inclusive sports pathway in country.”
Griffith PhD student and sport scientist travelling with GAPS, Georgia Brown, said the trip successfully resulted in identifying incredible coaches who she hopes, with the right support, will lead their own countries in strength and conditioning.
“It was just the best experience,” Miss Brown said.
“Understanding how to communicate with athletes who have different abilities, some being deaf, blind or non-English speaking, is not something you always get at home and I wish that more people did.
“It really opens your eyes and you see how appreciative these people are for just having access to equipment like stretch bands, trigger balls, or even just an hour of your time.
“At the Suva camp in Fiji, we had an athlete with different abilities travel from the other side of the island both days, which was a four-hour bus trip.”
Associate Professor Minahan said transportation within their home country is just one of the enormous barriers to sports participation on the world stage for athletes in developing areas.
“Something as simple as qualifying and getting classified as a Para-sport athlete can be a barrier,” she said.
“There’s not enough Para-sport classifiers around the world and to take even just one athlete, perhaps to Australia, and get them classified, would cost them around $15,000.
“Athletes in less developed regions don’t have that funding.
“GAPS is trying to address some of those barriers, and at the same time trying to take the participatory, grassroots level athlete through a pathway that will prepare them for international competition.
The GAPS programme is in the process of working with National Sport and Olympic Committees to deliver world class facilities to areas of the Pacific.