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Stride for change: A Deakin Olympian making a difference

It’s a love that was born at the age of eight. Rhydian Cowley competed in a Delathadecks race and, after finishing second, he was hooked. 

It was only up from there; Cowley has competed at both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics and is set to compete in Paris in 2024.   

The 2015 Deakin Commerce/Arts graduate says it’s not just the competing that he loves, but the surroundings he connects with while doing so. 

‘For me I just really love when I’m walking or even running, being outside and connecting with the environment that I’m in. You’re seeing what’s happening with the seasons, what the trees are doing, birds — it’s things like that.’  

‘It’s really good for my mental health.’ 

Embracing and enjoying the opportunity 

Cowley makes it a priority to take every opportunity he has to represent Victoria and Australia.  

‘I just try to really enjoy every opportunity I get to compete — it’s a real honour.’  

When it comes to his proudest achievements, it’s the Tokyo Olympics that stands out.  

‘Finishing eighth in Tokyo and being able to compete after all of the pandemic lockdowns was really amazing, so I would have to nominate that if there was one moment I had to pick.’  

Cowley also embraces the opportunity to set a strong example to the community. 

‘I guess I understand that it’s a real privilege to be able to compete on the world stage and it makes me a bit of a role model in the community and that’s what guides me.’.   

Black Saturday fires sparked a change in mindset 

As well as competing at multiple Olympic games, Cowley has another passion:  the environment.  

His interest in the environment was born from his training, but one event in particular turned interest into passion. ‘It was really after the Black Summer fires; we had a training camp that was interrupted. It was meant to be in Canberra, but we couldn’t hold it because the smoke was so thick. It was setting off smoke alarms, fire alarms inside the Institute of Sport.   

Climate change has even had a direct impact on Cowley during a recent event.  

‘While competing in Budapest at the World Athletics Championships I didn’t quite pass out, but I exhibited one of the symptoms of heat stress, which was a loss of coordination. One moment I was walking and then the next moment I was just splayed out on the ground, doing like a really close pitch inspection.’  

‘It was quite distressing, I think for people watching as well, but thankfully I’m alright.’  

How Cowley campaigns for change 

Cowley acknowledges he has a large platform he can utilise to convey his passion for the environment.  

‘I think for me, using my platform to talk about things that I care about and to demonstrate my values is important for me. It makes me feel like a more balanced person and it gives me more to my life than just my sport. I know that it makes me a better athlete and hopefully it helps make the world around me and my community better, happier places.’  

He recently spoke at the Sport Environment Alliance Summit earlier this year.  

‘I’m really looking forward to being even more effective using my voice in the future. Being an ambassador for the Sport Environment Alliance meant that at the Summit earlier this year, I was one of the athlete speakers there on a panel with some members of Footy for Climate. We spoke about the athlete perspective, which I think is really important because at those events often it’s sport administrators and so forth.’  

For Cowley, it’s all about whatever change is possible. Even a small change can go a long way to improving things in the long term.  

‘Sometimes it’s talking to smaller audiences, sometimes bigger audiences. The important thing is, if you’ve got a message and you’re authentic about it, whether it’s a small audience or big audience, you’re still able to influence some change and hopefully inspire some people.’  

However, it’s not always easy. In such divisive times, speaking up can comes with backlash.   

‘At times being an advocate can feel like a little bit of an uphill battle and you’re not always sure if you’re achieving anything. However, when I get feedback from friends or family or supporters that say, ‘hey, this thing that you said inspired me to do a thing,’. Maybe it’s they didn’t get plastic lawn, they got a natural lawn or maybe they got solar and little things like that. Every little bit counts.’  

The Deakin graduate has his eyes firmly set on the Paris Olympics, however, when he’s off the track, his eyes are firmly set on making a difference.  

‘I studied at Deakin University between 2008 and 2015, and when I’m not out there walking the pavement, I’m out there advocating for issues like climate change and sustainability.’ 


Image: Athletics Australia

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