Like many hundreds of Australian athletes and athletes across the world, this past weekend would have marked the closing ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
For Australian Rugby 7s star Chloe Dalton, it has been a strange period.
Moving sports and cities and then juggling the emotions of preparing for the games, now postponed for 12-month time.
Instead of taking the field in Tokyo, Dalton has been taking the field for her local club the Warringah Rats Rugby Club in what has been a refreshing return to club footy in what has turned into a quieter period of time.
The tri–coder returned to Rugby 7s after two seasons with Carlton in the AFLW, in a bid to win back-to-back gold medals with the Rugby 7s women’s team before the games were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“As an athlete and particularly for the Olympics you prepare so much towards this event that happens every 4 years and you put so much into it,” she said.
“I had the opportunity to go play some AFL in between but I’m particularly feeling for the girls who have been in the 7s squad full time, preparing for Tokyo 2020, and girls who are getting toward the end of their careers and looking at potentially retiring after Tokyo 2020.
“It’s a pretty difficult spot to now be in when you’re adding another year onto the training and preparations.”
But the 27-year-old star is remains optimistic in the midst of uncertainty that they will get the chance to head off to Tokyo and defend their crown.
Whilst disappointed that the Olympics are not going ahead as scheduled this year, Dalton’s perspective is finding the right balance of acceptance and
acknowledgement that it’s going to have to wait.
“A big part of it has been acknowledging that it isn’t going ahead,” she said.
“It’s very easy to just say yeah, you know, I’ll reset my goals and look to what’s happening next but I think a big part for me is actually acknowledging that it’s a really hard time for a lot of people and it’s a difficult thing with most of our lives completely being turned upside down.
“I think that’s been a big part of it.”
Growing up on the northern beaches of Sydney, Dalton “played a fair bit” of sports as a junior.
But it was basketball which would be the start of Dalton’s professional sporting career.
Playing and rising through the junior ranks before receiving a scholarship through Sydney University to play WNBL with the Sydney Uni Flames.
It was be her first experience in a professional environment, surrounded by athletes with a whole cross section of experiences playing at that level.
“Looking back, I was such a little kid and I still had so much to learn,” she said.
Dalton spent two seasons in the WNBL, spending limited minutes on the court but spent plenty of time working hard and developing athletic and professional traits.
But with a lack of game time lead to a reassessment of goals and lining up a new pathway to achieving a childhood dream – winning an Olympic Gold Medal.
“Since I was seven-years-old and I watched Cathy Freeman win gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, I decided that I wanted to win an Olympic Gold Medal,” she said.
“I worked hard (at the Flames) but I spent a fair amount of time sitting on the bench.
“I didn’t really achieve as much as what I’d hoped when I first went in there.”
“I was there for about two seasons, spent a fair bit of time warming the bench and had to be a little bit more realistic about the fact that my dream of playing for the Opals and winning a Gold Medal at the Olympics may not be as achievable as what I expected.”
It was mid 2014 when Dalton went on to Google and searched a list of Olympic Sports at the then forthcoming games in Rio.
She scrolled and considered many before her eyes locked onto one that would be played at the games for the first time – Rugby 7s.
“I’d grown up watching my brothers play rugby so I knew I had a really good understanding of the game,” she said.
“It’s pretty crazy to look back on that, knowing that I’d grown up in a Rugby family and to think growing up as a kid, I didn’t think girls played Rugby because they either weren’t allowed or they didn’t have a team.
“Fast forward to now having the opportunity to be a part of the team that was going to go to the Olympics for the first time ever for Rugby 7s was pretty cool.”
Getting to Rio was only part of the dream. Being labelled as one of the favoured teams for the gold medal brought on the pressure.
Reaching the final undefeated and coming up against the might of New Zealand in any form of Rugby is viewed as a daunting task for even the strongest opposition.
The standard Rugby 7s competition series is a two-day event.
In Rio, it was stretched over three days which only intensified the build-up.
“It was pretty intense in the leadup to the final,” Dalton said.
Detailing the preparation to the big game, Dalton revealed that they used comments from New Zealand coach Allan Bunting as motivation.
“A really big part of our preparation was that the New Zealand coach made a lot of comments in the media in the lead-up to the match about how as Australian players we didn’t like contact and we shied away from it,” she said.
“Our coach actually put that up in our changerooms for us to read, it was interesting.
“We talked a fair bit about it and used that as big tool in terms of motivating us to go out there and whack them at the contest and at the breakdown.
“They weren’t expecting us to be very physical and it worked out
pretty well in the end.”
The final hooter rings out, the ball gets kicked into touch and with that the realization of a childhood dream.
Chloe Dalton is an Olympic Gold Medallist. A member of the first Australian Women’s Olympic team sport to win a medal since Water polo in Sydney 2000.
A significant achievement in Australian Sport.
While describing the initial feeling as one of relief, Dalton couldn’t contain her excitement at seeing her childhood dream eventuate.
“It was because since I was 7 years old that is what I wanted to do. What I wanted to achieve. And to think that with my teammates that we’d achieved that, the very first time Rugby 7s had been in the Olympics and that we’d done it, it was surreal,” she said.
“It was a very special moment, a lot of tears, a lot of hugging.
It was the perfect kick-start Australia needed as the women’s sporting revolution in Australia and across the world took off.
The sports that were once seen as no go for women were now being played and dominated by women.
“I think it had a pretty massive impact,” she said.
“Some of the messages I got after were from people who hadn’t taken their kids to school yet because they were watching the game or that the teachers had put in on for the kids in class.
“So, I think that was a pretty big moment and it’s been cool to see the next generation of girls who have come through because of that.
“To see the way sport has taken off for that next generation has been pretty cool to be a part of.”
With the rise of AFLW and the enjoyment for Rugby 7s dwindling, the opportunity to come across and play a third sport was one that Dalton was not going to pass up.
“I had an opportunity to go down and trial with Carlton and have a kick of the footy there and they said they would be really keen for me to come down and play a season of VFLW,” she said.
“It all happened pretty quickly. I moved down, found a job as a physio, started playing with Carlton VFLW and then got picked up as a rookie for the AFLW team as a cross-code selection.”
Dalton notes the transition to her third sport, one that she had very little exposure too during the course of her journey, had been one of the toughest challenges of her professional career to date.
“I found that one (switching codes a third time) really difficult,” she said.
“With Rugby, I guess I had an understanding of the game, I had to come across and learn how to tackle and things at the breakdown and at the ruck.
“Whereas AFL, I didn’t grow up watching it.
“So, it became a combination of learning the skills and the handball and kicking while also, I had to get an understanding of the game.
“That was probably the biggest challenge.”
Dalton has played every game in her two seasons since coming across to AFLW.
She has cemented herself as a speedy half forward and then moving up onto the wing.
But as the consummate professional athlete, she has made learning the whole game a priority, consuming as much footy as she can in her bid
to be the best she can be.
“I’m still learning so much about the game, every time I play and every time I train.”
Being a part of that Grand Final day in 2019, playing in front of a record crowd, despite the result, will no doubt remain a special memory for Dalton and all those women who took the field that day.
“I remember running out and quite often I look around, trying to soak in the atmosphere.
“Whenever I get to represent my country in rugby or pull on the Carlton jumper, I try to take a moment when I run out to just take it all in,” she said.
“I just remember running out and looking around and going, ‘there are not that many empty seats in here’.”
Despite the result, the significance of that day and that crowd isn’t lost on Dalton.
Reflecting on what was a record and game-changing day for women’s sport in this country, she said it was a ‘massive honour.’
“To play in front of that many people, even though we didn’t perform well and didn’t get the result, for me it was a really massive honour to be a part of a day that at, at that point broke the record prior to the Women’s T20 World Cup this year.
“To say that I was one of the players that got to run out and be a part of that day was really special.
“It’s something that I will remember for a very long time.”
Dalton capped off a remarkable rise up the ranks of AFLW in her second season at Carlton, finishing second behind superstar Maddy Prespakis in the Blues’ best and fairest.
It was a team that appeared destined to go one better than their previous campaign before the season was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a team we were gelling really well. Our combinations were working really well, and we were just having a lot of fun,” she said.
“I genuinely believed we could have gone all the way and won the flag this year.”
As women’s sport continues to grow, Dalton is honoured to be a part of the group that helped lay the foundation and kick off the phenomenon that is swooping the world.
Above everything, she is most excited for the next and future generations of talent to arrive and rise with the necessary and now available training and academy pathways at any aspiring athlete’s disposal.
“To be a part of that group now who get to be fully professional and play at that elite level, particularly now being back at Rugby 7s and I can call that my full time job, I don’t have to worry about going to work as a physio which a lot of other athletes need to juggle full time work during the
day and then going to training after work,” she said.
“That in itself is really special.”
“It’s so important now that we have the opportunities now for girls to become professional athletes to create environments and training setups where, if girls want to be, and play at that elite level that they have a pathway from however old they are, where they start and then at every level.
“There’s the opportunity for them to either play socially with their friends or, if they want to do it seriously, there is a level and an elite standard or academy they can join.”
Dalton’s message to every athlete young and old is to “be teachable”.
Be willing to learn, have an open mind and always be open and receptive to feedback.
“If you’re teachable and willing to learn and open to feedback, then I don’t think there is a ceiling on how much you can grow as a person and as an athlete,” she said.
“It allows you to keep learning and developing your skills and your knowledge as well.
While she has all but ruled out a cameo in the Women’s Big Bash, a swing at a fourth sport, Dalton, is looking forward to returning to the rugby field again this weekend with Warringah and continuing to set her sights on the end goal in Tokyo in 2021.