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Alumni Stories

UC's 30th anniversary: becoming a leader in Australian sport

This year, UC is celebrating our 30th anniversary as a university.

We've achieved a lot over the past 30 years – risen in world rankings, conducted breakthrough research, opened world-class learning, teaching and sporting facilities, and expanded our academic offerings.

All this has been possible because of the amazing people who make up the UC community.

Petria Thomas describes the day she graduated from the University of Canberra with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Sports Administration/Management) as one of the proudest moments of her life.

As one of Australia’s best swimmers, that pride can’t be underestimated in the context of Petria’s achievements, given her record in the pool and her status as one of the most outstanding butterfly swimmers of her generation.

Petria won three Olympic gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, four Olympic silver medals, nine Commonwealth Games gold medals – including five at the 2002 games – three gold at the World Championships, and 15 national titles.

It’s a breathtaking list of achievements matched by very few in Australian sport.

Yet she holds her UC degree alongside these great moments in her career – the rationale behind this becomes clear as Petria explains the circumstances.

“My university experience wasn’t a normal one,” says Petria.

“It took just over nine years to complete my degree, which would normally take three years – but it was during the busiest time in my sporting career."

"I was really proud that I stuck at it. I could have walked away. So when I graduated, it was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

To put the feat into context, consider the impact of missing entire semesters because of injury, being away at training camps or attending overseas competitions.

Petria graduated in 2004, the same year she captivated a nation with her performance in the pool at the Athens Olympics.

But the degree provided perspective as much as anything else, allowing her to avoid the all-consuming nature of elite sport. “I place a high value on education,” Petria says. I knew that I couldn’t play sport forever. I needed the ability to get another job at the end.”

As part of Petria’s uni degree, and during a period of rehabilitation from a shoulder reconstruction, she spent some valuable time at ACTSPORT, working on several different projects.

When she retired from swimming in 2004, Petria started looking for a full-time job. She eventually started working with the Australian Sport Commission, now known as Sport Australia.

She thrived in the role, before moving to Swimming Australia. “Initially, I was working within the Swimming Australia National Training Centre program based at the Australian Institute of Sport. My role then expanded to include the day-to-day management of the Podium Program, then I moved on to looking after the Georgina Hope Foundation Swimmer Support Scheme.” The scheme was established in 2013 and provides financial support to elite swimmers in their training and competition environments.

Petria also spent some valuable time with ACTSPORT, working on a number of different projects.

She is now the High Performance Manager for Gymnastics Australia. “I mainly work behind the scenes to ensure our high-performance policy framework is relevant and up to date, among other things."

"We are a small team, and we all contribute in different areas.”

Her degree has also come to the fore in other roles in Australian sport and should prove invaluable in her new appointment as Chef de Mission for the Australian 2022 Commonwealth Games team.

She is quick to recognise the influence of UC on her life. “I think the practicalities of the course are so important,” Petria says. And those practical experiences continue to have application.

“Learning remains relevant to me, particularly because of the placements within work environments, and through gained life experiences.”

The degree, teamed with her elite sports pursuits, effectively set Petria up for life – and that life is one that involves stimulating employment, balanced with the commitments of family.

Words by Tim Gavel, photo supplied.

In this special 30th anniversary series, UnCover is sharing the inspiring stories of UC staff, students, and alumni.

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