Emma Sykes is a sports-loving teen whose life’s path has taken a turn that has her head spinning.
The 18-year-old has now played in three Rugby Sevens World Series tournaments for Australia and is about to enjoy her fourth in Japan, the culmination of a journey that began a decade ago.
A hint of what lay ahead came when she was entered into a local tournament as part of a sevens team recruited from the girls school footy team.
“I went to a touch football excellence school, so I was heavily involved in footy, but then one of the teachers wanted to put together a rugby sevens side and asked all the touch girls to play because we were really the only ones who could pass a ball,” said Sykes.
“We had one training session before we played; none of us knew the rules (and) we came runners-up.”
The experience lit the fire for Sykes and with a Queensland Reds scout on the sidelines at the sevens carnival, it wasn't long before she was recruited to be part of the state program in Brisbane and on the international stage just months later.
“I ended up going to the some of the training sessions and then I made the Youth Commonwealth Games after only six months and I just haven’t stopped playing since,” she said.
She admits to being fairly competitive and loved playing many sports as a child.
“I did surf lifesaving for a while and was pretty competitive at that. Throughout school I did athletics, cross-country, swimming, oztag – I even played a bit of futsal,” she said.
“So I really just played any sport I could.”
Sykes believes her competitive streak has come from battling three older brothers in the backyard.
The fourth in a family of eight children, she says that is where her enjoyment of the physicality of sevens probably comes from.
“I have three older brothers, so growing up they all played rugby league and we used to always go into the back yard and play 2 v 2 and against boys you’re going to get bashed - especially teenage boys,” she laughed.
Her Australian Sevens journey began at the Central Coast Sevens tournament in the national development team where she performed well and impressed head coach Tim Walsh.
He invited her to train ahead of last year’s Oceania Championships and before she knew it she was in her first World Series team, in Dubai.
“I was a bit taken aback because I wasn’t contracted and this was only my third international tournament - I was a bit star struck to tell you the truth,”she said.
“Going to the Dubai tournament was the best one to go to (first). Then being able to back that up with playing in front of your friends and family at home in Sydney, that is something all of us will never forget."
A full contract came soon after, along with a move to Sydney, an opportunity that was simply too hard to refuse, deferring university to fully commit to sevens for this season.
“It was hard being away from home but it was definitely worthwhile in the end. I was going to take every opportunity I was given and my parents have always believed in me to go do what I want to do,” she said.
Now sharing a house with Emma Tonegato and Hannah Southwell, Sykes is enjoying her new life and has come to appreciate the support of her older more experienced teammates.
“It’s good to have the older people there guiding you because they’ve been through it themselves before and they know what’s going on,” she said.
“It’s definitely what I thought it would be, just a hundred times harder out on that field.”
With three World Series tournaments under her belt, Sykes knows she has been given a great opportunity to pursue her dreams.
“After Dubai I probably didn’t think I’d get another one. (It) has been so amazing and I’m so grateful to have been able to have the opportunity,” she said.
Sykes has goals she wants to achieve but knows that it is the small steps along the way which create opportunities.
“I do have goals I want to achieve but I’m really just taking it day by day.”