Rugby Sevens player Tiana Penitani has been named Flag Bearer for the 2014 Australian Youth Olympic Team.
At a Team farewell event in Sydney today, Chef de Mission Susie O’Neill announced Penitani will lead the 89-strong Australian outfit into the Opening Ceremony of the second summer Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Nanjing, China on 16 August.
“It’s such a dream. It’s what every athlete at an Olympics would want to do - carry the flag of their country,” 18-year-old Penitani said.
“It is such a privilege to represent the 89 Australian athletes competing at the Youth Olympics.
“When you wear an Australian jersey or carry the flag there is such a sense of pride for all of your family and supporters back home.”
The speedster from the Maroubra women’s Rugby Sevens club shot to fame after leading the Australian side to gold at the Australian Youth Olympic Festival in 2013 - an event run by the Australian Olympic Committee.
So impressed by her form, Penitani was invited to train with the senior Australian sevens squad and made her senior international debut at the Hong Kong Sevens World Series two months later.
A try scoring machine, Penitani became the youngest Australian Rugby World Cup representative - in either the 15s or sevens format.
Following a serious knee injury sustained at the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup in Moscow, Penitani’s lengthy rehabilitation stint is now complete with the ultimate reward- playing at the Youth Olympics, leading the sevens side as Co-Captain with Brooke Anderson, and now, Australian Flag Bearer.
“Being out of the game for 13 months was one of the most mentally challenging things I've ever had to overcome,” Penitani said.
“Although my injury was unfortunate, I'm so grateful for it. I learnt a lot about my own character and how strong I can be both mentally and physically.
“It also made me appreciate playing for Australia so much more after having that privilege taken away from me for the time I was injured."
According to Chef de Mission Susie O’Neill, Penitani is the perfect fit for the role.
“Tiana’s performance on the international stage already speaks for itself, but a great leader also has that strong, determined character that defines elite sportspeople,” O’Neill said.
“Tiana is an asset to our Youth Olympic Team and will share her experience with the rugby sevens side and the greater Australian Youth Olympic Team.
"Tiana can be a leader of the team by playing her sport as well as she can; and off the field by being friendly and supportive of other Australian Team members.”
O’Neill, who is an eight-time Olympic medallist in swimming, was impressed by the teenager’s resilience and hunger for success on the world stage.
“I know Tiana was heartbroken when her shot at playing for Australia was taken away due to injury, and I’ve heard her commitment to rehab and being back for the Youth Olympics has been first class,” O’Neill said.
“Tiana doesn’t take the chance to represent Australia for granted and I know she will do us proud carrying the Australian flag in the Opening Ceremony and on the rugby field in Nanjing.”
O’Neill also noted that this will be the first time Rugby Sevens is played at Olympics and Penitani and the Australian women are real medal contenders.
As for that moment when Penitani walks out into the Opening Ceremony in Nanjing?
“I think it will be pretty overwhelming, I’ll be speechless, I’ll probably cry,” Penitani said with a laugh.
The Australian Youth Olympic Team will attend the Opening Ceremony on 16 August ahead of the commencement of competition on 17 August.
On Day 1, Australians will compete in Beach Volleyball, Shooting, Badminton, Triathlon, Rugby Sevens, Swimming, Table Tennis, Rowing, Gymnastics, Judo and Tennis.