At just 21 years of age, Emma Tonegato has become one of the familiar faces of Women’s Rugby Sevens across the globe.
Be it from diving across the try line for one of her many in any game or standing proudly on the dais in Rio, alongside her team mates and best friends, receiving a well-earned Olympic gold medal.
Rugby though was not her first sport of choice.
The ocean calls to those who grow up around Wollongong and Tonegato was a Surf Club kid. But her love of sport was not limited to the water.
“I played touch, but also netball, hockey, soccer and did surf club - I tried everything,” she said.
Despite having three brothers, Tonegato was the first to play a contact sport when she took up League at 16 – a pathway she had to work hard to convince her parents was the right one for her.
“When I told Mum and Dad they kind of lost it. They said no way. I told them I was very serious, so they came back to me with the need to wear head gear, shoulder pads and a mouth guard to play – so that was the deal,” laughed Tonegato.
She admits league was more accessible than rugby when she was growing up, both through television coverage and the emergence of a local competition.
At 18, Tonegato even represented Australia at the highest level in league when she played as part of the Jillaroos team which won Australia's first ever Women's World Cup in 2013.
But, having taken up sevens while continuing to play league, she was eventually invited to a national sevens camp and the possibilities on offer became clear.
“I was playing league, sevens and finishing school, but in the end the opportunity was just too good to resist,” said Tonegato.
For her, the strong appeal was in the challenge the game presented as a player.
“I love how much space there is. You get to do what you want and there are more technical areas as well - scrums and lineouts - so I think it’s just more of a challenge,” said Tonegato.
“And obviously getting paid to play – you can’t resist that as a female.”
Taking on sevens as a career and as a pioneer in the emerging landscape of Women’s Rugby in Australia, as they raced towards an Olympic Games, was an intense and exhilarating experience and one not taken lightly by the unit at Narrabeen.
Tonegato admits the focus required to achieve the objectives laid before them over the past four years has been a major positive for the group.
“Everyone has been focused on one goal – the same goal. We know what everyone has given up to do this,” she said.
But now those objectives have been met and the boxes ticked, the Aussie Women’s squad must refocus and again look ahead over the coming years.
Having reached the top, the pressure is now to maintain that performance level and retain that place at the elite level of World Rugby.
“It is a bit challenging to be honest. Coming back into training was a bit of a struggle but we sat down and refocussed our goals,” said Tonegato.
“We do want to go back to back in the World Series – get a podium finish to show we aren’t one trick ponies.
“Plus the Commonwealth Games is a really big goal for us – playing on home turf. We were the first to win the Gold medal at Rio and we want to be the first to win Commonwealth Gold - that is only a year away,” she said.
While life as a professional sportswoman is full-on, Tonegato has found the time to fit in university, studying a degree in Occupational Therapy. Something she declares was always going to be a part of her plans.
“I have grown up in a household that was ‘go to Uni, go to Uni’, so it was always what I was planning on doing,” she said.
“It’s a bit challenging sometimes but Walshy is pretty understanding (and) the uni is really good as well.”
“It provides me with an outlet; something else to focus on, so I quite like it.”
Family has also become a key notion in the group, both for the players and for their own families.
Tonegato’s mother Rhonda admitted she found great comfort in knowing that Emma had become a part of a bigger family on the road to a life in professional sport.
“It’s an amazing feeling to belong to the ‘Sevens Family’. It’s a load off your mind when you know Emma’s being looked after by her (other) ‘family’, she said.
The joy of being part of this centralised group is that the often talked about family culture shines through as a positive factor in the team’s success too.
Tonegato agreed that the team dynamic is based around that culture and that drive for a common goal.
“We all moved here for a purpose. People have moved away from their families, at a young age, so we have to depend on each other – we ARE each other’s family basically,” she said.
These guys makes my birthday much brighter 🎉👌🏽 seafood smorgasbord for dinner + caramel mud cake 😍😍😍 pic.twitter.com/6MIX3RLTHA— Emilee Cherry (@emilee_cherry) November 2, 2016
“We have really become best friends and I just want to play for (and with) my best friends.”