Elite athlete program propels Anu Francis towards Paralympic dream

Paralympic hopeful and Flinders University exercise physiology student Anu Francis has clinched an impressive 2nd world ranking in paratriathlon, propelled by the backing of Flinders’ innovative Elite Athlete Program as she pursues her dream of competing at the 2024 Paralympics.

Playing an integral role in the establishment of the training program since joining Flinders University, exercise physiologist Chris Rawling has been coaching Anu for the past three years.

A former professional triathlete and lecturer, Mr Rawling has helped position Anu as a strong candidate for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris through the initiative, which is designed to offer educational support alongside strength and conditioning and sports science expertise, to a select group of elite university athletes.

Despite Anu’s battle with a challenging degenerative neurological condition, which demands extensive medical management, the pair have balanced the demands of elite sports training with study in the pursuit of Anu’s dreams of competing at the Paralympics.

The rare neurological condition causes a variety of impairments, including hypertonia (high muscle tone), involuntary muscle movements and gait abnormalities, so her elite sporting accomplishments are remarkable.

“I met Chris through the program in 2019 when I was a national-level rower studying education. Little did we know that two years later, having narrowly missed selection for the Tokyo Paralympics, Chris’ passion for exercise physiology and triathlon would inspire me to change not only my sport but my career path too,” says Ms Francis.

“Chris and I are in a unique position where he is not only my coach but also my exercise physiologist, lecturer, and now my mentor as I complete my Level 2 triathlon coaching course.

“However, we thankfully make a great team, fuelled by a deep respect for one another and a shared endless passion for learning, health and performance. Whilst it’s challenging balancing elite sport with study and gaining industry experience through triathlon coaching and disability support work, it’s also extremely rewarding and makes me a more well-rounded athlete, student and person.”

In August 2023, they both travelled to Paris, where she not only competed in a test event featuring 60 athletes from across the globe but also remarkably secured first place.

The competition took place on the exact course slated for use in the upcoming Paralympic Games, meaning Chris was able to familiarise himself with the course and gain unique insight into the exact conditions in which Anu will be competing when she returns next year.

Mr Rawling says the data he collected in Paris and the virtual course simulation are also valuable tools for teaching his Exercise Physiology students at Flinders’ Bedford Park campus.

“It’s a unique opportunity to connect theoretical knowledge with real-world applications and provide students with valuable insights. These resources will facilitate a deeper understanding of the practical application of exercise science and physiology in the realm of elite sports,” says Mr Rawling.

Anu has to balance a heavy training schedule alongside her academic studies.

In their continued preparation for the Paralympics, Mr Rawling and Ms Francis will utilise Flinders’ facilities for metabolic testing and various training activities. Mr Rawling draws inspiration from the athlete’s unwavering commitment and resilience, considering her a remarkable example for others.

“The highlight was witnessing her win, a significant achievement given the hurdles she’s faced due to a rare neurological condition. Managing her condition alongside elite sports training has been a challenge, but she’s shown tremendous dedication. Anu is an incredible advocate for disability and a strong athlete. Her journey is not just about sport; it’s about making a meaningful impact,” says Mr Rawling.

He says his commitment to Anu’s success mirrors his commitment to the growth and development of his students, showcasing his unwavering dedication to both their advancement and his own professional development.

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