Winwood’s Olympic dream to unite people and share culture

Proud Noongar man and boxer, Alex Winwood, has today been announced to the Tokyo 2020 Team, the first Indigenous Australian athlete selected for the Games.

After just missing out on Rio 2016 selection when he was a teenager, to not being eligible to compete at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and then, qualifying for Tokyo 2020 and having the Games postponed for a year, Winwood has spent the last few years learning the virtue of patience.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Winwood said of his Olympic selection.

“Finally, being able to say ‘I’ve been selected for Tokyo’ is such a weight off my shoulders. It’s just such a relief that I’m at this point now, getting ready for the Games and finally being announced to the Team.”

As one of eight siblings, Winwood grew up in Perth and later moved to Mandurah with his mum.

A keen football player, Winwood would split his time going to school and playing footy with his mates, while also making sure he was learning and connecting with his heritage.

As a youngster, Winwood would regularly go out into the bush with his family and be immersed in Aboriginal culture; painting, picking food, hunting and fishing.

He was also taught cultural dancing and how to play the didgeridoo, which he would perform at an Indigenous art gallery owned by their grandfather, Primus Ugle, a celebrated Aboriginal artist.

Ugle’s pieces, which can be found in the National Art Gallery, are centered around remembering and documenting the ways of life of Aboriginal people and mourning the erosion of Aboriginal culture and ties with the land, so it comes as no surprise that Winwood is just as committed to honouring his heritage.

“Growing up, my pop and my dad took us out to the bush whenever they could, so I was always immersed in it, but it wasn’t until I was a young adult and people would ask me about it, that I realised how important being in my culture was, in shaping who I am,” Winwood explained.

“I feel like the longer I’m away from my culture and my people, the less I feel like myself and become disconnected with who I am,” he shared.

“I actually went back home in the last week for a few days and to be with my people gave me a little bit of a spark that’s going to help me get the job done at Tokyo.”

Winwood took up boxing in Year 10 at the age of 15 after some encouragement from a high school boxing coach and Winwood’s dad, who was also a boxing fan although, initially, Winwood couldn’t say the same.

“It took a while for me to actually love boxing, the training was much harder than footy at the time,” Winwood said.

“But after about a year, when I first started fighting, I really started to enjoy it and decided to give up footy to focus on boxing full-time.”

Winwood won his first senior nationals title in 2016, while still a teenager. It was also a pre-selection event for Rio 2016, which Winwood was unaware of at the time.

“When I first won the nationals, my coach didn’t actually tell me that it was for pre-Olympic selection, I just naively thought I was there for the national championships,” Winwood explained.

“It wasn’t until I was in the final that I overheard someone talking about it being a pre-Olympic qualifier and I said to my coach, ‘Oh, what is all this?’ but I think he didn’t want to put that pressure on me, I was only 18 at the time, so had only just got into the senior ranks a few months beforehand.”

Winwood missed out on selection for Rio 2016, and he also missed out on competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games due to his weight class not being available. At the time, he was devastated but upon reflection, admits that he is more prepared now than he would have ever been back then.

“I didn’t end up qualifying for Rio and I wasn’t able to compete at the Commonwealth Games and I was upset at the time, but looking back now, I was so young. I definitely didn’t have the investment or the skill that I do now,” he said.

“It was the biggest learning curve of my career and I’m truly grateful for having that experience.

“Having faced that adversity throughout my career, not being handed anything and having to work hard means that I know, my coach knows and the people I care about know that I belong here, I’m world-class and I’m not just here for a tracksuit.”

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA – MAY 04: Alex Winwood poses after the announcement of the Australian boxing squad for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, at Gold Coast PCYC on May 04, 2021 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

You’d only need a quick browse of Winwood’s social media profiles, to get some insight into the respect he has for people from all walks of life.

“It makes me very proud, not just as Noongar, but as an Aboriginal in general, to see other Indigenous people and learn about their cultures too,” he said.

“No two Aboriginal people are the same, so I always pay my respects when I travel, and I have time for anyone who wants to stop for a chat or to hang out.

Whether Winwood is immersing himself in the bush and thanking each of the traditional landowners along the way or picking up a hitch hiker-turned-brother on the side of the road, community comes first and foremost to the 23-year-old.

“I just think that’s in our culture, we’ve always been community-based and taught to look after one another and if you do good things to others, good things will happen to you,” Winwood said of picking up Yamatji man, Josh, who was hitchhiking on the side of a dirt road in 40-degree heat.

“That trip was only booked three days before I left after my coach told me to have some time off,” Winwood explained.

“I told my partner, I’m going to rent a car and we’re going to go for a trip to Exmouth, WA.

“On our way, we saw a fella who was walking on the side of the road.

“It was really hot day, over 40 degrees, and we were in the middle of nowhere and I just thought, we can’t let this man walk, it was 600 kms out of Perth, so I pulled up beside him and unbeknownst to me, he was a Yamatji man named Josh.

“He ended up telling me about one of his family members who did a bit of boxing, so it was definitely a cool experience.”

Winwood says his generosity comes down to the fact that throughout his life, he has received support from those around him and wants to give back the same way.

I know how much support I’ve received from the community in my own life, it’s a huge amount,” the Wally Foreman Foundation Scholarship holder said.

“I didn’t have the finances to commit to boxing, so if the community didn’t help me, I wouldn’t be where I am today and I just hope to be in a position in every stage of my life to be able to do something for them.

“Not just helping to pay the bills, but actually having a genuine interest in what’s going on and how I can impact and help other people. I think that’s what I want to do with my life after boxing, to be as helpful as I can to the community.”

As Tokyo 2020 edges closer, Winwood is proud to represent both his country and his heritage proudly across his chest while wearing the Australian Olympic Team Delegation Uniform with Indigenous artwork by Paul Fleming.

“I absolutely love the fact that they’re bringing athletes together, especially Indigenous athletes, so we can spread our heritage and our stories through the Olympics, which is the biggest platform in the sporting world,” he said.

“There’s a lot of animosity and negativity going around in the news and they are always the stories that get shared, not the good stories,” Winwood continued.

“My grandfather is white, so I don’t try to divide anyone because I know that’s just as much a part of me, as being an Aboriginal itself. I’m an Indigenous Australian first and foremost and being able to represent my country and my heritage is exactly who I am.

“I want to be known as Alex Winwood the human before any other title, I want to bring everyone together, my country and my people.”

Originally published for olympics.com.au

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