By Greg Campbell
When Elise Collier lines up with the world’s best athletes when she contests the women’s 10m Air Rifle on day one of competition at next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games, it will continue a remarkable sporting pathway which epitomises courage, determination and competitiveness.
Collier has had to face and overcome a range of serious and debilitating health conditions, some which remain permanent today, ever since a near catastrophic fractured skull during a cricket training accident in December 2011.
Practicing with the Ormond Cricket Club boys team in suburban Melbourne, a fielding drill saw a six-stitcher accidentally hurled into the back of her head. She was taken to Monash Children’s Hospital for examination and, soon after, was released.
But she returned to hospital days later when she collapsed on the cricket field and lost her sight.
Thankfully, her sight returned a few days later but she was left with a severe headache and had difficulty conversing, reading a book, concentrating at school and even holding a pen.
Then some 12 months later, Collier’s right arm began shaking uncontrollably. For six months, she temporarily lost the sight and hearing in her right eye and ear, her sense of smell and taste disappeared, and her right eye lid would not open unless it was manually peeled back. Eventually, these functions returned.
Collier has tried a wide range of oral medications and other treatments such as acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga and Pilates to help rid her of the continuous pain. However, none have worked, and her constant 24/7 headaches are a never ending reminder of her cricket accident.
Looking desperately for a remedy to assist his daughter, Collier’s dad Peter suggested in late 2014 that she try shooting at the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia’s (SSAA) Springvale Youth Training Scheme as a form of rehabilitation. He hoped the focus and concentration required to shoot may ease her persistent headaches. And it has worked, to a point.
“It’s not fixed my headaches. But for the split second that I need to, I can forget about it. It’s there, but it’s not on my mind,” said Collier.
Shooting was yet another sport the self-confessed sports junkie had taken up.
She was swimming at aged five and, two years later, she was churning out 10 kilometres a day in the pool for fun. There were swim clinics where Olympic champions such as Michael Klim, Libby Lenton and Leisel Jones would attend.
“I loved it as a kid, it was the best,” she recalled.
Besides cricket, she also tried indoor cricket, soccer, basketball, netball, tennis, triathlon, diving, synchronised swimming, hockey, football and several others. “If I could get a day off school, I was playing the sport,” she admitted with a smile.
After years of monthly SSAA Monday night competitions, Collier’s shooting ability was identified in late 2017 and was invited to try the International Shooting Sport Federation’s (ISSF) Olympic rifle competitions under the coaching of Mike Jarrad.
Collier had been used to aiming with a magnified telescope in SSAA field rifle competitions but was unprepared when lining up an ISSF Air Rifle for the first time.
“I looked through the peep sight and I looked up at my dad and said this is not possible, there is no way people can do this. It’s just too hard. There’s no way anyone can be good at this because it was so different. I like a magnified scope,” she said.
Despite the initial shock, she persisted and results soon followed.
“I think my competitiveness took over. I am very competitive within myself and I just wanted to get good at it. It was fun as well. It was a challenge, but it was a fun challenge,” she said.
Her strong competitive spirit stems from her childhood where she, and her older sister Nicole, and younger brother Michael would be locked into fierce battles.
“With my siblings and I, everything is a competition. Growing up, I don’t think there was ever anything done for fun. It would start off as fun, and then we would make it into a competition. No one wants to lose,” she said.
Despite the intensity of intra-family competitiveness, Collier said at no point did it boil over.
“My siblings genuinely are my best friends. We’ve always got along. But when it comes to competition in any game, it’s every man for themselves. We don’t fight. It’s like if I lose, its ‘Michael you cheated’. He says he didn’t, but I will convince myself otherwise because it made me feel better,” she said with a laugh.
Outside of family competitions and games, Collier is super focused on her own performance and this singlemindedness helped her pave her way to win selection to the Australian Olympic team.
“I’m not someone who likes to be bad at something. When it comes to sport, I’m competitive with myself. I don’t really care how everyone else does because I can’t affect that,” she said.
However, at the first three Olympic 10m Air Rifle nomination events in Adelaide last February, Collier couldn’t understand why her results were inferior compared to her pre-event training scores.
“I genuinely thought I’d forgotten how to shoot. I knew I could do better and that’s what frustrated me the most. Knowing I can do better and wanting to do better for myself,” she said.
On her return to Melbourne, she and Jarrad placed her rifle in a bench vice and were alarmed when it was shooting scores in the eights and nines instead of scores in the tens.
Prior to the last nomination event, it was revealed her rifle had a build-up of lead in the barrel.
“When I put in the chamber flag, loose lead would move around, and chunks of lead came out of the barrel,” she said.
The rifle was thoroughly cleaned and, by the fourth and final nomination event, Collier responded with a world class qualification score of 629.2 – a score which would have been good enough for her to reach the 2016 Rio Olympic men’s final.
She then backed up later in the nomination event final registering 253.6 points – a score better than the world record of 252.9 set by India’s Apuryi Chandela set in New Delhi in February 2019. But because the Olympic trial was not an ISSF world event, the new world mark was not officially recognised.
Collier still finds it hard to consider herself an Olympian.
“It’s weird. It’s surreal. I never took up this sport to be good at it. The sole reason was because it was a rehabilitation thing. It never crossed my mind that it (Olympic selection) could be a path I could take because I guess I was oblivious to it,” she said.
Although she was unaware of the depth of her shooting talent, she has held a deep admiration of the Olympics.
In 2016, when in Year 12 at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College in Bentleigh, Collier would tell her teachers she had a poor classroom internet connection so she could go and study in the school library.
But instead of burying her head in her schoolbooks, she would be glued to live coverage of the Rio Olympics on her laptop while trying not to cheer loudly as the Australian athletes were in action.
“I watched it all. If I didn’t understand all the rules, I still wanted to watch it,” she said.
Collier is inspired by the courage of Switzerland’s Gabriela Andersen-Schiess who determinedly finished the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics women’s marathon. Suffering severe dehydration, Andersen-Schiess staggered and wandered across the track on the last lap before collapsing into the arms of medics as she crossed the finish line.
“The sheer determination she showed – it’s just incredible to think about it. You can’t look at it and not be inspired,” she said.
Closer to home, she is inspired by how Australian cyclist Anna Meares jumped back onto her bike two weeks after fracturing her neck when crashing at 65km per hour. Seven months later, and after intensive rehabilitation, she won the women’s sprint silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Years later, Collier used Meares’ courage to convince her mother, Jacque, to allow her to play in a junior cricket grand final despite having broken ribs and a broken bone in her foot.
“I literally told my mum, if Anna Meares can get back on a bike two weeks after she breaks her neck on a bike, I can play this grand final with a broken foot and some broken ribs,” she said.
It is this Meares-like unbreakable spirit and her proven determination to overcome the odds which makes Collier a force to be reckoned with at the Tokyo Olympics next year.