A LITTLE less than a year ago, Melbourne teenager Mikayla George stood by an open fire and quietly sang a song about her ancestors.
Covered in charcoal and ochre and wrapped in a possum skin skirt, it was a contemporary coming-of-age ceremony for 20 young Wurundjeri women who might otherwise have been occupied by smartphones, social media or typical teenager chatter.
But on this particular Saturday, at a bush camp in South Morang, the sound of the wind through towering eucalypts was the only noise from the outside world.
It was an atmosphere of contemplation, security and quiet expectation among grandmothers, mothers and daughters — proud indigenous women of the Kulin Nation — the first secret meeting of its kind in a century.
By the end of this poignant weekend, each left with a greater understanding of how Aboriginal women had a responsibility to look after one another and while they may be separate, they will never really be separated.
It might have sat front of mind for Mikayla in the year that followed. In December, the teenager would swap the familiar Australian settings and the comforts of her home in Narre Warren for the icy foreign landscape of Utah, in the US.
Half a world away, the 16-year-old was more determined than ever to stand tall as a young Aboriginal. Acting on an invitation from the Australian Institute of Sport, Mikayla was among six young Aussies selected for the gruelling three-month training program for aerial skiers. She is now on track to become the first indigenous Australian to compete at the Winter Olympics as she sets her sights on 2022.
“I didn’t know anything else but gymnastics.’’
By the age of 10 she was training 16 hours a week, mornings and afternoons as coaches noted her advancing skill. Her parents dedicated themselves to getting her to training. She would sometimes miss school or social activities just so she could continue to better herself.
By the end of grade 5, Mikayla was signed up at the Women’s High Performance Centre of Excellence, where her training regimen was doubled.
Staff couldn’t help but notice the striking young gymnast who had emerged from Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs. Suddenly there was talk of Olympic contention, perhaps a berth in Rio.
But it was short-lived. A shoulder injury robbed her of the chance to display her talents on the world stage. It was the first harsh lesson in reality for Mikayla, who was told she should concentrate on domestic competitions.
Bitterly disappointed, her mother took her aside and encouraged her to make the best of the situation. By 2014 she had helped the Victorian squad take gold and came sixth overall at the Australian championships.
It was only after she conquered the Victorian Championships, taking first place on the vault and sixth overall, that it was discovered she had actually fractured her T7-8 vertebrae during competition. Suddenly the young star couldn’t even carry her school bag, such was the pain. She spent six long weeks in a back brace before conceding she would have to forsake here gymnastics dream.
Mikayla was forced into retirement, aged only 14.
“She felt like she was quitting,’’ her mother, Lynette, says. “She gave it a lot of thought but came to the realisation it might be too difficult to come back. It was a really difficult decision for her.’’
But as it turns out, she made the right one.
Less than four months later she would put her natural tumbling skills to the test on a trampoline. She found a new wave of enthusiasm with every whip, layout and double somersault.
Her new coach couldn’t believe how natural she looked on a “tramp”. By May last year, only eight months after breaking her back, she took part in the Australian Championships and won her category. She remains Australia’s U17 tumbling champion.
It was the kind of comeback story that did the rounds on social media and was quietly celebrated by her close-knit family including her younger sister and brother.
Then a letter arrived. Mikayla was invited to try out for a talent transfer program run by the Victorian Institute of Sport and the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia, with a view of becoming an aerial skier.
She would pull on her skis on the Victorian slopes having never seen snow before, but by the end of the year she had joined the institute’s development team. Her Olympic dream was alive again.
It didn’t come without pressure. Without a sponsor, local community groups pitched in to help ease the cost of lift passes and to pay for equipment.
But the trip to the US would be a test of an entirely different kind. It was her first trip overseas — away from her family at Christmas. There was jet lag to contend with, the dramas of currency conversion and the challenge of suddenly having to cook for herself. The sort of things that could easily derail teenage ambition had this one not been so determined. She clung to the hope that she, too, could follow in the footsteps of her hero, one of aerial skiing’s greatest stars, gold medallist Lydia Lassila.
Their early pathways mirror each other. Lassila was a promising gymnast who retired injured until she too was identified under the program aimed at helping former gymnasts literally take flight.
“I had never skied before, but I had nothing to lose and I grasped the sport with open arms,’’ Lassila has written. “In me, a fire was relit as I embraced my new sport and again developed a hunger to be the best. I had a second chance to make my childhood dream of being an Olympic champion a reality.’’
Lassila, who was also brought up on Melbourne’s suburban fringe, wowed the world to win gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“Lydia inspires me because she always wanted to do the big tricks like the boys,’’ Mikayla says. “She inspires me to do the same. I want to be as good as the boys.’’
But she said being the first indigenous woman on the team inspired her even more. To represent her culture and do well for her people is an ultimate aim.
“I am very proud to be an Aboriginal woman and part of this beautiful culture,’’ Mikayla says.
As the smoke from burning leaves curled across the horizon at the coming of age ceremony last year, Mikayla was encouraged to speak Woiwurrung — the language of her ancestors that was almost lost to time.
She credits the experience for giving her a far deeper understanding of her culture and the ties that bind. Elders whispered snippets of knowledge in her ears, messages only shared in secret by the women of Wurundjeri.
Along with the other girls beside her, she was encouraged to share and set an example for other indigenous girls to follow.
Mikayla returned from Utah last month more determined than ever to pursue her winter Olympic dream. There were plenty of highlights for the teenager, who admitted still being a little giddy from her first overseas experience.
‘‘There was so much snow,’’ she says. ‘‘More than I had ever seen before.’’
But she says it is what she has learned about herself that is proving a highlight of equal measure.
‘‘I realised that I can pick things up pretty easily. I get told what to do and I was able to translate it through the skills. Now I can’t wait to go back.’’
Her training will continue on Victoria’s slopes this winter and at a specially designed aerial water jump facility at Lilydale year round.
She is still seeking a sponsor to help with costs but in the meantime has scored a scholarship under champion Australian surfer Layne Beachley’s Aim for the Stars program — an initiative to help make the dreams of talented young Australians a reality.
She has also been sought out by the newly formed Australian Indigenous Alpine Sport Foundation to act as a representative. The future looks bright.