On her way to practice six days a week, 16-year-old Canberra basketballer Zara Russell needs to look no further than the Basketball Australia Center of Excellence training hall for inspiration.
The tunnel leading to the courts of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra features photographs of alums. They represent some of the biggest names in sport in the country.
All those represented in the photographs began their careers in these courts as scholarship holders at the same age as Zara.
There’s Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor, Patty Mills and Andrew Bogut, to name but a few.
“There’s a constant reminder that there are lots of pictures and information about them,” Zara said. “It’s very inspiring to see them on the wall.”
Zara is understandably scared to move into such an intense training environment at such a young age.
“At first, I was worried about what would happen, but when I met other girls, it was a great place to go,” Zara said.
He is one of 12 players from across Australia on a scholarship to the Center of Excellence. She is also the first Canberra player since Ashlee Hannan and Isabelle Bourne in 2019 to be selected for the program.
But there are sacrifices.
Zara moved home and AIS and changed schools from Stromlo High to Lake Ginninderra College.
“It’s definitely surreal. It’s a big change to go away from home, to switch schools to a dynamic training environment. ”
Not that he would change a thing.
“I have been dreaming since I was nine years old. I know this is the place I want to be, and if I get the chance, I’ll grab it with both hands. I am very motivated to learn and improve as a player.”
In terms of developing as a player, Zara has modeled her game on one player in particular.
“When I was growing up, my favorite player was Opals guard Bec Allen. I shaped my game around him.”
Bec Allen played for the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA, having spent time on scholarship at AIS, so the similarities are already emerging.
Center of Excellence coach David Herbert was impressed with Zara’s athleticism and her competitiveness.
“He competes every second he’s on the court. He will not back down,” explained David.
“His willingness to compete, especially on the defensive end, along with his ability to listen, work and improve his game, are the main qualities we look for in our athletes at the Center of Excellence.
“With further refinement of his offensive game, Zara will be able to make an impact in this game at all levels, and we are excited to watch him grow as a player for the remainder of 2023.”
Zara is walking.
“I really want to explore college life in America to expand my game and see how it develops. A big goal is to play for the Opals.”
If she continues on her current trajectory, there’s no reason Zara can’t achieve these goals.
And one day, in years to come, other young players may also walk along the same tunnel to the AIS courts and see Zara Russell’s photo on display.
They, too, need to be encouraged.