Jillaroo gives back to the Redfern community
It's six o'clock on a muggy morning in Redfern and kids as young as 10 are not only out of bed but bouncing with energy at their local gym simply with the aim to "do better", thanks to Jillaroos forward Lavina O'Mealey.
Here, at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, O'Mealey dedicates three mornings a week mentoring youths participating in the "Clean Slate Without Prejudice" boxing program.
In an era where athletes giving back to the community is nothing new, this time it feels different. O'Mealey, a mother of two, was back at it in the Redfern gym just four days after lifting the World Cup trophy after the Jillaroos' memorable win over New Zealand at Suncorp Stadium.
The bruising World Cup campaign could have been used as an excuse for some time off, but O'Mealey was not about to let it derail her focus.
"I decided to get back straight into the grind of things. I feel I'm in the best form of my life, and with the NRL's announcement on the women's national competition, I thought it's best to jump back into it and prepare – 2018 is going to be a massive year for women's rugby league," O'Mealey tells NRL.com.
"I've been in this game for 10 years – this is why I've played so long without payments, just to inspire the next generation coming through. That's always been my main goal, and now I'm reaping the rewards from it."
Sure, you'd expect her to say that, but you're left in no doubt O'Mealey means every word. This is not some PR opportunity. This is a woman who has fought her way to get here and believes in her soul the right thing to do now is to give back to the indigenous community.
However, looking at O'Mealey's giant grin, you'd never know she once battled darkness. Where most turn to sport for fun and fitness, O'Mealey credits rugby league as being a lifeline.
"I'd just had my second child about 10 years ago and suffered from post-natal depression – I was doing it really tough. I just couldn't seem to get out of it", she says softly.
"Then one of my close friends (Rowena Welsh) who'd been playing rugby league for the Redfern All Blacks asked me to come and join her at a training session hoping it would help.
"Once I went, I never looked back. I mean, look where it's led me now," she laughs.
O'Mealey is adamant her life changed once she stepped out on the field.
"One of the greatest things about this game is the friendship you make along the way. Just to have that supportive sisterhood, the exercise – it really cleared my head," she says.
"The community support around rugby league is everything. The coaches you meet, they're all mentors along the way and have all played their part in my success."
This is why we now find the sleep-deprived World Cup champion mentoring local Redfern youth a few days after the final in Brisbane. For O'Mealey, the wellbeing of the indigenous community is a cause close to her heart.
"The program mentors the underprivileged youth here in Redfern and surrounding areas. I, along with some other key figures in the community, guide the youth into hopefully a better life with more opportunities that they perhaps thought they never had."
The initiative was co-founded in 2009 by her father Shane Phillips, along with fellow indigenous leaders Mick Mundine and Mark Spinks, with the intention of giving troubled youth a place to let out some aggression in a positive environment.
"We recently had one of our girls graduate from high school. We're all just so proud of her and that'll help lead the other girls around the community too," O'Mealey said.
The support of the local community is one of the main reasons O'Mealey believes helped her lift her first World Cup trophy.
"They keep me grounded. I'm just the same old Lavina to them," she said.
"They've been behind me for a while, sending me messages and supporting me during my journey to the World Cup. They were definitely one of the driving forces behind my success.
"I love it (in Redfern). I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Just to be here and inspire these kids, that's always been the reason behind it and hopefully I've done that."
So does this mean we'll be seeing O'Mealey at the next World Cup in 2019?
"I don't know – we'll have to see how the body holds up", she laughs.
"We'll see. Never say never though."