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Deakin lawyer awarded for commitment to help athletes train through pandemic

When lawyer and academic Karen Powell migrated to Australia from the US in 2015, to take up a job at Deakin Law School, sport was a fantastic cross-cultural connector.

Having benefited personally from the being a part of sporting organisations, Karen Powell sees the legal and regulatory volunteer work she pours into sporting clubs as a just reward. Over her lifetime Powell has been involved in sports as diverse as ice hockey, water polo and roller derby. But it was her work helping sports climbing Olympic hopefuls access important training facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen Powell receive a prestigious industry award recognising community service in the field of sports law.

Powell recently received the Denis Callinan Award at the 2023 Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Association conference, in recognition of the work she did for Sport Climbing Victoria during the pandemic. Something of which she’s very proud.

“Being able to directly support our athletes was one of my proudest volunteer moments.  More importantly, though, receiving this award provides recognition to Sport Climbing Victoria and all of its volunteers who work so tirelessly on behalf of athletes,” she said.

“I’ve been a volunteer in sport as long as I have been playing sport.  So, when Melbourne lockdowns happened, I knew I would be one of the few people who could combine regulatory expertise with climbing knowledge to support climbers through the pandemic – protecting not only their physical but also their mental health.”

Tackling a tough regulatory environment 

In 2020, as the Victorian government imposed lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia's sports climbing community faced significant challenges. 

The sport was gearing up for its debut in the Tokyo Olympic Games, and top athletes, including Olympic hopefuls, were stuck in lockdown without access to training facilities. 

Sport climbing is a fully volunteer-run sport. So Powell, a long-time volunteer at Sport Climbing Victoria, took it upon herself to navigate these difficulties.

As lockdown restrictions eased for professional athletes, Powell used her legal drafting and project management skills to draft a comprehensive plan that adhered to government regulations, including health and safety protocols, and was approved by the government oversight board. 

The plan also addressed mental health support for athletes, a larger network of volunteers was developed, including physio and coaching support, and commercial gyms provided exclusive access to the national team athletes while facilities were shuttered to the general public.

Powell's efforts not only ensured the safety of Victoria’s Olympic hopefuls, but her plans also became a template for reopening climbing facilities in a COVID-safe manner and were shared with the climbing community in New South Wales.

Victoria's climbers, trained under Powell's program, have since achieved remarkable success in international competitions. 

Using legal skills to bring community benefit

Powell said she enjoyed being able to use her legal skills to help her community.

“We are quite privileged to be a part of the legal community and to support strong rights, protections and freedoms.  With this privilege comes a responsibility to serve our community as well.  Our legal training can support arts, sport, creative avenues, social and environmental work.

“For me, a law degree has provided me with the opportunity to be involved in so many different types of legal practice and community engagement over the past 25-plus years.  It’s that diversity of challenge that has kept me engaged.  

“There’s no doubt the study of law is challenging.  It requires patience and tenacity – just like sport! But the rewards are tremendous.”

As part of her award, Powell was able to nominate a community organisation to receive $2000 in grant funding, and unsurprisingly she chose Sports Climbing Victoria.

“They’re leaders in developing climbing opportunities for our para-climbers, non-binary and gender diverse climbers in competition, as well as supporting our best Australian competition climbers, all through consistent commitment of their all-volunteer board,” Powell said.

“Funding to support those athletes is always in short supply and I know they’ll make the most of every cent.”





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