Across more than 50 years of dedication Helen Brownlee OAM is the epitome of sport volunteerism at the highest level and a champion of the Olympic movement. As a canoeing competitor, judge and administrator, she has carried the baton at all times for her sport and nation with humility and success.
On Wednesday 21st October 2015, Helen Brownlee OAM will receive the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a figure of Australian sport, when she is Inducted as a General Member of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.
Her list of achievements are vast, as a judge and official at five Olympic Games, a former president and now life member of Australian Canoeing, the current president of the Commonwealth Canoe Federation and Oceania Canoe Association, and chair of the Oceania National Olympic Committee’s Women and Sport Commission.
A recipient of the esteemed Olympic Order from the International Olympic Committee, Brownlee is the first woman to be elected to the executive board of the Australian Olympic Committee, to become vice president, and to be awarded life membership of the AOC.
From her first introduction to the sport as a young child, Brownlee’s life has been dedicated to canoeing.
“My parents were bushwalkers and my sister and I are close in age, so it was difficult to take two babies bushwalking. They joined the canoe club and we went canoeing every weekend,” Brownlee said.
Her father Os Brownlee had been instrumental in establishing both the New South Wales and national canoeing federations, ahead of the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games, and was himself made a life member of Australian Canoeing in 1971.
Brownlee watched on as Os forged a career for himself in sports administration, and soon realised that what could be achieved without paddle in hand was just as vital as what could be achieved with one.
“It was never any effort for him to go into the administrative side of sport, and it was just natural then that I would follow in his footsteps in that respect, because he shared what he was doing with us as a family and we were all involved,” Brownlee said.
“He was well respected by all of the athletes, and there’s even some now who still say how much they valued the fact he would listen to them and help them, and that he was in sport to help the athletes – not his own ego.”
An athlete herself at first, Brownlee spent every morning as a teenager on the Parramatta River, training with her father before school. She began racing in the K1 and K2 classes, but switched to slalom upon its introduction to Australia. Successful at state and national level with a number of medals, Brownlee won Australia’s first international canoeing medal with bronze in Llangollen, Wales.
Unfortunately, however, Australian Canoeing focused its efforts on the sprint canoeing disciplines for the Munich 1972 Olympic Games, leaving Brownlee – as a slalom paddler – unable to compete.
Instead, she made her way to Munich as one of only two female judges. It began what would become a long love affair with the Olympic movement, that would see her officiate at the 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games.
Upon returning to Australia inspired by her time in Munich, Brownlee could see clearly the work needing to be done. She wanted to ensure future slalom paddlers had the opportunity to represent their nation which she went without.
“After Munich, we obviously had a lot of work to do to grow slalom in Australia,” Brownlee said.
“I was already president of my own canoe club, and I became secretary of the slalom committee for the Australian federation.”
“It was during that time we developed the sport, grew the teams and sent them to world championships, so that was the first step in the right direction.”
It was the beginning of a lengthy and ongoing career in sports administration, which sees Brownlee as the current serving vice president of the Australian Olympic Committee.
The first woman to hold that position, and a woman of many firsts across her career, Brownlee stops short of calling herself a pioneer for women in sport.
“Other people might call me that, but I tend not to call myself a pioneer in that respect,” she admitted.
“I have always been supported by people in Australia and people within the canoeing world, and it was always very open and fair in giving credit where it was due – you didn’t ever think that you were different to the contribution a man could make in that position.”
“I’ve simply done what I could and I’ve done the best job I could at the time. You hope, upon reflection, that you have made a difference.”
It is clear through her many achievements and positions held, the success of Australian canoeing through her time as a leader of the sport, and her impending Induction to the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, that Helen Brownlee OAM has indeed made her mark.
“You hope at the end of the day you have made a difference in the lives of the people you’ve worked with, and the lives of those you have encouraged and supported, and you hope that somewhere along the way you’ve helped them achieve their dreams and be the best they could be,” said Brownlee.
Sport Australia Hall of Fame Selection Committee Chairman Rob de Castella AO MBE said Helen Brownlee OAM is a quiet achiever who is deserving of the highest praise.
“Helen Brownlee’s humility is only outweighed by her achievements in sports administration,” de Castella said.
“Her impact on the sport of canoeing at the local, national and international level is unparalleled, as is her influence within the Olympic movement, especially with athlete welfare and wellbeing. Helen Brownlee has been an athlete, official, judge and for several years now has delivered a significant impact at the operations, strategic policy and planning of Australian sport.”
Helen Brownlee OAM will be welcomed to the Sport Australia Hall of Fame fold by fellow Member and five-time Olympian Clint Robinson. The most successful competitor in Australian surf lifesaving history with 36 national titles, Robinson is best known for his canoeing and kayaking feats at the 1992, 2004 and 1992 Olympic Games – winning gold, silver and bronze respectively.
Established in 1985, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame plays a vital role in preserving and perpetuating Australia’s rich sporting heritage, whilst promoting the values of courage, sportsmanship, integrity, mateship, persistence, and excellence, all underpinned by generosity, modesty, pride and ambition.