Sydney, Australia, 8 March 2020 | Vivienne Christie

There was much to celebrate as a group of high-profile women gathered together ahead of International Women’s Day at Rushcutter’s Bay Tennis Club in Sydney – with supportive connections, the positives of participation and shared successes among the many themes.

But as top Australian player Kimberly Birrell, lawyer-turned-“funtrepeneur” Sarah Holloway and actor Marny Kennedy discussed Tennis Australia’s Play for You campaign in a panel led by well-known presenter Candy Hertz, it was challenges rather than milestones that were most keenly discussed.

For Birrell, that includes a second elbow surgery soon after the highs of a career-best Australian Open appearance in 2019.  “It’s just tough when you have a certain expectation of how things are going to go and they don’t always go to plan,” the Queenslander told an intimate group that included actor Emma Roche, celebrity trainer Molly Kat Gay, American football player Tiana Penitani, surfers and social media influencers Zahalia Short And Shyla Short, along with freestyle skiers Danielle Scott and Sami Kennedy-Sim.

“And not just sports people,” Birrell added. “If you’re at your top of your field and you’re striving towards something and really goal orientated, it’s really hard when things are out of your control and you have to keep pushing that goal and timeline back.”

While many women could relate to the barriers that Birrell and others at the function have experienced, they can also appreciate the opportunities that those obstacles create.

After an Australian summer that included an impressive foray into mentoring, commentating and other media roles, Birrell was delighted to redefine success.

“It’s almost like figuring out who I am without this thing of dedicating so much time to,” the Queenslander said.“It’s also finding out what I’m passionate about – what I like doing and what I don’t like doing as well. It’s been a lot of out of my comfort zone, but it’s been really fun.”

Birrell is of course not the only athlete to have discovered the positives that can arise from a break. Ash Barty, who heads the Play for You campaign that launched last November, famously climbed to her current world No.1 heights after treading a more individually-designed path on her return from a two-year break.

The Play for You message equally resonates with other women who’ve charted their own path to success. Hertz related her experience as a talented young runner, when she was teased by other girls. “(They) would say I must be ‘Candy cutting corners’ if I would win,” she said. “It made me anxious before runs and I would always burst into tears at the end of the race which was met with more ridicule.”

Teaming with another female runner in both training and races helped reverse the negative trend. “I didn’t hear any of the chatter anymore,” Hertz related. “I was able to use sport for what it was meant to be used for. It’s not just for fitness and looking great. It’s also about connection and friendship and support and doing something that you enjoy doing together.”

And while overcoming such barriers, many women are also developing invaluable skills that will serve them for life.

Holloway, a lawyer and prominent podcaster, related her experience in ballet, when the pressure to be physically perfect was ever-present and a balance between school and performance was hard to achieve. Still, it was “absolutely formative” in her childhood years.

“It taught me so many things that I still credit to ballet today – time management, self-discipline and self-awareness, goal setting and then of course physically set me up with great muscle memory for flexibility and movement,” Holloway said.

Kennedy, an award-winning actor, was another dancer but admits she was initially intimidated by other sports. As her career developed so too did the requirement – and determination – to overcome that challenge. Horse-rising and skydiving are among the activities she’s since enjoyed.

“It’s amazing what we can do when we let go of the boundaries we set for ourselves, based on fear or thinking you lack the ability,’ Kennedy reflected. “There are so many things that I would love to learn, like how to surf properly for example, that are all waiting on the other side of the boundaries I’ve set for myself.”

And while those high-achieving women are naturally attuned to winning, there are also many victories of another kind. In her popular “Seize the Yay” podcast, Holloway explores the joy of simply participating.

“It brings us all back to the idea that as a child we have all the ingredients for all the that we love. There’s no filter, there’s no expectations. we all gravitate towards different sports or art or craft or whatever it is, and we don’t double-guess that this is what we love. We just do it,” she related. “We veer away from that.”

While laughing that she’s a typical Type A personality who’d quit if not performing at an elite level, Hollaway is focused now on pure fun.  “It’s not about the outcome, it’s about the experience,” she said.

As the influential group celebrated International Women’s Day, the Play for You message couldn’t have been stronger – and nor could their unique paths to individual success.