Ashleigh Hansen Leading Team SA’s Physios in Ghana

South Africa is a sports-mad nation, demanding excellence from athletes across various sports disciplines, be it netball, soccer, or Olympic events. Yet, we often overlook the dedicated team working behind the scenes to ensure our athletes are primed for competition.

Ashleigh Hansen is one such unsung hero, who, colloquially speaking, has “done the Lord’s work” in supporting our athletes at major tournaments. Hansen, a highly experienced physiotherapist, has been frequently called upon to accompany South Africa’s medical team, notably during the 2016 and 2020 Rio and Tokyo Games, as well as at the Commonwealth Games and African Games.

Currently, Team South Africa is in Ghana for the 13th African Games, where Hansen leads the team as the Chief Physio. Here, Mzansi’s finest athletes have showcased exceptional performances.

In describing her role, Hansen explains, “At the Games itself, my role is to ensure that the team of physios we have here is distributed, with each code having a physio assigned to it. I also facilitate clear lines of communication between the physios and code managers, ensuring their well-being and coordinating with SASCOC GTM and our chief medical officer to keep communication flowing.”

With meticulous preparation required for tournaments like the African Games in Ghana, which sees athletes competing in 10 sporting codes, Hansen’s responsibilities extend to ensuring adequate stock, scheduling physios for different events, and coordinating clinic hours to accommodate athletes’ needs.

In discussing the representation of women in leadership roles in physiotherapy, Hansen notes the increasing presence of women as Head Physios, even in traditionally male-dominated sports like rugby. She views this trend positively, emphasising the exposure and opportunities available to female physios in various sporting arenas.

Leadership in sport entails facing numerous challenges, but Hansen credits her team’s strength, stating, “The team they put together is always strong. I trust 100% in the skills of the physios here, which makes my role easier. If my physio team is okay, then the athletes will be okay.”

Reflecting on her career highlights, Hansen recalls a poignant moment at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony, where the unity of Team South Africa left an indelible mark on her. Such experiences in the athletes’ village foster lasting bonds, where shared goals unite individuals from diverse backgrounds.

“I remember I almost cried in the tunnel when we lined up for the opening ceremony in Rio. We were all in the tunnel and the whole team started singing before we came out and it echoed through the tunnel with the whole team South Africa and we walked out into the stadium and that for me was one of the highlights of my career. I think when I was in grade 11, I wrote down on a piece of paper I wanted to go to the Olympics as a Physio and that was the moment it came true and I knew that from a young age”, she recalls. 

Aspiring sports physiotherapists are advised to pursue a postgraduate Master’s degree specializing in Sports Physio and to engage with organizations like SASCOC to enter the system gradually. Hansen emphasizes the importance of persistence and gradual progress in achieving one’s career aspirations in this field.

“You will have to do a postgraduate Masters Degree specializing in Sports Physio and from there just get in touch with SASCOC, send them your CV and try get into the system. It might take a few years but keep trying. You don’t just put your hand up and say I want to go to the Olympics, you start from the beginning and you start at Region 5 and you work your way up. 

“Slowly you will get there, through all the African games and then the Commonwealth and perhaps if you’re lucky enough, you’ll get to the Olympics but just keep applying, keep fighting. It took me a couple of years to get in and I’ve worked my way through here for 10 years now. It’s really an amazing experience and something very special to be a part of.”

Looking ahead to Paris 2024, Hansen expresses her hopes for Team SA, urging athletes to embrace the opportunity and give their best on the world stage. She emphasises the importance of enjoying the experience and competing at full potential while staying injury-free.

“It’s such a lifelong dream for many of these athletes to get to this point in their career and I just wish that they take the opportunity if they get there with open hands and stand up there on the world stage and able to give their best and that is all you ever want. You want the athlete to give the best on the day and have fun and enjoy the experience of being around surrounded by world-class athletes and being in that league and obviously we wish that they all go in injury-free no niggles and compete at their full potential.”

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