Interview | Rhydian Cowley

April 17, 2023

We chatted to Australian racewalker Rhydian Cowley about why climate action is so important to him and the incredible work he's done to advocate for a greener future.

How long have you been in athletics and what is your proudest sporting moment?

I first started athletics when I was 8 years old, at Knox Little Athletics Centre (Little Athletics Australia recently became a member of the Sports Environment Alliance). So it’s been nearly 24 years in the sport for me now.

Racewalking was an event I had some natural talent at, and some early success helped me stick with it as I grew older. I try to enjoy the process and the journey along the way as much as anything, but one moment I’m very proud of is that all the hard work my team and I put in to preparing for the brutal conditions at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics paid off with a top 8 finish in the 50km event.

When did climate action become so important to you? Was there a specific moment?

I’m not sure there was a single specific moment - I had a growing awareness over a number of years that the impacts of climate change were already being felt, and that collectively the world was not acting fast enough. After the Black Summer bushfires and in the relative quiet of the first Covid-19 lockdown there was a tipping point for me, and I became determined to be more actively involved in responding to climate change. I realised that I could use my voice as an athlete to make climate change and climate action a part of the conversation within my circle of influence, to help shift the dial and get collective climate action happening with the urgency it requires. Hopefully I’ve helped bring the world a bit closer to that!

Tell us about your involvement in climate and sustainability?

Climate and sustainability issues are regular parts of my conversation on social media, and I also try to be active in areas where I can make genuine input: in my local community, at work, and in my sport. Basically, this is a number of smaller things that I can turn my attention to when I have capacity and are part of things I’m already doing, that add up and thread through what I’m already doing in life.

To name a few specific things, I am part of a ‘Green team’ at my work; I’m also on the committee of my local community garden (eating locally grown food + composting food scraps helps!),and a part of my local climate action group (Climate Action Merri-bek). There are several great networks in the sports sustainability space, and as anEcoAthletes and Sports Environment Alliance ambassador, it’s been good to tap into those networks and be a part of discrete things like The Cooldown letter organised by Frontrunners last year, submitting content for inclusion atSport@COP26, as well as work by Athletes of the World around the BirminghamCommonwealth Games. And I write regularly to my federal MP and my local councillors. It’s not directly climate related, but I am also on the Athletes’Advisory Committee for my sport.

Is there anything happening in the climate space that you're particularly interest in or excited about?

As I work at a conservation charity, Bush Heritage Australia, it’s exciting to see the UNEP releasing a Sport for Nature framework – the nature crisis being entwined with the climate crisis. And it is good to see the governing body of my sport, World Athletics, launching their Champions for a Better World programme, and actively empowering its athletes to advocate in this space.

Climate change can be overwhelming. How do you stay positive and what motivates you to keep being an advocate?

I know that I’m a role model for people by virtue of being an elite athlete. I’m determined to make the most of the platform and the privilege to make the world a better place. Everyone has a role to play in overcoming the structural obstacles to dealing with the causes and impacts of climate change, and it gives continuing in my sport more meaning knowing that I can do something more with it than just because I like walking.

When things get a bit overwhelming, it’s nice to go back to the basics of prioritising rest and reconnecting with why I love my sport – the chance to be outside, away from screens, active, and connecting with nature. Between the weather, plants, fungi and animals there’s always something cool to see while I’m out walking, and that really helps recharge my batteries. Doing things like making jam from local fruit trees, and sharing it, is also quite fulfilling. No one person will ‘solve’ climate change by themselves, so allowing yourself time to rest and recharge helps you be more effective when you’re back at it.

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