ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT: Former Ipswich international swimmer Dr Jenny McMahon (pictured with husband Chris) has received an Order of Australia Medal for her valuable research.
ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT: Former Ipswich international swimmer Dr Jenny McMahon (pictured with husband Chris) has received an Order of Australia Medal for her valuable research.

How ‘forgotten’ Ipswich swimmer helping to protect athletes

YOU can look so happy and healthy but it's not really happy and healthy behind the scenes.

Sometimes you don't even recognise the signs you are being mistreated or accused of not being committed.

Looking after athletes remains one of the most important aspects of sport.

That's why Ipswich born and bred researcher Dr Jenny McMahon is so committed to educating others about the physical and psychological abuse of athletes and how to stop sportspeople being subjected to such problems.

A former medal-winning Commonwealth Games swimmer, Dr McMahon was recently awarded an Order of Australia Medal for her extensive and relevant research into athlete protection.

She's explored how athletes can be subjected to a range of abuse at the height of their success and how they can be forgotten about so quickly.

Dr McMahon has published more than 60 academic articles centred on the short and long-term effects of abuse in sport for athletes. She's focused on how abused athletes are left to fend for themselves post sport and suffer from various addictions like prescription medication addiction, alcohol addiction and sexual addiction.

Her research was rewarded with a 2019 article of the year awarded by the Northern America Sociological Association.

Now working as a senior lecturer at the University of Tasmania, Dr McMahon is well qualified to prepare presentations on the subject close to her heart.

The 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games gold and silver medallist experienced what it was like to be overlooked for an Australian team after a series of international successes.

The 1991 World Championships freestyle finalist missed a spot on the 1992 Dolphins Olympic team.

Aged 18 and with no immediate career options, Dr McMahon was "disillusioned and unemployed''.

"One moment I was one of the best swimmers in the world and the next, I was not,'' she said.



Jenny McMahon as a teenager making Australian swim teams. Picture: QT file
Jenny McMahon as a teenager making Australian swim teams. Picture: QT file


Although finishing third in the 200m freestyle at the 1992 Olympic trials, Jenny missed a relay place in the national team. That was despite being part of Australia's gold medal-winning and Commonwealth record-breaking 4x200m relay team in Auckland and ranked 11th in the world.

She had struggled in all her subjects, except in physical education, and felt lost after competing at international level while still in high school.

"I also had no experience in anything other than swimming as that had been my entire life,'' she said, having trained six hours a day, six days a week.

"I didn't have any schooling to fall back on.''


Former Ipswich swimmer Jenny McMahon.
Former Ipswich swimmer Jenny McMahon.


Still a teenager after the biggest disappointment of her life, the former Goodna, Woogaroo swimmer turned to the only skill she knew. Her coach in Brisbane gave her a part-time, seasonal job teaching kids to swim.

"That was not enough to sustain me financially as I had moved out of home,'' she said. "So I found myself in the Centrelink line looking for work and trying to get some financial assistance.''

Jenny only later recognised how serious her predicament was.

"I did not realise at the time either because it was always seen as 'toughening the athlete to get the most out of them competitively','' she said.

"So, not only was I dealing with getting knock back after knock back on the job front, but I was also dealing with the psychological aftermath of the Australian swimming team.

"I had many dark years dealing with this and one day, after always having to scrape finances together, I decided I had to try again at education.''

This is where Dr McMahon displayed her remarkable dedication after her teenage torment.

Aged 28 in 2003 - 12 years after finishing school - she applied to university as an adult entry.

She was accepted to undertake a University of Tasmania (UTAS) Bachelor of Arts degree part-time after being rejected by other academic establishments.

"University was so difficult for me,'' she said.

"I failed my first ever university assignment (I got 20/100). I also failed my second assignment (46/100). I didn't know how to write.

"I decided I needed a tutor to help me otherwise I would fail again, so I exchanged free swimming lessons to a lady's kids for her to teach me how to write assignments.

"She did help me learn what was expected at university and somehow I scraped through that first subject with a pass (51/100).

"I realised I had a passion for teaching and education as there was no way I wanted others to leave school feeling helpless like I had so I enrolled in Bachelor of Education.''

Four years after being accepted at James Cook University in Cairns, a reinvigorated Jenny graduated with first class honours.

After a short stint teaching, she received the opportunity to present her honours research at a national education conference in Perth where she had won an award.

"Someone from UTAS was in the crowd when I presented and approached me after about doing a PHD with UTAS,'' she said. "Not long after, I was offered a scholarship to do my PhD in education at UTAS, so my little family moved to Launceston.''

That was in 2011.

Married to another researcher Chris and with two teenage children, Dr McMahon has extensively investigated the short and long-term effects of abusive coaching practices on athletes.

She now teaches students at UTAS.

However, driven by her academic achievements, she was still unsatisfied.

"Something still did not sit right with me and that was that I was still seeing athletes - athletes like me - continuing to be maltreated in sport,'' she said. "So, for the last 10 years, I have dedicated my research to protecting athletes from abuse in sport.''

Her determination to help other athletes continues.

"A recent large-scale study in Canada has shown that 70% of all athletes will be subjected to abuse and neglect and I am not going to stop until athletes are safe,'' Dr McMahon said.