Shining Bright

by Janet Thomas

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In a land not famous for winter sports, this Aussie Olympic skier is—

When she was four years old, Rowena Bright sat by her mother, Marian, in the small town of Cooma, Australia, as they watched the 1984 Summer Olympics taking place in Los Angeles, California. “I have a vivid picture of that time,” says Rowena. “I remember my mother in tears when gymnast Peter Vidmar won gold and the announcer said that he and his wife were devout Mormons.” The Brights had joined the Church just a couple of years before, and Marian was thrilled that a Church member was getting such worldwide recognition.

Rowena turned to her mother and said, “I’m going to do that.” Her mother answered, knowing what it takes to get to the Olympics, “Oh, are you?”

It turns out that Rowena was right. She is going to do that, as an alpine skier in slalom, giant slalom, and the combined (downhill and slalom) when the Winter Olympics take place in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Her first choice

Rowena first wanted to be a gymnast, but there wasn’t a good gymnastics program close by. There was, however, a good swimming coach in town. As her mother says, “Rowena became very good very quickly. She thought she’d go to the 2000 Olympics in swimming. But the pool in town is only open half the year.” She was not able to train consistently.

That’s when her plans changed. She and her brothers and sisters had taken up cross-country skiing because alpine skiing was too expensive. When Rowena was 11, a girl on her school’s ski team broke her arm. Another person was needed to complete the team. The team knew Rowena cross-country skied and asked her to try alpine. As Rowena says, “That’s when I started, and I’ve never looked back.” The following year she was the Australian children’s champion.

The Bright family lives about an hour and a half from the only mountains that have much snow in Australia. Even then, with bad snow years and short ski seasons, Rowena has had to train in less-than-ideal conditions. Once she was asked to join the Australian training institute, and gained sponsors to help with the expense, then she was able to do some training and participate in competitions in Europe and North America where snow is more abundant.

It was a bad snow year that changed the direction Rowena’s brother Ben, and sisters, Torah and Abi, took in sports. Their mother explains, “They took a year off from ski racing and decided to try snowboarding because it could be done on man-made snow. They all became very good quickly, and that was it.”

Ben, 17, is one of Australia’s top junior snowboarders. Torah, 14, is in the top three in women’s snowboarding, and Abi, 12, is the one of the top under-14 snowboarders. (Older brother Robin, 23, is married and does not compete in skiing.) As Ben and Torah compete in world competitions, they are doing better than expected, with Ben placing ninth in the half-pipe and Torah winning a bronze medal in the same event.

The half-pipe, a snow structure resembling a cut-in-half pipe, consists of walls of identical height that snowboarders use to help them catch air and perform tricks.

Rowena had a setback a little more than a year ago. She fell and was injured just before the first Olympic qualifying event. She was given a blessing, and in that blessing she was told that her Heavenly Father was well aware of her lifelong dream. She went on to place high enough to qualify for the Olympics, skiing on what later was discovered to be a broken ankle.

Rowena’s alpine skiing skills continued to improve. When asked what it takes to succeed in ski racing, she explains, “It’s the toughest sport I’ve ever done. I tell people that you need to have the precision of a car racer, the agility of a gymnast, the speed of a sprinter, and the focus of a golfer. I think there is so much that makes up being at the highest levels of ski racing. You need all those skills.”

When asked to describe his daughter Rowena, Peter Bright says, “She’s just delightful. Nothing’s a problem to her. She is very helpful and definitely thinks of others. She’s very happy and loads of fun to be around.”

Setting the example

Rowena has an unusually close relationship with her younger sister Torah. They train together. They laugh together. As Rowena says, “Over the last few years, we’ve become close. She seems a lot wiser than her age, and we have so much fun together. It’s really good to have a sister be your friend.” They don’t argue much about which sport is better. But they do help each other remain focused, especially on their beliefs.

The Bright family is very active in their branch. Rowena was her branch’s only Young Woman for most of her teen years. When she traveled, she always took her seminary workbooks and scriptures along and attended wards or branches where she was. Still, it took time to establish with her teammates just who she was and what she believed. “I found that I needed to draw upon everything that I was taught, being in the world with so many lost people. I just can’t imagine living without the truth that we have. I just knew everything I had been taught was right,” she says.

Now that she is 21, Rowena says that her resolve to stay true to Church standards grows stronger. “Once the decision is made, it’s made. It’s easier to live the standards now. It’s the hardest when you’re 14 or 15. People thought I was just following my parents’ teachings and that I hadn’t found my own way yet. But I knew why I was living the way I did.”

Now Torah, at 14, is facing some of the same challenges Rowena faced. “I think it’s great,” says Rowena, “that I can tell her little stories of how I’ve dealt with things. I got to be with her at world juniors, and she got to see how I dealt with the party scene and how you can have friends but still make good decisions.”

A dream come true

Seven years and seven months ago, Rowena and her mother sat in the car waiting for her brother’s soccer game to finish, listening to the announcement of where the 2002 Winter Olympics would be held. When they heard that it would be Salt Lake City, Rowena became even more determined. She has never wavered. Rowena’s dream, the one she has worked for since the age of four, is coming true. She gets to participate in the Olympics, and it’s a huge bonus that it takes place in the town that means so much to the church she belongs to.

One of Rowena’s favorite quotations is from a Maude Osmond Cook poem that President Ezra Taft Benson used in an October 1977 general conference address: “Look to this day, arise in all your splendor, And bear the standards of a world-to-be” (Ensign, Nov. 1977, 32).

Says Rowena, “It stirs something great in me. Inside you feel you can be better than you are now.”

Photography courtesy of the Bright family

Rowena (below and right) set her sights on skiing in the Olympics and didn’t let herself be held back by injuries or by short ski seasons that limited her training.

Rowena and her sister Torah (above) often train together. Torah’s one of the top women snowboarders in Australia, and younger sister, Abi, and brother Ben rank high in that sport as well.