The Malta Independent 17 August 2022, Wednesday

50 Shades of Greats: ‘Sport is not only for champions; Like music it’s for everyone’ - Anna Calleja

Simon Farrugia Sunday, 12 December 2021, 10:30 Last update: about 8 months ago

Anna Calleja was born in Paola on 27 December 1958 to Joseph Calleja and Rose nee Tedesco. 

Describing her childhood, Anna went down memory lane with some nostalgia. “My childhood was fun and laughter and from a very young age I attended St Joseph Convent in Paola. I instantly became a fan of sport and physical activities. In fact, I was an automatic selection in various sports competitions and at that time Sister Rosita who used to teach Physical Education pushed me further and included me to represent Malta in the FISEC game. At the young age of 12 I took part in the FISEC game in athletics. During these games I watched basketball and was literally fascinated. It was Louis Borg who made me join the basketball team. This had a twist in my sporting career and so I started playing basketball for various teams. But the highlight of my career was with both MCAST and Luxol.”

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Talking about education Anna spoke about her background in this sector. “After attending St Joseph Convent, I furthered my studies at Sacred Heart Convent and later on at the University. I had also vast opportunities in follow up course in physical activities and sports both locally and abroad.”

“I started teaching physical education in state schools. The interest in Sport was always part of my childhood. My mother was a football fan, and she followed all football World Cups. She still is at the age of 94, still watching football especially the English Premier League.”

Calleja’s main sport was basketball. But what did her career consist of? “My career in basketball started at the age of 13, playing with a team that was formed after FISEC games in Belgium. We had made up a team called Cadettes. Many of us were all students from either St Joseph or Sacred Heart. Then I moved on to play for other big teams. Like MCAST and later on with Luxol and winning various leagues. It was a different kettle of fish at that time, there were no three pointers and the conditions were a lot different from the ones we are accustomed to nowadays.”

Did Anna practice any other sport on a competitive or even non-competitive basis? “Sport was my lifestyle, and I used to cherish the love to play and compete which was in my blood. Basketball was my first preference, but I played netball, football and volleyball. Adding to this I even used to compete in athletics. I was a national discus thrower and shot putter. It was me and Jennifer Pace. She was much better than me in throws and couldn’t beat her, but I was much better in basketball.”

But what were the good and bad moments for Calleja during her career? “Winning medals abroad was always a great experience which you cherish. Playing for the national team and representing Malta is always something you carry for life. One particular bad experience was the fact that the motivation to continue playing and actually not being recognised was something that put me off. The difference in gender made a difference. Women’s sport wasn’t really given that importance at that time and that did put me off track. I can recall the difference in all sectors. Time to train, time to play, women were completely treated differently. Plus, the comments passed from the spectators were sometimes humiliating.’

Are there any particular moments during Anna’s career that she still remembers and made her proud? “Every game was important to me. I loved playing and loved to give my best. I am proud of every single moment.”

Calleja’s career came to an end and she went into an administrative role. “I loved to teach PE in schools and what actually gave me great pride was pushing girls to become athletes and represent Malta. I used to follow those in class that needed more attention. It gave me pride in pushing them and making them feel included.”

“I attended some courses in adaptive coaching and in adaptive physical education. I was later approached by Marian Murphy from Special Olympic to take over Special Olympics Malta. It wasn’t easy to build Special Olympics into what Special Olympics is today. I had to face every challenge that came along. There were a number of episodes that were making me lose faith. Yet for some reason I got stronger. I conceived myself that these athletes should be included, they should have the same rights, that they should be recognised. After all they were representing our country. What is the difference between them and others? So I was challenging all obstacles that came my way.”

Anna Calleja gave an in depth analysis of the Special Olympics field. “Special Olympics grew to become one of the largest organisations, providing sports training and Olympic competitions to persons with an intellectual disability. It grew from six athletes in 2000 to 100 in 2021. We provide all year round training, in athletics, aquatics, bowling, bocce, football, gymnastics, cycling, triathlon, table-tennis and golf. The Young Athletes Programme, MATP (Motor Adaptive Training Programme). We also cater for Healthy Athletes Screenings and Athletes’ leadership committee. I make sure that the athletes are the priority in everything we organise. They should be given the best possible support when it comes to representing Malta. We have Individual training programmes. Fitness and nutrition guidelines, guided by experts and doctors. You need to get results, so you need to give the right tools to the athletes.”

But what level of satisfaction does working with kids with special needs give her? “The satisfaction is huge. One cannot explain in words, its something that you must experience hands on. The satisfaction is not the results, not the medals, not the placings. The satisfaction is the smiles you get, the hug you receive, the thank you that is always there. The respect from the parents and of course the slightest improvement. This is the biggest pay cheque, the brightest light, the best rainbow - when you see them smile and enjoying themselves. Keep in mind that not all athletes are able to compete and represent Special Olympics Malta. Yet the award when it comes to these athletes no medal can match it.

So what is the future in this sector? “I have huge faith; this sector will surely grow, and the reach out will be greater. Parents are more aware. That everyone should participate in some sort of physical activity. Persons with disabilities need physical activity in their lives, they need to be included, they need to be integrated, they have equal rights, and they should be recognised. We have just recently opened this sector in state schools, and we are working hand in hand with the Physical Education Department in state schools. To push forward sports for persons with different challenges. This programme is already leaving great results. Clubs and sports organisations need to be more open in receiving and supporting towards inclusion. SportMalta is one huge support of Special Olympics. This also made a difference since they also believe that sport is for all. Also that fact that everyone and I mean everyone believes that persons with disabilities should have access and same opportunities, even in sport.”

Turning onto a more personal aspect Calleja won the Sportswoman of the Year way back in 1981. Was is the highlight of her career? “Yes, I guess so. I never gave it that much importance. As I said you could feel the difference in the way Sports Awards were presented. The highlight was always the male award. I want to put in a question – Do you think it still is?’

And in 2017 Anna was honoured by the State for her sterling work. “Yes, this was something totally different from a sport contest. I was receiving that award thanks to all the athletes from Special Olympics and thanks to their parents. It’s the highlight of my career I must say. I meant a great deal knowing that I am being recognised for something I want to push forward and something I believe in.”

But does she see a bright future for sport in Malta? ‘I want to see a bright future. We all need to keep pushing and keep believing. Yet some policies need change. I believe that sport in Malta would grow in future and hopefully we will have better results.’

And what is Anna’s favourite food. ‘I should say fish. It is healthy and above all it tastes really good.

Travelling in another aspect of one’s life. Where is Calleja’s favourite destination? “Definitely Spain’.

And any particular hobbies? “I love reading and listening to music. And when I have got time on my hands I like to go for walks with my best friend (my dog) and watch a good movie.”

Bringing this interesting interview to an end Anna Calleja gave one final advice to the young generation about sport in general. “You are the future generation make sure your voice is heard even when it comes to sport. Playing sport is fun, learning to play with the confines of rules of a game, will give you lessons for life: Sport will definitely improve your health, give you confidence. You will explore passion.  Sport is not only for champions. Like music it’s for everyone”.

 

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