Marianna Tolo is an Australian Opal and UC Capitals player who has played in competitions all over the world including Turkey, France and USA. Marianna has played on a number of world championship teams and competed at the Olympics. Marianna cares deeply about the effects that a skewed body image has on young athletes, has experience in returning to sport from injury and has an unparalleled work ethic.
Let’s start at the beginning to understand what sport was like for you as a young person. I read that you described yourself as ‘uncoordinated, tall and lanky’. How did you go from that to an Olympian?
I started playing basketball at 8 years old. I was a tall kid and then I constantly grew throughout my childhood. I had tried some different sports before basketball including tennis, dance and golf. My parents suggested that I try a team sport as I hadn’t done that before. That, with the fact that I was tall, meant basketball seemed like a good fit. Even though I was lanky, tall and uncoordinated, it actually helped me fit in and find my place. I really loved it. It took me a long time to develop my skills and it probably wasn’t until I was 16 at the AIS that I really started to hone my skills.
Do you think you didn’t develop those elite level skills until you were at the AIS?
I think there’s definitely a level you have to achieve to be selected. You have to have some potential as well and that might be a benefit to being a country kid; that you haven’t been exposed to playing against the best players like the city kids would have. Growing up in Mackay, I had some great coaches, but I didn’t have the same standard of play as you would in bigger cities. Our QLD North team sucked at nationals – we got 9th, 9th, 9th, 6th.
It wasn’t until I got to the AIS and started playing with and against the best that it took me to a whole other level.
Let’s talk about those coaches who helped you in the junior years.
The first coach I ever had was Sally Boxall and her family created a great environment to grow within the sport of basketball. They pushed me to play as much as possible and that was the first big step which I am really appreciative of. To get me to that elite level, there were 2 main coaches that helped me. The first was Carol Lynch who was our Mackay representative coach for a number of different things from nationals to the QLD academy of sport program. She spent so much time with me each week. I just remember constantly practising this one simple skill – a hook shot. I’m so glad that I learnt that then because it’s been so instrumental to my game. I see athletes who haven’t been able to master that skill so I’m grateful to her for volunteering her time and helping me get those fundamentals down pat. The other coach that had a big impact has since unfortunately passed away from bone cancer, but his name was Jock Peter Filia. He was such an amazing character. He’d hold open sessions on a weekend on outdoor courts. Anyone who wanted to learn would come down and he’d comment on your technique. He was so open and honest; he didn’t blow smoke up your horn. He told you how it was and what he saw. I really took it in my stride, he taught me things like ball handling.
You said in the QLD rep team, you faced some stiff competition. How did you foster your motivation through that change of competitiveness?
I think, like everything, I just wanted to push myself to be better and learn something from it. Whilst we were never successful, I think everyone learnt a lot. Coming up against the best in the Australia is a great experience and is only going to push you to get better. Even though we weren’t successful, we still had the optimism that we would do better the next year. I think that’s important, so you keep trying and pushing yourself.
Your basketball journey is incredible, but I know no journey is easy. What have been some big hurdles along the way?
My first real challenge happened in 2012. I’d done the 4 years leading up to the Olympics and been selected in the 2010 world championship team, so I thought I had a pretty good shot at making the Olympic team. That had been my goal since year 6 or 7 in primary school. In the leadup to 2012, I went to every meetup, every training camp and I think I only missed 1 game in that whole 4 years thanks to a rolled ankle. When it came down to it, I didn’t make the team. I was one of the last 3 cut and it wasn’t from anything outrageous – I just wasn’t good enough and wasn’t in the right position. That was really heartbreaking and I learnt a lot of things from that process. The first thing would be that you need to allow yourself time to breathe. That was something I’d worked so hard for and for so long. When it didn’t happen, I cried a lot and I surrounded myself with people who care about me. The next step was to evaluate what happened, how I can get better and how I can make the team next time. The final step was to make a change so after that I decided to move overseas to play basketball for the first time. From there, I started to fall in love with basketball again. There often comes a point in your career where you fall out of love with what you’re doing.
The next challenge I faced was going through injury. In 2015, I was playing for the LA sparks and it was the 2nd game of a 4-game road trip in Indiana. It was the first quarter, I was playing really well but then after a shot went up I was running towards the basket and tripped on someone’s leg. I felt my knee go from side to side and instantly knew I’d done my ACL. I was sitting there thinking ‘oh no’ while the play was continuing. One of the girls came up to me to ask if I was alright and I said to her ‘I’ve torn my ACL’. It was in that moment that I counted the months to the Olympics and realised it was 11 months. I knew a typical ACL recovery was 6-12 months so straight away I thought I might have time. I was carried off into the change rooms where I had a chat with the doctor. He told me to have my 5 minutes to cry right there, then I just switched into recovery mode. I’m proud to say I smashed out my rehab which is definitely a credit to everyone who was around me. When you’re going through a tough time, you need to surround yourself with people who care about you and want the best for you. For me, I had a really good team at the AIS. I got back to playing in 8.5 months and made my dream of going to the Olympics, which was unbelievable.
Do you think getting to that point was attributable to playing overseas in Europe and the US?
Definitely, I think going to Europe was the first time I was a fully professional athlete. It was great to change to all basketball everyday. When you’re around the same people all the time, they come to expect things from you and put you in a box where you’re not given the chance to branch out. One thing I really worked on was my outside shooting game. That was a big piece that I added to my game. Another was defence. Australia has always been known for having a good defensive game, but I was never very good at it. I think the way my team in France approached it, made it quite easy for me to learn different techniques. On top of that, the experience of playing the best in the world definitely added strides to my game.
Going back to your ACL injury, I know that hasn’t been your only injury. I saw on your Instagram last week you said ‘you appreciate your surgery scars’. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
People always talk about how they wish they could change something about their body. I think it’s important to reframe whatever you see. For me, I just wanted to make that point about scars. I love seeing them because I love seeing what I’ve been through and what I’ve been able to overcome. I wear them as a badge of honour to show how tough I am. It doesn’t even have to be the scars from my surgery. Growing up, I used to get a lot of boils and they were so painful all over my legs, butt, hips and everywhere. I’ve got big scars and I used to be really self-conscious of it as a kid, but it’s got to a point where I’m now proud. Once I got out of it, it made me appreciate my beautiful body and skin.
In relation to motivating for training, what are some insights for building that drive?
I would say one is to come up with a plan. Put it in your schedule for when you want to work on something and what that is. For me, during COVID, I found it really hard to find the motivation to go outside and do my running rather than the usual court stuff. I found that if I left it up in the air without a clear plan, that was when I’d talk myself out of it. Morning is the best because you don’t have time to come up with excuses but if you can’t then scheduling is the way to go.
It’s making that step to start. When you can, it’s also good to get a friend to keep you accountable. It never seems as hard when you have someone to talk to and make it more enjoyable.
What about the bigger picture? Obviously, you were all preparing for the Tokyo Olympics and it’s been such an uncertain time. How did you maintain your personal motivation through this extended time of uncertainty?
Perspective’s a good thing so it was important to see what’s going on in the world and appreciate that there’s a lot more than sport. When there are people dying or getting really sick, you need to realise how lucky we are and put things into perspective. At the same time, it is disappointing because it’s something that people work towards their whole lives. For me, it wasn’t so bad because I didn’t envision this as my last tournament or anything. It’s just another year of training added on. For now, it’s been postponed but who knows what will happen. I think it’s the optimism in me thinking that it will happen and keeping me motivated. An example of when I think I did this well was in 2014 ahead of the world championships, I’d made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to play a very big role in the Australian team.
Our starting centre, Liz Cambridge, was awesome and all credit to her as a player. I was happy to sit on the bench and just give her a sub when she needs.
Then, in 2014 ahead of worlds, she unfortunately snapped her Achilles which sent her home for surgery. That immediately put me into that starting position. With all the preparation before, I felt ready to step into that position and take on the responsibility. I had one of the best tournaments of my life and I believe that was because I was ready, optimistic and ready to go.
What do you think is the secret recipe for success in athletes?
Surround yourself with people who care about you, want the best for you and are experts in their field if you can – you don’t always have the choice of what coach you have but it’s important to listen in and take on the expertise. You should try to absorb as much information from as many people are possible. Whether that be the staff, like I said, or fellow athletes.
Knowing that there are highs and lows in sport, it makes you really appreciate the highs when you’ve seen the lows as well.