It’s not every day you see a 16-year-old girl win a referee award a year on from winning a coaching award for a gig she started at the age of nine, but that is just what young Elena Papakirikou has accomplished.
At the recent Wyndham Basketball Association annual awards night in Melbourne, Elena was awarded, Female Referee of the Year
Having only refereed for a year and a half, Elena tells Neos Kosmos it is a big honour for her and it means a lot given how hard she has worked.
Taking up the whistle in March 2022, she still plays basketball as well, having started all the way back in Grade Two.
Her mother, Effie Papakirikou (nee Nikolopoulos) says she and her husband Ari are extremely proud.
“We were stoked – she’s been sports captain multiple times, she’s running again for sports captain. She’s always had a bit of leadership and I somehow knew she should be achieving these goals, she’s pretty determined,” Effie tells Neos Kosmos.
“The feedback that’s come back is that she’s friendly and they can relate to her. She explains her calls, which what makes her relatable with the coaches.”
Now in her last season of 18’s for the Victorian Junior Basketball League (VJBL), Elena wants to focus on refereeing, potentially going higher to become a panel referee in the NBL.
Her gig isn’t easy either, having to deal with age groups from under 8’s to senior men, who don’t make life easy for her and other refs.
She says it can be “daunting” as they’re “pretty brutal with the stuff they say, especially to like the younger girls that ref.”
“I kind of just accept it and I don’t really let it bother me to be honest. I just zone out.
“Men can get pretty bad even younger boys, under 18 and 16, they can also be quite mouthy to us, but I just ignore it, I don’t really let it affect me emotionally.”
Her mother says older men can be “horrendous” but her daughter is “built different” and a friendly chatty person so over time they’ve all gotten to know her. But if it was herself in the black and white stripes, it would be a different story, she would mouth back.
Last year the year 10 student at Tarneit’s Good News Lutheran College also took home the Junior Coach of the Year award.
As aforementioned, she started this role at nine years old. Imagine that, seeing a little nine-year-old girl coaching against you, unbelievable stuff.
“I started coaching my brother, helping assistant coach his team and then I said – you know what mum? I want to start coaching myself – and since mum was in the committee, she allowed it, gave me a shot.”
“I fell in love with it. Been coaching the same team since I was nine. I love it.”
With year 11 and 12 coming up for Elena, something like basketball and all the roles she plays at both domestic and representative level might have to take a back seat.
But she doesn’t think so, having balanced it through school so far because her parents warned that if her grades ever dropped, the pin would have been pulled on basketball.
Her parents were always big on their kids being involved in sport and activities, with Effie sharing that she was scared of the teenage years and how they’ll turn out, but some advice from a friend was to “keep them busy and out of trouble with sport.”
“Basketball means she can’t do the Friday night parties and she’s up early Sunday mornings for training so she doesn’t do all the parties,” Effie says.
“We’ve always just supported them. For me growing up, my parents migrated here from Greece so I didn’t have the luxury.
“I was home for a few years raising the kids. I was able to have them do what they wanted.”
Her and Ari didn’t have that luxury growing up, their parents worked a lot, so they couldn’t drive them around to everything.
“My parents worked Mondays to Saturdays. They didn’t have time, but there is also more things for kids to do today than there was back then.”
Elena’s school is big on girl participation in sport, so she has become an example for young girls to follow.
Girls often fade out of sport at a certain age, so Good News Lutheran College have promoted Elena’s accomplishments in hope that many others follow suit.