Meet UNSW’s
newest sporting stars

“I like the mental challenge of cricket – it’s not purely a physical sport, it’s both mental and physical and I really enjoy that aspect of it."

Challenging both body and mind is a pursuit not only for Sydney Sixer's cricketer Carly Leeson, but for all UNSW's Ben Lexcen Sports Scholars.

In 1988, thanks to the support of alumni, UNSW was the first Australian university to offer sports scholarships to help students excel at both sporting and academic endeavours.

Since then, donations have continued to grow the prestigious Ben Lexcen Scholarships, which have assisted more than 160 elite student athletes.

This year four UNSW undergraduate students have begun university life with Ben Lexcen Scholarships.

Rugby back Nick Wilkinson, champion sprinter Jessica Thornton, and cricketers Carly Leeson and Declan White have joined the list of elite sporting stars who have chosen to study at UNSW.

Current UNSW students, swimmer Emily Washer, rower Sophie Jerapetritis, 3,000m steeplechase runner Georgia Winkcup and sailing’s Kurt Hansen and James Colley have also been elevated to Ben Lexcen Scholars in 2017.

The scholarships recognise students not just for their outstanding sporting ability but also for their all-round qualities in leadership, community and academia.

Nick Wilkinson

Nick grew up in Cowra, a small country town in western NSW, where he went to school until year 9. He then attended St Joseph’s Hunters Hill, where he made the switch from rugby league to rugby union.

“I’m training with both the Randwick Rugby Club and the NSW Waratahs under 20s."

"So I’m doing both but once the Waratahs are concluded I’ll be back at Randwick full time.

Nick has just started a Commerce degree at the UNSW Business School.

“I always did quite well with those subjects at school, and it’s quite a broad degree, so I’m hoping it will open up lots of opportunities,” Nick says.

Nick’s sporting goals are to perform consistently, particularly as he transitions from schoolboy rugby to the Waratahs under 20 squad and the Randwick Rugby club.

“I was really happy to receive the Ben Lexcen Sports scholarship.

"The help it gives me and my family is definitely an advantage, and the people you meet through the scholarship is also exciting.”

Nick Wilkinson

Nick takes inspiration from Henry Hutchison and Andrew Kellaway, who were both UNSW Ben Lexcen scholars. Andrew is currently playing with the Waratahs and Henry is with the Aussie 7s.

“What they have been able to do in such a short period of time is really exciting so I’d like to try to emulate that in some way,” Nick says.

Carly Leeson

The 17-year-old all-rounder hails from the north coast of NSW and was named Female Country Cricketer of the Year in both 2015 and 2016. She recently moved to Sydney and plans to live on campus during her studies.

“It’s a great privilege to be awarded a UNSW Ben Lexcen Scholarship. It is a prestigious award and, especially knowing those who have been awarded it before me, it’s definitely an honour,” says Carly.

Carly is studying environmental management at UNSW. “I’ve always been interested in animal conservation, and the environment, and I’m also interested in law, so environmental management covers all those areas,” she says.

“I chose UNSW because it is very accommodating for people who play sport at an elite level and who have pretty hectic schedules.”

Carly Leeson

Carly has had to juggle sport and study all through high school so she is well practised in starting her exam preparations early.

"It is great to know that there are people at UNSW who understand the situation and who will be there to support me," she says.

Carly became a member of the Shooting Stars squad for their tour of Sri Lanka in 2015, and she is also in the NSW Women’s under 18s squad and the NSW Women’s High Performance Academy.

“I’m looking to play for the NSW Breakers soon, and playing for Australia is the ultimate goal, but that is still a few years away yet,” she says.

Jessica Thornton

Jessica Thornton’s running career started with the under 8's at Little Athletics and took a big leap in 2014 when she attended the Youth Olympics in China, winning a gold medal. She was then selected as the first runner in the 4 x 400 m relay at the Rio Olympics.

“It was a pretty incredible experience, it was an amazing Olympics – being my first as well, the atmosphere was incredible and everyone was helpful and supportive.
"I was 18, so I was the youngest of the athletics team,” she says.

Jessica takes inspiration from Australia's 400 m great Cathy Freeman, who ran in the relay at the 1990 Commonwealth Games before going on to win gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Jessica is studying a Bachelor of Life Science part-time and plans to transfer to exercise physiology. She also has a strong interest in nutrition and diet. Jessica is following in the footsteps of her brother and sister who both attended UNSW.

“It is a great honour to be a Ben Lexcen Scholar. You get to meet others who have the same problems balancing sport and study.

"That is what differentiates UNSW – there are so many support networks to get you through your university degree.

Jessica Thornton

“I’m hoping to compete in the world championships in London in August, then the Commonwealth Games in 2018, and then to progress to another Olympics would be the main goal,” she says.

Declan White

Declan White grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and attended Marcellin College in Randwick. The talented cricketer began by bowling and batting with his dad in the backyard.

“I started playing on Waverly cricket ground with Easts under Fives. I played junior cricket, and grade cricket when I was 14 or 15.”

Declan decided to take a gap year before starting university, and played cricket in Scotland for six months.

“I knew some guys from the UNSW Cricket club who had gone over to the UK to play cricket. I tried to get a few ideas from them and then the coach of UNSW cricket club had a contact in Scotland and got in contact with them, and it went from there,” Declan says.

The 19-year-old is studying Commerce and Economics at the UNSW Business School and says he was thrilled to receive the Ben Lexcen Scholarship.

“It was definitely a proud moment, receiving the scholarship.

"It really helps me with my study because you get to be a bit more flexibility – so that was a big draw card. The money and the gym membership are also nice."

“Combining sport and study can be good if you find a balance."

Declan White

"It can be stressful but it can also be a time to get away from study. It’s a balance that you have to strike.

“My sporting goal is to play for NSW, otherwise I’ll keep doing what I am doing but hopefully crack the baggy blues.”

Previous Ben Lexcen scholars have included dual winter Olympian Scott Kneller, Rio Olympian, silver medallist Lisa Darmanin and six-time World Windsurf Champion Dr Melanie Webb.

UNSW’s nine new Ben Lexcen scholars in 2017 will join the current group of 15, including NSW cricketer Georgia Redmayne, Australian Rugby 7’s Henry Hutchison and Olympic skier Taylah Paige O’Neill.

UNSW Vice-President Philanthropy Jon Paparsenos (L) presents 
Carly Leeson, Declan White and Nick Wilkinson (L-R) with their Ben lexcen Scholarships at the 2017 UNSW Blues and Sports Awards.

UNSW Vice-President Philanthropy Jon Paparsenos (L) presents
Carly Leeson, Declan White and Nick Wilkinson (L-R) with their Ben lexcen Scholarships at the 2017 UNSW Blues and Sports Awards.

The scholarship provides $7,500 worth of financial and personal support and a mentoring program for each student to provide flexibility between study and sporting commitments.

The scholarships are named after Australian yachtsman and marine architect Ben Lexcen.

Lexcen designed the winged keel for Australia II which, in 1983, became the first non-American yacht to win the prestigious America's Cup in 132 years.