A veteran of an Olympic campaign and two WNBL championships, Jenna O'Hea is now one of the senior figures in Australian womens' basketball.

O’Hea spoke to The CEO Magazine from the Gold Coast, where she is part of an Opals training camp ahead of the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup and Olympic qualifiers to take place later this year.

A couple of months after the WNBL season wrapped up, O’Hea says the first training session of the reconvened team was “not so great” but the players had now shaken off the off-season rust and settled into a groove.

“Everyone is excited to be back,” she says. “At first there was a lot of turnovers and people just finding their way in the offence. But now, (we’ve) calmed down a bit and we’re getting a lot out of it.”

O’Hea’s off-season has involved much more than just hitting the gym and working on her jumper; she has thrown herself into community work in the break.

O’Hea on her work with mental health groups: “It’s been amazing”

Post-match interviews are often fairly routine affairs as out-of-breath players lament that they didn’t shoot better or vow to hit the boards harder next game.

An interview that O’Hea did after one game last season went somewhere else entirely, however. As tears streaked down her face, she talked about how her family had been going through a tough time after her uncle had recently taken his own life.

The rawness and honesty struck a chord with many and the tragedy prompted O’Hea to become involved in mental health advocacy. In the final WNBL round, she drove a leaguewide initiative to team with Lifeline and raise awareness and funds for the charity.

She was also named one of the Lifeline Community Custodians, an initiative with the Australian Institute of Sport that involves athletes from different sports coming together to raise awareness of mental health issues.

Last week, O’Hea travelled to Sydney with 15 of the other custodians to get to know each other and undertake training.

“It’s been amazing,” O’Hea says. “To learn how we all came to be in the Community Custodians program, it was an extremely emotional day.

“Everyone goes through things and battles differently, to learn all about that was amazing. Now we can take that and share it with the community and really be a positive force in the community for mental health awareness.

“I can’t wait for the next 12 months to see how we can help the community and make a difference.”

Above: Jenna O’Hea (left) with Opals teammates after winning Silver at the 2018 Basketball World Cup

Sports becoming more cognisant of mental health issues

O’Hea first entered professional basketball ranks as a lanky young wing at the Australian Institute of Sport in the 2003/04 WNBL season. She says that the sport has become far more aware of mental health issues during her time in the game. Opals players now have access to mental health resources if they need them, especially after tournaments and during injury recovery when some players can feel low.

She says that high-profile athletes such as NBA champion Kevin Love speaking out about their mental health battles have been hugely important.

Closer to home, many involved in elite sport, such as Lauren Jackson (O’Hea’s Assistant General Manager at the Melbourne Boomers) and WNBL Head Sally Phillips have talked openly about their own struggles with anxiety.

“There is a stigma around mental health and we need to constantly try to decrease that,” O’Hea says.

“That will just continue to improve as it is spoken about more. It’s constantly a work in progress.”

On leadership

Widely admired around the league for her work ethic and ability to contribute on both ends of the floor, O’Hea has a real den mother demeanour during games, constantly encouraging and calming teammates.

She seems a natural choice to lead teams and last year, she captained a star-studded Opals team to a silver medal at the World Cup.

“I love it,” she says of the leadership role. “It’s something that really suits me. I want to help the younger players as much as I can because I got a lot of really good help when I was young.

“We have a lot of really talented young stars and being able to help them fit in and teach them the offence, it’s been a great experience for me.”

Teammate Ezi Magbegor is headed for the WNBA

One of the Opals’ youth brigade is 19-year-old Ezi Magbegor, a teammate of O’Hea’s both at the Melbourne Boomers and in the Opals set-up.

Magbegor was recently picked 12th in the WNBA draft by O’Hea’s former team, the Seattle Storm. O’Hea says she is excited to see the youngster’s career develop and believes she is starting to feel comfortable at professional level.

“She’s becoming a lot more confident,” she says of Magbegor.

“When I first got in Opals camp with her, she was very quiet and very softly-spoken whereas now she’s coming out of her shell a lot more.

“She’s an absolute sponge. She wants to learn and she just picks things up very quickly. Then when she picks things up it helps with her confidence.”

Header image credit: FIBA/Basketball Australia