2018 A Banner Year for Australian Athletes in America

Australia

On October 7th, 2017, Nathan Walker, Wales-born and Sydney-raised, became the first ever Australian to play in the National Hockey League when he joined the Washington Capitals. In the second period of the game, Walker netted his first ever NHL goal, and the first ever Australian goal, off of a deflected wrist shot. Eight months after his fall debut in June of 2018, Walker became the first Australian to play in the playoffs, score a point in the playoffs, and hoist the league’s grand prize: the Stanley Cup.

In the same month Walker capped a monumental season for Australian ice hockey, Melbourne native Ben Simmons was recognized for his first-season achievements on the basketball court. Although not the first Australian national to play in the National Basketball Association, Ben Simmons became the first Australian to receive the Rookie of the Year award. Posting a season stat-line of 15.8 points per game, 8.2 assists per game, and 8.1 rebounds per game, Simmons has been heralded by sports pundits in both countries as one of Australia’s biggest stars.

With Walker’s appearance in the NHL, Australians have now been represented in each of the Big Four sports. While Australians often play the punter position in the National Football League, Aussie rugby star Jarryd Hayne of the National Rugby League famously made the code switch to American football in 2015 as a punt returner and running back. Although Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese athletes are some of the better known Asia-Pacific players in Major League Baseball, 33 Australians have played at baseball’s highest level since 1884. In 2012, a trio of Australian players donned a different kind of green and gold uniform with a large “A” on the cap; Grant Balfour, Travis Blackley, and Luke Hughes all played for the Oakland Athletics at the same time, making the club the most Australian team in MLB history. Ben Simmons continues a legacy of Australian stars in the NBA, as 19 Australian nationals have played games in the league. Luc Longley became the first Australian NBA player in 1991, Andrew Bogut became the first Australian number one draft pick in 2005, Patty Mills became the first NBA player of Aboriginal Australian descent in 2009, and this year Ben Simmons became the first Australian to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award.

Despite being a dual citizen of the United States and Australia, Simmons has emphasized a strong desire to play internationally for Australia, while playing professionally in the United States. The son of an American basketball player playing professionally in Australia and an Australian mother, Simmons’ stardom is seen as a product of the strong cultural ties Australia and the United States enjoy. During Nathan Walker’s meeting with the aptly named Australian Ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, Ambassador Hockey stated that Walker’s success in America as an Australian ice hockey player exemplified the spirit of mateship shared between the two nations. With the path Walker has carved in the NHL and the benchmark Simmons has set in the NBA, the presence of Australians in American sports has left a marked impact.

Joseph Meisburger is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is currently a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, studying Geography and Urban & Regional Development.