Helene Pflueger – Building a national powerhouse

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In the western Austrian town of Dornbirn, in the province of Vorarlberg, athletics is a genuinely thriving sport. Participation levels have increased, there’s a state of the art indoor performance centre that is home to a full-time professional coach, and the region’s best athletes receive financial support as they attempt to succeed at the national and even international level.

All of these developments, and more, have come about under the leadership and watchful eye of the President of the Vorarlberg Athletics Federation, Helene Pflueger. 

Someone who has always seemed destined for a senior administrative role, Pflueger took over the presidency in 2005. Since then, her federation has come to be considered as a model of good practice for sports administrators throughout Austria and beyond.

In recognition of her passion for both the sport and strategic planning, and for her tireless work, Pflueger was given the prestigious European Athletics Women’s Leadership Award in 2011 following a nomination by the Austrian athletics federation.

To try to understand what makes this role model for women leaders tick, we asked Pflueger about her start in the sport and how her career has developed.

“I first got involved in athletics as a child,” she explains, “since it was the only possibility to contribute to a team that wasn't somehow related to soccer.”

“Already during my time as an athlete I became active in coaching younger members of our club and, after finishing my competitive career, I became responsible for the assessment, evaluation and selection of participants for national level team competitions.”

Her continued engagement and talent eventually led to the federation’s presidency, where upon assuming office, one of Pflueger’s first tasks was to finalise the negotiations for the building of a new indoor facility, a job which was by no means easy.

She recalls: “Since the old facility was outdated, we felt a great need to build a new one. We contacted different entities and thanks to gracious contributions and support from the state of Vorarlberg, the Austrian government, as well as the city of Dornbirn, and because of the help of ‘Messe Dornbirn’, on which property the facility is situated, we found a way to realise the project.”

After the opening of the centre in 2007, Pflueger then identified the need for both a full-time coach and a funding scheme for talented local athletes in order to raise standards.

In 2010, as a result of her ability to find sponsors and secure state support, the first coach was appointed and “Top Team”, an individual funding programme, was initiated. Her efforts paid immediate dividends, as the Vorarlberg girls’ squad took the national team title and the region, the second smallest in the whole country, was soon considered the strongest in Austrian athletics.

Yet, when asked for her proudest achievement as an athletics administrator, she doesn’t point to any of the many specific outcomes that she has helped to instigate and, instead, she identifies the “happy and satisfied faces of the athletes that (she has) worked with” as her greatest moments. 

Such a stance is, perhaps, to be expected of the woman who is quick to point to the help of others as the reason for her many successes: “I was very proud when I first heard about receiving the European Athletics Women’s Leadership award. However, I would have never received it without the help and support of my colleagues from the association’s executive board, who are of great importance to me.”

Helene Pflueger is clearly of great importance to them, too, and particularly her female colleagues, as she continues to inspire and encourage them to make the most of their talents, just as she has done for more than 50 years.

The European Athletics Women's Leadership Awards

The aim of the European Athletics Women's Leadership Awards is to recognise the behind the scenes work and accomplishments that have helped to make the winners role models for other women in athletics. Coaching young athletes, officiating, setting up and managing clubs... their achievements are as varied as the individuals themselves.

In 2011, 31 women, including Helene Pflueger, were selected for the biennial award by their national athletics federation.  In 2013, 26 winners were named.

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