More information about Nova Peris can be found in the AWAP register.
Described by Ric Charlesworth, the coach of the 1996 Olympic gold medal winning Australian women's hockey team, as one of the 'three exceptional talents among the many great international competitors' who comprised that team, Nova Peris was the first Aboriginal Australian (and the first Northern Territorian) to win an Olympic gold medal. It was a remarkable achievement, given the difficult circumstances of Nova's early life, not the least of them being single motherhood at the age of eighteen. But when the Australian women's hockey team beat South Korea in the final at Atlanta in 1996, Peris achieved a lifetime goal and created history. 'Against all the odds, the dream of a little girl from Darwin…had come true,' she was later to write. Then, when she decided to challenge herself even further and made the track and field team for the Olympics games in Sydney, 2000, she achieved the rare distinction of representing her country at the Olympics in two different sports.
She told John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee of her decision to switch from hockey to athletics the night after victory in Atlanta. 'I might have been a little the worse for wear,' she says,
but I wasn't joking. Back in 1993 I had made a declaration about my sporting goals and future…I had [said] that my goals were to win a World Cup gold medal and an Olympic gold medal and to then retire from hockey; to run at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and then in the Sydney Olympics, in the 400 metres. I also declared that it was my intention to become a spokesperson for indigenous rights in Australia.
True to her word - Nova delivered upon her promises and has raised a family along the way. She is a truly remarkable Australian sportswoman.
Deciding that you will be an Olympian when you are a prodigiously talented, junior, much decorated athlete is one thing, deciding you will be one when you are an Aboriginal teenage unmarried mother is quite another. Despite the odds being stacked against her, Nova Peris and her baby daughter Jessica left their Darwin home for Perth, Western Australia in 1992, to join the hockey program at the Western Australian Institute of Sport. With the determination that comes from self-belief, Peris got on with the business of working, training and bringing up her daughter on her own. She made good friends who helped her juggle the load.
She was also fortunate to have a coach with whom she 'clicked'. Ric Charlesworth became coach of the national team, the Hockeyroos, at roughly the same time that Peris came into the program, and she thrived under his guidance. Renowned for his uncompromising approach to discipline, determination and dedication, in the lead up to the 1996 games in Atlanta, Charlesworth insisted that each team member had to commit to a ten point plan. Most of the plan recited the sacrifices and determination required by each team member to achieve ultimate success. Point number 8, which read, 'I will be the best I can be by being tolerant of differences in others and respecting them for who they are and what they have to offer', resonated with a young woman who had experienced discrimination within and beyond sport. Nova had always enjoyed a great relationship with Ric. 'During my time with the Australian hockey team, if I ever had a problem - he was the person I wanted to see,' she said. He knew how to get the best out of her, which is one reason he tried so hard to stop her switching from hockey to athletics - he knew she hadn't played her best hockey yet.
But Nova was determined - she loved athletics and had only switched to hockey as a junior because she could get better hockey coaching in the territory as a junior than she could for athletics. (Now that she had an international profile, she didn't think the quality of coaching she could receive would be a problem!) And ultimately, her success in the 1998 Commonwealth Games (she won two gold medals, including in the 200m) and her performance in Sydney, where she made the semifinals of the 400m, vindicated her decision to make the switch. Had she stayed with hockey, no doubt she would have had another gold medal against her name because the Hockeyroos defended their title at Sydney in 2000. But if she had, she would never fully have lived her Olympic Dream.
In keeping with the metaphor, it was a dream come true for her to be chosen to run the first leg of the Olympic torch relay when it arrived in Australia. She ran barefoot, in honour of the traditional owners of the land, the Mutitjulu people. 'To be the first of 10,000 torch-carriers was one of the most fantastic thrills of my life,' she said. Especially given the location where it all starter - Uluru - in her words 'the spiritual heart of Australia. 'On that single day,' she says:
It was as if all the different threads of my life had come together - my Aboriginality, my love of family [represented by her daughter at her shoulder], my sport which carried me on the rollercoaster ride to this day, my spirituality, my love of Australia...
Pride in her Aboriginal identity is a vital ingredient in the ultimate success story that Nova Peris has become. She hopes she can use her profile to inspire other Aboriginal people to take pride in who they are, but she also works hard at changing attitudes within the white community. 'In whichever ways I possibly can I will continue to fight through my life for a better deal for Aboriginals and for the healing of Australian society that I believe must (and will) happen,' In recent years, she has done this as a treaty ambassador for the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). She travels around the country, campaigning for a treaty between black and white so that a fundamental understanding between two presently divided groups can be forged, and a foundation can be laid for 'a better, fairer society for us all'. She's taken on a great responsibility in taking on this task, but it seems that, in recent years at least, it isn't unusual for indigenous athletes in Australia to take on the world. For the sake of the process of reconciliation in Australia we should all hope that Nova Peris is as good an ambassador as she was a sportswoman.
Nova Peris, AIS women's hockey training
Image Reproduced Courtesy of the Australian Sports Commission