Inspirational to many, a role model of sporting success while also realising some see her as polarising, Sydney born Parramatta Eels fan, Jana Pittman, spent twenty years in sport while achieving the rare distinction of an Australian woman representing in both winter and summer Olympics. Her candid insightful new book Just Another Hurdle (Allen & Unwin) is a candid look at an incredible career which seemingly never ends. Jana has been pinpointed by critics over the years, I found her to be wonderful and a pleasure to chat with.
Congratulations on your most recent addition (new baby) to the family. Are you raising all your children to be athletes?
JP – Goodness no. My middle daughter possibly, she is really talented in athletics but my son, he’s just not that into sport. He likes it but doesn’t have the drive so maybe he will follow my other career path in academia.
How long did it take to transcribe your abundance of memories into literature?
JP – As one of those people who when starting something, I get it done, so I guess I finished it in five weeks. Publishers Allen & Unwin had signed me for about a year before I even started. They rightfully continually asked, ‘Come on, when are we getting the first chapter?’ Then boom, I sent them the entire thing.
Was it your idea from the beginning for a memoir?
JP – My idea. Sally Pearson had written one and Cathy Freeman, while also reading many by international athletes. So I thought it was something I wanted to do after winning the Olympics. I said to myself I wouldn’t write one unless I had won. However a friend, wheel chair Olympian and swimmer across the English Channel, John Maclean said to me what’s more interesting is the story behind the fact that I didn’t win alongside the on-off track life media portrays and there were a lot of life journeys that kept me from winning to share.
You cover some dark times, was that hard to relive again?
JP – Partly therapeutic while putting them down on paper as dealing with those sorts of things are not normally my thing preferring to stick it in a bottle and never think of it again. For me, I finally processed some of the incidents that occurred plus some of the things that happened to me as a child. It’s probably better to me it’s out of the system and free but on the flip-side of that, I wasn’t actually aware of how much success I’d had because of not winning that elusive gold medal. There seemed a big part of my career missing. When I write about all the championships and medals I had won, it became clear to me how lucky I was to represent this country.
You inspired many people whether you knew it or not and it’s a beautiful picture on the cover of the book. Did you choose it?
JP – Thank you Shane. My publishers just liked it, the picture wasn’t my choice at all.
How hard was it to retire from competitive sport completely considering your excessive drive?
JP – The only thing that made me have a buffer I guess is because I love medicine equally as much as a new career. It’s very topical at the moment with athletes struggling with change and transition but to be honest with you, I only made that real call to retire only three weeks ago. Even when writing the book, I was undecided whether to keep going. Listening to other athletes, I realised I didn’t have any need to run anymore assisting me reconciling the fact it’s over, now i am happy with it.
Before any big race, what did you use for motivation – sit in silence or listen to music?
JP – It’s old school but I’d often play ‘Eye of the Tiger’ from the Rocky films prior to a race. It worked and an instrumental piece by Danish electronic musicians Safri Duo, it’s exactly the same rhythm as 400 (metre) hurdles. Your adrenaline is so high, meditation was common for me to try and calm down.
Other than your medals, did you keep any uniforms or mementos from world events?
JP – Don’t laugh Shane, I have absolutely no idea where any of my medals are but will have to find them soon because people often ask to see them while doing speaking engagements. Even my son asks to see them (laughs), but they are obviously too safely put away. All my uniforms I did keep, as the green and gold was one of the main reasons I did it all.
Do you think athletics is supported enough through funding by the Government?
JP – It is an interesting situation as you have to have no sponsorship really to get Government support. If you’re in around the top 8 in the world at an Olympic level without sponsorship, one would get adequate support. The issue is if you are in the top 8, you’re probably ineligible because you would be sponsored. I’ve never used Government funding having Adidas cover the bills as a main sponsor. So I believe there is adequate funding but the hard part is for young athletes who have yet to make the cut. Criteria is very hard to get around. When you need it, you’re not good enough, when you’re good enough, you don’t need it anymore.
Why should people buy your book – will people learn new things about you?
JP – Many believed I was really outspoken throughout my career about life or press attention, but I left a whole lot out of my life via the public eye so the book covers that. Apart from my marriage, I didn’t leave much out. There are many inspiring books out there by champion athletes where one may think they could never be that amazing however I think I’m overtly flawed in many ways through life still managing to succeed at a high level. My book is for people who gain to achieve something in their life whether it be in career or as a wife or whatever one’s goal is realising you don’t have to be perfect to do it.
Having done so many photo-shoots and television panels over the years, have you ever considered acting?
JP – (laughs) No. You may not believe this but I have such confidence when running in front of 100,000 people in a stadium. Now only just getting used to standing on stage as a corporate speaker being so nervous in front of people. Recently started doing Fox Sports commentary and I’m a bundle of nerves before going on air.
I’m shocked! Even talking to you now, the confidence seems to be oozing.
JP – Bizarre isn’t it, I have two personalities in terms of track persona and personal life. That’s the marsh-mellow inside that I am. All my life people say you’re such a strong hard-focused woman, yet few understand why I get so upset with the emotional side of the media.
When you walk alongside anyone or take the kids to the park, do you race ahead or walk faster than everyone else?
JP – (laughs) I only talk faster than everybody else! These days I stroll through life.
Your advice for any young girl/boy seriously considering first class sport?
JP – Enjoy every minute, stop to smell the roses along the way but have a Plan B. We really need to protect our kids and have something else for them to go to when they finish sport, that’s extraordinarily important to me.
I saw you on the Footy Show once talking up the Melbourne Storm.
JP – Yes I’m from Sydney and know all about NRL. Parramatta supporter most of my life and when I moved to Melbourne, knowing coach Craig Bellamy quite well, therefore trained with the boys regularly and it was fantastic to work in their system. I do still love Parra but as Melbourne are currently on top of the ladder, so excited for them. On the other hand, my son is a mad Roosters fan creating heated discussions at home (laughs).
Just Another Hurdle (Allen And Unwin Publishing) – now on sale.
Shane A. Bassett