As a young girl of 9 years old, Nova dreamed of going to the Olympics and winning gold...
There is so much to learn about Nova Peris OAM OLY and her incredible life as a proud Aboriginal woman, Olympian and former politician. We had the privilege of catching up with Nova to share her inspiring journey…
Can you please briefly explain your connection to Defence? My Grandmother’s father, Jack Knox, was a Sergeant in the 2nd/16th Battalion. He served in Syria and Lebanon before being sent to Kokoda in 1942 – he was a cartographer in the Kokoda Campaign and left the military in 1945.
Describe your experience of walking the Kokoda Track in October 2022? I felt a strong connection to Kokoda because of my family history and I carried my Great Grandfather’s war Bible with me for the duration of the trek. Even after doing my own research and watching documentaries about Kokoda, actually walking the track was just phenomenal. It’s so hard to comprehend - soldiers fought there for our freedom. When you understand the fact that it was the only time that Australian’s fought for Australia (because Papua New Guinea was Australian territory at the time) and the history of the 39th Battalion and the brutality of that war. Then hearing the stories of how the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels(1) and the allegiance supported our soldiers. To know where they are today - it was the hardest thing. Kokoda was not only incredibly physically hard, it’s mentally and emotionally significant when I think about walking in the footsteps of my Great-Grandfather and Australia’s military history.
For me, representing Australia for 13 years in elite sports was incredibly challenging, but in attempting Kokoda, I never use the word sacrifice in a sporting context, because the ultimate sacrifice are the Diggers who gave their lives and their freedom for the freedoms that we have today; that’s the ultimate definition of sacrifice.
“I kept thinking how lucky we were and no matter how hard we do it, it could be much worse. Every moment was spent thinking about the diggers, their bravery & sacrifices. They had minimal food, wrong-coloured uniforms, suffering from malaria, and constantly having to be on high alert! It was at times beyond mind boggling and disbelief to think about it all as you walk through the dense jungle.” - Extract from Kokoda Legacy, Nova Peris
How do you stay motivated? I’m now 52 and many of our mob (Aboriginal people), some of whom I went to school with have passed away. The life expectancy of Aboriginal people is 50 years old for men and 60 years for women. I don’t do it for others, I do it because I want to live a long life, that’s why I maintain a healthy lifestyle.
My husband and I do F45, which is 45 minutes of intense exercise at the gym and then we walk three to four times per week.
I get my mental strength from my mother who has a glass half full attitude and my Grandparents who were part of the Stolen Generations and didn’t have much; minimal education or the freedoms to play sports. So, I tell my kids that we have access to education and sports and the freedom to participate fully in society when our Grandparents didn’t have that.
How did you feel when you won gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics? After we had won the final and we were all jumping over each other with jubilation, Ric Charlesworth came up to me and said, “did you know you're the first Aboriginal person to win?”. And it took me a moment to process that... It had never crossed my mind going into the Olympics and it wasn't my goal before competing. As a team we weren’t allowed to think like that; we didn’t think of the Olympic finals. We played each game to win because you have to win to get there, it’s a process and so when Ric said that to me, I think the tears flowed even more.
It didn’t dawn on me until we got back to Australia, and we were doing the parades - it’s just a phenomenal feeling, having been able to live your dream as a little kid to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal.
How did you feel to be nominated and awarded an OAM? I didn’t know I had been nominated! We were all nominated as a team and to know that your dedication, commitment and achievements can be recognised in such a way, it’s very humbling.
What is your favourite achievement and or memory? It’s a difficult question! Olympic Gold, Commonwealth Games Golds, Sydney Olympics, breaking an Australian record... It’s probably the Olympic gold, that’s a pretty incredible moment.
In sport there is obviously the Olympic gold, that was phenomenal and then to win two Commonwealth Games Golds (one by .02 of a second), that was a victory. It’s such a hard discipline and your commitment has to be above and beyond to keep going, and then to win; it’s the achievement you need to embrace and appreciate because the victories don’t come around that often.
I always say to my son, “it’s not the view at the top of the mountain, it’s the journey you take to get there”
Who is your mentor or hero? The influencers throughout my life, include my mum and her optimism and my stepfather, who was in the Defence Force and did two tours of Vietnam in the Navy. We grew up where the attitude was if you want something you have to get off your backside and work hard for it. My parent really encouraged education because education is for life, sports can be temporary.
Another inspiration is Maurice Rioli. As an Aboriginal from NT and especially from the Tiwi Islands, his achievements made an impression on me as a young kid who was striving to achieve big things in sport.
Then I got to meet Glynis Nunn-Cearns OAM in 1984 after the LA Olympics. Glynis had brought her Olympic gold medal to Darwin and I got to hold it - that made a big impact for a girl of 13! In 1988, the Olympic hockey team came to Darwin to acclimatise before going to Seoul and I got to play against them. I think that was when the seed was well and truly planted, that in order for me to play for Australia, I had to follow in the footsteps of the women who I looked up to (which led me to Perth to pursue my dream of playing hockey). Inspiring women such as Sharon Buchanan, Elizabeth Clement and Rachel Hawkes; they were icons I looked up to.
There’s a language called Possible Self Concept, it’s that glass half full attitude and the discipline, knowing nothing comes easy, you have to work for it. My dream of going to the Olympics manifested after watching the 1980 Moscow Olympics and thinking, “wow can I be that good?”. So, I have earned everything I have wanted to achieve, I have worked hard to achieve it and that’s the result of my upbringing and the understanding that you can have what you want if you are willing to work hard enough for it.
What's the best advice that you've ever received?
I got to spend an hour with Muhammad Ali and I asked Muhammed; “What makes you so great? Why do millions of people across the globe love you so much beyond the sport?” and he said, “because when I meet people, I never look down upon those who look up to me”.
That has stayed with me. Sometimes I meet people and they are a bit starstruck and don’t know what to say, but if they come to say “hello”, I always give them the time of day. It’s important to have a humble outlook on life and never look down on people who look up to you.
If you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be? Dream-walker, determined and empathetic
What’s your favourite place in the NT? Cannon Hill in Kakadu National Park, that’s my country, Bunitj country. It’s where my husband and I were married.
What’s next for Nova Peris? By the time this goes to print I will have walked the Kokoda Trail again in September 2023.
I’d like to put together resources about Kokoda ensuring our younger generations understand the significance of the Kokoda Campaign. It’s a war that isn’t given enough recognition particularly when you think that it’s the war where Australians fought for Australia. We have ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, but this security campaign was just such a significant war and for us to understand the history of that is so important.
I’m pushing to be a voice of reason in the upcoming referendum, and I am co-chairperson of the Australian Republican Movement, and I am committed to the Nova Peris Foundation.
Interviewed by Charlene Carter Community Coordinator The Top Ender Magazine