Putting Her Best Foot Forward… Michelle Jenneke
Michelle Jenneke shot to fame in 2012 as the ‘dancing hurdler’ after videos of her performing her now famous pre-race warm-up ritual before her heat at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona went viral on YouTube.
In early 2010 Michelle finished first in the 100 metres hurdles at the 2010 Australian Junior Championships, going on to break the Australian record in the women’s sprint medley relay. Later that year she won a silver medal in the 100 metres hurdles at the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics, and in 2014 was selected to represent Australia at the Commonwealth Games. Michelle went on to win the 100 metres hurdles at the 2016 Australian Athletics Championships to qualify for the Rio Olympics.
I caught up with Michelle at Pier One for this interview with The Beast. If you ever have to go to Pier One, I should mention that a coffee at the cafe downstairs costs $5, takes over half an hour to prepare, and tastes like warm milk, so plan ahead and get your caffeine fix prior to your arrival if possible.
A big thanks to Michelle and her PR team at Stark Matthews for tolerating my poorly researched questions and general lack of knowledge about everything. She’s a super-talented, bright and bubbly character with a big future ahead of her, as you’ll see…
How are you today Michelle? I’m very well today, thank you. It’s a beautiful day here in Sydney.
Whereabouts are you living at the moment? I’m actually living in Wentworth Point, so it’s right near Olympic Park. It’s very convenient for training. I do all my gym there, and I’m also right near the track.
You grew up in Kenthurst? Dural actually, right next door to Kenthurst. That’s where my parents still live. We’ve been there for 11 years or so. Three months ago I moved out with an athlete friend of mine to be closer to training in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games.
My old boss was a Chinese girl whose parents were market gardeners out there; what do your oldies do? They don’t do anything special out there. We just moved up there because we like the lifestyle. We’ve got five acres – a nice big property – with plenty of room for our dogs to run around. We don’t have any horses or anything like that, we just like the lifestyle. My dad works in the city, so he treks into the city everyday. Mum doesn’t work, she just looks after the place.
You’re currently studying a Bachelor of Mechatronic Engineering at the University of Sydney; what’s that all about? Yeah, mechatronic engineering is a combination of mechanical and electrical engineering. It’s essentially robotics. I find it really interesting. I’m a little bit of a nerd, so I’ve slowly worked my way through that. I’ve actually only got six subjects left, which is pretty awesome. I’m part time, so I should be finished within a year and a half.
What would you do with a mechatronics degree? You can really get into a lot of different industries – a lot of industries these days use mechatronic engineers for a whole range of stuff. I’m not really sure what I want to get into yet though. Initially I was thinking that robotic prostheses would be really interesting, but I’m not sure if I’ll end up doing that or not.
The Beast is an Eastern Suburbs publication; do you spend much time around the Eastern Beaches? If I want to go down to the beach or something I’ll definitely head out there. It’s absolutely beautiful and I love going out there, but I don’t actually get out to the Eastern Suburbs that often unfortunately.
What’s your favourite beach; Bondi, Tamarama, Bronte, Coogee or Maroubra? Probably Coogee. It’s beautiful down there. Especially around the headland, it’s so pretty.
Is there anything that you dislike about the Eastern Suburbs? Yeah, the traffic. I think that’s really the only problem with the Eastern Suburbs, the traffic. And the roads aren’t wide enough.
So, you can’t actually get in there… Yeah.
What made you go into athletics, and hurdles specifically? When I was younger I did lots of different sports, I tried my hand at everything. I started Little Athletics when I was nine years old. I loved it from the start. I wasn’t particularly good, but I always had a good time. I started training the year after, so I was 10 years old, just doing once a week, training for hurdles. I improved dramatically. My first year I did Little A’s I came fourth at Zone, the next year I came second at State and made some really big improvements. I’ve always just loved it, especially hurdling. I love all athletic events, but hurdles has always been my favourite. I was fortunate enough to make my first Australian team in 2010 when I was 17 years old. I went to the Youth Olympic Games, which were in Singapore, and ran a massive personal best there and came second, and I was like second in the world, that was absolutely incredible!
Wow, when you were only 17? Yeah, it was my first time being in that team environment and I just absolutely loved it. From that moment I decided I was just going to try and make as many teams as I could.
So you’ll never have to get a proper, annoying office job… Oh, I’m sure I probably will down the track, but for now I’m doing pretty well.
Were your oldies sporty as well? Yeah, they were reasonably sporty when they were growing up. They had me and my sister when they were quite young, I think my dad was 20 and my mum was 21 when my sister was born, she’s two years older than me. They couldn’t really continue playing sport with two young kids. When they were growing up they were both quite sporty, but not representing Australia or anything like that.
But they had a bit of ability? Yeah, they definitely have some natural talent. Growing up, they were always going out to play with us. It worked for me, I’m quite athletic, didn’t work so well for my sister. She has fun with sport, but she doesn’t have the sporty gene in her.
According to michellejenneke.com, your personal best of 12.82 is the current state New South Wales record and ranks you as the fastest Australian women’s 100 metre hurdler of all time… Second fastest.
Sorry, the second fastest. Sally Pearson is the fastest? Yeah, she is.
Are you going to knock her off her perch any time soon? Oh, I really don’t know.
How big’s the gap? From her best time ever, which she ran in 2011 at the World Championships, her PB is 12.28. My PB is 12.82, so it’s pretty big. When I race against her I’m generally not that far behind, maybe .3 or so, which is still a reasonable distance. She won the World Champs last year, she’s the reigning World Champion and the 2012 Olympic Champion. She’s not going to be easy to beat, but I love racing against Sally. I know if I line up next to her it’s going to be a fast race. If I can try and keep up with Sally, then I know I’m in awesome shape because she’s one of the best hurdlers in the world.
Is Sally still on top of her game now? Yeah, she won the last World Championships, she’s still flying.
Are you guys mates or is it all a bit serious and competitive? Do you hang out together after races? We don’t really hang out, but we’re friendly. There’s a decent age gap between the two of us, I think she’s 30 or 31. We don’t really hang out but we’re definitely friendly, more so after races than before. We’re more focused on ourselves before the race, but afterwards we definitely have a chat.
I read that you weren’t that stoked with your run in Rio, when you ran sixth in your heat and didn’t make the semis? Yeah.
How do you deal with a disappointing situation like that and stay positive and focused? Honestly, the media said I was a lot more disappointed with Rio than I actually was. They were like, “Oh, she didn’t make it through the heats, she must be so disappointed…” Honestly, for me, just getting on that start line was a really big deal. Being able to cross the finish line, call myself an Olympian, be able to represent my country on the highest stage; for me that was really a big deal just to be there. I think that, all things going well, I probably would have wanted to and would have done quite a lot better, but I was injured in my preparation leading up to it. I did the best that I could, and some days it just doesn’t work for you. I guess that’s how I deal with it – knowing that it wasn’t my best performance I put forward because of other circumstances. We look at what went wrong, how to fix it, and then how we prepare for next year.
Focus on solutions… Yeah, exactly.
What was the injury? I’m not actually sure what the final diagnosis was. I wasn’t really thinking too much about it, but a big medical team that we take away with us was looking after me. I actually went into camp uninjured, and within a couple of days of being over with the Australian team we had a camp leading up to the games in Miami, I did a session and my whole body just flared up. I was having problems with my SIJ joint in my back, and then I had nerve pain all the way down my leg. I just couldn’t find a solution. I was on the physio table between one and three hours every day, so I just had to try and get through it.
How long is it between the flight over there and when you actually compete? It really depends on the competition. For Rio, we had a camp for two weeks, I think it was in Florida, and then we flew to Rio and I think we were there for maybe five days or so before I actually competed.
What would you say are your career highlights? I think one of my career highlights would definitely be 2010 – the first international comp I ran at where I came second at the Youth Olympics. I think also when I ran the 12.82, which was the National Championships in 2015, I think that was a big highlight for me. Probably also in 2015, I came third at the World University Games. That was where I ran my qualifying time for the Olympics.
The World University Games is a pre-qualifier to the Olympics? It’s not strictly a pre-qualifier, but there’s a time period where you can run the qualifying time in, and that was the first race, it was early on during that qualification period, and I ran it there.
I went to the Uni Games in Wagga Wagga once… Yeah, it’s a little bit different to that. It’s not like an Eastern Uni Games, or Australian Uni Games. It’s the actual World Uni Games, it’s a proper elite competition, without all the social activities.
It would have been an elite trading week for the Wagga pubs. What would you be doing if you weren’t Australia’s best hurdler? I’m not Australia’s best hurdler.
Sorry, I’m just reading what I wrote down… Oh okay, all right. I honestly don’t know. Where I am now is not where I thought I’d be. Five years ago, if I looked at where I am now, I didn’t think I’d be in this position, I didn’t think I’d still be competing in athletics. I’m not really sure what I’d be doing. I probably would have graduated uni by now, which would be nice. I’d probably be stuck in some boring job. I think life’s panned out pretty well for me, I get to travel the world doing what I love.
You love travelling? I’m not actually that big on travelling, I used to hate it. I like it a lot more than I used to but I definitely don’t think I appreciate travelling as much as other people do. I go overseas pretty much every year and people are like, “You’re so lucky, you get to fly around and go places,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I get to live in a suitcase three months of the year.” I get to see some pretty incredible places, if I’ve got some friends around me and stuff it’s really good. It’s only really when you’re travelling by yourself that it gets a little lonely.
Can you speak another language or anything like that? Nothing, no.
Who’s the biggest legend you’ve ever trained with? Who’s the character of the Aussie squad? Oh God, it’s so hard to pinpoint. There are so many people in the Australian team that I love and get on with so well. There’s so many people my age group that are coming through now and making all these teams. There’s just a really big group of us that get on really well. We just go over and have a ball.
Are there any dickheads that you don’t like? Of course.
Who are they? There’s a lot of egos in athletics.
You can mention them if you like? No, I’m good thanks.
Drugs in sport; is it rife and people are just naïve as to how common it is? Have you ever come across it in your time in athletics, or been offered anything? I’m pretty fortunate that I’ve never really had anything to do with drugs in sport. I’ve never witnessed anything or been exposed to any of that, but I’m pretty sheltered in the training environment that I’m in. The coach that I’m with now, I’m his only athlete, so he only trains me. Prior to that I was with my last coach for 13 years, and he was the coach I had from my little athletics club. He wasn’t really so much in the world of athletics. I don’t know if that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been so sheltered from that whole situation, but you do hear lots of stories – there’s lots of rumours going around – but you don’t know how many of them are true. The way I look at it is I know that I’m clean, and I do everything to make sure that there’s nothing in my system that shouldn’t be there. I just have to hope that everyone’s doing the same, but you can’t control what other people are doing. All you can do is do what you do, try and be as fast as you can, and don’t think about what other people are doing. If you think about that, you’re going to do your head in.
How often do you get tested? It depends. During the season they generally test you a lot more than out of season. Then I was actually put on ‘athlete whereabouts’ last year, as a lot of athletes are, so I’m still on that. That means I have to supply ASADA with an-hour-a-day where it gives me a location where I’ll be, and then they can rock up. If I’m not there then that counts as a missed test. If you get three of them within 12 months you get banned for two years. It’s pretty stiff, but I think it’s the way that it has to be. They can rock up at any time, they come up to competitions, they can come to your house – you’ve got to give them your current address and all that sort of stuff, and they can show up whenever they want and you have to be drug tested. In Australia, it’s a pretty good system.
Are there any Russians that aren’t drug cheats? I don’t know. I don’t actually know any Russians personally, but I’m not sure about that.
Are you interested in politics? Are you passionate about any particular issues? I’m actually not that interested in politics to be honest. No, I really don’t.
In 2012 you spent several months in Tanzania in an orphanage doing volunteer work; can you tell us a bit more about that? Yeah, I finished school in 2011, decided to take a gap year in 2012. The first half of the year I was training and then travelling. I went over to the World Junior Championships, which is where the viral video came from. Then after that I decided I would go to volunteer. It’s something I’d always wanted to do. That was a pretty cool experience, my first time travelling by myself. It was a 32-hour flight over to Tanzania, I jumped on the plane and I was thinking, “What am I doing?!”
How old were you? I was 19.
You went to Africa by yourself when you were only 19? Yep, I went with a volunteering organisation. They met me when I got there, but all the travel and stuff was by myself. I was living in a big house with volunteers, it really just depended on how many people were there as to how many people stayed there, but it would sleep up to 30-35 people at a time. In the first bedroom I was staying in there was 12 beds and one bathroom. It was very eye-opening, just seeing how everyone over there lived, it was an amazing experience. Sometimes it was really hard, other times it was really rewarding. I absolutely loved it, I miss it a lot.
I’ve been to Tanzania… Oh, really?
Yes, where were you staying? I was just outside of Arusha.
Did you climb Mount Kilimanjaro? I just did the base camp, because climbing all the way up takes a little while.
My mum climbed Mount Kilimanjaro… Really? Wow, that’s pretty cool.
I looked at it, but I didn’t climb it. Do you support any other charities? Yeah, over the years I’ve supported quite a few. There’s nothing that I continually do year after year, but I do love doing charitable work. Often, when charities approach me, I’ll do what I can for them.
The Commonwealth Games are kicking off at the Gold Coast on April 4th; can you give us a little sneak preview of what to expect there? A lot of sport I would say!
A lot of people don’t know the Commonwealth Games are on… Really?
I don’t think many of my friends would be that aware of it… I haven’t seen too much advertising for it on television to be honest, which is surprising because Australians love the Commonwealth Games. We actually do well!
I live under a rock… I think it might just be because you live under a rock then. I think most people know the Commonwealth Games is on, especially if you go to the Gold Coast, it’s everywhere up there.
Maybe Sydney’s just shunning it? Maybe.
We hear all the stories about the athlete’s village at the Olympics, how loose and fun it is; is there an athlete’s village at the Commonwealth Games as well? Yeah, there is. Yeah.
Is it as mad as all the stories would lead you to believe? Towards the last couple of days, yeah it is. It’s pretty crazy.
If your event isn’t until late in the schedule, are you bumming? If you’re on right at the start, you can just hang out at the village and go nuts, right? Yeah, pretty much. Some people finish on day one of the games, and then they’ve got a couple of weeks to just muck-up and have some fun.
When will you be running? We’re in the second week.
Can you tell us any stories about stuff there, or would you rather stay ‘hush hush’? Probably not, no. I haven’t gotten up to too much mischief, but I’ve got a few friends that have. There’s nothing too bad that goes on, just letting loose and stuff. A lot of athletes haven’t drunk for the past year in preparation for the games, then they go and have a few drinks, so it hits them pretty hard.
What advice would you give to aspiring young kids trying to follow in your footsteps and make it as a professional athlete? I think the best advice I could give them is just to have fun and enjoy your sport. That’s really all I did. That’s the reason I’m still in the sport, just because I love it. I always go and have a good time. When athletes are younger, especially with pushy parents, sometimes they get a little bit too invested. They might be eight years old and they’re talking about going to the next Olympics. I think they need to settle down, understand that you’re just a kid; you don’t need to be training too hard too young, because you’ll burn yourself out. Just enjoy it and have some fun, then do the serious stuff later.
Your parents weren’t pushy? No, not at all. My whole family’s very supportive. When I go overseas to compete they all come out – mum, dad, sister, grandma and grandpa, uncle, aunt… They all come over to watch me, and they’ll come everywhere. My grandparents used to come to my school carnivals, that’s how supportive they are.
They didn’t smack you if you ran a shit race? No,they were never pushy about it. Every time I ran they were like, “Just go and have some fun.” I think that really helped me, knowing that they were always there and always on my side.
Blistex is sponsoring the Commonwealth Games; are they a personal sponsor of yours as well? They’re the official lip balm supplier of the Commonwealth Games, and I’m also an ambassador for Blistex in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games. With the Commonwealth Games, they had a really good competition they were running, where you could buy any Blistex product, keep the receipt, then go online and register for the chance to win a trip for two to the Commonwealth Games with flights, accommodation and tickets to the event, but it’s just closed.
Ah, bugger! Yeah, it was a really good competition. Everyone wants to come out and watch the games!
I’m going to go and buy some on the way home. What’s Blistex actually for? Cold sores? Yes, they have a range of lip balms and creams for cold sores. It’s to protect your lips. They’ve actually got a new product…
It’s not just a cold sore cream? No, it’s not. They’ve just released a new product, Ultra SPF 50+, which I’m sure you must know. Do you surf?
Yeah, professionally… Yeah, so your lips get burnt when you’re out on the water for so long?
My big lips get fried, my wetsuit can’t protect them… Yeah, exactly. The Ultra SPF 50+ is great because you get sunscreen all over your face and your body, but then your lips get sunburnt. I love to have it in my training bag when I go out to training, chuck it on and then your lips don’t get sunburnt. You don’t have to worry about cracked lips.
Your other sporting interest is handball? When I was in school I played European Handball.
Not the one that you play on the concrete at Clovelly Beach? I played it in the school yard, but not competitively, no.
Clovelly Beach is the best handball court… Really?
Big, perfect squares right by the water. If the tennis ball goes in the water, whoever lost that game has to go in and get it… Oh yeah.
Are you working on any other side projects; writing a book, making a movie, anything like that? Not at the moment. I’m just focused on uni and also just training, looking after all that. So no, there are no other side projects at the moment.
Do you have any tattoos? No, I don’t have any tattoos. No.
Who would you say are your role models? I wouldn’t really say that I have any role models. There are a lot of people that I’ve just met through friends, family, other athletes and stuff. I think there’s always little bits of them that I look up to and that I admire, but no one that I would say is a really standout role model.
I Googled your name while I was doing my last minute research and the autocomplete came up with ‘Michelle Jenneke boyfriend’, which led me to www.whosdatedwho.com, which said, “According to our records, Michelle Jenneke is possibly single.” Is this true? The reason it says that is because I never comment on my relationship status.
You never comment on your relationship status? No, I’ll keep that private.
No worries. The next question was going to be, “Are you on the hunt/can you tell us more about this lucky guy?” It really says, “Are you on the hunt?”
Possibly… Yes. Would you ever relocate overseas to train? I don’t think that I would, no, not long-term anyway. I love Australia too much. I’ve been to many places around the world and there’s nowhere I’ve ever loved as much as Australia. No one’s got the beaches like we do, no one’s got the people like we do, I love home too much.
In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Michelle Jenneke? I’m honestly not too sure. I’m not someone who plans too far ahead. I think that if you do that you close yourself off to opportunities that may come up. I just like to go through life putting my best foot forward, and then whatever happens I’m open to it and I’m ready to take it on. No real big plans, just going to see where life takes me.
I forgot to mention the dance! You did forget it. I thought you said it was in there.
It was, I must have accidentally deleted it. No, here it is. This must be the first interview ever that it hasn’t been mentioned! You became an internet sensation as the ‘dancing hurdler’ after footage of your pre-race warm up dancing was captured at a 100 metres hurdles heat at the 2012 Junior World Championships in Barcelona and went viral; how did this routine come about, and how does it help your performance? It’s a little routine I do before I compete. I actually started in 2009. I used to get pretty nervous before I raced, and I had a big championships with the National Championships. I’d had a really big week, I had four events over the weekend. My last event was a 100 metre final, and I was feeling really flat and tired, I couldn’t really get moving. My coach said, “There’s nothing I can do for you, you’ve got to figure it out for yourself.” I’m like, thanks coach. I went out onto the track and they were playing some music over the speakers, as they often do between races. I just started jumping around, doing this silly thing. Having a good time. Then I went out there, medalled and ran a PB. It was the first time I medalled in the 100 metres in Nationals. I’d felt really bad but I still ran really well, so I thought that maybe what I’d done at the start had helped. I started using that a bit more in other competitions and realised that it just helped me get really relaxed and also pumped up for the race. It’s just something I started carrying into all my races, especially the bigger races.
You still do it now? Yeah, I still do it. The bigger the race the more I do. If it’s really hot I’m not doing too much because you burn too much energy. I even do it in training if I’ve got a rep coming up that I want to run really fast.
Thanks Michelle! Yeah, no worries.
And good luck at the games… Thank you, thanks very much, now that you know that they’re on!