Nova Peris OAM was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 2023 as an Athlete Member for her contribution to the multi-sports of athletics and hockey.
Nova Peris was a trailblazer in representative sport and an inspiration for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community – and all Australians – as she reached for the stars in a remarkable career.
She was the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold medal as part of the Hockeyroos’ successful 1996 campaign in Atlanta – an extraordinary moment for the nation.
She then boldly looked to take on another sport 12 months later – one that had long been her passion – when she embarked on an athletic career in an attempt to qualify for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Peris won Young Australian of the Year in 1997 and in the same year made the national athletics team in the 4x100m relay at the world championships.
She won two gold medals at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, storming home to win the 200m sprint and as a member of the Australian 4x400m relay winning team.
It provided the perfect platform for her leading into the Sydney Olympics. Against the best in the world, and at Sydney’s Homebush base, she made the Olympic semi-finals in the 400m and helped the 4x400m relay team make the final, finishing fifth with an Australian record time of 3:23.81.
She represented her country at two Olympic Games, four World Championships, three Champion’s Trophies and a Commonwealth Games.
Her sporting achievements were significant, but so too was her commitment to her people and the community as she became the first Aboriginal woman to serve in the Australian federal parliament in 2013.
Nova Peris always maintained she was “living proof” that, no matter what the circumstances, if you have the talent and are willing to make the sacrifices, you can achieve anything.
Her sporting success is a story made in the Dreamtime, and it is a tale that has inspired and ignited the imagination of not only First Nations people, but of all Australians.
A proud woman of the Lunga Gidja & Yawuru people of the East & West Kimberley and the Bunitj clan of the Gagudju people of West Arnhem Land, she grew up in Darwin in the housing commission flats with the love of sport, family and community almost coursing through her veins. She took on team sports and individual pursuits with equal relish.
Athletics was an early passion, though she also excelled at hockey and it became her calling as she worked her way through the ranks into the Australian hockey team. It wasn’t long before she was starring on the international stage with her speed, balance and daring attack making her one of the most watchable and competitive players in the side.
She and the Hockeyroos reached the pinnacle of success with a gold medal winning performance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
It was a trailblazing moment in Australian sport. Peris had become the first Aboriginal athlete to win an Olympic gold medal – a century after the country took part in the inaugural modern games. She was also the first Mother to win a gold medal for Australia since Shirley Strickland’s success in Melbourne 40 years earlier.
But the daring Peris – who had never accepted that something couldn’t be done so long as hard work was applied – was about to turn the axis of Australian sport yet again. She chose to put away the hockey stick and put on the running sprigs, going back to athletics, which had been one of her great loves when she was a young sports talent. Competing at an Olympics in athletics was her first childhood dream.
Her quest to represent Australia in two different disciplines at consecutive Olympics Games was something which drove her. She took on the change in 1997, which was the year she was also named Young Australian of the Year, and made instant inroads when she was named in the national team at the 1997 world athletics championships.
Her talent was such that Peris not only made the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, she brought home two gold medals after a spectacular meet that included success in the 200m sprint and in Australia’s 4×100 relay victory.
The gold medal haul franked her decision to change sports as she looked ahead expectantly to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
One hundred days out from the Sydney Opening Ceremony, Peris was the first Australian to run with the Olympic torch, running a stretch of the leg with her daughter Jess, and sharing it with a number of Aboriginal elders and traditional land owners at Uluru.
On the track, Peris made her mark as well in what was a unique quest to compete in successive Olympic Games in different sports. She made the semi-finals in the 400m track event (with her quarter-final performance producing a personal best time of 51.28s) and she was a member of the 4x400m relay team which finished fifth in the final breaking an Australian record that still stands today. Peris remains the only person on the planet to make back-to-back Summer Olympic Games finals in two different sports at consecutive Olympics!
It was her athletic swansong, but Peris’ trailblazing achievements were not solely confined to the sporting arena. In 2013 she became the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to federal parliament serving as a Senator for the Northern Territory.
Honours & Achievements
- 1996: Awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia
- 1997: Named Young Australian of the Year
- 2013: Elected to Federal Parliament as a Senator for the Northern Territory
Photo courtesy News Corp Australia.