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Journey of a super Nova

Politician, activist, and Commonwealth and Olympic medalist—these are just some of the titles Nova Peris OAM has already achieved. There’s much more to come, not least due to her work with the Nova Peris Foundation.

By Kylie Triggell

  • Summer 2023
  • Feature
  • Read Time: 7 mins

Nova Peris has lived the 52 years of her life to the fullest as an international athlete, politician, writer, ambassador, and advocate for human rights. The self-described risk-taker attributes her many successes to having a progressive and challenging mindset which developed at a very young age.

Early ambitions

As a child, Nova says she always dreamed big. After watching the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Nova turned to her mother Joan and said she wanted to be an Olympian. “Well, you better start training now,” Joan responded. So she did.

“When I was nine years old, there was a picture of me in the NT News after winning several gold medals and breaking several Northern Territory records in athletics. The caption read, ‘Nova Peris, can she bring home gold for Australia and the Territory?’ So, there was no pressure on me,” Nova laughs.

“I used to run a few kilometres before school most mornings in my early teens. I was extremely disciplined.” 

It’s a trait she partly attributes to her stepfather, Chappy, who was a police officer in Darwin and also served in the navy during the Vietnam War.

“He instilled immense discipline in me and my sister,” Nova says, adding her mother, who was part of the Stolen Generation, was a "glass-half-full kind of person with a can-do attitude". 

Being raised in a house with those two personalities, Nova says, helped to develop her limitless drive, focus, and ambitions. 

“I was very competitive, and it was obvious to everyone in Darwin the potential I had in sports,” Nova says. 

“All my family in Darwin played hockey, so I did too... and because I was such a fast runner, it made me very good at it. I went through all the ranks and eventually made it into the Australian Hockeyroos team.”

Changing focus

Describing the gold medal win at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as a dream come true, Nova says it was also the time when her coach, Ric Charlesworth, told her she was the first Aboriginal person to win an Olympic gold medal

“It was never in my thinking or preparations, so I was a bit taken aback by that information,” Nova says.

However, two years prior, Nova says she was already planning on switching sports and had even made a promise to herself that if she worked hard enough and the Hockeyroos won gold, she would retire from hockey to pursue athletics.

Nova ran in domestic athletics meets during the hockey off-seasons to keep fit and won several meets, and even competed in a national championship, placing in a final.

“I knew in my heart that if I dedicated myself to the sport 100%, I could do some damage and be one of the best in the country,” Nova says.

“When I made the switch out of hockey, so many people doubted that I could do it. Then, in 1998, I made the Commonwealth Games team and won two gold medals in the 200m and in the 4x100m relay.

“I went on to make the Sydney Olympic team, running in the 400m and 4x400m relay. I achieved my childhood dream.”

More than sport

Nova was also achieving big things away from the athletics track, from being named Young Australian of the Year in 1997 one year after she was awarded an Order of Australia (OAM), to working as an International Aboriginal Human Rights ambassador, inaugural board member and National Patron for Beyond Blue, National Treaty Facilitator for the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and International Human Rights ambassador for WHO. 

In the last-mentioned role, Nova helped develop the communications and implementation strategies for Child Health Check, spearheading the I’ll Stand With You campaign on racism in sport, and developed audio-visual resources for the Human Rights Commission.  

All this, and much more, was in addition to writing books, having a family, and being elected to Federal Parliament in 2013—the first Indigenous woman to do so.

It’s an immense amount of work and something that Nova once again credits to her incredible drive.

“I am addicted to progress, to keep challenging myself to be the best version of myself. I hold myself to high standards,” she says.

“I don’t often reflect on my achievements because I am not done achieving. I am dedicated to making the lives of my people better. This is my focus and has been for the past 20 years.”

Devoted to improvement

Describing herself as a risk taker, Nova says she knows the combination of her work ethic and dedication to whatever she does will ensure she achieves the outcome she desires.

Nova has applied this focus to her work with the Nova Peris Foundation, which she established in 2020.

Sparked by the desire to give back to her people and the wider community, Nova says initial plans are to reinvigorate Aboriginal communities by supplying low-cost infrastructure set up in a hub style to help provide vibrance, jobs, skills, and support towards self-sustainability.

Key partners Food Ladder, which helps to develop sustainable food technologies, and the Aboriginal Investment Group, which assist with the installation of remote laundries, have already come on board. 

Nova says the foundation is about positive health outcomes, first and foremost.

“We want to go further and have bush foods and bush medicines growing, too. Aboriginal Investment Group have their community laundry model and this directly, positively impacts the reduction of scabies, which can lead to awful rheumatic heart disease killing my people.”

Nova and her husband, Scott Appleton, have made a call to action within the foundation.

“We basically wanted to get all the things into an Aboriginal community that it doesn’t currently have, so people don’t have to travel out of [the] community for these simple things.”

Plans are underway to roll out the foundation’s first site in Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory and Nova says they plan to take their time to get it right before any thoughts of expansion.

Future aspirations

Nova has more plans in mind for the next few years, including a potential return to politics. 

“I’ve still got big plans. I would like to return to Federal Parliament, if given the opportunity again. I feel I have unfinished business there,” she says. 

“If I don’t return to politics, I have a couple of other ideas but you will just have to wait and see what they are.”

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