How Jessica Peris Drew Resilience From ‘Strong Black Women’ In Her Family To Compete On SAS Australia
Competing on SAS Australia was as much about redemption for Jessica Peris as it was about succeeding in the gruelling challenges from the real SAS (Special Air Service Regiment) selection process.
The athlete has had a tumultuous few years during which there's been a highly publicised doping scandal, a mental health battle and the pressure to live up to the achievements of her famous mother, Nova Peris.
While competing on the Channel 7 reality show, the 31-year-old said she drew strength from the resilient First Nations women in her family who faced severe racism, dispossession and trauma in the past.
"I come from a bloodline of strong Black women," Peris told Refinery29 Australia over email. "When I talk about pain [on the show], I reflect on what my grandmother and great grandmother endured."
Peris explained that both women were part of the Stolen Generations – where thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families by the Australian government between 1910 and 1970.
She said her mother often reminded her that the difficult circumstances she's faced are very different to those experienced by older generations of women in their family. Acknowledging the resilience they developed in extremely trying times helps her put things into perspective.
"My mother Nova makes me realise that the obstacles and challenges that I’ve had to overcome in my life seem very small in comparison. I draw great strength from this," she said.
"My grandmother is such an optimistic woman, she has every reason to be angry about the pain and suffering she endured being forcefully removed from her mother because of the colour of her skin."
Peris said she admired that her grandmother, who she described as her "rock" has been positive over the years.
"She is thankful that she learned to read and write so that she could work and provide for her two children as a single mother," the reality star explained.
Her own mum has also been an influence with many well-known achievements. The former hockey player and sprinter was the first Indigenous Australian person to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games as part of the Australian women's field hockey team's victory.
Peris said she's "extremely proud" of her mother's accomplishments but has also observed the "sacrifice" that came with success.
"A lot of people only saw the end result, her accomplishments, but I saw the good, the bad and the ugly," she said. "I didn't want to endure the things that she had to go through.
"It wasn’t easy. There was so much pressure, and I saw things that my mum put up with in regard to being racially discriminated, so there was a lot of fear as a kid wanting to pursue the same life that my mum did."
She did eventually pursue a career in athletics like her mother, but that was brought to a halt in 2018 when she tested positive for banned substances. After being forced to withdraw from the Commonwealth Games that year which she said left her "completely broken and lost", Peris was hospitalised in 2019 following a drug overdose.
"My biggest issue was not being able to speak to people about how I was really feeling and to not be ashamed to ask for help," said Peris of her mental health battle.
"I tried to be so strong all the time, all I was doing was suppressing my emotions rather than addressing them. The hospital was able to provide me with counselling support which helped me with coping mechanisms that have significantly helped me get back on my feet and to where I am today."
Today, she's a proud mother to her 12-year-old son Isaac, and working at Community First Development in Darwin, a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community development and research organisation that delivers community-led projects across governance, education, tourism, social enterprise, community facilities upgrades and cultural programs.
"It doesn’t matter how slow you progress if you keep moving forward and never give up," she said. "Our ancestors have survived for more than 60 thousand years, we are born survivors."
SAS Australia – starring Alicia Molik, Bonnie Anderson, Dan Ewing, Emma Husar, Heath Saw, Isabelle Cornish, Jana Pittman, Jessica Peris, Jett Kenny, John Steffensen, Kerri Pottharst, Koby Abberton, Manu Feildel, Mark Philippoussis Peter Murray and Sam Burgess – airs Monday to Wednesday at 7:30pm on Channel 7.