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An outsider going into Nanjing 2014, she took the YOG by storm, setting a series of personal bests along the way to topping the 400m podium.
She has used that success as a springboard for progress in senior competition and, despite suffering an injury setback with a stress fracture in her foot a year ago, she is now Australia’s third ranked female athlete over her favourite distance, behind Morgan Mitchell and Anneliese Rubie, with strong hopes of a place on the 4x400m relay team in Rio, if not the individual event.
Jess is clear that the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing were a breakthrough moment for her.
“Getting to represent Australia at such a high level and just being involved in the entire event was a fantastic experience. It was such a good competition I felt extremely lucky to be part of the team.
“I was also chosen to be the flagbearer for Australia in the Closing Ceremony, which was another big highlight. And then of course there was winning gold in the 400m, which is my best sporting memory to date. I didn’t go into the event as a medal contender, so I couldn’t believe it when I actually won.”
2014 / Xinhua News Agency / JU, Huanzong
It was a remarkable performance for an athlete who was getting her very first taste of international competition.
“I wasn’t expecting anything,” she shrugs. “I just went out to do my best and enjoy it all, especially since it was my first international event and first time representing Australia. Saying that, I didn’t really feel nervous; I just wanted to go out there and run my hardest. However, getting to the final as the fastest qualifier, and knowing I actually had a shot of winning, I was a bit nervous.
Jess adds that what made her YOG experience in Nanjing so special was not just the chance to compete on the track, but also the opportunity to make new friendships and learn about other cultures. “I love the competitive side to sport, but there is also a social side to every sport; getting to meet new people, creating new friendships… this is the reason I love sport so much.
“My favourite part of the YOG concept was the cultural aspect. Getting to know different people and their cultures, and learning about their values and beliefs. I also loved the fact that we could get involved in so many different activities in the Village.”
And though she claims not to be a natural academic, that same thirst for knowledge and for expanding her horizons has seen her embark on a degree in nutrition science at the University of Wollongong, something she says she is “passionate” about, as it combines her devotion to sport with an interest in food. Most of my days revolve around my sport, either training or competing. When I do get some time to myself, I like to cook. I’ve always had a thing for food and love to cook for the rest of my family.”
On the subject of family, she is in no doubt about the importance they have played in her meteoric rise in international athletics.
“I owe a lot to my friends and, most of all my family, for standing by me and being there for me. This has definitely been a key reason to why I have achieved so much in the past few years. I don’t know what I would do without them all!”
This year she has already got an appearance at the World U20 Championships in Poland under her belt, and looking ahead, she has her gaze firmly set on the Olympic Games Rio 2016. “It would mean the world to me to represent Australia at the Olympic Games in Rio. Words cannot describe the emotion I’d feel if I made the team, but what I can say is that it would be a huge honour!”