4. TIANA PENITANI
By Sam Squiers
Missing out on the 2016 Rio Olympics was devastating for Tiana Penitani but led her down a different sporting path. Tiana joins Sam Squiers to discuss the impact of losing her father as a teenager, the injury that took her away from the 2016 Olympics and falling in love with rugby league.
Hey, I’m sports journalist Sam Squiers, welcome to On Her Game.
I remember first hearing about Tiana Penitani when she was the whizz kid of Rugby Sevens. The youngest player, male or female, to represent Australia in Sevens or Fifteens at a World Cup. But I actually didn’t meet Tiana until just over a year ago. And in eighteen months, the former Sevens prodigy has really taken rugby league by storm. Representing her state, her country and as the standout of the NRLW for St-George Illawarra Dragons and this is all against the backdrop of the life-changing injury and the heart-breaking loss of her father. What struck me the most though about Tiana was really her nature, her character, she was so warm, so friendly, articulate, just this really genuine soul, which made me think there’s more to her story and there was. Tiana is a strong and as resilient as you can get, she displays such strength and maturity and, and warmth, which makes her not only a champion on the sporting field but just one hell of a woman. Now Tiana was obsessed with sport when she was growing up and she’d find any opportunity to get outside and have a run around.
PENITANI: Mum tells stories about when I was in pre-school and I used to, she used to drive the car really slowly next to me, and I used to run to pre-school and that was a couple of kilometres (laughs) near me. Because I was so full of beans, so, yeah, I can, um, confidently say I have always been athletic, um, not excellent in some sports but, did my best, but yeah, excelled in a few others.
SQUIERS: I love that idea (laughs), I’ve got a very energetic two-and-a-half-year-old, so I might use that trick from, from your mum, which is really good.
PENITANI: Yeah, I used to ask her to. So, I, I look back now and I, I don’t like long-distance running at all (laughs). I don’t have the attention span for it, but yeah, I don’t know what, um, what got into me at the age of four (laughs).
SQUIERS: That’s very good. Um, what were the sports that interested you the most?
PENITANI: Um, I loved gymnastics growing up (Squiers: alright), um, but I got to a level, um, an elite level where they started asking for a lot more hours, um, than my mum was willing to commit for, for a twelve, an eleven, twelve-year-old. So, yeah, I always had a passion for gym and then decided to, to give that away and took up, um, athletics and swimming, netball, touch football, um, I think I played a total of seventeen or eighteen sports (Squiers: wow) throughout my whole life. So, yeah, sport was a, a big, big part of my life.
SQUIERS: And which ones were you best at, and then chose. Because obviously you’d have conflicts, you don’t have seventeen days (Penitani: yeah) in a week (Penitani: no), so what were the sports that you then branched out into.
PENITANI: Well I was lucky because a lot of the sports that I had loved worked well together in terms of seasons, so I had my Summer sports and I had my Winter sports. But, um, it was probably through my junior high school years that I, I needed to make a decision to commit to, um, the likes of Oztag and touch football and athletics (Squiers: mmm). So, I dropped the majority of the other sports that I was playing and just stuck to those sports and netball through school as well. And then, um, towards the backend of my school life was pre-dominantly track and field.
SQUIERS: Yeah, right (Penitani: yeah), you also played rugby when you were little, was it rugby or rugby league?
PENITANI: It was rugby league.
SQUIERS: That you played when you were really little.
PENITANI: Yes, so I played rugby league when I was eleven, um, and I played one season with La Perouse Panthers and then.
SQUIERS: Mmm, with the boys?
PENITANI: With the boys, yeah, yeah, with the boys. There were two other girls in my team that I went to school with as well, so, we in the, um, South Sydney competition in our age group we had the most amount of girls in our team, um.
SQUIERS: And with three?
PENITANI: Yeah, with three (laughs), yep, yeah, and we’d come across the odd, odd team, um, where they’d have one girl and girls were always sat out on the wing, but proud to say that we scored all the tries (laughs) which was nice, it was nice. Um, but yeah, so I played a season with them, and then when, once you get to the age of Under 12’s you’re not allowed to play with the boys anymore (Squiers: mmm). Um, so I had to, like step away from that sport. I loved the contact and I loved the physicality behind it (Squiers: mmm), so to go back to playing Oztag and Touch was great, to be able to play footy and to play team sport but was always missing that extra physical element.
SQUIERS: At the age of eleven or twelve, when they said, ‘you can’t play anymore’ and, and you loved that sport, you loved playing with the boys, how did you, how did you feel when they told you that?
PENITANI: Obviously there’s, there was a little bit of disappointment, as in ‘oh I can’t keep playing league anymore, that sucks’, um, but in saying that, sometimes at the age of eleven, there were some developed boys. At that, at that stage (laughs) that were just run head on, and you’d just close your eyes and hope for the best and just wrap them around the legs and try to, to get them to ground. So, yeah, I completely understood, well I thought I understood at that stage, um, the reasonings why (Squiers: mmm). Um, but yeah it just sucked that there wasn’t another pathway for, for young women to be able to follow, um, in their own avenue.
SQUIERS: And then it was athletics (Penitani: yeah) that kind of took over for you (Penitani: yeah), what, what distance, what discipline, did you run?
PENITANI: Yeah, so I was pre-dominantly a sprint-hurdler, um, my favourite events were the ninety and hundred hurdles. Um, the one hundred, two hundred and long jump and yeah, I represented New South Wales at the Australian Champs, I ran Nationals all through my school life. Um, won Nationals a few times, and, um, was really pursuing in careers in athletics and it was when I was seventeen in Year Eleven that the prospect of the Olympics then popped up with Rugby Sevens.
I had never heard of Rugby Sevens before so I’d played half a season of Fifteens with a few friends (Squiers: mmm) that I met through netball and loved playing Fifteens, just being able to play physical rugby again and (Squiers: mmm), um, learning a new game and, and a new skill and, um, they’d always spoken about Sevens and they’d say ‘Ti, you’d be great at Sevens (Squiers: mmm), you should give Sevens a go’, and I never really looked too much into it until the Olympics popped up and that’s, um, where everything sort of began for me with my Sevens career.
SQUIERS: What made you choose if you were so talented at athletics, so what made you then choose rugby over athletics? Did you want to go to the Olympics in Athletics?
PENITANI: Yeah, yeah, hands down, I wanted to go to the Olympics, had always wanted to go to the Olympics from a very young age, um, that was the dream, and especially being a track and field athlete (Squiers: mmm). So, the prospect of potentially going to an Olympics so close, um, because at my age at seventeen, I, sixteen, seventeen I probably wasn’t looking at trying to make 2016 Olympics on the track (Squiers: mmm). Um, really tough, especially in Australia, um, and being in an, an individual sport as well, there’s so much added pressure, so yeah enticement of potentially going to the Olympics in 2016 (Squiers: mmm), in a team sport, in a new sport that’s just been introduced to the Olympics, um, it was all very enticing. Um, yeah that was definitely the soul reason as to why I made the transition, but I did love running on the track.
SQUIERS: And back in those days when you were playing Fifteens and then you transitioned into Sevens it wasn’t really widely accepted that girls would be playing rugby (Penitani: yeah). What are your experiences of that time?
PENITANI: Yeah, it’s really interesting because the pathway that I came through was the, through the schoolgirl pathway for Sevens (Squiers: mmm). Um, and I know there wasn’t a lot happening for the women’s game in Fifteens. It was just by chance that I rep, was playing netball with a friends that were also playing rugby and needed a few more players to, to come down and make up the numbers for club and, um, I was always one for giving another sport a go, I love sport that much (laughs). So, I was like ‘sure, love it, I’ve never played rugby before so, I am keen to learn a new game and, um, get amongst it’ but, um, a, a women’s team (Squiers: mmm), I’d never played solely women’s rugby before. So, coming through the Schoolgirls pathway, it was the inaugural Schoolgirls Championships, so they’d never been a pathway for schoolgirls and that was really exciting for us but, yeah, there wasn’t much talk about female rugby (Squiers: mmm) and women’s rugby. It was so male dominant and it was definitely new waters that we were kind of navigating coming through those pathways.
SQUIERS: Did you find yourself having to defend the women’s game, as one of the new rugby stars, up and, up and coming stars?
PENITANI: Yeah well, it’s really interesting, this goes back maybe a couple of years after I’d started playing rugby, but I remember we were at the airport leaving for a tournament (Squiers: mmm). Um, playing for the Australian Sevens team, um, and we were lining up to check-in and we had people asking us if we were an equestrian team or if we were water polo players (laughs), or just, and we were like, ‘no we’re rugby players’ and they just gave us this look and they were like ‘you don’t look like rugby players’ (Squiers: yeah). We just kind of stood there and said, ‘what do rugby players look like then if (laughs) (Squiers: yeah, yeah), if we don’t look like rugby players?’
So, that was really eye-opening because being in the rugby world, our male counterparts and all of the staff treated us the same, you know, (Squiers: yeah) or we, we were potentially, um, we’re going to qualify for an Olympic Games, Rugby Sevens and being in the rugby world it was so different but, um, being in (Squiers: mmm), you know, just with everyday people didn’t really know too much about female rugby. Um, was really, really interesting to see the opinion there and that was also the first encounter that I’d personally had where people kind of looked at us sideways (laughs) and were like ‘you’re rugby, you’re female rugby players, you’re too skinny, you’re too little, you’re too pretty’, I got that really often. As well, ‘you’re too pretty to be playing a contact sport’ (Squiers: right), ‘watch me play and then make up your mind’ (laughs).
SQUIERS: I was a journo in that time, I’d have to lie to, like our News Directors, just to do a women’s rugby story (Penitani: yeah), I’d have to tell them it’s a touch football story (Penitani: yeah) and, because I knew they’d love the story and, and love the people I’m doing interviews on (Penitani: yeah), but they had it in their head this idea of what a rugby player (Penitani: yeah), a female rugby player would be like (Penitani: yeah) or look like or play like (Penitani: yep) as well, so, yeah and that always came up (laughs), what terrible what rugby players look like (Penitani: yeah). Your dad he had a big influence didn’t he (Penitani: yeah) on, on, he was into rugby and rugby league (Penitani: yeah) as well.
PENITANI: Yeah, yeah, so, um, from, oh, as far back as I can remember, um, I used to watch him play rugby league and rugby union and it wasn’t until his later years that he’d given up rugby union and just stuck pre-dom, pre-dominantly with, um, club rugby league (Squiers: mmm), which was really nice growing up as a little girl and being on the sidelines and I remember there’s a few friends that I, um, that I still keep in contact with that our dads used to play together. So, we’d be sitting there in our little dresses and (laughs) just with the mums on the sideline just watching dads play, play footy and he represented Tonga (Squiers: mmm), um, in rugby union as well, so for him to be across both codes was really special for me in my Sevens career and, and now in my rugby league career, just to have that connection with him.
SQUIERS: That’s very, very cool, um, take us back then to when you were twelve.
PENITANI: Hmm, it’s hard, some, some days I’m good with speaking about it and other days I’m not (Squiers: mmm). Sorry (cries), I always get sad (Squiers: I understand), um, but it’s crazy to think that it’s so long ago, going on twelve years this year, um, um, yeah, I, I remember the day, um, that it happened. In the morning, mum was, mum, mum and dad used to always take my sister and I to Nippers, well they’d, would pack the whole family up and, um, go to the beach every Sunday morning and I remember that morning, um, my sister and I had slept in and we were, we woke up and we were like ‘where’s mum, where’s dad? Um, why are, why aren’t we ready, why aren’t we going to Nippers yet’. And we noticed there were a lot of people in our front yard, just family members in our front yard (Squiers: mmm), we were just, we were so confused.
Um, couldn’t find my mum and then saw my grandfather walk through the door and it was only seven thirty or eight o’clock in the morning, um, and my grandfather lives, lives in Newcastle so, that was really surprising to see him come through the front door and, um, he went upstairs where my mum was with my aunty and my uncle (Squiers: mmm). Um, and I, I knew, I’m the oldest of hour (Squiers: mmm), um, I knew that something was wrong because dad never not home on the weekend, um, and getting us ready for Nippers.
So, when mum came downstairs, um, she picked up my little sister who was one, so I’ve got two sisters and a brother, um, she picked up my baby sister who was one and sat my sister, myself and my little brother on the lounge (cries). Sorry (Squiers: it’s okay), um, and she, I could, I could see she’d been crying, um, and she just said, ‘dad’s been involved in an altercation, um, and daddy’s passed away and he’s not coming home.’, which was really, um, (cries), I don’t know how to explain what that felt like. Um, I was twelve and I’m twenty-four now (Squiers: mmm) and I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. Um, and just to see my little sister and my little brother at the age of three, just so confused, like ‘where’s, where’s he gone, what do you mean? (Squiers: mmm) Um, what do you mean daddy’s not coming home?’
That was the hardest, the hardest thing that my mum’s ever had to do and that we’ve ever had to sit through, um, yeah that completely turned our worlds upside down (Squiers: mmm). Um, and I just like, now that I’ve grown up and I look at my mum as a person I’m just, she’s the most incredible woman in the world, she could have taken two complete like, two paths that she could have gone (Squiers: mmm). Um, just given up (Squiers: mmm) and just said, ‘you know, I, this is too hard for me, for me to have to do, to raise four kids on my own and you guys can fend for yourselves because I can’t handle it’ or take the path that she did take and raise us to be strong, um, driven (Squiers: mmm), motivated, supported, um, four kids.
PENITANI: Yeah, so out of that I look at the influence that my mum’s had on all our lives and I look at how successful we are as a family. Um, and I’m, I measure success in what, not only what we do, um, but also how we are as people, (Squiers: mmm) um, and how strong we are and how resilient we are and how happy we are and (Squiers: mmm), and how, how much of a tight knit family we are and I, I give full credit to mum for that. But yeah that, um, losing dad absolutely shaped who I am as a person (Squiers: mmm) and um, who all of my siblings are as people, give full credit for my mum for it.
SQUIERS: Because I mean twelve years old (Penitani: yeah), that’s, was that Year Six, Year Seven?
PENITANI: I had just started Year Seven, yeah.
SQUIERS: That’s such a turning point (Penitani: yeah) for any kid about to hit their teens.
PENITANI: Yeah exactly.
SQUIERS: What kind of impact then did that have?
PENITANI: Um, it had a huge impact on me at the time. I just lost all motivation to play sport, I didn’t, I didn’t want to run anymore, I didn’t want to play any team sports, I just felt really lethargic and just heartbroken, um. We saw, my sister and I saw a psychologist for eighteen months (Squiers: mmm), um, just to help get through that grieving process and, um, and to process what had, what had happened and, and how to move forward with our lives, but yeah.
For me, um, I didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t want to play sport, I didn’t want to do anything, I just wanted to be with my mum and with my family and my mum nurtured me through that. Um, she didn’t force me to play any sport and, um, I was in a selective, um, stream at Rose Bay Secondary College (Squiers: mmm), um, and because we lived in Maroubra it was too hard for mum to be able to, to like get me to school in Bondi, get my sister to school in Maroubra and also have the kids (Squiers: the little one) in day care and (Squiers: mmm).
Yeah, it was just too hard for mum, so she pulled me out of Rose Bay Secondary College and then enrolled me in South Sydney High School in Maroubra (Squiers: mmm), which was our local school, my local school. Um, and I had so much support from them at school, um, so lucky to have had all that support, just with helping me to get through all of my school work and some days I had really bad days and, and other days I was excelling at school, so it was really, it was a roller-coaster (Squiers: mmm) for me personally, um.
But yeah, um, it had a big impact on the first few years (Squiers: mmm) after it had happened and it wasn’t until year three or four, um, after dad had passed that we started to find ourselves on the front foot again (Squiers: mmm). Um, started to rebuild slowly in the right direction, rather than just picking up pieces and living day-to-day and week-to-week, and just trying to figure out each week as it came rather than look, look towards the future. I feel as though we started to really, I don’t know, just progress really nicely through, um, through life and I got back into sport a couple of years later and, um, things were on the up, yeah.
SQUIERS: Mmm, because with your dad, take us through how that happened that he passed away and it was so sudden, (Penitani: yeah) like it wasn’t like it was an illness that could somewhat have any preparation for what’s (Penitani: no), not that it makes it a lot easier to lose your, your dad anyway.
PENITANI: No, absolutely not, so, it was crazy. We had literally just gotten back from a family holiday in Fiji, literally that week (Squiers: mmm), um, and mum and dad ran a concreting company (Squiers: mmm), um, so my dad was a concreter and he’d, and he’d just had his, um, Tongan tribal sleeve completed (Squiers: yeah). So, it was a friend of his was a tattoo artist and that night he had gone to finish off the tattoo and then he wanted to take a few of the boys that worked under him out for drinks (Squiers: mmm) just to celebrate how successful the business had been.
And he went, he went out and I remember that morning mum was getting us kids ready in the morning and dad was going out to just oversee some stuff at work and then he was going to get his tattoo finished and he left and he said bye to mum and gave her a kiss. And then he went to walk out, out of the garage door and it was really, I was, I haven’t told many people this story but, um, it was really weird that he was a little bit lost in that moment and, and I’m not sure if he lost his keys or walked out of the garage door (Squiers: mmm) but then came back in and gave mum another kiss to say goodbye and that was really odd (Squiers: mmm).
And I made a comment, um, to my mum, when I just flippantly, (Squiers: mmm) just said to my mum, ‘it’s almost like you and dad, like are saying goodbye for the last time, like why (Squiers: you said that?), like why do you have to kiss each other twice, like that’s so weird’. Yeah, I said that to her and it wasn’t until weeks after he’d passed that she remembered, she said ‘oh my gosh Tiana, do you remember what you said to me in the morning, that morning’ (Squiers: mmm), um, and that’s always stuck with us, that was just really weird (Squiers: yeah), just the whole energy that morning, um, but yeah then, then he walked out the door that morning and that was the last time we saw him, we didn’t even get to see the finished piece of his tattoo or, um, anything like that, so.
So, it was really, yeah really tragic, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time (Squiers: mmm), um, I just remember sitting through his criminal trial, his, um, the court case with my mum and my grandfather. Mum didn’t want me there but I begged her and begged her to let me be there next to her and, um, just, I wasn’t there for the whole duration of the trial ( Squiers: yeah), but just to be there to support her and to be by her side, um, which was.
SQUIERS: How old were you there?
PENITANI: I was twelve, um, sitting through my dad’s murder trial, which was, it was confronting but (Squiers: mmm), um, I needed it, I felt like as though I needed to be there and to see the other guy’s face and just to know that my mum had my support (Squiers: mmm) and that I was there for her, um, yeah that was really, really hard and, and to watch the footage as well my mum. My mum didn’t let me watch all of the footage that was on screen from the CCTV cameras but (Squiers: there was footage?). Yeah, there were footage, yeah (Squiers: that’s rough), she didn’t let me watch all of it, but just for me to, to understand what the story was (Squiers: mmm) and what had happened as well just for my own self to be able to process that and not always be sitting there wondering what happened because I was too young to know (Squiers: mmm). That was, yeah, that was bittersweet almost, I had a little bit of closure and to see what had happened.
SQUIERS: Did it help at doing that?
PENITANI: Yeah at little bits, just for my, just for myself rather than having to ask my mum and for my mum having, having to explain in detail what had happened (Squiers: mmm), and I think it was really important for me. Not so much for my younger sister, um, but yeah just for me to be able to understand and, and piece a timeline together as to what happened and, was he in the wrong place at the wrong time (Squiers: mmm), did he know, um, the offender, no he didn’t, he didn’t know him at all. Yeah, so, it was tough.
SQUIERS: And he was, um, he was shot as well (Penitani: mmm), was there justice at the end of that, at the end of that murder trial?
PENITANI: Yeah there was, the guy who did it, um, was obviously found guilty of murder, um, and was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, um, and I think it was nineteen years without parole (Squiers: mmm). Um, I think the biggest thing for my mum though was just thinking about my little brother growing up and not wanting to grow up with hatred and, and go looking for revenge (Squiers: mmm) or just, just be full of hatred in that way. So, yeah, so, so for him to get that sentence was, um, really positive for my family even though no amount of time in prison is ever going to compensate for the loss (Squiers: yeah) that he caused but, um, yeah, we moved beyond that now, I think we passed that.
SQUIERS: I can’t imagine going through that (Penitani: yeah), you’ve always struck as such a mature person (Penitani: thank you), were you always like that or was it as a result of, you think, losing your dad really forced you to grow up? (Penitani: yeah) And look at life differently.
PENITANI: Yeah. I, um, I put it down to, to losing dad and in the circumstances that we lost dad so suddenly as well. So, um, almost everyone that I meet says the same thing and, and especially when I was like at school, they’d say, ‘you’re so mature, you’re so world beyond your years and rah rah rah’, but yeah I was forced to grow up at the age of twelve. I was mum’s right-hand woman and, um, did my best to help mum in any way that I could and yeah almost raised the other three with her (Squiers: yeah). Um, and it’s funny I, I look at my little siblings like they’re my own little children, um, (Squiers: are they?) especially like the two younger ones (Squiers: yeah). Yeah, so my, so my sister who’s under me we’re best friends, um, so close and my little brother (Squiers: mmm) and my, um, baby sister are definitely like, like my, my little two little kids (laughs), I treat them like they are and, and they look up to me more like a second mum and a big sister that they would probably argue and fight with it’s, it’s not that kind of relationship.
SQUIERS: You said that you lost your love of sport and you just, from someone who’s so passionate about the game (Penitani: mmm). How did you rediscover that love, how long did it take and how did you go about that?
PENITANI: It’s really hard for me to think, to think that far back because after dad had passed there was a period of time, whether it was eighteen months to two years where everything just went numb (Squiers: mmm) and we forget a lot of what had happened twelve to twenty-four months after he passed (Squiers: mmm). Just because it. Was the process of grieving as well, um, that said it’s a very common thing to go numb (Squiers: mmm) and to blank out and completely forget what had happened. So, for me it is hard to remember why I lost the love for it but I think it was just that like that, the family had just been broken pretty much (Squiers: mmm), a massive me and a massive part of my family had just been torn from us, um, and sport was the, the last thing on my mind(Squiers: mmm).
You have, to be able to play competitive sport and to participate in competitive sport you’ve got to be motivated, you’ve got to be driven, you’ve got to be excited and I lost all of that (Squiers: mmm). Um, and that was a one-hundred percent due to the fact that I had just lost my dad.
SQUIERS: Mmm, how did you find that love again?
PENITANI: Yeah, um, good question. I think as we, as we started to pick things up and, um, we were doing well and mum had us in a really good routine, um, I think that’s when I started to play a little bit of sport back at school again and I had, I missed it, I missed being on the track (Squiers: mmm). And, um, I came out of like the, the dark hole that I felt like I was in and, um, I could kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel again and I eventually missed playing sport, it was such a big, um, it played such a big role in my life leading up until that point and, um, I knew eventually I would get back into playing sport, um, but I just went through a period where I didn’t want a bar of it. (laughs)
SQUIERS: Your mum, you’ve talked about her and just what, how incredible a woman she is (Penitani: mmm) and overnight becoming a single mum with four kids and not giving up and (Penitani: yeah) just raising four incredible kids, did she play kind some of role and what kind of role has she then played in your sporting career?
PENITANI: She has played a massive role, um, like people often ask me, um, just as a, as a sporting person like who’s your, who’s your idol, um, and I don’t really refer to, um, other athletes as being my idol, it’s definitely my mum (Squiers: mmm). She’s, she played such, she has and, and still does play such a crucial role in my life and it, it was definitely her who, um, that had pushed me to, to get me back into, into playing sport and, um, to be excelling in, in my academics at school again and it was, it was just her outlook on life and she’s just a tough woman and she’s has been through so much in life that she just, I remember she said to my sister and I when we were younger, ‘do you want to be a victim your whole life, do you want to hold out a victim card and sit there feeling sorry for yourself or do you want to reach your full potential and do you want to be successful and do you want to pursue your dreams’ and just gave us that whole chat and (Squiers: wow) that was a big turning point so, because it and it just still rings in my ears just, ‘do you want to be a victim, you can hold out the victim card and you can feel sorry for yourself or you can go the complete opposite direction and you can use what’s happened to you as a springboard (Squiers: mmm) to spring you into success, you’re resilient, you kids have learnt some life skills at a really, at a really young age, um, (Squiers: mmm) that most adults don’t learn until later on in life, um, and you can use that to your advantage’.
And that’s, yeah, in a nutshell that’s basically how she raised us. Um, with tough love most of the time (laughs), um, and you have to, she’s, you’re raising four hard-headed strong-willed children on your own, um, but we definitely get that from her. So, yeah, she’s had a massive influence in my life and still does to this day.
SQUIERS: You represented Australia for Rugby Sevens when you were Seventeen, you’re the youngest person to represent Australia in a Senior Rugby Team, how did you handle the pressure that came with that?
PENITANI: Yeah it was tough at the time especially, um, with how quickly things had happened for me so, just to give a quick rundown of how it happened (Squiers: mmm).
Um, as I said previously I came through the schoolgirls pathway so there was a NSW team selected to compete, um, at the inaugural Australian Schoolgirls Championships (Squiers: mmm) and then it was then that a handful of girls that the, the Australian coaches had selected were invited to play at the Youth Olympic Festival in 2014, actually no I think it was 2013. And then off the back of that, there were another selected few that were invited to train with the Open Women’s squad.
Um, and I went to my first camp on, on the Gold Coast, um, just looking to gain an abundance of experience and just completely star-struck there was the, the Men’s Sevens team, the Women’s Sevens (Squiers: mmm) team. And we were just like, we’d researched these players and we’d like followed these players (laughs) and like ‘oh my gosh, this is crazy that we’re training alongside them, you know, they’re so fit (Squiers: mmm), they’re so athletic’.
There were a couple of big injuries in the team (Squiers: mmm), um, one of the girls, I can’t remember what one, one of the injuries were but, um, another one of the girls had torn her ACL in camp and they were preparing to go over to China and Hong Kong to compete on the World Series and obviously the, the Sevens World Cup was later on in the year so they were looking at finalising their squads for the, for the World Cup.
Um, and the head coach had pulled me aside and had said to me ‘Tiana I want to, I just want to have a quick chat with you, what would your, what you would think of potentially debuting for Australia in a couple of weeks?’ (laughs) And I was just, my jaw just dropped to the ground and I was like ‘oh, are you serious?’ (laughs)
He was like ‘yeah absolutely, we want you, we want you to tour, tour with us and, um, we think that you’re the perfect candidate and yeah we’re really impressed with how your year’s gone’ and everything a coach says (Squiers: mmm), when they’re about to hand you a debut, so, um, I was over the moon, completely rapt, so excited (Squiers: mmm). But from that point it was just gun ho throughout the year, so, I went over and competed, made my debut, had competed in London and Amsterdam and also later on that year at the World Cup, which was really exciting for me (Squiers: mmm).
My teammates didn’t treat me like I was a seventeen-year-old and the opposition certainly didn’t treat me like I was a seventeen-year-old (laughs), (Squiers: take it easy) they didn’t go at my lightly, so yeah there was a little bit of weight on my shoulders being the youngest, um, and I suffered a big injury at the Sevens World Cup as well. Um, which was really tough for me, um, to be able to swallow at the age of seventeen.
SQUIERS: After scoring six tries in the tournament (laughs) I’ll just say that and then that injury, but yeah, your first major injury.
PENITANI: Yeah, yeah first major injury there so, a lot had happened in that year and I had torn my ACL, I had completely ruptured my ACL after Sevens World Cup, um, that was just shattering for us because that was in the Quarter Final, um, and that was the first half of the Quarter Final and then we lost that Quarter Final to be knocked out of the World Cup, so, yeah that was a really tough tournament (Squiers: mmm), bittersweet to be playing there and to be the youngest player there, it was so exciting for me and then off the back of that suffered (Squiers: mmm) a massive injury that took me out of the game for thirteen months, so.
SQUIERS: 2016 Rio Olympics that is what everyone dreamt of (Penitani: mmm), that was what, Rugby Sevens was going to make its debut, Women’s Rugby was going to be on such an incredible stage, a global stage to really put women in the game, in the spotlight (Penitani: yeah). How big a moment was that going to be for you, being involved in the game and the lead up to that?
PENITANI: Yeah, through my whole sporting life, um, I had aspired to eventually one day go to an Olympic Games, so, um, the sole decision as to why I made the transition over to Rugby Sevens from the track was to potentially get a shot of that, a little bit earlier than what I maybe would have on the track. So, I’d based, all of us had based our whole Sevens career around getting to the Olympics (Squiers: mmm) and all of us were fighting for a position to be in that twelve to go to the Olympics.
So, yeah the preparation was intense, it was really hard, there were a lot of sacrifices that were made, um, for some of the senior players having to leave their full-time jobs, take a big pay-cut to be able to be centralised and move interstate, um, to be based in Sydney (Squiers: mmm). And then there was young schoolgirls like me that were, you know, given an opportunity fresh out of school, missed that whole transition period of, you know, going to uni full-time, potentially having a gap year and going and (Squiers: mmm), you know, experiencing a bit of the world and, and growing up in that sense so it was just, yeah, it was full steam ahead for, for a few years leading into the 2016 Rio Olympics. Um, and then for me it was just tragic. (laughs)
Um, yeah I just, struggling with injury and, um, I was supposed to be travelling over as the first reserve at the Rio Olympics and we’d been in Heat Camp up in Darwin and we’d been preparing and preparing and I was struggling with, um, a niggling injury I had after second ACL reconstruction I (laughs) had a little bit of cartilage, loose cartilage that was floating around in my knee (Squiers: mmm) and because it was so close to the Olympics, it was about a six to eight week recovery time, I didn’t want to go straight in, um, and take the piece of cartilage out, um, because it would have left me no time to (Squiers: recover) get my fitness back up (Squiers: mmm). Yeah, I would have been fresh out of rehab, straight into Rio and I just couldn’t take that risk so, um, it is an injury sometimes you can manage (Squiers: mmm). So, we did try to manage it, um, all the way up leading into, um, the week before the team was scheduled to leave, which was about two-and-a-half weeks before competition and the doctor needed to make a call so I had my last medical and I was walking in there crying because I knew (Squiers: mmm), I knew what the answer was going to be. I did all my tests and at that point my capabilities were (Squiers: mmm) just going downhill I, I just couldn’t, I couldn’t even run, I could barely even bend my knee at that point (Squiers: mmm), um, just trying to manage that injury.
So, I went in and saw the doc and he just looked at me and he said, ‘I’m so sorry, you know what the answer is, um, you’re not going to make it’. And I just, yeah I was in tears, I was heartbroken, um, it was a really, really hard pill to swallow, um, the fact that you’ve just made so much sacrifice and worked so hard especially behind the scenes (Squiers: mmm), you know, you’ve got to do all these little extra things, you know, icing after training and doing extra stretch, stretch sessions and, um, extra skill sessions, you know we really ramped up training a year leading into the Olympics. So, yeah to, to be part of that and then to have that cut short so abruptly was just shattering for me, yeah. I was only twenty at the time, um, and that was really, really hard for me to get my head around the fact that all of that hard work kind of, it meant nothing.
SQUIERS: How did you cope because you were the star of the team, you’re like the teen sensation (laughs), there was always the media around Tiana, so much expectation and everything you’ve worked for like you said (Penitani; mmm), how then did you cope with that disappointment?
PENITANI: Um, I, I really struggled if I’m being completely honest with you, um, I just, I felt like I lost a sense of purpose (Squiers: mmm). Um, and as a personality trait naturally I’m, I can be really harsh on myself and a really hard internal critic (Squiers: mmm) and I’ve done a lot of work, um, just with mindfulness and, um, speaking with sports psychologists (Squiers: mmm) on just loosing those reins, um, and I, I, I, most professionals athletes can say the same thing (Squiers: mmm), that they’re really hard on themselves, um, sometimes to a point where it’s not healthy. (Squiers: mmm) Um, and, you know, to place yourself under so much, such high expectations and then not achieve them and fall short the way I did, um, I didn’t really prepare myself for what was to come afterwards, after the-.
SQUIERS: You don’t, though do you? (Penitani: no) Because that’s almost like having a plan B (Penitani: exactly right) and you only want Plan A, right?
PENITANI: Exactly right, yeah (Squiers: yeah) and that’s how I looked at things, I’m not going to prepare myself for that because I’m going (Squiers: yeah), I’m going to the Olympics, I’m going to win Gold and that’s, that’s the mindset you’ve got to be in (Squiers: mmm). After that I asked my Head Coach just for some extra time off (Squiers: mmm), um, I just needed some, some extra time away.
Yeah, I reached really low point, um, not to delve too far into it but, um, I was diagnosed with severe depression and, um, anxiety and worked really closely with, um, a psychologist outside of, um, sports psychology (Squiers: mmm) and psychology, so just a clinical psychologist, just to help me get through that, that period and I think what made it really hard for me to deal with was the fact my family was living in Queensland. So, I was living in Sydney by myself (Squiers: mmm), just really struggled to, to deal with that and to process it all and came out of, came out of that and played another season with Sevens and it was throughout that twelve months and that season that I’d lost a little bit of motivation to be there and to be able to maintain such a high level and such intensity, it’s so physically and mentally taxing (Squiers: mmm) on the body, Sevens, the game Sevens is such an intense sport. Um, and to be able to maintain that with the best in the game is really difficult and you’ve got to be, be able to switch on and be there and be present (Squiers: mmm) and put in one hundred and fifty percent (Squiers: mmm) into everything into every day and I just felt like I wasn’t there anymore.
Pre-Olympics, there were days where I’d go to training and I was ready to smash goals and smash PBs and just wanted to get fitter, faster and stronger and had that mindset. And then it was during the twelve months after the Olympics that I’d, I felt like I’d fallen off the wheel a little bit (Squiers: mmm) and I just didn’t want to be there for the same reasons and some days I really struggled to get out of bed to go to training (Squiers: mmm) and the fact that I was in that, that headspace and I didn’t care (Squiers: mmm), um, and there was just that, I was, felt like I was absent, um, mentally I just, yeah, that was a really big decision for me to have to make. But I came to the decision twelve months later, um, after that season and stayed in Europe after our last leg in France.
SQUIERS: In the World Series?
PENITANI: In the World Series (Squiers: mmm) yeah, so, so played our last tournament in France and stayed over there with, um, a couple of really good friends in the team and yeah had a really long hard think about what I wanted to do and when I came back, um, from Europe and, um, the girls were ready to go back into pre-season I, um, organised a meeting with my Head Coach and, um, asked for a release from my contract, um, and resigned from, from the sport altogether.
SQUIERS: Who did you lean on for support when you had to make such a massive decision like that?
PENITANI: Yeah, my fiancé and my mum (Squiers: mmm). So, um, my partner Aaron and, um, my family I went back up to the sunny coast and spent a few weeks up there just with them to switch off from the rest of the world and trying to process the decision that I’d made (Squiers: mmm). I knew it was the right decision at the time (Squiers: mmm), um, but yeah, my mum and my family and my partner were really big support throughout that period.
SQUIERS: When the Olympics were on did you have any inkling that, that was the decision you were going to make twelve months later?
PENITANI: No, not, not during the Olympic Games (Squiers: mmm), um, I, I was actually in the mindset, I was trying to stay positive. Um, it was bittersweet because I was so over the moon for the girls that were over there, um, and that had won Gold in Rio and I was doing a lot of media coverage back here with, um, Fox Sports (Squiers: mmm), um, so I was still somewhat involved, um, throughout that whole two-and-a-half weeks and I was trying to tell myself ‘you’re so young, you know, you’re only twenty, you’ve got the next Olympics, you’ll be twenty-four’ and.
SQUIERS: That’s what everybody would have been telling you.
PENITANI: Yeah, exactly and it wasn’t the end of the world, but once, um, everything had settled after the Olympics that’s when, that’s when I’d, I’d kind of fallen into a bit of a rut and, um, that, there was a, a couple of weeks or a few months later that I’d started to have those thoughts and ‘is this what I really want to do?’ (Squiers: mmm) and ‘can I go through it again, another four years? Do I want to stay in the sport? Do I love the sport like I used to? Do I want to be here for the same reasons that I’d, that I’d once did?’
And I wasn’t sure if it was just me feeling a little bit sorry for myself or whether it was genuinely me, like making, wanting (Squiers: transitioning out) and wanting, wanting out, yeah. Um, that’s why I, why I stuck it out for another season, and it was at the back of that season that I was one hundred percent set on the decision that I had made.
SQUIERS: Because it was all working up towards that point whether women and the men and rugby was going to be played at the Olympics for the first time. 2016 (Penitani: mmm) was just such a big year for the game, for Sevens (Penitani: yeah). And you described it as bittersweet (Penitani: mmm), watching that Final. Where were you when you watched the girls win Gold, because I know you want to say ‘it was bittersweet, and I want to support the girls’ (laughs). It would have been crushing as well, Tiana.
PENITANI: Yeah, yeah it was, look I was over the moon for them, um, I know how hard all of us in the squad had worked (Squiers: mmm) to reach that goal and we’d obviously had chats throughout the year saying, you know, ‘not everyone in this room is going to be there on the field (Squiers: mmm) and to be able to put a Gold medal around their neck when we do win the Gold medal’, um, so we’d all been prepared for that. Um, whether it was going to be me there or me not there, um, I tried to mentally prepare myself for that, but under the circumstances that they were and not even being able to travel as a reserve, um, and just to be there in Rio (Squiers: mmm) and to be among the atmosphere was just really hard, hard for me to be back at home.
I remember I was in the car on the way to Fox Sports because I had, um, I had a little bit of work to do with them just after the girls had won. So, I was driving, and I had the livestream on my phone and I was just, I had it connected to my Bluetooth so I was just listening and I was over the moon but, but like I said to not be over there and to be able to just celebrate with the team (Squiers: mmm), um, yeah it was really tough, it was tough for me. But I tried to distract myself with all of the media hype after, like after it (Squiers: sure) and once that all died down that’s when I, I kind of hit rock bottom.
SQUIERS: You took eighteen months off playing rugby (Penitani: mmm), did you miss it in that time?
PENITANI: Um, I missed living the dream job, my whole life I wanted to be a professional athlete and I had the dream job for five-and-a-half years. And every day we’d, I used to just wake up and pinch myself and I’d have all of my friends that were working normal jobs or studying at uni were like ‘oh my gosh, you live the dream, you just get to keep fit and run around in the sun and play footy for a living and’.
SQUIERS: They make it sound so easy. (laughs)
PENITANI: They do make it sound easy and I, I, don’t worry I, I, I did touch them up on it, I was like ‘hey guys, it’s actually really, really hard’ (laughs). Um, but no, I, I was definitely appreciative of the fact that, um, I had an opportunity to be able to live that full-time and to be a professional athlete so I, I miss that aspect, aspect of it. But in saying that, I didn’t (Squiers: mmm), like I, I, I just missed the lifestyle, but I was at a point where I was so emotionally and mentally fatigued (Squiers: mmm), um, that I just needed a break from, from it altogether. Um, going from full-time and full-time training and just living and breathing rugby, yeah, I, I made the decision that I did for a reason and it was a, I’m a, I’m a massive over-thinker (laughs) so it was a very, very long twelve months that I’d thought about it, um, and I was just really happy to get some normalcy back into my life (Squiers: mmm).
And just go and work, work a normal job and pursue my studies part-time and, um, be able to just, just appreciate the little things that I didn’t really have while I was a professional athlete. Even just to go out on the weekend and just go and have drinks with the girls (laughs), just those little things, you know, um, that most people wouldn’t really think about.
SQUIERS: But how did you then come to be playing NRL and when, and how did you know that you were ready to get back into it?
PENITANI: Yeah. Well I, um, my fiancé was with the Cronulla Sharks and we’d watch the, the first season of the, the WNRL and watched the Origin and, and just to see the hype around that and how much support the NRL and the media had just pushed into promoting that and that was really the first time that I’d noticed rugby league again.
SQUIERS: Even though your fiancé played for the Sharks? (laughs)
PENITANI: No, no, no, no, no, yeah, yeah, I was his supporter for forever (laughs). But that’s completely different, more so for the women just to see how exciting the women’s game looked and, um, to see just the level of football that they were playing and just to see the way it was broadcast and that was probably what triggered a little something in me. And, um, I remember I’d spoken to him about it, and I was like ‘I’m not sure what I want to do and whether I want to start rugby league potentially or just get back into playing competitive tag and’ (Squiers: mmm), which I did, um, but playing Oztag is something and then playing rugby league or rugby union is something else (Squiers: yeah), just that well-rounded like in that physicality you’ve got, um, just the intensity of the game. I, I don’t know, I just get so much more out of playing a, a, a physical sport.
SQUIERS: Your face has just lit up, (laughs) just talking about, talking about the physicality of it.
PENITANI: Yeah, I just, you, I just love it, there’s so much at, at risk and I don’t know why like I just love that. (laughs) You get so much adrenalin out of it, um, but yeah I remember I’d spoken to him, I was kind of, umming and ahhing and I was like ‘but is it weird you’re playing rugby league and if I start playing rugby league’, I had that (Squiers: mmm), yeah, yeah I had that in my mind.
He was the complete opposite he was like ‘don’t be stupid (laughs) like don’t let that be the reason why you don’t want to play because you don’t want to kind of step into my bubble’ he’s like ‘I’m completely one and, one hundred and ten percent supportive of whatever decision you want to make’, he’s like ‘I, to be honest I love watching you play Sevens and I’d love you to get back into it (Squiers: that’s nice) but it, it’s gotta be a decision coming from you’.
So, it was his off-season that, um, we had a, a farewell party for a couple of his teammates that were, um, going over to the UK and I ran into a couple of girls that I played, um, touch footy with at school and they were playing for the Cronulla Sharks and got chatting to them. And they were like ‘T, what are, what are you doing, you’re playing footy or’ and then I said to them, ‘no I’m not but I’m, I’m think I’m, you know, getting the angst here (laughs), I want to get back into it but I don’t know which, I don’t know where to go or which avenue to take’.
And they were, straight away they jumped onto it, they were just like ‘come and play for the Sharks, we’re about to start pre-season, um, I’ll put your name down for, um, just for an Expression of Interest’.
Yeah, it all just went from there, I went to the first, um, Trial Day or Training Day which was where we had testing and everything and this was, loved the club culture, um, loved the coach, loved the playing group and did a full pre-season with them and then that led me to a season in 2019 and the rest is history. It was such a big year for me, so yeah.
SQUIERS: It was a massive year.
PENITANI: Yeah, yeah but I, I haven’t looked back it was best decision I made to, um, yeah to start playing rugby league. I was definitely looking for another challenge at that point and I found rugby league and now I’m, I’m so happy with the decision that I’ve made.
SQUIERS: We talk about that rapid rise in NRL and given your Rugby Sevens background it’s no surprise, but for those who don’t know, you play of course in NRLW with the Dragons, you made your State of Origin debut for the Blues (Penitani: mmm) and then you won the Women’s State of Origin as well, um, and then selected for the Jillaroos and then you’re pulling on the green and gold for yet another sport, the third sport after Athletics and Rugby Sevens and then now Rugby League. Would you say it has helped you reignite your love for the footy, for elite sport because of all of that as well now. Have you definitely closed the door to rugby?
PENITANI: Yeah, yeah, I have. I’m so happy with the decision that I made to play rugby league. I didn’t know that I would like it as much as I have, as I’ve said, I just wanted to get back into playing competitive footy and I almost expected it to be really similar to what rugby union was and, um, what I had experienced playing Sevens.
But just with how different the, just the people in the game are really, really different and they do things differently and going into team camp it’s all different to what I’d experienced and I don’t know how to explain how, um, why it’s different but it just feels different and (Squiers: mmm) maybe it’s because I’m new to the game and, um, I’ve stepped into an environment that I’m not used to being a part of. Um, and yeah it, it definitely has ignited something in me, a, once again and I’m, I’m really grateful for the fact that I’ve, that I’ve found rugby league and that it’s ignited a passion that I thought I once lost for football and I’m just really excited to see what the future holds for me in rugby league.
SQUIERS: How have you found the support for Women’s Rugby League different from support for Women’s Rugby Sevens?
PENITANI: Yeah well I guess we were the trailblazers (Squiers: mmm) when, when I was playing Rugby Sevens so the, the early years of Sevens we struggled to gain a lot of support, we had the support from the ARU (Squiers: mmm), and, um, media outlets like Fox Sports, um, were doing their best for us like, yeah to gain that one hundred percent support into pushing us to become full-time athletes was really tough, but I feel like the support that I’ve felt, um, so far from the NRL and um, the media that supports, um, women’s NRL is, um, has been amazing.
SQUIERS: NRLW’s only been going for, since 2018 so you are still a trailblazer (Penitani: yeah) within the NRL in the professional setup, but what kind of impact do you see that happening on little girls?
PENITANI: Um, (Squiers: and little boys as well), yeah, yeah, I was just about to, to touch on that (Squiers: mmm), so particularly for me last year, um, I was taken aback by the amount of support at the Origin game. (Squiers: mmm). So, at North Sydney Oval, we had a stand-alone Origin match, um, and just to see the amount of little girls running around in their favourite jerseys and just going absolutely nuts at the fact that we were there, um, and that they were there to watch us and, but also the amount of little boys that there was as well, um, you know, asking, asking for autographs. And same, same with the Test later on in the year, um, we did the lap around, um, WIN Stadium and just to have these little, these young boys, like some of them were the same age as my brother and my little sister and to have them looking up to us as the players and not only our male counterparts but, um, us too was just, it was so special to see.
And I think moving forward I feel really privileged to be in a position, um, to be a role model for, for the next-gen and that’s definitely something we as players always have at the forefront of our minds is ‘everything we do now and all of the work that we do now, it is going to benefit them’ (Squiers: mmm) and I think that’s so satisfying to just think about that. We might not have everything, um, at the moment and we might not be completely professional at the moment but everything that we’re doing is to take a step in that direction to, you know, pave the pathway for those younger players coming through, that will eventually have the opportunities that we have and more.
SQUIERS: I love it with the little boys as well because (Penitani: yeah) they don’t see a male athlete or a female athlete they just see an elite athlete (Penitani: yeah) and I think that, yeah there’s going to be ripples in that we’re going to see that in future generations and the effect it has later on as well. And you’re at the heart of it now Tiana.
We finish off by asking our guest, what advice with everything you’ve been through, what advice would you give that ten-year-old self, which in your case is a very interesting time (Penitani: mmm) to be giving advice to yourself before everything changes?
PENITANI: Yeah, um, I think just to keep it plain and simple. For me, the advice that I’d give to, to my ten-year-old self would just be ‘to not lose the love for what you do and when you do it’s okay and (Squiers: mmm) don’t be so hard on yourself and just shoot for the moon, you’ve got so much talent, um, and so many capabilities that whatever you put your mind to you’ll be successful at, so, dream big’.
SQUIERS: Dream big and living big as well, Tiana thank you so much for coming on On Her Game. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.
PENITANI: Thank you so much for having me, it’s been a pleasure.
SQUIERS: On her game is presented by me, Sam Squiers and produced in collaboration with Podcast One Australia, Producer Lindsey Penitani, Audio Producer Darcy Thompson, Executive Producer, Jennifer Goggin. For more episodes, head to podcastoneaustralia.com.au download the free Podcast One Australia app or search on On Her Game podcasts.
Transcribed by Nadine Maraldo www.gossipcom.com