IT was unsparing and hit Michelle Jenneke for six.
Australian track and field head coach Craig Hilliard didn’t mince words over the hurdler’s poor showing at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, saying she arrived out of shape.
And when Jenneke alluded that athletics wasn’t her main priority after she failed to make it beyond the heats of the 100m hurdles at her first Olympics, Hilliard questioned her worthiness for Athletics Australia funding.
“It’s simple. If you are going to be half-baked at doing something, why are we investing in you? I can’t justify that,” Hilliard said in a post-Games review.
“Yeah, I was a little blindsided by it,” Jenneke says reflectively.
VICTORY LAP!:Susie O’Neill’s act of rebellion
CONFIDENCE:Cate Campbell’s impressive return
CHALMERS: Swim star’s unusual obsession
“It was interesting at the time, especially since he hadn’t made any of these comments directly to me.
“But it’s something that happens in the sport. You’ve got to deal with the situation. Obviously I talked to him and voiced my concerns, and we move on.
“We still have to communicate with each other with him still head coach…but I don’t actually have that much to do with him on a day-to-day basis.”
The Games were in August 2016. Two months later, the Sydneysider dubbed “Jiggling Jenneke” was cut off financially by the nation’s peak athletics body. She has not received a cent since.
But four weeks out from the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, the 24-year-old is upbeat and self-assured.
“I’m feeling confident…it’s looking really promising,” she says. “My coach is really happy.
With all eyes on Jenneke on home soil, she’s throwing off any pressure to redeem herself from Rio. And while she’s changed her coach and reduced travel since then, she “won’t be approaching Comm Games any differently to any other major international comp I’ve been to,” she says matter of factly.
She is, however, looking forward to hearing the roar of home-ground support to help spur her on.
“The thought that I might get to compete in front of a home crowd has been something that’s really motivated me to definitely want to be on that start line and compete well.
“I’ve never competed for Australia on home soil. When you go to other countries and see the host nation cheer their athletes out on the track and how much they really get behind them, it’d be absolutely amazing to be an Australian and have the whole crowd cheering for you. Australians love their sport.”
That love takes in Queensland-based Sally Pearson – Jenneke’s main rival who has overcome a spate of injuries and is one of the fastest 100m hurdlers in history having won Olympic gold in 2012.
How driven is Jenneke to be the green and gold’s top hurdler?
“Becoming number one is a pretty tough ask,” she laments. “Going up against Sally, she’s an incredible athlete. She’s the current world champion. But honestly, for me all I want to do is run as fast as I possibly can. I’m not really thinking about trying to beat Sally or trying to run as fast as she does. I really love racing against her and I think when I do it helps push me to faster times. People say, “It kinda sucks that you’re in the same race as her’ but I always say ‘No, it’s incredible’. It’s helped me be a better athlete.”
While Jenneke might not be a household name based on her athletic success alone, mention her in the context of her pre-race dance and internet sensation and recognition is likely to be instant.
She’s been compared by more than one commentator to Anna Kournikova, the former Russian tennis player who shot to fame for her model looks rather than her on-court success, earning more from sponsors than prizemoney.
On the back of her energetic pre-race bouncing, Jenneke has landed high-profile sponsorship deals and modelling jobs including appearing in Sports Illustrated magazine.
These days, Puma supplies her sportswear and she’s just signed on with Blistex lip balm to be its Commonwealth Games brand ambassador.
Clive Addison, CEO Key Pharmaceuticals which distributes Blistex, calls Jenneke an influential young Australian. The fact she genuinely uses the product is a bonus.
“Michelle’s an inspirational role model to so many, balancing her life between training as an Olympic athlete and a mechatronic engineering student,” he says.
It’s not the first time Jenneke has gone into an international competition with a sponsorship deal under her belt.
As part of Coca-Cola’s global Rio Olympic campaign, she was plastered on massive billboards around the streets of Brazil and appeared on a commercial _ secretly filmed in Barcelona _ performing her hip-wiggling dance. The lucrative deal made her the most visible member of the 60-strong Aussie athletics team in Rio.
When her Olympic results failed to impress, Hilliard commented: “It would be easy to suggest that (outside distractions) was possibly a scenario.”
But Jenneke has zero regrets about doing the campaign for the drinks giant.
“It was a really good experience for me. I got a lot of media exposure out of it, which was really good. And I think I only copped criticism because I didn’t compete as well in Rio as I wouldn’t have liked and as other people would have liked. There were circumstances out of my control.”
She attributes travel and sustaining an injury at a pre-Games training camp in Florida on a “fast and hard track” for her lacklustre results.
“You try and make your body as durable as it can be but we’re not superhuman. It happens and I did what I could. Things don’t always go to plan.”
She looks back of the furore as a learning experience, though still isn’t sure why people are so keen to stick the boots in.
“I’m not sure what it is about me,” she says.
“It was tough at the time…but in the end it doesn’t have that much of an impact. My family and those around me know what the situation was and know what sort of person I am.”
Jenneke maintains the dance is purely to psych herself up for a race, not draw attention to herself.
“I’ve done it for years before anyone knew or cared who I was,” she said.
It started in 2009 _ when she was 16 _ and quickly became something of a good-luck charm.
“I was at lining up for a race and I was really flat and wasn’t feeling up to it but just thought it doesn’t really matter, I’m just going to go and have a good time.
“They started playing music on the track and I just started doing this little jig before I ran. …I actually did really well, and started doing (the dance) a bit more. I found it really helped me get into good mental shape before a race so I kept going with it.”
After footage of her dancing during at the 2012 World Junior Championships in Barcelona went viral, Jenneke became an internet hit, with You Tube clips of her dancing attraction
millions of views and was shown on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the US.
Her fame has also lead to her turning down requests to appear on Channel 10’s jungle reality show I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! and stave off unwanted attention, like being asked to do her dance by strangers in the street or in cafes while out with friends, or being at the centre of breast enlargement rumours.
“That was probably the weirdest thing I’ve read about myself. No, not true. I’m not sure when people think I had time to get a boob job.”
Does she mind being more well-known for bouncy dancing than hurdling?
“It is what it is,” she shrugs.
“In athletics, it’s hard to make a name for yourself so having that exposure’s been really good. “I’ve been fortunate. When the video first came out, I was still a junior athlete so it makes sense that no one really knew about my athletic achievements. As the years have gone on, I’ve made more international teams and run a bit faster so I feel there’s more people who do recognise my athletic achievements as well.”
Jenneke has another lesser-known pre-race ritual that one day may attract sponsors. Before a big meet, she’ll satisfy her sweet tooth with a Nutella sandwich.
“I have a theory that if I’m happy and I feel good, I’ll run well,” she explains. “I’m generally pretty good with my diet and very strict in the lead up to competitions, and Nutella’s a favourite of mine, but I won’t have it for months so I always pack myself a Nutella sandwich when I go out to warm up and right before I’ll have a sandwich as a bit of an energy burst.”