With such a positive attitude and exceptional maturity, and already having achieved so much in the world of Rugby, it’s hard to believe Australian Women’s Rugby Sevens player Tiana Penitani is still only 20 years old.
While so many people of the same age are deciding where they’d like to go out on the weekend, Penitani is instead focused on injury rehabilitation to ensure she can fight back into the Australian side after missing out on the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where her teammates won the sport’s inaugural Gold Medal.
RUPA caught up with Tiana to find out more about what it’s like being such a young professional athlete, to hear about her career ambitions away from the field, to find out how her rehab is tracking as she looks to return from injury, how she coped with the heartbreak of missing the Olympics and finally how she balances a social life with training and tournaments.
Firstly, off the field, and Australia’s Rugby fans would be well aware that Penitani has frequently appeared on FOX Sports and become a valued contributor to both Rugby HQ and, more recently, The Other Rugby Show.
Penitani enjoys the opportunity to shine in front of the camera, and admits it’s a field she’d definitely consider pursuing after Rugby.
“Being a professional athlete, you’ve always got to have a plan B,” she says. “Having so much media exposure through the Rugby Sevens program, I’ve come to take a liking to media and working in sports media, so I definitely do aspire to be a sports personality in front of the camera. I’ve had a bit of a head start working with FOX Sports at the moment, so I’ve been really lucky.”
Not only has her time at FOX Sports allowed for some incredible experiences, but it has also given her a greater understanding of television production, an area of interest for her future career.
“We went away to Perisher with The Other Rugby Show, and I’d only ever seen the snow once so filming down there was great. It als gave me a good insight into behind the scenes of how TV is really made. Usually, I just come into the studio and pre-record a few things or come onto a live show, so that was really interesting to be away with the crew and see all the work and editing for the first time. It was a great learning experience for me.”
After working with her on The Cup Runneth Over (2015) and Call of the Wallabies (2014), The Other Rugby Show host Sean Maloney is adamant that Penitani has definite potential in the television world.
“Tiana has absolutely exploded as a media talent, and as she’s such a quick learner and can take on feedback there’s no limit to how far she can go,” Maloney said.
After continually impressing FOX Sports bosses with her presenting ability and also her positive attitude, Penitani was invited along with Maloney, George Gregan and Stephen Hoiles to see Fiji Rugby Sevens star Semi Kunatani return home to his village with his new Olympic Gold Medal.
“As we got off the speedboat, Semi mentioned he hadn’t actually been back home to his village yet,” she said. “He told us to get ready for it because it was going to be a massive emotional roller coaster, and it was!
“It was really special and it was quite eye opening to see where he comes from compared to where we come from as Australians, and it really put everything into perspective. It just brought you back down to earth a bit and it was also quite humbling. It was an incredible experience and I’m really grateful that I got to share that with him.”
This media experience is incredibly useful to Penitani, especially as of next year, where she will commence her tertiary study at the University of Technology Sydney, undertaking a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism
With the help of RUPA, Tiana has also had the opportunity to complete some alternate education and training in 2016.
“I was really fortunate to complete the Advanced Diploma of Business Management that RUPA organised for those who were interested in the Rugby Sevens programs,” she said. “(RUPA Rugby Sevens Payer Development Manager) Gina Rees is great support for us and she explained that it’s quite beneficial for me to have a big focus away from training, and that’s why I’m really keen throw myself into Uni next year.”
Of course away from her studies, Penitani will continue to be a fulltime professional athlete. She’s had a rough run with injuries, and is ready for a change of fortunes on the fitness front.
“I’ve been playing Rugby Sevens for almost four years now, and for two and half of those years I’ve been injured, so it’s been a really big mental battle for me.”
As Penitani lives down in Sydney, and her family are up in Queensland, the rehab process for the young gun can be quite a lonely one.
“The hardest thing for me in getting through that is not having my family here. I’ve basically been injured since I was 17 and it’s a massive test of character for me, however I feel as though it’s helped me build a lot of resilience. The biggest battle I faced coming back was being tackled, because both times that I ruptured my ACL the injuries occurred during contact. I just had to throw myself into a lot of contact when I was ready to go and really get my head around that.”
Penitani’s first comeback from an ACL tear was in China at the Youth Olympics back in 2014, where she actually Co-Captained the Australian team to win Gold.
“I was probably a bit unfit, but mentally I was more than ready. Playing on the field, I didn’t even think about my knee. Coming back from my second ACL this year at the World Rugby Sevens Series event in Atlanta though, I was really nervous because of the added pressure of being watched by coaches and trying my best to really make that Olympic squad. It really messed with my head a little.”
Despite playing her part as Australian won their first ever Rugby Sevens World Championship, Penitani did have to deal with the harsh reality of not being selected for the Rio Olympics.
“(Watching the Tournament) was quite bittersweet for me,” she says. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was eight years old to go to an Olympic Games, so to miss out and fall just short of that goal, broke my heart. I was pretty shattered.
“But when the girls won it was incredible and I was so proud of them because I’ve seen firsthand how much hard work and blood, sweat and tears has gone into that Gold Medal. I don’t think anyone else was more deserving to win than those girls, so I was really proud of every one of them.”
20-year-old Tiana has plenty of Rugby ahead of her and her mindset is now, more then ever, focused on improving herself and her game to ensure such heartbreak doesn’t happen again.
“My short-term goals are to get out of rehab because I only had surgery about six or seven weeks ago, where I just had to have a clean out in my knee. I just want to come back from that and finish pre-season as strong as I can and to make that team for the first World Series event in Dubai in December. Long term, my goals are obviously the 2018 Rugby Sevens World Cup in the U.S. and Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. I don’t want to look too far ahead, but I’d love to be an Olympian so Tokyo in 2020 is definitely on the cards.”
So how will Tiana define success after her playing career eventually ends?
“I just want to finish playing footy happy and in one piece,” she says. “And If I can kick-start a career on the back of playing footy in sports media, then I’d be really happy within myself. But playing footy; you’ve got to do it for the enjoyment and not to just pay the bills and not just as a job. So the moment I stop enjoying it, I know that’s when I’ll start looking elsewhere and start building towards a career off the backend of my footy. But right now I love my footy and can’t see myself doing anything else any time soon.”
Of course, with such commitment and dedication to professional Rugby comes ultimate sacrifice of a normal social life, but when asked about the challenges of such a lifestyle, Penitani doesn’t seem fazed at all.
“Being an elite athlete is a bit of lonely life, but I’m just lucky I’m part of a team where we all really live the same sort of lifestyle, and where we’re with each other more than our own families so we become almost like a little family ourselves. Maintaining friendships in the real world though is quite hard,” she told RUPA.
“You know kids that would go out in high school to parties and what not, and I was never a part of that scene as I was always so seriously into my sport so I’m used to it. It doesn’t really affect me that much. I think it’s healthy to have a balance and to have time with your friends and to socialise, but the sacrifices you make with looking after yourself and your body are really worth it. You make the sacrifice now and you reap the rewards later in life when it really matters, and I think that’s the mentality of our whole squad and I think that’s why we work together really well, and why we are so successful.”
At only 20, this is an incredibly astute attitude towards life to have at such a young age.
“A lot of people say I have a mature outlook on life,” she laughs, “I probably have a 25 year-old’s perspective on life, but I guess that comes down to the things I’ve had to go through in my life. I had to grow up pretty quickly being the oldest of four, and my Dad passing away when I was twelve. I’ve been my Mum’s ‘right hand man’ since then and it’s taught me a lot of valuable life lessons at a very young age which I guess a lot of people don’t learn until their older. So I consider myself pretty lucky.”