When Jana Pittman was a child, she started competing in athletics because she wanted to impress her dad.
She describes him as one of the hardest workers she’s ever known, and as child, all she wanted was for him to have a day off work.
“My father is an amazing man and he worked so many hours in the day. He’s over 70 years old now and still works every single day on a building site. He’s an engineer but he also builds houses,” she explains in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons.
“It was my way of saying: right, I’m going to make my dad have a day off and he’s going to come and enjoy the track with me. It literally started just to impress my dad and then somehow around the age of 14 or 15, I started looking like I had a little bit of potential.
“I ended up qualifying for the Olympics in Sydney in my home country when I was only 15 years of age.”
Pittman has one of Australia’s most recognisable faces, thanks to her 15 years at the height of international sport. Throughout the 2000s and the 2010s, she represented Australia at three Olympic Games and became a two-time World Champion and four-time Commonwealth Champion. She is also the first Australian woman to compete at both a summer and winter Olympics, as both a hurdler and in bobsled.
And while her success in sport is what most Australians would associate Pittman with, she’s a multi-talented person who now enjoys a fulfilling career in medicine, specifically in women’s health.
“The transition was very swift,” Pittman tells host Kate Mills in the podcast. “I basically finished athletics in 2012 and I did bobsled and medicine concurrently. 2013 was our first sliding year internationally in bobsled and it was also my first year of medicine.”
Pittman says that despite never fulfilling her goal of winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games, that disappointment helped open new opportunities that ultimately led her to become a doctor. And in hindsight, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Sometimes no matter how hard you try at something, we are human and we are fallible,” she said. “When one door closes – and that for me was a giant door, the Olympic gold medal – another one opens.”
“I truly believe I wouldn’t have become a doctor and I wouldn’t have become a women’s health advocate had I gone down that sports pathway more.”
Now, Pittman works primarily in obstetrics and gynaecology in a job she’s always dreamed of. It’s also allowed her to become a fierce advocate for women’s health and an ambassador for the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation.
As a doctor who sees in real time the devastation a cancer diagnosis can cause, Pittman wants women all over Australia to start talking openly about cervical cancer and keeping up with screenings.
“It’s a taboo topic, let’s be honest. It’s hard to talk about vaginas, it’s hard to talk about having pap smears or what we call cervical screening now, but it’s one of the cancers – despite it not being talked about – that we can entirely eradicate in a number of years,” Pittman said.
“Like in our lifetime. And that’s unheard of.”
Unfortunately, most women are really behind on their screenings – a dangerous reality that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, with women tending to put off attending their doctor.
“A large portion of Australian women will not be up to date with their cervical screening. Yes, because it’s uncomfortable and I know it’s difficult to lie there and have a speculum exam but I’ve actually been personally affected by it twice now,” she said.
“I’ve returned positive tests two times and had to have the treatment and I just feel so lucky that I live in a country where it has that available, and hope women can start talking about it.”
On the surface, Pittman seems like one of those elusive people who never stops. She’s a mother of four, a doctor, and previously spent years dedicated to a successful career in sport. In the podcast, you can hear the energy in the way she talks so passionately about her life – she’s clearly bubbly, bright, and determined.
But she also wants you to know that she’s not invincible, and she’s a big believer in allowing herself to take a break when she feels run down. And yes, it is something that happens to her regularly.
“I do have an enormous amount of energy and that’s because on the days that I feel terrible, when I’m getting down at work or something isn’t going the way I hoped it was, I allow that emotion to play into me.
“I just allow myself to break when I need it and by doing that, and seeing that early, I’m then able to basically move on and move past that. The next day I can wake up and re-attack my goals.
“If I didn’t allow myself to have those days, I wouldn’t have the successful ones as well.”