01 June 2020
Storytelling is intrinsic to Jada Whyman’s Indigenous culture. Her maternal grandfather was the eldest of 14 children raised in a tin shack on a NSW riverbank, and reunited decades later with several of the 10 siblings forcibly removed as part of the Stolen Generations.
A respected Wagga Wagga community leader whose contributions from grassroots to government level span four decades, the tale of Hewitt Whyman’s childhood is one that “Pop” has shared with his grand-daughter Jada - the Western Sydney Wanderers’ goalkeeper and Matildas’ squad member - and encouraged her to remember during challenging times.
The most notable, perhaps, was during the two months in 2014 that the teenager and her family spent camping in a caravan park and existing on - at most - two meals a day. They had moved to the ACT after Whyman’s talent was identified by former national coach Tom Sermanni at an interstate junior carnival three years before.
“When we were in that situation, I thought to myself ‘I’m the reason we moved to Canberra and we’re living in a tent. Why would I want to do this to my family? Why would I want to do this to myself?’’’ recalls Whyman, who credits the resilience of her mother and determination of her stepfather for the rescue from homelessness and hunger.
“I wanted to go back to Wagga, and that’s where my Pop came in and just said to me ‘you’re gonna get yourself out of this. Just be strong, keep going to school, keep training, everything like that’. And he goes ‘I lived in a tin shed on a riverbank, there’s worse things, darl… Go fishin’.
“There was a river right next to us and that’s what we did. We went fishing, we made the most of it. It was a moment of change, to be honest, in a (difficult) situation.’’
Still just 20, the determined young woman from the Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta tribes works as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island outreach worker for the youth mental health organisation Headspace, and is already scripting her own powerful narrative.
Despite growing up as the self-described soccer “oddball” in an AFL-loving family, she chose the more global brand of football as a 13-year-old, having first experienced racial vilification in sport when called a “black bitch” while playing for West Wagga’s mixed team at the age of 10.
“It shapes your world in the fact that you’re going to come across a lot of negative things through your life, whether it be racism or sexism or any challenges in your life,’’ she says. “If you can push through things like that then you’re going to come out better on the other side.’’
For Whyman, the most recent setback was dealing with a longstanding knee problem that curtailed her W-League season and required surgery just weeks after the emerging goalkeeper had been brought into the Matildas’ camp for November’s home series against Chile.
“To miss out on that was pretty heartbreaking,’’ she says, while admitting that no longer playing and training through injury had brought welcome relief and a new outlook when she felt she was “a broken athlete, to be honest’’.
As she heals, physically, Whyman has chosen to share her experiences and dig deeper into her roots as part of the AIS program “Share A Yarn”. Involving 13 athletes from a range of backgrounds, #ShareAYarn2020 is designed to build relationships with Indigenous communities and open communication channels.
“Since I moved away from Wagga I felt I was a little disconnected from my culture,’’ she says. “I really wanted to discover more about myself and feel that I was connected back with my culture, my land and things like that.’’
Along with her Nan, Dorothy, Whyman’s treasured Pop has long provided his own form of education. In leadership at school, for example, (“you hold yourself right, you never give them a reason to ever have a negative approach to you’’), coping with adversity (“the thing is taking those tough times and using them as lessons and making you a stronger person”) and spirituality.
Cathy Freeman was an early inspiration, from the time young Jada first saw the goosebump-inducing footage of her famous 400m victory in Sydney in 2000. Current Matildas Lydia Williams and Kyah Simon are more contemporary role models, with Tokyo 2021 selection on Whyman’s dare-to-dream list, and an Olympic rings tattoo planned should it be realised.
That would provide some thrilling new content for an athlete who describes storytelling as a “massive” part of her Indigenous heritage, whether through music, carvings, art or the symbols of the Dreamtime. “It’s about our past, it’s about our present and it’s about how we connect to the land.’’
It’s a yarn to share. And one worth listening to.