• Shantelle Thompson is the NAIDOC 2019 Sportsperson of the Year recipient. (NITV)Source: NITV
Known as the 'Barkindji Warrior', Shantelle Thompson redefines what it means to "fight like a girl".
Emily Nicol

10 Jul 2019 - 12:19 PM  UPDATED 10 Jul 2019 - 12:21 PM

Raising three kids as an active community leader is busy enough as is, but Shantelle Thompson's demanding responsibilities don't stop her from also being a multiple jiu-jitsu world champion. 

In its 34 years, the NAIDOC Sportsperson of The Year Award has gone to just seven women. This year celebrates its eighth female winner who has not only broken down gender barriers in the category itself, but also in her sport. Despite the benefits that martial arts offers women, jiu-jitsu is traditionally and historically male-dominated. 

Shantelle, who is widely known as the 'Barkindji Warrior', is the jiu-jitsu 2015 Blue Belt World Champion, 2016 Purple Belt World Champion and 2018 Brown Belt World Champion. She is also a successful wrestling competitor, holding the 2016 Oceania Wrestling Champion title.

But to get to where she is today, Shantelle has had to overcome a number of significant challenges. Born and raised in Dareton, far west NSW, she is the second eldest of 17 siblings. During school, she endured harsh bullying.  

She is also a survivor of child sexual abuse, a damning national issue that the most recent ABS study reported as affecting 11 per cent of Australian women.  

"I think you're either born a fighter, or you become a fighter because of life's circumstances," Shantelle says in an interview with NITV. 

As the product of a difficult childhood, at 19, Shantelle's aunt encouraged her to take up martial arts to deter her from getting into trouble. This was Shantelle's introduction to the sport that would eventually save her from her darkest hour.

When Shantelle stepped back on to the jiu-jitsu mat after giving birth to her twins, she was in the midst of post-natal depression.   

"I thought if someone knows I’m Aboriginal and I tell them what I’m experiencing, they are going to take my babies from me," she told NITV. "It really broke me." 

However, having the opportunity to channel her focus into sport is something that Shantelle says was not only rewarding, but life-changing.  

"Jiu-jitsu really gave me permission to work out those negative emotions."


Aiming for the top

When Shantelle began dominating the mat, she started to see competition and world champion-status in her future. But sharing such a personal goal wasn't easy, especially in a country where tall poppy syndrome is in our cultural tapestry.   

"I got the courage up to share this with some people," she told NITV. "And they were like ‘pfft, yeah right’.

And this really limited mindset got under my skin. I thought, ‘where is the one person to tell me that I could [at least] try'."

However, after started to regain her strength, she would envisage that in a past life, she was the head warrior of her tribe with a mission was to protect and train younger warriors. With great success, comes great responsibility and Shantelle knows that she has valuable lessons and insights to pass on to others.


Giving back to community 

Shantelle set up ‘Kiilalaana' — a Barkindji word meaning 'growth' —, a volunteer youth program in Mildura, Victoria.

As a gifted storyteller and skilled motivational speaker, Shantelle runs empowerment and leadership programs in schools and community groups, with a strong focus on women's and girl's empowerment.

But Shantelle says that her work is only effective if she is taking her own advice. 

"I don’t believe you can tell someone they can be or do something, unless I’ve done that myself," she says. 

"We have an inherited responsibility to overcome the trauma and everything that has happened because our ancestors fought really hard so that I could have these opportunities.

"It’s my job to honour their sacrifices, but also to honour my children and create a different pathway for them to become whoever they want to be.

"I want to normalise Aboriginal excellence."

"I want to normalise Aboriginal excellence."

And with an extensive list of affairs; looking after her young children, empowering her community, growing her business and training in her athletic field, Shantelle's is hoping to secure athletics sponsorship in the near future, so that she can support her family as a professional athlete.

She hopes to represent Australia on the international stage as our country's first Black Belt World Champion and 'Red' Jiu-Jitsu world champion, a position reserved for those whose influence and fame takes them to the pinnacle of art.

Come 2022, Shantell hopes to qualify for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in the UK, continuing to refine what it means to "fight like a girl".  


The SBS network is celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and recognising the achievements of our First Peoples throughout National NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) as the official NAIDOC media partner.

For programs, movies, articles and info, go here.

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