Many a young child proclaims their sporting ambition in the backyard. Few, of course, ultimately realise their sporting dream. But hockey player Brooke Peris is on the cusp of achieving hers by becoming an Olympian around 100 days from now. And Peris’s back-story makes her accomplishments all the more fascinating.
Born and raised in Darwin, Peris comes from a family of sporting royalty. Her cousin is none other than Nova Peris – the first indigenous Australian to win an Olympic Gold medal. That feat was achieved at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as the Hockeyroos won their second Olympic crown. TV footage from the time shows Nova displaying her prized medal to family and friends in Darwin upon her return, with a youngster seemingly permanently attached to her hip. That small child was a three-year-old Brooke Peris.
Fast forward one Olympic cycle, and Nova Peris was competing at the Sydney Olympiad, although this time as a sprinter. Meanwhile, in Darwin young Brooke was now old enough to be conjuring her own plans for future success. “I saw her and I was like ‘I want to do that’,” Peris told Zela.
“It was a case of seeing that gold medal and deciding I want one. That is where it all started. (But) I have a little bit to live up to.”
Peris was first called into the Hockeyroos in 2013 and she has never looked back. Named last December in the expanded 26-strong squad short-listed in the build-up for Rio, Peris has featured consistently on the pitch.
Selected in the final quad in July, the 23-year-old is set to follow in the footsteps of her pioneering cousin.
Did she believe as a young girl that reaching rarefied air of an Olympic Games was realistic? “When you are growing up and playing for a team that doesn’t really get recognition, you have your doubts,” Peris said. “But I had good mentors growing up. I had really great mentors actually, and I have so many people to thank for any success. It was hard at times, but I had a lot of people that helped me get there, and I appreciate everyone that has helped.”
Hockey, Peris agrees, seems an unobvious pursuit for an indigenous Australian from the Top End. After all, there are only two hockey fields in Darwin. Yet the Territory has produced numerous top-line players, with both Des Abbott and Joel Carroll both earning bronze medals in recent Olympics. Indeed there is a small, but vibrant Hockey community in the Northern Territory, and Peris doesn’t necessarily believe that being raised in Darwin was a hindrance.
“I grew up behind Desmond Abbott and Joel Carroll, and I got to watch them and how they train,” Peris said. “I’m very close to them, and they taught me a few things. We do have a bit of a disadvantage maybe being in the NT, but if you are good enough you will get picked, and good things will happen. I had Desmond and Joel to look up to, I saw how they did it, and so I had no excuse.”
Peris left home five years ago to pursue her dream, as she linked up with the AIS program in Perth. “Both Perth and Darwin feel like home to me,” she says.
But the opportunities to return home are few and far between. Asked what she misses about Darwin aside from family and friends, Peris’s response was unexpected: “Probably just Pauls Iced Coffee, it’s my favourite drink in the world, I crave it so badly, and I want to fly home for it! You can’t get it elsewhere, but when people are visiting, they know to freeze them and take it on the plane for me. It’s a secret,” adds Peris, with a smile in her voice that rarely seems far away.
Peris says her indigenous heritage is a strong part of her identity, and she shares a special friendship with teammate Mariah Williams, who won Most Promising New Talent at the 2013 Deadlys. “We always do this little handshake before each match, saying who we are, and it is kind of cool,” Peris says.
“Indigenous people, it’s like a family thing, and that we have each other’s backs. It’s just a little thing between me and her.”
The Hockeyroos have been steadily building over the past few years, following their fifth-place finish at London 2012. They recently moved up to third in the world ranking, with Peris one of several players to have added both depth and quality in this Olympic cycle.
Peris has a relaxed and sunny demeanour off the pitch. But there is a steely determination for success in Rio. If determination and hunger mean anything, then the Hockeyroos are well placed with Peris in their ranks. “People always say there is a big difference between going to an Olympics and actually winning a gold medal. I want to know what the difference is, and want to know what it feels like to come with a gold medal. To have that feeling that Nova had. I’m ready to compete and see if it can be done.”
If she succeeds, then two of Australia’s three indigenous gold medal wins would belong to a hockey player from Darwin named Peris. Surely not even the vivid imagination of a seven-year-old Brooke Peris could realistically have envisaged that.