Michelle Jenneke, Australia’s viral dancing star and hurdles Olympian, also likes to play with robots. When she’s not bouncing up and down at the starting line or darting across 100 meters of hurdles in about 12.82 seconds — her personal best in the event — she’ll be spending some of her downtime studying mechatronics.
Yes, Michelle Jenneke, perhaps Australia’s most famous track and field Olympian, has homework to do while she’s in Brazil trying to give Australia its second straight gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles.
“Yes, I do,” Jenneke said, laughing at the preposterous image of poring through a textbook in the Olympic Village. “They’re pretty lenient with it.”
It should provide a reminder of just how improbable Jenneke’s ascension from 19-year-old YouTube darling to 23-year-old Olympian has been. Everyone remembers her dancing before a race back at the 2012 World Junior Championships in Athletics. It always seems to be left out that she only finished in fifth place at the meet and didn’t come close to sniffing a spot in the 2012 Summer Olympics. A few months later, Australia won gold in the 100 hurdles anyway when Sally Pearson ran an Olympic-record 12.35.
Pearson became an Australian legend, but Jenneke, who is training at IMG Academy in Bradenton this week with the rest of Athletics Australia, became an international pseudo-star.
Before Jenneke’s dances got her a spots on “The Tonight Show,” “Top Gear,” theCHIVE and in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Jenneke was just a nervous 16-year-old at the 2009 Australian junior national championships. The 100 dash wasn’t her event, and she couldn’t shake her pre-race jitters. Her coach, Mark Zisti, tried to help, but couldn’t.
“He said I had to figure it out for myself,” Jenneke said, so she walked out to the starting line as music played. It’s too long ago now for her to remember the song that ushered in the tradition. She just remembers she started dancing. She put her hands on her waist and started shaking her hips. She jumped up and down. She waved while the crowd cheered and then she took off.
“I just started doing this crazy thing out there,” Jenneke said.
The Australian ran a personal best and medaled for the first time in the event. Two years later, she did it on a big enough stage to become a star even as her progress began to stagnate. At the 2015 World Championships in Athletics, Jenneke finished 18th, nearly a full half second behind the champion. And that was without Pearson, her countrywoman and the most recent Olympic gold medalist, competing.
Jenneke tries not to compare herself to Pearson, though. The 29-year-old has been an Australian star since Jenneke was 13, long before Jenneke could ever picture herself as an Olympian. Pearson was an idol, but not one she viewed as attainable.
“I never thought that I’d be as good an athlete as I am now,” Jenneke said, “so I didn’t really look up to her that much because it’s not really something that I saw myself doing.”
Instead, she played all sports — soccer, Australian rules football, handball — and focused on academics. She has to balance the burgeoning track and field career that’s landed her an endorsement from Coca-Cola with her studies at the University of Sydney.
She took a few days off from class in April to make her debut at the Australian Athletics Championship, where she needed to break 13 seconds to qualify for her first Olympics. On this day she was the fastest hurdler in Australia, barreling down the track in 12.93 seconds. Her best time of 2016 was also 55th best in the world this year. The viral star and the legend would be the two Australians running the 100 hurdles at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“Not to put them on a pedestal, but they’re very aware of what they’ve and those things inspire them,” head coach Craig Hilliard said, “because they think, Maybe I can be like that. It gives them that little bit of hope.”
Less than two months before Australia’s athletes left for Bradenton, though, Pearson tore her hamstring, ending her bid to repeat as a gold medalist. Jenneke will be alone at the starting line as Australia’s lone sprinter or hurdler in any event.
She may be nervous. She definitely will start to dance. And the crowd will probably go wild for a few seconds, even if she is a longshot to replicate what Pearson did four years earlier.
“I don’t really see myself as someone who’s filling her shoes,” Jenneke said. “I can only do the best that I can do.”