We all need role models. They encourage us to dare and to dream, to imagine and believe. Our super heroes come in many guises, from philanthropists and pop stars, to sporting icons and scientists. They can be our mum or our dad, a fire-fighter, ambo or artist; someone who’s inspired us to be a better, brighter person.
Being a role model can be serious stuff, and some people just aren’t comfortable maintaining suitably lofty standards. Fortunately, it’s a tag that Jo Weston, Vixens’ and Australian Netball Diamonds goal defence, is happy to embrace.
While she’s most known to fans for her on court skills, she’s also an academic, a businesswoman, an activist and environmentalist. Her wide range of interests has shaped some heartfelt beliefs, although her approach to sharing them is softly, subtly. You’re more likely to see her wearing a smile than an attitude, using humour to share her convictions. Being an elite athlete herself, it’s no surprise that the sporting sisterhood is one of the first topics she mentions.
Jo explains, “Females playing sport is something I’m quite passionate about. Some of my friends have made the transition from playing sport in high school into adulthood, but others have had to step away. I just think it’s really important to our development.”
“As females we can shy away from being competitive or that physical commitment, but in terms of being part of a team sport it fosters relationships which can go through anything. The stresses of what you go through on court in terms of being in pressure situations are unlike anything you’ll generally experience in the day to day.”
“So it’s crucial to have really strong role models for young girls to look up to. They see that if they work hard they can achieve something. Their bodies are something which they can push to their limits rather than just being objectified and all those sorts of controversial messages which I think can come through in this day and age. I’m really proud that we can foster such holistic ideals for people to try and look to when they’re younger.”
It’s a powerful message coming from a person who is more likely to poke fun at herself than share provocative images with her 20 000 plus social media followers. Her posts are dryly humorous, thoughtful and completely wholesome.
Jo’s quirky nature is never far from the surface as she talks about her pathway to the Australian netball team. From the time she was little, she and her two brothers were fiercely competitive, but it wasn’t always on the sporting field. She said, “I remember we used to be more passionate about video games. We had a Nintendo 64 which we got one year for Christmas, and we thought that was amazing.”
The 25 year old’s nimble on court footwork was grounded by an early love of tennis and 15 years of dancing lessons. Just don’t ask her to sing! She laughs, “I did ballet, jazz, tap, and a bit of song and dance. I’m not a very good singer and I don’t know how I got into a couple of these troupes. I’m assuming they thought the others would drown out my terrible voice, and whenever we sing the national anthem, I’m worried that I’m butchering it completely.”
Jo’s pathway into the senior ranks of netball was atypical. She’d applied to study commerce at Melbourne University, and was unwinding at schoolies when Julie Fitzgerald, senior netball coach at the Australian Institute of Sport, got in touch. Jo hadn’t applied for the program, but with an injury to one of the Australian Under 21’s she got a late call up for their three week camp.
While the World Youth Cup was still two years away, the selectors found Jo’s form compelling. She said, “At the end of that camp they asked if I wanted to go to the AIS on a part-time basis as they’d already offered their scholarships out. I spoke to my family and decided to give it a shot. So I moved up to Canberra for a portion of the year, while still attempting to study part time back in Melbourne.”
Jo was studying commerce at the time, and so completing the first two years of her degree was quite a juggling act. Luckily she established some strong student friendships which supported her through the difficulty of combining study, work and sport. In 2014 she returned from Canberra to join the Vixens and being paid to play netball made a significant difference. She remembers, “I was doing three to four subjects per semester, so just being able to train and not have to work was much easier. I had a little more time available.”
At the time the Vixens defence included the experienced Bianca Chatfield and Geva Mentor, and so Jo was receiving very little court time. It was surreal training alongside superstars that she’d only previously watched on television. “I was in awe of B and Geva,” Jo said, “and felt quite overwhelmed. Yes, you want to be on court, but the ability to train alongside those two and learn how they formed a cohesive oncourt partnership taught me so much.”
“I’m very grateful for the ability to learn from two of the best. I’d been very fortunate when I was younger – I’d been selected into teams quite easily. So I had to work on the capacity to be patient and work hard, take on feedback and see where you can improve. Those lessons have really helped me along the way.”
Chatfield retired after the 2014 season, with Jo replacing her on court at goal defence the following year. Accolades started to follow. In 2015 she was the Vixens’ Rookie of the Year and was rewarded with an Australian Netball Diamonds’ call up post Netball World Cup retirements. Jo quickly made a name for herself as a gritty and uncompromising defender, stifling and shutting down her opponents.
She was part of the Diamonds’ team which won silver at the most recent Commonwealth Games. While it was an exciting event – receiving the national uniform, meeting other athletes and being part of the village were highlights – being beaten in the gold medal match left the Aussies shell shocked. Jo reflected, “My eyes were tearing up even as Helen (Housby, England) was going to shoot that final goal. You do need time to reflect, and while it was only a one goal loss, unfortunately it was one of the biggest games in the four year cycle.”
“There are learnings to take from that, in terms of being able to perform when it matters. But it was a phenomenal experience and will always be one of my memories of a life time.”
With her international sporting duties increasing over the last few years, Jo had to scale back other areas of her life. She’d joined the business conglomerate Deloitte straight after university, initially working four days per week. Between that and her netball duties, there was little down time left for family and friends. Jo said, “It was pretty full on, but the initial time commitment held me in good stead. I’ve learned so much about myself, the corporate world in general, and had the opportunity to connect with people who don’t really care about sport.”
“That’s been amazing because once you’re involved at elite level you can be in a wind tunnel. I learned perspective about what is important in life to other people.”
While Jo had to prune her working hours somewhat, she remained committed to her ‘passion project’ – being an ambassador for the Sports Environmental Alliance (SEA). Working alongside major sporting codes such as cricket, AFL, tennis and netball, Jo’s been able to share her ethical viewpoint with a larger audience. She explained, “I try and live as sustainably as possible, and I think there are some cross overs between the sporting realm and my own personal values.”
“For example, as an athlete we’re lucky to receive our uniforms, but every time we get a new sponsor everything has to be rebranded. There’s no real way to recycle all the outdated clothing. So with a friend I’m looking at a way in which we can upcycle uniforms into other pieces, such as sleeping bags.”
“Where there are big sporting events, such as football finals, the MCG is doing some fantastic work in the way they manage waste from events like that. Sport can definitely be a vehicle with which we can raise environmental awareness.”
While her interests of sport, business and the environment are diverse, Jo is hoping she can keep combining them as seamlessly as possible. “I love being part of communities and building relationships that transcend class, race and society. Sport in particular fosters and builds those relationships, and I hope the lessons that I’ve learned will hold me in good stead for a future career path.”
Jo is already a role model for countless fans, and for now isn’t too worried about life beyond the netball court. But in addition to her athletic career, she’s also articulate, intelligent and passionate. She laughs at the thought of just how far those attributes might take her in life. “I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure what my future career path might look like. We’ll have to wait and see.”
One thing is for certain, hers is a voice that will inspire more generations to come.