Facing debilitating depression, Shantelle Thompson turned to jiu-jitsu.
Shantelle Thompson pushes her forearm against a kid’s windpipe and expertly flicks her “victim” onto the mat.
“I won’t hurt you, but if you feel the pressure you’ll understand what you’re trying to create,” she says, as the weary kid gets up for more.
Her nicknames are the Barkindji Warrior — after her tribe — and Momma Bear. A combination of aggression and nurturing, she says, that sums up her character.
On this night, she’s working with local youth in a free community program in inner-urban Collingwood. She wants to share with them the gifts and wisdom jiu-jitsu has given her.
It’s an opportunity to challenge people’s boundaries and get them comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she said.
“So, when someone’s choking me I’m extremely uncomfortable but I can say I’m safe here. And you can push that threshold a little more every time.
“It creates a new sense of self-awareness and an opportunity to get to know yourself in a different aspect.”
‘No other choice’
When she hits the mat now, it’s sport. It’s either jiu-jitsu, her first sporting love, in which she’s won two world titles, or it’s wrestling, her latest endeavour, which she hopes will take her to a home Commonwealth Games.
But growing up in Mildura, on the border of Victoria and New South Wales, waging battle was a way to get by: as the survivor of sex abuse at six, as a fair-skinned Indigenous woman — “I never quite fit into either world” — and as the oldest kid in a big single-parent family.
“I started fighting because I had no other choice,” she said.
“Some of the experiences I had being around family violence and some of the other issues, I kind of always stood up for myself.
It was easy to answer with your fists than it was with your mouth back then.
‘Something stopped me’
Thompson’s road to elite sport only began with a horror slide into postnatal depression, after the birth of twins Jaida and Soane.
I was having visions of hurting the kids, and I didn’t want to tell anyone because I’m going to be a ‘bad mum’, or they’re going to take my children from me,” she said.
“And one night I woke up, I had had a particularly bad night with the twins because I was breastfeeding, and Jaida just wouldn’t sleep. And I could feel myself squeezing her, and I had a vision. It was almost like a waking nightmare.
“I could see the vision while I was holding her and it scared the living daylights out of me because it was almost like I didn’t have any feeling — I was cold.”
In desperation, she visited a GP to share her fears. But when this first confidante started talking about child protection services, Thompson panicked, and fled in her car.
“I was in a very heightened state. And I got to the roundabout and a truck was coming and I tried to drive in front of it. But something stopped me, I don’t know what. Maybe it was my [late] mum.”
‘It got me out of my head’
Thompson and her jiu-jitsu-loving husband, George Tuuholoaki, hatched a plan: to use the sport as therapy.
“[Before jiu-jitsu] I would just block myself off because I couldn’t manage the darkness, it would just kind of seep in sometimes. But I would go to jiu-jitsu and you can’t disassociate yourself when someone is trying to choke you out. It just can’t be done,” she said.
It got me out of my head and into my body, but left me so depleted I had no energy left to give any attention to the thoughts in my head.
Now her and Tuuholoaki’s three kids know the routine. They accompany their mum and dad to training, do their homework by the side of the gym, and watch her results as she competes overseas.
Their eldest daughter, 10-year-old Nacinta, has started to compete. And when she speaks of her mum, pride lights up her face.
“[When] she wins another world title, to other people, that’s like ‘wow’. To us, it’s just, ‘that’s mum’.”
Tuuholoaki says the journey from those dark days has been long, but now life is good.
“To see her achieve these things without having to, I guess, resort to drugs or anything else and to find her way of doing things — it’s great. It’s a huge achievement.”
‘I am going to go for this’
Being around Shantelle Thompson is to hear a flurry of wise words and motivational beliefs — the product of a gregarious personality, a teaching degree and hard-earned life lessons.
Now she’s parlaying that into a business, offering workshops for everyone from corporates to school groups.
A particular favourite is work with the Indigenous girls of Worawa Aboriginal College in Healesville, north-east of Melbourne, teaching them physical skills and mental resilience.
“It can look quite scary and intimidating from the outside if you were just watching,” she said.
“It can be a little off-putting, but particularly for people that I have done sessions with that have experienced adversity or trauma, and aren’t comfortable in their own bodies, it is a safe space for them to test their own strength,” she said.
“Particularly for some of these girls, they have never tested their bodies in these ways, they have never [said] ‘so I can be strong here’.”
Thompson is still competing in jiu-jitsu but now also trains in wrestling. She’s passed one qualification hurdle for the Commonwealth Games, with more to come later this year.
She is nothing if not philosophical about her chances, and her ultimate purpose.
“The statistical chance of me medalling [in the Games] is very low … but I don’t allow other people’s perceptions of boundaries of what is possible to define what I do,” she said.
Just by virtue of taking this journey and going, ‘I am going to go for this’, you never know what’s going to open up.
“If you have a growth mindset and you have the work ethic to go behind it, anything can happen. And even if you don’t achieve that outcome, other things will come from it.”