Sports

Retirement, pain-killers and being a mum: Lauren Jackson opens up

Lauren Jackson is a four-time Olympian, a world champion, WNBL winner, WNBA most valuable player, the world's best at her peak and a pioneer for Australian female athletes.

The Canberra Capitals legend is Australia's greatest male or female basketballer. But even now she has to fight for equality, and it hits home during three hours of interviews about her new book.

Lauren Jackson has opened up about her life on and off the basketball court.

Lauren Jackson has opened up about her life on and off the basketball court.Credit:Jamila Toderas

Lauren Jackson, My Story details her battle with anxiety, her journey from lanky kid to international superstar, having to wean herself off prescribed pain-killing medication and her new life as a mum.

Then someone asks: "why did you want to write a book?"

"I mean, come on. Why wouldn't I want to write a book about my story? Would they ask the same question to a male athlete? It was a funny question," a surprised Jackson recounts to Fairfax Media.

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"I think my story actually tells the story of the life of a professional female athlete and the challenges we face, which are very, very different to the challenges men face in sport.

"We play year round, our bodies suffer because we don't have time to rehab. You put your life and family on hold and then at the end, you pick up the pieces when you retire. I think people need to hear that before they judge female athletes."

RETIREMENT, WITHDRAWALS AND MEDICATION

Injury ended Jackson's career prematurely in 2016 and shattered her hopes of playing at the Rio Olympic Games. The reality of retirement set in and Jackson struggled to get out of bed.

Jackson is treated by physiotherapist Tony Ward.

Jackson is treated by physiotherapist Tony Ward.Credit:Jeffrey Chan

She was taking pain killers for the majority of her career to dull the pain of multiple injuries and recover from multiple operations in the latter years.

"Then one morning I woke up and decided I needed to get off all these drugs, and I needed to get off them now," Jackson said.

"I'm really lucky that I found the strength to stop taking prescription drugs and antidepressants when I did. It showed me that I had a lot more strength than I thought I did.

"I just got my shit together, stopped taking pills. It wasn't easy though … I suddenly stopped … and there were days where I was shivering uncontrollably."

Jackson had to come to grips with the end of a remarkable career. She won titles in Russia, the United States and Australia and was regarded as the world's best player.

"With the injuries and the medication I was on, it was very difficult for me to be me. I think I lost touch with who I was because I was so consumed," Jackson said.

"I was pushing myself to a point where I was in so much pain that I couldn't live through it. Now I don't have those problems. I'm injury free and pain free … I don't have those worries.

"Just getting out of bed to get breakfast, I was in so much pain. It wasn't a great time."

A CANBERRA SOFT SPOT

Jackson grew up in Albury and has returned to her hometown after an almost 20-year career travelling around the world.

But Canberra has a special part in Jackson's heart. She moved to the capital as a 16-year-old, won her first WNBL title at the AIS, became a Capitals legend and then announced her retirement in Canberra as a 34-year-old.

Lauren Jackson, pictured with Penny Taylor, Kristen Veal and Suzy Batkovic, moved to Canberra as a teenager.

Lauren Jackson, pictured with Penny Taylor, Kristen Veal and Suzy Batkovic, moved to Canberra as a teenager.Credit:Richard Briggs

She still remembers buying her first house in O'Connor as an 18-year-old, painting the walls blue and finding blue carpet to match.

Jackson formed lifelong friendships in Canberra, enjoyed incredible success and signed the richest contract in history for Australian female sport.

The injuries – hamstring problems, back issues, shin splints, knee dramas – failed to dampen her love of the city, and she even spent four months working for the ACT government earlier this year.

"I was in a bubble in Canberra because we had it so good [as female athletes]," Jackson said.

"Canberra is the best place in Australia to play women's sport, because people want to see women's sport succeed. People in Canberra want to see equity in sport.

"I feel like it was a bubble because it was the perfect environment to prosper as a female athlete. Canberra has played an instrumental part in my life. I love the place."

THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY

Australia is enjoying a women's sport boom. Female athletes are being paid to be professional, competitions are getting television exposure and their talent is being recognised.

Jackson says she wasn't a basketball pioneer, acknowledging the players who came before her, including mum Maree.

Lauren Jackson speaking at the Driving Gender Equity conference she helped organise in Canberra.

Lauren Jackson speaking at the Driving Gender Equity conference she helped organise in Canberra.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

But she was certainly a pioneer for women to be paid to play their chosen sport. There were, however, times where Jackson felt like a possession rather than an athlete.

Jackson played four seasons with Spartak Moscow and was well remunerated by owner Shabtai von Kalmanovich, a former KGB spy.

"I was so ignorant, I didn't understand power struggles in society. That's why my whole Russian experience was important to me, it changed my life and that's why I started gender studies," Jackson said.

Jackson was one of the highest paid female basketballers in the world when she played in Russia, but she was also having an internal fight about the way it was happening.

She was showered with lavish gifts, but von Kalmanovich refused to deal with her agents and Jackson said: "I certainly wasn't flourishing as a human being."

"Shabs was very good to me, he treated me like a daughter. But I felt like I was a bit of a possession in the end … I felt owned. And I wasn't coping with that. It wasn't necessarily him, it was just the way I felt."

Jackson has always been a passionate campaigner for all women's sport. Part of her role at the ACT government was to organise a women's sport forum, and she has a vision for equality.

Jackson after winning a WNBA title with Seattle.

Jackson after winning a WNBA title with Seattle.Credit:AP

There is still a massive pay disparity between male and female athletes. The best players in the WNBA in the United States earn $110,000 per year and have to travel around the world to different competitions in the off-season. The best men in the NBA earn more than $30 million for one season.

But Jackson's fight for equality is about more than the size of salaries. She wants to see Australian female athletes earn respect for what they do and be given the chance to be professional.

The future is bright for women's sport…but there's still a long way to go.

Lauren Jackson

Remarkably, Jackson revealed some people on social media still tell her to "get back in the kitchen" despite her standing as one of the world's greatest.

"I will always be a champion for women in sport, there's no doubt about that. The future is bright for women's sport," Jackson said.

"But there's still a long way to go. It will take time for the money gap to close … but getting the respect and trying to breakdown cultural biases about women in sport is another big one.

"We've just got to be agitators and keep pushing, keep fighting. Every time I say equity, the keyboard warriors always say women don't deserve the same as men.

"It's not about that. It's so people like [keyboard warriors] respect people like me."

LIFE AS A MUM

Jackson revealed in her book she had a miscarriage during her playing career and she feared she may not be able to have children in the future.

Jackson, 37, was also concerned the debilitating knee injuries at the end of her career would affect her ability to play with her future children and weighed heavy on her mind in her final months as an athlete.

But Jackson gave birth to son Harrison last year and is due to give birth to another son in January.

"Me as a mum … It's easy to get up of a morning and get things done. And that's amazing because it was hard for so long [with injuries]," Jackson said.

"But life is good. There are different challenges now, but they're good ones. I don't know – I think I was born to be a mum. Being able to not focus on myself has been great.

My Story by Lauren Jackson.

My Story by Lauren Jackson.

"To give my focus to Harry has been the best thing ever for me. Basketball put me in the perfect position, it gave me skills to handle and deal with most things.

"Having Harry was the best moment in my life, without a doubt. Looking back, I've been really fortunate to have done what I did in my career. But now I'm fortunate to be focusing on Harry and my kids."

She says reflecting on her career for her book was sad at times. "I got the knot in my stomach, it was so bloody hard at time and a rough, rough ride.

"But if I hadn't gone through everything I did, I wouldn't be the person I am and equipped to take on life as I am now."

  • My Story by Lauren Jackson is out now at all good book stores for $32.99. Jackson will be at Dymocks Belconnen from 11am on October 27 to sign copies of her book.

LAUREN JACKSON

4 x Olympian (3 silver, 1 bronze), 1 x FIBA world champion, 1 x Commonwealth Games gold, 6 x WNBL titles (5 with Canberra Capitals, 1 with AIS), 4 x WNBL MVP, 6 x WNBL all star, 4 x WNBL grand final MVP, 2 x WNBA champion with Seattle, 3 x WNBA MVP, 8 x WNBA all star, 3 x EuroLeague championships, 2 x EuroLeague all star, 2 x Russian championships, 1 x Spanish championship.

Chris Dutton is the sports editor at The Canberra Times.

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