It’s a sister act that started with tantrum tears at Sydney’s Hensley Field back in 1980 and ended in tears of joy 26 years later at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. Ian Hanson catches up with racewalking champion sisters Jane and Natalie Saville.
It was the start of an Australian sports ‘walk of fame’ that saw the Saville sisters Jane and Natalie create Commonwealth Games history, winning gold and silver in the 20km walk at the Melbourne Games after Jane had led the Australian team onto the MCG in the Opening Ceremony – her self-professed proudest moment in sport.
It was a triumphant time for the girls – a third consecutive walking gold for four-time Olympian Jane and the first Games medal for Nat who had joined big sister at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games and as Olympians together at the Athens 2004 Olympics.
But it was back at Hensley Field in Sydney in the 1980s, where a young Jane Saville was already making her mark in the Under 6s at the Randwick Botany Little Athletics Club, and baby sister Nat wanted in.
“Jane was four years older than me and I used to stand on the sideline crying because I wanted to be involved,” recalled Sydney-based Nat when she patched into our “Greater Together” catch up with sister Jane who is now living in Spain.
The sisters missed out on their Christmas family reunion in Sydney because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Nat recalls how her determination saw rules bend in her favour.
“The officials had to break the rules at the Little As and let me come along… the only thing about me doing the Little Athletics was I wanted to come any position but last.
“But when you are racing five and six-year-olds (of course) I would come last all the time.
“So Mum would stand on the finish line and hug me so I couldn’t see that there was no one behind me and from there on I pretty much followed in Jane’s footsteps as much as possible.
“Anything Jane could do I had to prove that I could do as well and from there that’s where it all began and we did a lot of other sports as well, like swimming together and we did surf lifesaving together.”
Jane and Nat Saville competing for the Randwick Botany Little Athletics Club. (Supplied)
The sisters did everything together and kept driving and motivating each other to achieve success.
“Jane had made the Under 12s NSW State Team for Little As which was a really big milestone when you are 11 or 12 years old to make the state team,” Natalie said.
“I remember me coming through [the state pathway] I wanted to make the team as well and there were lots of things where Jane laid the pathway for me so I could to really improve and chase those goals as well.
“While we were members of Randwick Botany for several years Mum and Dad and other parents saw that there was a need for another Little Athletics Club within our district so they formed South Eastern and it became a really lovely community club.
“The parents mowed the lawns and we had the local football club helping us a lot and that’s where I really chased Jane down from there on.
“But I really wanted to prove myself, so I joined a new club… and I could take Jane on.”
It didn’t take long for the kid sister to start taking major strides in the rigorous sport of race walking.
“Nat came through [the state system] and broke all my records… I preferred Nat to break them rather than anyone else…” Jane recalled.
“Records are there to be broken and it was nice to keep them in the family, but it’s also nice that a couple of mine are still there… but they are getting swallowed up very quickly.”
Jane and Nat Saville at the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games. (Supplied)
The Saville girls quickly became a walking force in Australian Athletics – carrying on traditions set by two-time Commonwealth Games champion and multiple world record holder Kerry Saxby-Junna AM.
“We were always room mates and shared a lot of things together as we moved through the ranks,” said Jane, who with husband and two-time Commonwealth Games cycling representative Matt White, is based in the Spanish town of Oliva with their young family.
“We had training camps all over the world, to World Cups and World Championships, Commonwealth Games and the 2004 Olympics.
“And it’s been a rollercoaster ride of the ups and downs of careers in sport; as well as being sisters we are best mates who have just happened to do the same event.
“There’s always a lot of pressure and a lot of stress so to have someone who relaxes you and to feel at home, it’s really important.
“We went through a lot together; injuries, training, the highs and lows, and even our Olympics experience in Athens, which was a high for me.”
Jane finished with the bronze medal in the 20km walk on the streets of the Greek capital, which was a stark contrast to her sensational and heartbreaking disqualification when leading the same event at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, sister Natalie almost experienced the same fate at the Athens Games.
“Nat was on two red cards at about three or four kilometres into the race in Athens and as much as she was cheering for me she was hoping to goodness that she didn’t get DQ’d,” Jane said.
“I remember our first international team together was the 1997 Word Cup in the Czech Republic, although we had been on so many state teams together before that.
“It was a really good trip, it was awesome in fact… we had good camaraderie in the team, just to share the nervousness before the race with each other and even during the race, we were communicating, but we were on a course that was looped and quite big so it was hard to see each other.
“But it’s always nice to have someone there to relax you, who knows you in and out and can support you during what was one of the biggest races of the year, so it was really good to have Nat there.”
And Nat was equally thankful to have sister Jane as her roommate.
“It’s really good to have someone there who knows your moods, who you can get angry with and not have to worry about any repercussions or loss of friendship,” said Natalie in a fit of laughter.
But it was at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne where dreams were made for these Sydney sisters.
Jane and Nat Saville competing at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archive)
Jane remembers the call she received asking her to attend the Australian Team Reception at the Melbourne Town Hall.
Games officials had to twist her arm to get the four-time Commonwealth Games representative to even attend the function where they were going to announce the Australian flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony.
“I had just arrived home from Europe and I was tired and I don’t cope well without sleep, so I thought it’s just best if I don’t go,” Jane recalled.
“There’s no way in the world I’m going to (get the nod) to carry the flag I thought to myself.
“But I did go and when I was down there I got an inkling of what might be happening after they positioned me in one part of the Town Hall.
The hunch proved correct and Jane Saville was chosen as the flag bearer, becoming just the third female athlete to lead the team out at the Opening Ceremony, joining athletics legend Pam Kilborn-Ryan AM MBE and swimming star Lisa Curry AO MBE.
Jane Saville was selected as flag bearer for the Australian team at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony. (CGA Archive)
“I was in shock… I didn’t expect it at all but I thought that’s really nice that they recognised me and that I was in a pool of athletes that could carry the flag and I didn’t expect that I would get it at all,” Jane remembers.
“I had to say a speech and try and rev everyone up and as a Sydneysider when you are in Melbourne you have to say it is the home of sport in Australia… you have to give that to them.
“The Town Hall was packed and I had to speak to the media and everybody was outside… honking horns.
“I had photos outside with cars everywhere and carrying the flag, there was media everywhere, people honking and cheering… it was just such an amazing experience!
“I was just so proud to have that support there for the Games… Melbourne is such the centre of sport in Australia and the MCG is like the Holy Grail.”
“It is an amazing stadium and I had never been there before, so to walk out to such a great atmosphere… everyone was screaming… the lights were everywhere.
“It is difficult to describe that feeling of having the whole team supporting you, everyone is on this high, everyone is happy and with tens of thousands of people cheering for you and you are in the Australian uniform… I don’t think you could feel any prouder at any time in your life.”
Fast forward a few days later and Jane and Nat would line up together on the starting line to take on the Melbourne streets, but it wasn’t just the two of them, friends and family were there to cheer them on.
“The race experience was amazing too with so many family and friends who came from Sydney and in Melbourne, cheering us both,” Jane said.
“The streets were absolutely packed with people and then for the Australian girls to go 1-2-3, and for us Saville girls to take gold and silver in the race was amazing.
“It was a beautiful day and they didn’t present the medals on the course they waited till the night time session at the MCG so in front of 80,0000 people.
“After a full-on day with all the media calls, getting our makeup done and then to go out in front of that crowd at the MCG… wow!
“There was the Opening Ceremony and then the race but to be there and get presented that medal in that Stadium with your sister beside you it was just phenomenal.”
Nat and Jane Saville with their medals at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. (Supplied)
And for Nat?
“It was special to hear the National Anthem after winning the silver behind my sister, my training partner after we had experienced the highs and lows of the sport,” Nat said.
“She’s had good races, I’ve had good races, but Melbourne was probably one of the few times we’ve had a good race together.
“To experience that, to share that with Jane… it was just magical and we got mobbed when we walk out of the Stadium.
“It was something we’ll never ever forget.”
A special sister act and certainly “Greater Together.”
Where are our walking sister act now?
Jane is married to Olympic and Commonwealth Games cyclist Matt White, a professional cycling team director with Team BikeExchange, and the couple have three children Jordi 11, Zoe 9 and Kobi 7 and they live in Oliva, Spain (75km south of Valencia city on the coast).
She is studying a Graduate Certificate in International Sports Management at the University of London and admits it is a bit of a shock to the system as it was 25 years ago when she finished University the first time.
Jane also coaches at the local athletics club.
She was also on the IAAF Race Walking Committee for 10 years and is now part of a World Athletics working stream for the development and promotion of Race Walking.
Natalie is married to husband Bowie Phillips and they have two daughters Mila 7 and Addison 4 (5 in April).
Natalie is the full-time Marketing Manager at Allianz Insurance, with her spare time spent running around with her kids and their interests which includes OzTag, Nippers (Junior Surf Life Saving) and Little Athletics of course.