In 2007 at just 25-years old, Jana Pittman won the 400m hurdle at the Osaka World Championships. She took off on her victory lap, flying the Australian flag proudly while the crowd cheered her on. What they didn’t know was that she’d wet herself during the final stretch, pouring an entire bottle of water over herself to cover it up.
“I knew I was going to wet myself in the last 50 metres of the race,” she recalled to marie claire Australia. “It was horrible. I told nobody for a decade.”
At the time, Pittman had given birth to her first child just three weeks prior. She acknowledges now that it was not the kind of stress her body needed.
“I would have an accident during every single race, but just hide it and pretend it wasn’t happening, which is really sad because it’s a conversation that needs to be had among women,” Pittman said. “For so many years I didn’t say anything, until a speaking gig around five or six years ago, where I finally admitted that I’d been having problems with incontinence.”
She laughed, recalling a recent speaking experience where she’d retold her incontinence story to a room which was mostly filled with men, but says her ‘quirky personality’ allows her to step outside herself in those moments.
“I decided not to feel the shame I felt when I was younger, and just accept that some people will think it’s a bit gross, and other people will hopefully feel better about themselves,” she said.
Pittman’s speaking gigs are just one part of her commitment to reducing the stigma around incontinence, but her appearance on last year’s SAS – a show known for pushing contestants to their mental and physical limits – was arguably her most profound moment.
After running 5km and working through a series of push-ups and sit-ups, Pittman was, understandably, exhausted – as was her body. It was here that she found herself in the same position as she’d been 13 years ago, having wet herself. This time, instead of running from reality, she decided to embrace it.
“I vividly remember standing there thinking ‘I can say nothing or I can use this as an opportunity to voice it,’” she recalled. “I was being honest with the girls around me as well, not just the TV.”
Having recently given birth to her fifth child, Pittman was more familiar with the limitations of her body, but despite working hard with a physiotherapist, her bladder had passed the point of fatigue.
“Initially I was really embarrassed about it and thought, ‘how is this going to be received?’ It’s going to be, you know, dramatic or whatever,” she said. “But I had countless women reaching out to thank me and booking appointments with their doctor afterward. And that was just…I felt so proud to be honest.”
Although she made it to the last episode, Pittman was ultimately cut from the group before passing selection due to exhaustion. Still, she was the last woman standing – a powerful testament to her persistence.
“They thought it was dangerous for me to continue and that’s where you have to trust their judgment,” she explained. “I was the weakest of the four boys and I certainly didn’t want to be the token woman going through just because I was a woman.”
She describes the SAS experience as a ‘blessing’ as it expanded her career tenfold, from speaking gigs to writing for women’s publications. Most recently, she’s been announced as an ambassador for Modibodi, an Australian, leak-proof underwear company which prides itself on normalizing bodily functions, from periods to incontinence.
“It gives women their dignity back,” Pittman said, before commenting on how life-changing it’s been to not worry about leaks while playing sport or looking after her six children. She’d been using the products for several years before coming on as an ambassador, relying on Modibodi underwear to get her through the long days working as a women’s health doctor.
Not only is the brand a better option for the environment, but it encourages women to have those challenging conversations about their own bodies, proving that it’s possible to live a life free from worry. For Pittman, who is passionate about flipping the script when it comes to incontinence, the partnership was a no-brainer. Along with helping women her own age, she hopes that young girls can turn to Modibodi as well, be it for periods or bladder leakage.
“I would have loved to have had them as a young athlete, because it would have given me a lot more confidence to not rely on pads while I raced.”
Despite paving the way for women to speak about incontinence, it hasn’t been an easy path for the former athlete, who was chastised throughout her early career and dubbed ‘drama Jana’ by the Australian media.
Pittman herself mused that hindsight is a funny thing. When you’re able to look back on your life like flicking through chapters of a book, it’s easy to draw connections where you might not have seen them before. While much of Pittman’s early twenties were defined by the harsh media press and the inescapable nickname which followed her around for years afterwards, she said the unforgiving treatment has given her a level of freedom she may not have otherwise had.
“I had a lot of negative media as a young person and it really hurt, because I’m someone who is just very keen to be liked,” she said. “Nowadays, I accept that everyone isn’t going to like me, and I feel like I’m making such a difference by having these conversations that I put my own personality aside in that respect,” she said.
“I think it’s also the reason why I ended up being brave and had the girls on my own as a solo mum,” Pittman said, of her decision to have her two daughters through IVF.
“I’d already had all the negative media as a young person, so it got to the point where it no longer mattered what people thought, and I just needed to do what was right for my family. It does empower you a lot, when you’ve survived through things and accepted that not everyone’s gonna like you. The benefit of it is that I’m brave, resilient and very outspoken about the things that really need to be talked about.”
While 21-year old Jana was struggling with the spotlight and 25-year old Jana was covering up her bladder leakage, 39-year old Jana is comfortable in her own skin. She’s a mother, a doctor and a Modibodi ambassador, proud of the mistakes she’s made and the lessons she’s learned. It’s her darkest moments that have brought her the most light, proving to other women that it’s possible to do the same.
Pittman, who’s often said that she’s lived about five different lives in the span of one lifetime, is undoubtedly her most authentic self in this one.