Meet Michelle Jenneke. She’s a champion sprint hurdler, but that’s not the reason her picture went viral all over the internet a few years ago. Before a race the young Australian did something that the audience hadn’t seen before and it was caught by a video camera. The footage soon proved compelling to an audience across the globe, and the whole episode set in train a series of events that no one could have predicted…
Athletes doing creative moves in front of spectators is nothing new, of course. Sportspeople do it all the time to win over fans and pump up the crowds. But when she was filmed Jenneke wasn’t actually trying to do either of those things: she was simply trying to prepare herself for the race ahead. Neither she nor anyone else had any idea of what was about to happen.
Jenneke had been doing that particular warm-up since 2009, but no-one had noticed before. Yet at the World Junior Championships in 2012 cameras were there, and they caught everything. Before she had time to catch her breath, Jenneke had gone viral around the globe. Countless people suddenly knew her name.
As many people in the world have discovered for good or ill, if a video of you goes viral there’s not really an awful lot you can do. You can try and take it down of course, but that generally results in more and more people becoming aware of it. That’s the situation in which Jenneke unexpectedly found herself.
Of course, there are some bonuses to having a video go viral. In the case of Jenneke the video made her famous, granted her some newfound fame as an internet meme, and resulted in her becoming a sex symbol, for a little while at least. But was that really what she wanted for her career?
Jenneke’s written in more recent years about the long-term impact of her dalliance with internet fame. Her career has undergone some significant changes since someone pointed that video camera at her back in 2012. She’s made it quite clear about what her intentions were with her warm-up moves, but there’s no doubt that one action accidentally changed everything.
Ever since she was a child Jenneke had been into sports, and she had a particular love of hurdles. She had a perfectly normal childhood, spending her time climbing trees and playing with her family’s pets. But sometimes she would line up her soft toys as makeshift obstacles and practice leaping over them.
Jenneke reminisced to Stellar magazine in 2017, “I was always a very sporty kid – pretty much any sport I could try, I would do. When I was nine years old, I signed up for Little Athletics. I didn’t train that year, I was just competing. Hurdles was always my favorite event, even though I wasn’t particularly good at it back then.”
The young athlete went on, “I started training the next year; only one day a week, but I was ten years old. At that age I still wasn’t anything special – I didn’t think so, anyway. I wasn’t thinking about a career in sport or representing my country.” Yet when she got a little older, a path to international competition opened up to her.
According to Jenneke herself, “It wasn’t until I made my first Australian team in the Youth Olympic Games in 2010, at age 17, that I realized I could compete professionally. My family is incredibly supportive of my career…They come out to every international competition. I’m so lucky to have them; I love making them proud of me.”
And they had many reasons to be proud. Jenneke was an accomplished sprint hurdler at the age of just 15. For two years running she came in fourth at the National All Schools Championships in her home country. And at the later New South Wales All Schools Championships she came second in the 100m hurdles, having achieved the incredible time of 13.07 seconds.
Already making impressive strides in the sport, as 2010 continued – and despite still being a student at the Hills Grammar School in New South Wales – Jenneke racked up even more noteworthy achievements. First she helped break the Australian women’s sprint medley relay record at the Junior Championships. Then she followed that up by taking home a silver medal at the Summer Youth Olympics.
The local media began to take an interest in Jenneke, and in August 2010 the Hills Shire Times newspaper interviewed her about her Youth Olympic Games win. She said, “I’m so excited, I’m almost speechless, I’m so happy. I got away well with the other girls and I felt like I kept gradually pulling away towards the end.”
The Hills Shire Times made note that Jenneke was “bouncing and almost dancing behind the blocks before the start.” When asked about this, the young sportswoman said, “I wasn’t nervous, I was just excited and I felt great warming up. It made a big difference having familiar faces in the crowd.”
And there was even more success to come. In 2011 Jenneke returned to the Australian Junior Championships and finished first in the Under-20s category. Then a little later that year she went to the 89th Australian Athletics Championships and came in third, only just behind the world champion Sally Pearson.
While all athletes compete primarily with the aim of being the very best in the world at what they do, it’s undeniable that to some becoming rich and famous is a further attraction. But it appeared that Jenneke wasn’t really interested in either of these things. Indeed, she competed in hurdles for no other reason than she enjoyed doing it.
Whenever Jenneke raced, she always seemed to bring up her love of sport rather than any desire to be a world champion. On her profile page for the 2010 Youth Olympics website, she answered the “Tips on how to become a top athlete” section with just two words: enjoy yourself.
Jenneke’s talent for the sport she loved was what got her to the World Junior Championships in 2012. It was a big event, and plenty of journalists had come to Barcelona to cover it. And as she waited for the 100m hurdles event to start, a camera happened to film her doing what she’d always done, enjoying herself.
Jenneke did a little dance as part of her warm-up routine. As the cameras watched she jiggled her hips and gyrated, a massive happy smile on her face. Though it wasn’t her intention, it was very attention-grabbing. And guess what? Yep, many onlookers – especially online ones – also thought it was pretty sexy.
Unfortunately Jenneke failed to win big at the championships, and didn’t end up qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Games in London as she’d hoped. But instead, she suddenly found herself a viral superstar. It hadn’t taken long for the dance warm-up footage to work its way around the internet, and people liked what they saw.
Some people immediately sexualized the footage of Jenneke, putting it in slow motion and playing music over it. Business Insider magazine described it as “mesmerizing.” Meanwhile the website of newspaper USA Today focused on Jenneke’s winning smile, saying, “You have to appreciate anyone who enjoys themselves this much.”
This all came as a big shock to Jenneke herself. In 2016 she told the YouTube web channel Beyond the Game, “I got a few Facebook notifications and I was like, ‘This is odd, I’m not generally this popular.’ So I was looking through that and there’s, like, links to this video… That’s me! What’s going on here?”
Things took off for Jenneke and fast. Before long millions of people had watched her video and it’d even featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Then at the end of August Australian news website news.com.au reported that the viral star had signed with the high-profile company Six Sides Management.
The news website tracked down Jenneke to see what she had to say, and she was pretty chill about it all. She told them, “My friends have been teasing me a bit more, that’s about it. I never thought my little warm-up would receive so much attention.” Her manager Damian Triffitt seemed to think differently though.
Triffitt told news.com.au, “In the last three days we’ve already had a lot of big companies come to us and say, ‘What do we have to do to get Michelle?’ Given the profile of the companies we’re talking to already, it’s obvious she’s exactly what a lot of them are looking for.”
By December Jenneke had appeared in another viral video, but this time it was on purpose. She teamed up with Mac Faulkner, also known as Forever Alone, in a video that cast her as the ideal woman. And yes, there were plenty of comments in there about her “bouncy” dance.
This opened up a new door for Jenneke, one into the world of modeling. In February 2013 she appeared in Sports Illustrated magazine’s famous Swimsuit Issue, which naturally increased her appeal even more. In the behind-the-scenes video of the shoot she comments, “I looked at the pictures and I think, wow, is that really me?”
Things were going really well for Jenneke for a while. In 2014 she represented her country at the Commonwealth Games, and in 2016 she qualified for the Rio Olympics. When she arrived there, her image shone down from myriad advertising billboards thanks to a commercial tie-in with a multinational soda giant Coke. But then things took a turn for the worse.
Jenneke finished sixth in the 100m hurdles, a very disappointing result for her fans. Even though she hadn’t come close to winning, a reporter cornered her after the race and asked her to do the famous warm-up dance for him. When she duly obliged, for plenty of people, it became a sign that Jenneke was a gimmick rather than a serious sportswoman.
And head coach Craig Hilliard slammed Jenneke as well. He said, as reported by AAP, “She was certainly one of the athletes that under-performed here. It would be easy to suggest that [outside distractions] was possibly a scenario. It’s something that I need to discuss with her and go through with her… she certainly didn’t arrive here in the shape she should have arrived in.”
Hilliard also questioned Jenneke’s overall commitment to her sport, saying, “If you are going to be half-baked at doing something, why are we investing in you? I can’t justify that.” And unfortunately this spelled trouble for the young athlete. Not long after the remark was made, Jenneke’s funding was cut.
And yet despite everything Jenneke seemed to keep the same upbeat energy that’d made her famous in the first place. She gave an interview to news.com.au once the dust had cleared, and explained that she believed one reason for her poor performance was that the competitors had been stopped from doing on-track warm-ups.
In the interview Jenneke also pointed out, “I’m still young, I still live at home, I’m still very comfortable there, I’m still at university, so at the moment athletics isn’t my only plan.” She was in fact reading engineering at the University of Sydney.
In September 2017 Jenneke told her story in her own words to Stellar magazine. Perhaps surprisingly, she seemed to bear no ill will regarding the viral warm-up video. She said, “I can’t explain why it became so popular. I found it funny people were interested in what I was doing.”
Jenneke went on, “I still get asked to do the dance, but I generally like to leave it to when I’m on the track. It’s not something I feel any pressure to do when I’m out there… that’s just what I like to do. It gets me into a good physical and mental space.”
But Jenneke pointedly concluded, “People think that by doing my dance I’m trying to draw attention to myself. I’m not. It’s just what I do when I’m on the start line. I’m not going to change who I am or what I’m doing because people view it one way or another.” Surely no-one could argue with that?
Jenneke is much more than that one girl who did a sexy dance. Since that one episode in her life went viral, she spent six-and-a-half years studying a combined engineering and electronics degree while simultaneously competing in athletics. Come November 2019 she graduated from the University of Sydney as a Bachelor of Engineering.
No matter what, Jenneke seems determined that enjoyment will always come first in her sporting career. She gave an interview to Australian website The Beast in 2018 and although the subject of her famous filmed warm-up dance did indeed come up, she also got to talk about what hurdling meant to her.
Jenneke said that although the Rio Olympics had been bad for her “just getting on that start line” had been “a really big deal.” She added, “But I was injured in my preparation leading up to it. I did the best that I could, and some days it just doesn’t work for you.” She had undergone physiotherapy, but it just hadn’t worked in time.
The Beast asked Jenneke if she had any advice for younger athletes, and what she said summed up her whole career so far: “I think the best advice I could give them is just to have fun and enjoy your sport. That’s really all I did. That’s the reason I’m still in the sport, just because I love it.”