The Sydney 2000 Olympics inked countless historic memories in the minds of Australian sports fans. Cathy Freemen’s 400m gold medal, the world-record-breaking men’s swimming team playing air guitars on the side of the pool.

But one moment in the final days of the Games is vividly remembered for bringing the nation together in heartbreak. Race walker Jane Saville’s dream of an Olympic gold was dashed when she was disqualified in the final kilometre of her 20km race. 

“I was about 100 metres from the tunnel to go into the stadium. I could hear people in the stands cheering,” Saville says, recalling the day with eerie clarity 23 years on.

Saville was in first place as she rounded the bend to enter the sparkling new athletics stadium in Homebush. The roars of an 80,000-strong home crowd floated through blinding September sunshine. 

“I was like, ‘oh my god, I’m going to win this!’ I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Then as I’m coming down the hill and looking at the judge, he’s fiddling with his clipboard. Then I saw the red card. I could hear cheers and then all of a sudden, silence.

“I didn’t know what to do – I couldn’t go into the stadium. So I just ran up the hill and started crying.”

Juggling sport and study to become an Olympian

Saville, a UNSW alumnus and former Ben Lexcen scholarship recipient who has since been inducted into the UNSW Sport Hall of Fame, had spent her life training for that moment. Her Olympic dream began – like it does for so many young Australians – at Little Athletics in primary school. When she was just 11 years old, she began winning medals and showing promise in race walking. 

In her 20s, she juggled an Olympic preparation training regime with studying social science and economics at UNSW, the very first Australian university to offer sports scholarships. And she spent the four-year lead-up to the Games fully focused on peaking in Sydney, after placing seventh in the world championships just a year earlier. Track, gym, recovery time and nutrition were all dialled in. 

But after that day’s cruel twist of fate, it turned out the most important preparation was Saville’s mental resilience. It was a skill she had picked up almost inadvertently while juggling study, work and sport at UNSW.

“I competed in a sport where it wasn’t an option to be a millionaire, and education was always important to me, to have a backup,” she says.

“I remember going from a lecture at uni, straight to training at weird hours. Sometimes I'd have to train at two o'clock in the day because I would have a lecture at night. It was tough but I had the park up the road at Centennial and I just had to do it. I learned a lot about juggling, managing time, resilience, persistence.”

Now 48 years old and a mother of three, Saville lives with her husband, former professional cyclist Matt White, in a small town south of Valencia on the west coast of Spain. She returns semi-regularly to visit her family in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and occasionally pops in to see how the university’s Kensington campus has changed. A recent visit had her marvelling at the upgraded new village green sports facilities, complete with running track and synthetic football field.

She reflects that the unfortunate red card in the Sydney Olympics inadvertently gifted her sport and fellow athletes a deserved moment in the sun.  

“I got more attention by getting disqualified than I would if I would have if I’d won the gold medal,” Saville laughs.

“Someone told me they were down at the pub that night, and everyone was talking about race walking. It wasn’t positive news. But at least there was this interest and people were talking about my sport.”

Jane Saville The Interview Jane Saville Blitz Magazine

Persisting to succeed

Today, Saville coaches school-aged children at a local athletics club in Spain. She says the most important skill she instils in the young athletes has nothing to do with throwing, jumping, running, or even race walking. It’s about learning how to bounce back from life’s setbacks.

“Look at any documentary of the most successful sports stars, or successful people, and how many knock backs did they get? A lot,” she says. 

“So many athletes and successful people have failed – so many times. But they kept fighting, kept fighting to the end.”
That’s exactly what Saville did. She returned to the track after Sydney’s stunning disappointment and went on to earn a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics four years later. She won three consecutive gold Commonwealth Games medals and became a five-time national champion in 20km women’s race walking. 

But it was her incredible humility that won Saville as much praise as the podium finishes. She earned the Victorian AOC Spirit of the Olympics Award and was selected as a finalist in the Australian Hall of Fame "The Don" Award for the Athlete who most inspired the nation. As Sports Illustrated wrote, rating Jane's sportsmanship in its Top Ten Olympic Moments: "Saville refused to belittle the officials or any of the women who stood on the podium when she was unable to do so. For that she should walk tall". 

Saville was inducted into the UNSW Hall of Fame in 2018 and still lauds the benefits of education and balance. On this topic she quite literally walks the talk: she is currently undertaking a Graduate Certificate in International Sports Management at the University of London. And she has sage advice for young athletes beginning the same journey she did a quarter of a decade ago.

“Anyone who’s on a Ben Lexcen scholarship is obviously a very bright person and super talented,” she says.

“But success is not just about that. It’s about mental health, managing all the study and training and balancing the stress of it all. Keeping that focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and preparing yourself that you may fail. 

“You might have been successful up to this point. But the difference between the people who succeed and those who fail is persistence.”