Former world champion marathon runner Robert de Castella is helping Indigenous Australians change their lives through running. Now he has a new ally in his corner – Qantas ambassador Hugh Jackman.
Watching the cricket at the SCG in the ’80s – and hearing spectators yell out, “Have a go!” – helped shape Hugh Jackman. “Aussies would prefer someone to have a go and fail than for someone to boringly succeed,” he says. “I’ve always tried to do that – to do the thing that makes me a little nervous, a little scared. Just risk something.”
Now he’s helping others step out of their comfort zone, too. As Qantas’s newest ambassador, the X-Men actor and Broadway star is working with the Indigenous Marathon Foundation (IMF), which helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people train for the New York City Marathon.
“The marathon is like a metaphor for overcoming adversity,” says former world champion Robert de Castella, the founder and director of the IMF. “We identify incredible young men and women who demonstrate a capacity to drive social change in their communities through resilience, strength and achievement.”
The IMF’s six-year-old Indigenous Marathon Project has had 43 graduates, most of hom had never run competitively before. “And then it’s about working with them to continue the journey,” says de Castella. “New York isn’t the finish; it’s the start. They become mentors to other young people in their community. We give them the confidence and courage to drive awareness of issues [such as chronic disease].”
Graduates of the program (dubbed IMF Frontrunners) will have the opportunity to pitch for a Qantas grant that will support a business enterprise, further education or a community development project. Jackman met a group of “frontrunners” and one trainee in Sydney in August. He says some participants come to the program with low self-esteem and lacking in self-belief. “What it’s given them – and how they’re inspiring their families and their communities – I just think it’s a really powerful example.”
The initiative has special significance for Jackman, who spent four months working in a remote Indigenous community in the West MacDonnell Ranges, some 200 kilometres from Alice Springs, at the end of 1989. “I was at university,” he recalls, “and I was drifting a little bit. My time out there, particularly when I was running the general store in Areyonga and I was the only white person in the community – I didn’t want to leave. There was something magical about the outback, about really immersing myself in the Indigenous culture and understanding the heritage that we inherit as Australians. I felt so connected to the land.”
Although he returned to Sydney to finish his journalism degree, Jackman still says he would have been “happy to stay there”. In July, he returned to Areyonga with his 15-year-old son, Oscar, “which was quite emotional for me”, he reflects. “I’ve stayed friends with one guy there for the past 26 years. It was an amazing kind of reunion to go back out there and remind myself of the beauty of this country and the beauty of the people – and also some of the challenges they face, which still exist.”
It’s because Qantas does so much work in the community that he signed on as an ambassador, he explains. “I love that at a grassroots level Qantas is saying, ‘We see some good going on here and we’re going to be here as it grows’, and sticks with it.”
And on a personal level, he adds, “I’ve loved Qantas since I was a kid.” He recalls being at Roseville Cinemas in Sydney in the late 1980s, watching Dustin Hoffman proclaim in Rain Man the fact that “Qantas never crashed”. Says Jackman: “The entire audience was cheering and I was one of them. I think, as Aussies, we’re very proud of Qantas.”
Is it true that he sometimes flies Economy? He smiles. “Don’t get me wrong. When I get put at the front of the bus, I’m thrilled... But I don’t want my kids to think that flying Business Class is normal, because it’s not. Trust me, if I’m in First or Business, I still jump up and down. I love it!” ￼
For more information on the Indigenous Marathon Project, go to imf.org.au.
Photography by Damian Bennett