Turia Pitt is a name synonymous with survival. Renowned for her pure grit to thrive in the most phenomenal story of triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. But she is humble in her pragmatic approach, always seeking the positive to whatever life throws her way, even when that includes the unknown world of parenting, she takes the time to tell Claire Armstrong her story.
Words CLAIRE ARMSTRONG
The sound of a car engine picking up pace and the faint hum of a radio and we are being swept along into the bustling life of Turia Pitt. It seems nothing slows her down these days. A far cry from the knife-edge existence she faced just seven years ago after being trapped by a horrific grass fire in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region while competing in a 100km ultra-marathon.
She kicks off our phone interview colloquially addressing me as “mate”, making her down to earth nature instantly obvious.
We go over the usual pleasantries and she is upfront that she doesn’t wish to dwell too much on the fire. At the time, the Tahitian born ex-model and fitness junkie was living in Kununurra, WA’s far north-east, with her childhood sweetheart, Michael. She had just landed her dream job at the Argyle Diamond Mine as a mining engineer, shortly after graduating university with a double degree in Mining Engineering and Environmental Science. She refers to herself as a vivacious over achiever.
Flourishing in the red dirt and dust landscape with an insatiable thirst for adventure, Turia found the idea of running 100km across rugged outcrop, rocks and riverbeds oddly appealing. Accepting the organiser’s, Racing the Planet, offer to waive her entry fee, the then 24-year-old unsuspectingly entered a sliding-doors moment that would forever change the course of her life.
Turia and five other athletes were unsuspectingly met with a huge three-metre wall of flames so deafeningly loud she likens it to a freight train.
That fateful day on 2nd September 2011 started with so much promise as some 40 athletes took to the start line with visions of pushing themselves to the limit to trek the isolated desert between Kununurra and the El Questro Wilderness Park. Shortly after passing the second check point and entering the rocky, uneven terrain of Tier Gorge, Turia and five other athletes were unsuspectingly met with a huge three-metre wall of flames so deafeningly loud she likens it to a freight train. With the treacherous path into the gorge shrouded in smoke, the group made the desperate decision to scramble to a rocky outcrop halfway up the side of the valley, vainly trying to protect themselves, but realising they could not outrun the fierce flames. It caught them and was unrelenting.
Four competitors suffered shocking burns, two escaped injury, the worst by far was Turia.
With burns to 65 per cent of her body, mainly affecting her face, neck, chest, arms, hands and legs there was a very real concern Turia would not survive. The burns were so deep, nerve endings had been destroyed. The area was so isolated it took nearly four hours, with little more than Panadol, for rescue. Family were too devastated to see her at first, not wanting that image to be their last memory. It was touch and go. But against all odds she survived. A month in an induced coma, six months in hospital, two years of rehabilitation and hundreds of operations, not that she is counting, and slowly and surely, she began to rebuild.
“Sometimes I think it’s weird to be well known for some random accident,” she confesses. “A few seconds of my life that have changed everything.”
But she brushes it off quickly, refusing to believe her fame comes as a result of being burnt, but of the accomplishments since.
“I believe people recognise me because of my charity work, my physical feats, my optimism and resilience,” she affirms. “But no matter how I look at things, my life will always be divided into two parts: Before and After the accident. But let’s focus on the after.”
Turia is eager to tell me about her brand-new book – an adaptation of her popular memoir Unmasked into a teen-specific version of the same name published by Penguin Random House Australia. The catalyst for the reinvention of the book came after the overwhelming response by teens and new parents alike to her e-book Good Selfie, released last year.
“In Good Selfie I shared a lot of the mindset strategies I use every day and I found it really resonated with teens,” she says. “Mentally, there’s loads of little tricks and strategies we can teach kids and use ourselves to find more confidence, strength and optimism. I wanted to share more of these strategies in Unmasked, alongside my story told plain and simple, and hope that it connects with young people in some way.”
"We all face challenges in our life. Part of living is accepting that very often things will be completely out of our control. Tough times teach us resilience and the knowledge that whatever difficulties we face aren't going to weaken us - they are going to make us stronger."
Umasked’s powerful message of a positive mindset, Turia hopes, will remind her young readers of how lucky they are for the life and opportunities waiting for them, as well as help new mums adjusting to motherhood to stay in the moment and find gratitude in the mundane.
Most of us will sit up and listen when these words are written from someone whose mum proudly hung her two prestigious University of NSW degrees above her hospital bed, while she had to excruciatingly re-learn how to close her mouth, pronounce words and eat, with now seven missing fingers.
“Every painful moment was another hurdle to overcome,” she recalls. “I knew I could get back on my feet, but it was slower than I could have ever imagined. I could barely move my tongue or use my facial muscles and had to undergo daily physiotherapy and occupational therapy just for the slightest bit of progress.”
And when asked if she ever felt like giving up?
“In hospital there were definitely times I felt I didn’t have the strength to keep living,” she admits. “But if there is ever a sure-fire way to motivate me, it’s to put limitations on what I can and cannot do. So I set myself a goal. Ironman. The doctors told me I might never walk, or run again and would probably need constant care, so I decided I was going to prove them wrong. I was going to compete in an Ironman challenge.”
And compete in Ironman she did. Well two in fact! Proving we can achieve absolutely anything when we break it down into small steps.
Since the fire, not only has she completed in the Ironman Australia race in Port Macquarie but the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, trekked the gruelling Kokoda Trail, walked the Great Wall of China, rode a bike from Sydney to Uluru, swam across the Kimberley’s Lake Argyle and tackled the Inca Trail in Peru. And was named NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year and a finalist for Young Australian of the Year.
And always by her side, no one can forget the unrelenting support of Turia’s boyfriend, Michael and mum, Celestine.
“I had a lot of time to think while in hospital and I realised I was fortunate to be blessed with such loving parents and a boyfriend like Michael,” she muses.
“I had to wear a mask for 23 hours a day for two years to help smooth my facial scarring and a full-body compression suit over my dressings to help with healing and I didn’t know if I could still be Turia. I couldn’t see myself sharing the same outdoor adventure experiences with Michael anymore. But Michael still saw ‘me’. He was in love with my personality and that’s something I’ve still got.”
Together Turia and Michael set about building a new future and last year that including tackling the challenges of parenthood.
On 7th December 2017, their first child, Hakavai, entered the world.
Turia chuckles recalling the questions from well-meaning strangers about how her body would cope during pregnancy, but she is blunt in the fact that on the inside everything still works just fine.
In what has become typical of Turia she brushes off her 13-hour labour, epidural and vacuum extraction as just the journey she had to take to meet her amazing little boy. A song on the radio interrupts her train of thought.
“Being Hakavai’s mum is intoxicating and scary and incredible. It’s a kind of love I simply couldn’t have imagined before I had him.”
Turia explains as a new mum she initially found herself always saying 'I have to go get Hakavai' ... And simply changing her inner voice to say 'I get to' has been monumental to see motherhood as a privilege rather than a chore.
Motherhood has thrown a new curveball her way, learning how to make time to care for herself, remembering that ‘me’ time is not her opportunity to clean the house. She admits even with her mum living close by, in-laws just down the street and a group of friends also nursing newborns. she still found the adjustment hard.
“People try and prepare you. I don’t think anything prepares you for life with a new baby.”
Turia explains as a new mum she initially found herself always saying ‘I have to go get Hakavai’ or ‘I have to go wash Hakavai’s clothes,’ seeing life as a long list of chores and obligations. And simply changing her inner voice to say ‘I get to’ has been monumental to see motherhood as a privilege rather than a chore.
“I’m lucky I can leave Hakavai with Mum and go for a surf, yoga class or catch up with a mate. For me, at this stage of his life, the focus is on fitting my work and fitness around Hakavai, not the other way around,” she says.
Her version of slowing down might still look a little hectic for some. Today, 30-year-old Turia lives in her idyllic hometown of Mollymook on the New South Wales south coast. She still travels giving inspirational speeches, provides online mentoring, has just published the young adult edition of her bestselling book Unmasked, has ambitions to get back into marathons and epic hikes next year, maybe even Everest will be back on the cards after the trek was interrupted by her pregnancy. As well as fitting in her own care and appointments including a recent surgery to straighten the bridge of her nose and continuing her well-recognised humanitarian efforts.
Interplast is one such cause she is passionate about;a charity that provides free reconstructive surgery to people in developing countries, and one in which Turia has raised more than $200,000.
“I don’t know what the long-term plan is for my surgeries and rehabilitation. At the moment, we are doing two to three surgeries a year. I no longer keep track of how many surgeries I have had. I have really wanted to get my nose improved this year and I’ll see what happens next year,” the indicator ticks loudly as we wait for our journey to continue.
“People often ask me if I’d change things if I could. There is no point thinking like that. Instead, I think of all the people who don’t have access to the kind of medical care I had. That’s why I’m devoted to Interplast. It’s not the best-known charity but in terms of the impact on the lives of those whose work it touches, it punches far above its weight.”
She explains that people always say they don’t have enough time and marvel at how she fits everything in, when time is really the one thing distributed evenly between every single person on the planet. “We just have to make the most of the time we have.”
Turia finishes our chat telling me she has arrived at her next appointment. I thank her for her time and wisdom and she replies she is probably luckier than most, frankly stating that when you are written off for dead and claw your way back to existence you kind of learn to not take a single moment of any single day for granted. And with that sobering thought she bids me farewell.
Turia's tips for a positive mindset:
1. Surround yourself with like-minded, positive people who support you
2. Be grateful for what you have each day
3. Always work towards a goal
Claire is a journalist of eight years across a range of publications and mother of two beautiful girls. She has a passion for all things parenting and a love of sharing stories about the parenthood journey.