University of Melbourne Magazine

Kitty Chiller – Mission: possible

  • Kitty Chiller

    Kitty Chiller is preparing to head Australia’s Olympic team. Picture: Michael Amendolia


    When the Olympic Games are held in Rio de Janeiro in August next year, Kitty Chiller will be out front of the Australian team carrying the elaborate title of “chef de mission”.

    So, what’s with the French connection? Well, it is one of the two official languages of the Olympic movement, along with English, and all the team leaders carry that title. As for Chiller (BA 1984), she is happy with plain old “chef ”, although her business in Brazil will have nothing to do with culinary skill.

    Rather, she will be the one doing the explaining if some pubescent swimmer or bike rider punches a random drinker in a bar at 4am. That’s not the way she likes to think of her job, but it is also one of the realities. “I see myself as CEO of the team,” she says, by way of explanation.

    That puts her in charge of 470 athletes and nearly 300 officials from Australia at Rio, about 750 people over the fortnight of the Games. For many of them, these will be the most significant weeks of their young lives; emotions will be running high.

    It is also a test for 50-year-old Chiller, hand-picked by the Australian Olympic Committee for the task after impressing as deputy chef de mission at London in 2012, when the former Oarsome Foursome rower Nick Green OAM (DipAppSci(Horticulture) 1993) was head of the team, and through her success in group training projects.

    Chiller is a former Olympian herself. A world No. 1- ranked athlete in the modern pentathlon – the combination of fencing, running, swimming, shooting and show jumping that simulates the experience of a cavalryman behind enemy lines – she competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. This was a story in itself. Chiller had come out of retirement to qualify, fractured her kneecap a short time out from the event, but ended up finishing 14th.

    Kitty Chiller

    Kitty during her pentathlete years: on horseback…

    It was Franz Stampfl, the University’s legendary track coach, who first suggested she try the pentathlon back when Chiller was a student with an interest in athletics and a love of all sports. Chiller followed Stampfl’s advice, and made it her career.

    But her appointment as Rio team head has more to do with her work since retiring as an athlete, particularly as head of workforce training for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne through Holmesglen TAFE College.

    After that success, Holmesglen and Chiller won the contract to deliver the same service for the Asian Games in Doha, where about 50,000 volunteers and 5000 paid staff were trained.

    More recently she has worked as head of a community program at the Australian Sports Commission and then as general manager of Surf Life Saving Australia in Canberra. She left that role to take up the Olympic position, even though it is effectively an honorary job with a small honorarium. “It’s a choice I made,” she says. “I am not complaining.”

    Chiller sees it as a full-time position. She has made four trips to Rio already, sorting out accommodation and security and setting up “The Edge”, a drop-in centre for athletes, families and friends, working through copious briefings about security.

    She has also travelled around Australia for a series of functions that tell a lot about her approach: the “Ignite the Dream” series of 12 lectures by past Olympians. Chiller is about culture; it was part of her pitch for the role that the Olympic team needed to be seen as one team, not a collection of individuals or a set of many teams from different sports. It was a notion that rang true to the AOC, well aware of the cultural issues that afflicted the Australian team in London.

    “For three years and 50 weeks they operate in their own little bubble, as they should do,” says Chiller. “They go to their world championships and world cups but it’s just rowing or athletics or swimming.

    Kitty Chiller

    …and in her fencing kit.

    “It’s important for athletes to fully understand that the Olympic Games is not just another world championships that happens to be going alongside 27 other world championships. So they’re given that understanding of what it means to be part of the Australian Olympic team, the history and the tradition and the culture of that team, and the respect that the team has around the world.

    “The message I’ve been delivering at these road shows is ‘if you’re selected for Rio, you’re not just going to be a member of the 2016 Olympic team. You’ll be adding your name to a 120-year-old team that started with (Australia’s first gold medal winner) Edwin Flack in 1896. That’s what I’m trying to connect, that they’re in the same team as Dawn Fraser and John Landy and Betty Cuthbert.”

    There are echoes of the national men’s cricket team and the cult of the Baggy Green cap in this. “I want people in the team to respect what they’re a part of, and to respect others in the team.”

    She is also focused on high performance. From a chef de mission’s view, this is about creating the right environment for the athletes.

    “Every decision we make is based on ‘is this going to make the boat go faster?’ or ‘is this going to make Sally run quicker?’ Every decision we make needs to be based on ‘what is going to help the performance of the team?’ That is what we are there for. We can’t make Sally jump cleaner or Anna ride better. All I’m trying to do is try to develop an environment that’s based on sound values and one team, a united team, a supportive team, and one that from every appointment to every room that we have, everything is based on performance for the athletes.”

    The AOC has a stated aim of finishing in the top five on the Rio medal table, a tough ask given that Australia came 10th in London, with its fewest gold medals for 20 years. Kitty Chiller, leader of the Australian pack, has a target.

    “It’s an aspirational goal,” she says. “I think we can do it, it’s realistic but it’s going to be bloody hard. What’s important to me is that I’m responsible for a team that is provided with the best opportunity to reach that top-five outcome. If they don’t reach that, but they do their best and walk away proud of what they’ve done and respectful of their teammates, that’s a good result.”

    Kitty Chiller’s favourite sporting memory

    “It would be the appointment as deputy chef before London. I remember the phone call from John Coates (Australian Olympic Committee president). To be honest, that was probably more of a thrill for me than qualifying to compete at Sydney (in the 2000 Olympics). That was memorable, for sure, because I had a broken nose, I’d retired but came back when the news came through that the modern pentathlon was going to be in for Sydney. I’d been at the IOC meeting when they voted to put it in, and I’d been involved in the movement to get the females put on to the program.
    I fractured my kneecap the week before the Sydney Games, and the fact it was an 18-year journey to get women on to the program, that was a huge thing.”

    A University memory

    “It would be working with Franz Stampfl. I probably spent more time on the running track and in his little hut than in the lecture theatre. I was a swimmer and then I started running, and Franz was my coach. It was him who said ‘why don’t you start this modern pentathlon? It’s going to be in the Olympics in 1984!’ I joined the fencing club at Melbourne University, that’s how I started fencing, so Melbourne Uni for me was more memorable from a sporting point of view.”