Athletics: Portia Bing's journey of self-discovery, re-invention as hurdler

Four years ago, Portia Bing wore a $10,000 dress. She had the athletics world at her feet and let it slip away.

These days, she's re-invented herself to reclaim just enough of that star quality - and so much more.

By breaking the 400m hurdles national record with a time of 56.04s in Sydney last month, running down 11-time Australian champion Lauren Wells in the process, the 26-year-old Aucklander has put herself back on the verge of international track and field.

That's a place she thought she may never see again.

The talented multi-eventer boasts an impressive array of national titles and personal bests across a range of disciplines, good enough to finish 16th in the 2015 heptathlon world championships.

Her career was on an upward trajectory, but somewhere on the road to Rio de Janeiro, Bing lost her way.

Based in Europe and desperately chasing Olympic selection, she was hampered by a niggly Achilles injury that crept into her calf. She tried to push through it, but eventually had to concede.

"It was the first time I had really been injured and I wasn't equipped to deal with that," she reflects. "I panicked and I made a few decisions to compete, when I should have taken time to heal.

"I learnt a lot from that, either way."

Portia Bing throws javelin
Portia Bing throws javelin at the 2015 world championships. Photo credit: Getty

What happened next shocked Bing into taking an extended timeout. 

"During that last period in the heptathlon, I was miserable," she says. "I was permanently injured and started to hate the sport.

"I was doing it because I had already been to the world champs, and if I could go one better and tick that off the bucket list, then I could stop. One day, I realised if that was the only reason, it wasn't the right one."

Bing's rapid elevation to somewhere still short of the very top had also brought outlandish - and perhaps unwarranted - attention, including a surreal appearance presenting at the Halberg Awards in the expensive dress.

That would be the very same Adrian Hailwood-designed gown that songstress Lorde wore on the cover of Billboard magazine.

"That was a crack-up, right?" she laughs. "I was presenting at the Halbergs and wearing this beautiful, beautiful dress, but it was this ridiculous lifestyle.

"I look at some of the athletes coming up today and they have the things I had - the big sponsorship deals, invited to these big events and big awards - but technically, they haven't really achieved anything.

"It's a sad path for a lot of them, because they don't understand that those things should come from success in the sport. There seems to be this culture that you go out and promote yourself to be better than you are, and you can get those things."

Once she missed the Rio Olympics and the support began to wane, Bing realised how tenuous that celebrity status had been, and needed a chance to reboot, physically and emotionally.

She returned to New Zealand and sought out the wise counsel of coach Russ Hoggard, a Yoda-like confidante for hundreds of lost souls over more than half a century.

Glasgow Commonwealth Games 4x400m relay
Glasgow Commonwealth Games 4x400m relay. Photo credit: Photosport

"It took me about eight months to even think about coming back to the track," says Bing. "I was lucky to have someone like Russ in my life - he said just come back, start running and get your health back to where it was.

"I'd already started working on what I wanted to do next post-athletics and the sport had kind of by-passed me by in the space of eight months.

"When we eventually evaluated what areas I could be good at, one of things we looked at was 800m, but the competition in New Zealand was so hard, I didn't really see myself being able to reach international level."

Four years earlier, Bing had made a cameo appearance at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in the women's 4x400m relay, so the one-lap sprint became a focus - until another opportunity presented itself.

"One day, I realised there was a massive gap in the market for 400m hurdles, not just nationally, but also internationally.

"For me, success leads to happiness, whether it's just the tiny success of a personal best or just getting back that enjoyment. The moment I went to four-hurdles, because there was such a big gap, I found success instantly and I was really loving it again, competing and building the confidence."

Actually, Bing tripped and fell during her first serious attempt at last year's Auckland championships, but clocked 57.86s to win the national title and hasn't looked back since.

Portia Bing runs down her Australian rivals
Portia Bing runs down her Australian rivals over 400m hurdles. Photo credit: Getty

Last month, she hacked eight-tenths of a second off her previous best over three consecutive weekends, culminating in the national record that fell just 0.04s outside the world championship qualifying standard.

"It's crazy for me to believe I'm within reach of that now," Bing says. "When I started back, I always had that dream, but in the last year, I've just really loved doing sport again and going to world champs never really occurred to me.

"I wouldn't have thought 56 seconds was possible, but now I'm so close, I can see it's very feasible."

This weekend, she will try to defend her national 400m hurdles crown - the next fastest Kiwi lags more than two seconds behind - but her next biggest challenge lies beyond, where Wells will be hungry for payback at the Australian championships.

And Bing doesn't rule out a return to multi-events one day, just to tick that off the bucket list - finally.

"I've kept all my shoes, just in case."