“She is like one of those Marvel superheroes, she is near death and she is dunked into a radioactive vat and then comes out with superhero powers.”
This is how Michael Pitt describes his daughter in her book, Unmasked, and it is one of the most accurate descriptions of the transformation she has undergone.
Despite living a life of adventure before the terrifying ordeal – what she calls “the fire”, in 2011 – what she has accomplished since is nothing short of extraordinary. She may look fragile, but this woman is anything but.
Pitt was just 24 and competing in an ultramarathon through Western Australia’s Kimberley region, with her eyes down and earphones in, when she was caught in a fast-moving bushfire about 19 kilometres into the race.
Despite trying her best to escape the flames by climbing up a rocky hill in the hope of seeking refuge in a crevasse, the fire engulfed her and left Pitt with burns to 65 per cent of her body.
Her extensive injuries led to having four fingers from her left hand and her right thumb amputated and while the fire left her with permanent scars, six years later, Pitt appeared to have not a care in the world as she strolled towards me into the reception at the Novotel Twin Waters in a long-sleeved white dress. She is quick to wrap my hand in both of hers and offer a welcoming smile.
It is disarming, and even more so when you catch her stunning emerald green eyes, which sparkle with a hint of mischief.
In the six years since Pitt made headlines for having barely survived her ordeal in the desert, she has competed in two Ironmans, founded the School of Champions, walked the Kokoda Trail, trekked part of the Great Wall of China and the Inca Trail, made countless public appearances as a sought-after guest speaker and raised more than a million dollars for her favourite charity, Interplast.
After her team of surgeons told her she would never run again, Pitt quickly adopted the mindset that everything was “figureoutable” and set about to prove them wrong.
“They said I would have to adjust my expectations of life, that I might be able to drive one day and I may even get a job, but through all of this on the inside I was screaming. It was like because I had this accident that everyone’s expectations of me just plummeted,” she says.
“It was the biggest red flag to the bull ever and it made me determined to prove them all wrong. I didn’t want to do an Ironman before the fire, I thought they were really stupid, but straight away I thought, ‘I’m going to show you, I’m going to do an Ironman one day’ I had no idea what an Ironman was, I just thought it was the epitome of endurance events and having that goal in the back of my mind is what got me out of bed every day, it’s what got me working hard on my recovery.”
Pitt completed the four-kilometre swim, 180-kilometre bike ride and 42-kilometre run in Port Macquarie in May last year and went on to compete on invitation at the prestigious 2016 Ironman World Championship at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
“I had so many barriers to doing an Ironman, with less fingers, I couldn’t ride a bike easily and had to get a custom-made bike and braking wasn’t easy for me, so I had to go slower when going downhill and all of these things, they are legit excuses, but they are still excuses, we can all come up with a million different reasons why we can’t do something, because you are too old, too fat, too slow, too young or whatever but in the end, it’s only ourselves and the choices we make,” she says.
“Hawaii was the next level of toughness, for me anyway. Burnt skin doesn’t sweat or allow you to regulate your temperature and I overheated really quickly. I had a heat management plan, wore a heart rate monitor and if my heart rate spiked dramatically I knew I had to slow down and back off the pace, and at each aid station, I had to stop and throw water on myself to cool me down.
“Throughout that whole day, I just wanted to quit, I did not enjoy that day at all, but I was really proud to cross the finish line because I kept fighting with myself to keep going. I think everything is figureoutable. It’s like I could’ve thought, ‘I can’t do Kona because it’s too hot, and I will explode and die’, but when you try and think about it and come up with a bit of a plan or strategies you can use, it becomes easier.”
Pitt has been sharing some of her tips and strategies through School of Champions, her seven-week online course to help people connect with their motivation and “ditch their excuses”.
She is also gearing up to take 30 people on her latest fundraising adventure for Interplast at the end of the month – a challenging trek to the Mount Everest Base Camp.
Pitt has met with some high profile celebrities, including Kate Middleton, who said Pitt has a “tremendous fighting spirit” and Angelina Jolie, who said “the world needs more women like you”. But these brushes with fame weren’t awe-inspiring for Pitt.
“It was nice stuff to hear, I guess,” shesays flippantly.
Instead, Pitt was the most star-struck by Australian Paralympian Kurt Fearnley.
“I sat next to him at a fundraising event and I kept talking to him and he must’ve thought, oh, this chick’s weird as, but he’s so cool,” she says.
While there have been many highs in the past few years and Pitt says she is “beyond happy” with the new life she and fiance Michael Hoskin have built for themselves, she does not shy away from sharing some of her darkest and most challenging moments.
“Honestly, I think when Michael and I moved back home was the hardest point in my recovery. I was working as a mining engineer in WA and Michael was also working on the mines and after my accident, Michael became my full-time carer and for two years, we lived with his parents and I didn’t have an income, Michael didn’t have an income, we were on Centrelink,” she says.
“In the hospital we were surrounded by all of these medical experts and I had a program every day to do my physio and do this and do that. Suddenly we were at home and it was just Michael and I, and I guess that is when the reality of what had happened really hit me, everyone else around me was living their lives, and I was just stuck.”
Pitt says they initially struggled to find their feet and a way forward in life, and depression kicked in.
“I was only 25 and thought ‘Christ, I have another 60 years of a really crap life and if all I can do is watch TV all of my life, it’s going to be really sh**’. I was doing all of these calculations and I told my dad I was going to kill myself,” she says.
“Dad said, ‘Give yourself five years and do everything in your power to rehabilitate yourself and if you still aren’t happy at the end of five years, you can kill yourself’. I thought, OK, I have a deadline, I’ve got something to work towards, and because I am a pragmatic person, that sat well with me.”
That five years was up last year and Pitt says she is incredibly happy she took her dad’s advice.
Speaking at a full house of 300 people at the Maroochy RSL as a guest of the Sunshine Coast Libraries to promote Unmasked, Pitt said she credits her father’s strong discipline for instilling the determination and drive that saw her claw back her life after the fire.
“Growing up, my dad had two rules. Number one was no whinging and number two was no bloody whinging,” she says.
“My brother and I missed the bus one day, so we did the same thing any kids would do, we wagged school. When my dad found out, he got a shovel and dug a trench and my brother and I had to run 10 minutes to the beach, grab a handful of sand and bring it back to put in the trench and we couldn’t stop until the trench was full. It was tough discipline and even though I didn’t like it at the time, I really value it now.”
Her father, mother Celestine Vaite, fiance Hoskin and his parents are given a voice in Unmasked, which was co-written by Bryce Corbett, and Pitt says reading their words was emotionally draining.
“I found it really affected me because it’s so painful for us to see people that we love in pain and you would do anything in the world to switch places with them. I get really upset reading these chapters and I also really value them,” she says.
“I feel a responsibility to live the best life that I can because I don’t want anyone that helped me to think that I am ungrateful for what they’ve done for me. There was so much other sh** to do when I was in recovery that we couldn’t sit around and talk about how we were feeling. I got to see what Michael expected our future to be like and what his worst fears were. It was hard to read.”
There is no doubt how much love Hoskin has for Pitt, and her for him, it is ingrained in their body language when they are together.
Hoskin has been a steady presence throughout the ordeal and proposed to Pitt in 2015. She says while they have future plans to start a family, they are “just enjoying being with each other, as soppy as that sounds.”
Once Pitt’s Everest challenge is complete, she is looking forward to taking some time out to relax in her home town Ulladulla. After pushing her body to the limits both physically and mentally for the past five years, she’s looking forward to the next chapter of her life.