Let us introduce you to Damon Jaenke. He is an elite wheelchair basketballer from Mackay and a 2x cancer survivor. In 2017, after getting help after his breakdown, Damon decided to use his platform to spread awareness for mental health.
Damon completed our Athlete Brand Builder Mentoring Program several years ago. We had the privilege of learning all about his story and where he plans to take his message. We're not the kind to keep incredible stories to ourselves. So we'd like to share Damon's journey with you, his insights and the athlete's perspective on what it's like to build your brand.
(Content warning: discussion of suicide in this article.)
The Brand Builders: Okay, let's start with the basics. How did we meet?
Damon Jaenke: Way back in 2017 via The Athlete Brand and Sponsorship Hub.
Quick author note here. The Athlete Brand and Sponsorship Hub is a free online community we run for athletes seeking brand and sponsorship tips. Okay, back to your regularly scheduled programming (or ah – interview).
What were you doing in the Hub?
I was trying to learn about how I could get sponsored as an athlete living in a rural area. I actually still remember where I was when I got your message welcoming me to the group. I was rolling along the Brisbane river on my way to Suncorp Stadium.
Tell us, what's happened with you and your brand in the last few years?
It's really taken off, to be honest. I've been growing my brand on social media, including LinkedIn. I recently created Push Away the Stigma. And I finally got to the place where I was confident enough to ask for sponsorship and know what I can give to them in return.
Pictured: Damon Jaenke with sponsors, Clint's Farm Fresh Produce
Congratulations! What sponsors do you have now?
What do you love about being sponsored by those brands?
The produce that I get under my sponsorship with Clint's Farm Fresh actually saves me money that I can put towards my sport.
Do you think your Athlete Brand has been helpful in building those relationships with sponsors?
Definitely. Knowing who I am and the unique value I can offer them as a sponsored athlete has been really helpful. So I'm not just saying, "Hey sponsor me and give me free stuff!" I can have a conversation with them about what I bring to the table and why I'd make a good ambassador. So we're connected on a personality and values level as well.
What do you wish you'd known when you first started your brand journey?
How easy it was to promote my brand and that it isn't "cocky" to promote your own brand. Because there is stigma around that. There's a stigma that you're showing off.
Why do you think there's stigma?
In my opinion, a lot of million-dollar athletes out there take it for granted. Whereas elite athletes, who don't get paid, do put a lot of work into the brand side of things and really value the support they get.
So you think people see the 99% versus the 1% differently when it comes to sponsorship?
Very much so.
Do you think brands see you differently? In a good way?
Starting to. The times have changed in the last 5 years.
Why do you think they've started to change?
Certain advocates within Australia have brought the conversation of all abilities sport to the forefront. Dylan Alcott. Kurt Fearnley. Madison de Rozario.
Has there been a mindset that's helped you on your brand journey?
Being focused on it. Locking in. Not worrying about what other people will say about it.
Pictured: Damon Jaenke for Sane Australia's Better Off With You initiative.
You mentioned Push Away the Stigma earlier. Let's talk about that because it's pretty exciting. What is Push Away the Stigma?
It's a roll up the coast from the Gold Coast to Mackay to raise money for Livin and awareness for mental health.
Another author note. What Damon didn't mention is this little "roll up the coast" (athletes – always so humble) is actually a 1000 kilometre physical challenge. It's going to take a good few weeks from start to finish.
Where did the idea for Push Away the Stigma come from?
In my garden actually during lockdown. I wanted to do something for mental health. I had an idea to combine my love for exercise and my passion for mental health.
Why does the challenge matter to you?
Because of my own journey with mental health. The finish line for the challenge will be where I attempted to take my life several years ago. It's a little bit of closure for me. But it's also about raising money and awareness for Livin through doing school talks in the towns I pass through and engaging media.
For me, it's my way of giving back to Livin because they helped me in so many of my dark days.
Am we correct in saying you wear a piece of Livin clothing or apparel every single day? To start a conversation with people and spread their message, It Ain't Weak To Speak?
Yep. Started in 2018 and still do it.
What are you wearing today?
I'm wearing my bracelet today and my tattoo. Normally I'll wear a pair of their socks or a shirt with their message on it.
So clearly, this is an organisation that matters a lot to you. We love this partnership because it's a stellar example of a genuine passion match between an athlete and an organisation. Damon's been repping Livin for years, now it's just in a more official capacity.
What are some of the things you're doing to promote the challenge?
Hashtags. Social media posts. Talking about it at networking events and whenever I get a chance.
You've also done some media?
Radio interviews and media interviews. The ABC radio is going to interview me every day of the challenge. I've got them on board which is great because that's going to help me tap into the older generation, who I feel still has some stigma around mental health. So that's part of why I've chosen the ABC.
You already have Clint's Farm Fresh Produce and City Cave onboard. What other sponsors are you looking for?
I'm currently looking for a compression garment sponsor for recovery. I love BASE Compression because they're based on the Gold Coast and they do a compression garment that goes over the hand.
My dream would be to work with one of the big mining companies to get some funds behind the challenge and visit their sites to do talks with their people. I moved to a mining town the day after my breakdown and I really relate to those people. My old man's company, BMA, actually paid for some psychology sessions for me which was a huge help. I feel like those mining towns are part of my story.
Where would you like your brand to take you? What's the big vision?
I would love to create a foundation or a charity on the back of Push Away the Stigma. That's where I'm headed at the moment. That's the bigger picture. I don't want this to be a one-off. So I'm thinking big and looking at how I can keep spreading my message.
Okay, let's go out with a bang. What are your tips for other athletes?
Be yourself. Know your vision. And just do it.
Well, Nike would support that message. #Justdoit folks.
What we love about Damon's brand journey is that everything is guided by a clear message and purpose – he wants to end mental health stigma. It's a genuine passion for him because it relates to his own story. It's proof that if you know who you are and what you stand for, you can not only connect with opportunity but CREATE opportunity, the way Damon has with Push Away the Stigma.
Keep up with Damon's journey online ⬇
Pictured: Vickie Saunders, Founder of The Brand Builders, Damon Jaenke and Charlotte Woods, General Manager at the Brisbane Lord Mayor's Awards Gala Dinner
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