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EXCLUSIVE: Johanna Griggs on how her lowest points led to her brightest triumphs

From a ruthless sacking, to a high-profile divorce, to heartbreak after an 18-month IVF battle, Johanna Griggs opens up to The Weekly about how failure is the greatest lesson.
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When you walk into Johanna Griggs’ home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, one feature is glaringly absent. The House Rules and Better Homes and Gardens host was the first female Australian swimmer to break the 30-second barrier for the 50-metre backstroke.

But you won’t find a single piece of memorabilia of the sport which shot her to stardom as a 14-year-old before spring-boarding a successful media career that has lasted over 26 years and counting.

Today, Johanna laughs. The only swimming she does is in the dam at the farm in the NSW Hunter Valley that she and husband Todd Huggins, 44, retreat to in their time off.

It’s a far cry from those early years, which saw the sports-mad teenager relentlessly powering through the pool after taking up the sport competitively at the relatively late age of 13.

House Rules and Better Homes and Gardens host Johanna Griggs. (Image: Alana Landsberry)

A year later, she made the national team. At 16, she won bronze at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. But at 17, Johanna was felled by chronic fatigue syndrome, which was so severe she would spend two-and-a-half long and lonely years recuperating.

Returning to the pool at 19 for the Australian Swimming Championships in 1993, the crowd went wild when Johanna not only touched the wall first in the 50-metre backstroke, but recorded the fastest time in the world that year. It was then she would shock people once more, announcing her retirement from swimming the very next morning.

You can imagine her shock when, the following day, the Seven, Nine and Ten networks all rushed to present Johanna with offers to appear as on-air talent.

“It was so heady and exciting,” she remembers. “And again, I think how lucky I was.”

Before her career in media, Johanna was an esteemed swimmer in her teenage years. (Image: Alana Landsberry)

Johanna was able to transition her discipline in the pool across to her new chapter in media. (Image: Alana Landsberry)

Diving right in

Still, she wouldn’t let luck be the only dynamic fuelling her new chapter. Once again, Johanna applied discipline after signing on the dotted line with Seven.

“If an opportunity comes up, you need to put your foot in the door and then you need to make yourself valuable,” she explains, adding that this is now advice she gives young athletes hoping to make the shift from competitive sport to TV.

Certainly it wasn’t without a few stumbles along the way.

“Failure is the greatest lesson in the world,” she says of those early days, which saw her derided by multiple armchair critics as she learnt the art of TV presenting.

“The greatest opportunities in my life, the greatest lessons I’ve learnt and the greatest pivot points where you totally change direction have come from my failures. And that’s not a bad thing.”

Johanna believes that failing can be one of life’s greatest lessons. (Image: Alana Landsberry)

That rationale could apply to her short-lived but high-profile marriage to actor Gary Sweet. The pair wed in 1995 and swiftly had their two sons. In 1996, Johanna was sacked via fax from her role at Seven – two weeks before she was due to return from maternity leave with first son Jesse and by then newly pregnant with Joe. A year after that, Gary was out of the picture.

Johanna is notoriously close-lipped about the breakdown of her first marriage, but she does tell The Australian Women’s Weekly that while becoming a single parent was tough, it also brought her a lot of joy.

“When a marriage ends, you feel you’re such a failure in that aspect, but at the same time it really uncomplicated our lives,” she says, choosing her words carefully.

“I loved my years as a single mum. There are situations where people go between parents – we really didn’t have to do that. So you’re the decision maker, they’re your little buddies. And I had a lot of support around me.”

“Life’s about ups and downs, and it makes you appreciate the good bits.” (Image: Alana Landsberry)

Love makes a splash

Johanna had re-entered the dating pool after her breakup with Gary, but then her brother introduced her to a friend, building foreman Todd Huggins, and love swiftly followed. The boys were seven and eight when Johanna left the country to host the Winter Olympics, but Todd’s visits to her sons didn’t stop. And it sealed the deal on what was already a heady romance.

“He would turn up every day and either kick a footie, do their homework with them or hang with them and watch TV,” Johanna recalls.

“That was such a monumental thing to do. He’s never tried to be the boys’ dad because they have a dad but he is 100 per cent a person who influences them, who they still go to. They just adore him. I’m still giddily in love with Todd and I can’t rave enough about him as a person, his values and how he lives his life.”

At 46, Johanna happily admits she’s still figuring out her life.(Image: Alana Landsberry)

In 2006, the pair married in a small, private ceremony. Today, they run a construction company together, renovating houses of their own. Keeping things family-first has remained their priority.

In March 2018, that family unit expanded as her son Joe and his then-partner Katie Buttel welcomed their son – and Joanna’s first grandchild – Jax.

“That baby is the happiest, most chilled, extraordinary little boy,” Johanna gushes.

“Joe and Katie are doing a fabulous job of co-parenting. Both families, right from the go, said, ‘He’s going to be loved in any direction he looks in’ – and he really is. Todd says to me all the time, ‘I can’t believe you can love this way – it’s a different love that I even have for you.'”

Having a grandson in his life is, says Johanna, a special moment for Todd who was as devastated as her, when after several unsuccessful rounds of IVF, doctors told the pair they were among the small percentage the procedure would never work for.

They looked into adoption, reveals Johanna, but a mix-up saw their paperwork missing a deadline by just 12 hours and they were told to start over.

“I said to Todd, ‘What do you reckon?’ and he said, ‘I think it’s the universe telling us just to stop. It’s not going to happen for us’.”

House Rules airs Sunday at 7pm, and Monday to Wednesday at 7.30pm, on the Seven Network.

To read the full interview with Johanna, pick up a copy of Australian Women’s Weekly May issue, on sale now.

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