Peris was a representative in the Australian Women's Hockey team at the 1996 Summer Olympics, becoming the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold medal.
In 1997, she switched sports and a year later she became a double gold medalist in the 1998 Commonwealth Games (Kuala Lumpur) winning the 200m sprint with a time of 22.77 seconds and sharing in Australia's 4 × 100 metres relay win. Peris was named Young Australian of the Year in 1997.
Peris continued to represent Australia on the athletics track, running over 200 metres at the 1999 World Athletics Championships and 400 metres at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. She made the Olympic semi-finals in her individual event and ran in the Australian 4 × 400 metres relay team, which made the final, finishing fifth.
In the Olympic year of 2000, a portrait of her was hung in the Sporting Archibald Prize, painted by Glenda Jones.
In 2005, she sold her Olympic memorabilia to the National Museum of Australia for $140,000. It included her gold medal, hockey stick, Sydney Olympic torch and the running shoes she wore in the Sydney Olympics.
On 22 January 2013 the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced she would invite Peris to join the Australian Labor Party and stand as a candidate for the Senate in the Northern Territory at the 2013 election. On 29 January 2013 her preselection was endorsed by the ALP executive 19 votes to 2, meaning her name was placed first on the ALP's senate ticket in the Northern Territory, supporting the likelihood that she would become Australia's first female Indigenous federal parliamentarian.
On 7 September 2013 Peris became Australia's first Indigenous woman elected to federal parliament. Peris was sworn into parliament on 12 November, and noted the apology to the stolen generation in her maiden speech.
Peris announced on 24 May 2016 that she would not nominate to re-contest her Senate seat at the 2016 federal election. Fairfax and the ABC reported that Peris was one of the frontrunners being considered to replace Jason Mifsud as head of diversity for the Australian Football League (AFL). Malarndirri McCarthy announced on 25 May 2016 that she had been invited by Labor to nominate herself as Peris' Senate replacement and that she would do so. Nova Peris's Senate term ended at the double dissolution of 9 May 2016.
Peris was born in Darwin, Northern Territory. She met Sean Kneebone when she was 17 and they had a daughter in 1990. They married in 1995, after which she adopted the surname Peris-Kneebone. Following their divorce in 2001, she returned to using her maiden name, and in March 2002 married Daniel Batman; they separated in 2010. Batman died in a car crash in June 2012.
Peris married Scott Appleton on 12 August 2012. She has three children: Jessica (with Kneebone), and Destiny and Jack (with Batman), and became a grandmother at the age of 40.
Peris' autobiography, Nova: My Story was released on 4 April 2003.
In October 2014, explicit emails between Peris and athlete Ato Boldon were leaked to the press. The emails were used as the basis for allegations that Peris had used her role as an ambassador for Athletics Australia to organise a trip to Australia for Boldon as part of the "Jump Start to London" athletics program, during which she intended to engage in an affair with the athlete. Boldon subsequently described the accusations as containing "gross fabrications" and threatened legal action. Speaking in Parliament on 30 October, Peris denied wrongdoing, and alleged that the release of the emails was part of a blackmail attempt in regard to the child custody battle.