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New coach to help Football Ferns find their feet

The woman at the helm of the Football Ferns for the next six years, Jitka Klimková, has plans to push her young players in their upcoming tour to Canada, towards the 2023 World Cup.

Logically, Jitka Klimková's chief sporting pursuit should have been motorcycling. 

Raised in the little village of Moravany, in the south east of the Czech Republic, that was the sport of choice for the rest of her family. However, she was nuts about football.

"As a family we spent every weekend in summer at the races, but when the weekend finished I couldn’t wait till Monday with my ball, run to the field and wait for the boys who were going to play football with me," the former international midfielder and new Football Ferns coach recalls.

Klimková had no girls to play with, so it was train and play with the local boys. It was mainly pick-up games until she got to 15, but she retains fond memories of those early days.

"I didn’t play a [proper] game until I was 15; I was just happy to be on the field," says Klimková, speaking from Český Krumlov, in the south of her homeland. But the next stage was ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I really love’. I was missing the icing on the cake [games] at weekends."

Football has been an integral part of her life for more than 30 years and now she’s preparing to start an unprecedented six-year contract in charge of the New Zealand women's team coming into one of the most important periods of their development.

Klimková was a relatively late starter, and soon figured out that while she had the goal of playing for her country, she wasn’t going to be the star player.

She was good enough to be in the first division and played a couple of internationals. She remembers how it felt to be involved at the highest level.

"When I was 25, I thought I wanted to stay in football. I loved it and wanted to be involved as long as possible," she says. "Then I was thinking what would be my next involvement, and coaching was the best fit for me."

So Klimková travelled the globe, doing stints in the United States, Australia – where she coached Canberra to a W League title – and New Zealand.

She’s big on learning about countries’ culture. "I know how Kiwis are – hard workers, humble and friendly."

Jitka Klimková with now NZ U17 women's coach, Leon Birnie. Photo: FIFA/Getty

In 2013-14, she was in charge of the New Zealand U17 squad at the World Cup in Costa Rica, where the Kiwis drew with Paraguay but lost to Spain and Japan.

A few months later, she helped prepare the national U20 side for their World Cup trip to Canada. There they beat Paraguay and Costa Rica but lost to France and Nigeria.

From those age group teams, several players have made steady improvement to either be Football Ferns or close to it.

Players such as Daisy Cleverley, CJ Bott, Katie Bowen and Meikayla Moore are in Klimková's first national squad of 22 players, named yesterday for the two internationals in Canada this month.

Six players in the United States college system – Amelia Abbott, Aniela Jensen, Ava Collins, Jacqui Hand, Sam Tawharu and Tahlia Herman-Watt – are named in the Football Ferns squad for the first time.

Having coached and monitored the progress of those players from age-group level has had a positive spin-off – "I know most of the players and when I reached out to them it was more about reconnecting than an introduction."

Being offered a deal for six years shows remarkable faith in Klimková’s talents.

Not only is she in charge for the next World Cup, to be played in New Zealand and Australia, but also the 2024 Olympics in Paris and the 2027 World Cup, at a location yet to be revealed by world governing body, FIFA.

"I was very nicely surprised I got the job. I'm so glad New Zealand Football trusted me to give me this opportunity," Klimková says.

"It means a lot to me and a lot for women’s football. It’s not about a short preparation. It’s about the need to push young players, give them opportunities to be ready for the future."

Klimková stresses the need to balance young players and the more experienced group: "You can have 150 caps, but you’re still improving".

Amelia Abbott, currently playing at the University of Texas, is one of six new names in the Football Ferns squad. Photo: FIFA/Getty

She’s not prepared to lock herself, and her squad, into a specific playing formation just yet. As she puts it, deciding on a 4-3-3, or 4-4-2, or 3-5-2 system is not the highest priority.

"It’s about understanding how we want to play when we have the ball; how can we win the ball quickly and get a style people will believe in," she says.

Klimková, who's proud of the fact she is the first woman named in charge of the national team since they became known as the Football Ferns 15 years ago, describes herself as an attack-minded coach, but is also a realist.

That’s understandable, as the Football Ferns have lost 11 of their last 12 matches. But she’s looking forward, not back.

"I am a huge believer in controlling what you can control," she says. "That’s behind us, we can learn from it, learn what individual players and the team can do better, no doubt about that. But we need to look forward."

On which topic, Klimková is delighted NZ Football are aiming to have matches in all FIFA international windows before the 2023 World Cup. What’s more, she's specific on what type of opposition she wants for her team.

"We want to play the best opposition. Many people ask ‘are you crazy?’" she says. "But I say we need to play those games against the best. That’s what will help us the most.

"The first phase should be about us and our development. The priority at this point is we need to find our feet and understand how we want to play."

Jitka Klimková spent five seasons coaching the US U19 and U20 women's soccer teams. Photo: FIFA/Getty

Her focus is on preparing for the World Cup, starting with the games against Canada. The reigning Olympic champions, Canada are ranked sixth in the world, 17 places higher than the Football Ferns. Their coach, Bev Priestman, has worked for NZ Football. Klimková and Priestman know each other well.

Klimková has a keen interest in the daily environment of players in the wider Ferns squad.

She’s delighted a Wellington Phoenix team will be in the A-League Women for the first time. She reckons her players need to be training daily, playing regularly and being challenged and pushed.

She also wishes she could be in New Zealand now. Circumstances have ruled that out for the moment.

However she’ll meet her squad in Ottawa next week and with modern communications she gleans plenty of information by way of extensive video footage of her players around the globe. Not ideal, but it could be far worse.

She knows the pressure will be on to produce improved results.

"This is our starting point," Klimková says of the Canadian trip. The end point is July-August 2023.

* Both Football Ferns games v Canada will be live on Sky Sport; game one, Ottawa, October 24, 8am (NZT), game two, Montreal, October 27, 12.30 pm (NZT)

The Football Ferns squad: Victoria Esson, Anna Leat, Erin Nayler, CJ Bott, Katie Bowen, Tahlia Herman-Watt, Meikayla Moore, Ali Riley, Amelia Abbott, Hannah Blake, Daisy Cleverley, Betsy Hassett, Aniela Jensen, Ria Percival, Emma Rolston, Olivia Chance, Ava Collins, Jacqui Hand, Maggie Jenkins, Gabi Rennie, Sam Tawharu, Rosie White.

Niall Williams waits for word on her sevens future

While Black Ferns Sevens playmaker Niall Williams waits to see if a neck injury stops her from playing again, she's discovered she still has more to give, she tells Gael Paton. 

Niall Williams is playing the waiting game.

The serious neck injury which stopped her heading to the Tokyo Olympics may very well spell the end of a remarkable playing career.

"I'm still emotional when I think about it," the Black Ferns Sevens star says. "I've always been such a tough person and played through injuries. But this one is different. Two discs in my neck compressed onto my spinal cord, and the specialist said, 'You can't play with this. Not this time'.

“This neck injury is a different kind of mental battle because there’s nothing I can do about it. The hardest part is trying to be okay with not being able to control it.”

Anyone who watched the heart-breaking Instagram post of a tearful Williams announcing she wouldn’t be joining the Black Fern Sevens at the 2021 Olympic Games will understand the depth of pain she was feeling. Her overwhelming sadness was intense and profound.

But there is so much more to this strong and determined sportswoman, as I learn on a Zoom call. Sitting comfortably in a hoody with her auburn hair piled loosely on top of her head, Williams - who's scored 39 tries in 138 games for New Zealand - looks relaxed and in control of whatever life might bring.

Eight weeks after suffering her injury during a field training session, Williams had a scan and a specialist review. One disc had healed and gone back into place. The second disc had not. Another scan any day now will see if there’s been further improvement.

“It’s a wait-and-see,” she says. “Either way, I’ll be okay. If it hasn’t healed, it’s likely that my journey playing sevens will end.”

Initially Niall Williams didn't think sevens was the game for her, but it's become a passion. Photo: Getty Images. 

What Williams has discovered through all of this, though, is at the age of 33 and having played top-tier sport for 20 years, she still has more to give. It may not be on the field, but she’s pragmatic there’s more to life, and she’s ready for it.

“I’d like to think I could still have a place amongst elite athletes where I can bring all these years of learning, knowledge and resilience to the table and play a part in mentoring young sportspeople,” she says.

Sport has always played a big part in her life and she’s grateful to her parents, Lee and John, for encouraging and supporting her since her early sporting days. Williams laughs and says all her family - brothers Johnaurthur, Sonny Bill, and her twin sister Denise - were competitive and did well in any sports events they entered.

Williams also pays tribute to touch legend Peter Walters for having an impact on her sports career. Walters is the most capped player in international touch with a staggering list of achievements, playing and coaching in New Zealand and globally. He also had a successful career coaching women’s sevens here and in the United States.

Williams played touch at a representative level for more than 10 years and went on to be a great captain of the Touch Blacks women. 

“I saw Niall play in a social touch tournament as a 13-year-old and asked her straight away if she wanted to play higher level touch as I could see the potential in her,” Walters says. “She was a super-talented athlete who had a natural feel and instincts for sport.”

Walters has also witnessed Williams playing through injury and pain and considers her one of the toughest athletes he’s ever coached.

"She has a very high pain threshold," he says, recalling Williams once played an entire trans-Tasman campaign with a ruptured ACL.

In 2011 at the touch World Cup women’s final in Scotland, Walters remembers Williams dislocating her shoulder and her very clear request to ‘Just put the f***ing thing back in’. Medical staff did as they were asked, and Williams continued playing.

“She was very skeptical at first saying things like, ‘Do we have to tackle?’” - Williams' first sevens coach, Peter Walters.

But there was a time Williams almost gave up on touch – and possibly sport – altogether. “When I was 19, I had an ACL injury that needed surgery. There was a long stretch when I didn’t play or train. Although I went to touch nationals in 2009 for Auckland, I wasn't selected for the Touch Blacks team that year... I'd been slack in my rehab and fitness,” she says.

Instead of accepting her fate and moving forward, Williams says she got angry, blamed others and decided she was never going to play again. Her legendary sporting brother, Sonny Bill, came to her aid, and she moved to Christchurch at the end of 2010, where he helped her get back on track with her nutrition and fitness. After a while, she started playing touch again.

Walters also supported her return to the game and invited Williams and her partner, Tama Guthrie, on tour to play and coach touch in Europe and the US. Williams says it was the catalyst that helped her appreciate touch again and got her sports career back on track.

Niall Williams and her first Auckland Sevens coach, Peter Walters. Photo: supplied. 

In 2013, the world of rugby sevens was evolving. "Pete [Walters] was pretty much my gateway to sevens. He told me a few times, ‘They’re doing a Go for Gold campaign’ and that I should look at doing it,” Williams says. Go for Gold was a NZ Rugby recruitment programme to find talented female athletes in the lead-up to sevens becoming an Olympic sport in 2016.

At the time, Williams didn’t think sevens was for her. “She was very sceptical at first saying things like, ‘Do we have to tackle?’,” Walters recalls. "But I knew she had courage, transferable skills and power." 

When Walters took on the head coach role for the Auckland women's sevens team, Williams decided she’d go to a training to see what it was all about. Allan Bunting was the assistant coach at the time and Williams says, “I asked him a thousand questions because I was just a touch player and everyone else in the team were veterans.”  

Then she played sevens for Auckland for a couple of years and loved the experience. She made the Black Ferns Sevens on a training contract in 2015, and won silver at the Rio Olympics. After that, she was on a full-time contract. 

Williams now has a leadership role within the Black Ferns Sevens, which has evolved over time. “Like I do for my own kids, I’d do anything to see these young ones succeed,” the mother of two daughters says.  “Sometimes that means being nice, and sometimes it's giving them a reality check.”

There are times she reminds her younger teammates they’re living the dream, but no one knows when things might change - an injury, for example, could see the dream end.

This could well be Williams’ reality, depending on what her next scans reveal. 

When the Black Ferns Sevens headed to the Oceania championship in Townsville, enroute to the Tokyo Olympics, Williams says she was in denial. “In my head I was thinking, ‘Maybe it will come right, and I can fly straight to the Olympics’. I started giving myself false hope, even though I already knew what the outcome was,” she says.

While Williams was happy and supportive of the Black Ferns Sevens on their Olympics journey, there were a few times she says were extremely hard for her. The first was watching them run out for their opening game in Townsville against the Oceania Barbarians. “I was actually like, ‘Oh, I'm not there for real’,” she says.

Seeing her number four jersey presented to someone else was “really tough”. The hardest moment, though, was watching the team receiving their Olympic gold medals.

“I’d envisioned being with them at that moment for the last five years,” she says.

Niall Williams, her partner Tama Guthrie, and their daughters, Tatum-Lee and Rema-Rae. Photo: supplied. 

To help her get through her grief, Williams supported the other sevens squad members who didn’t make it to the Olympics. She took it upon herself to be a leader for them.

“I built a new connection with some of the players that I didn’t have before. They gave me a sense of purpose, to get up every day. There were definitely days I just wanted to stay in bed, but the girls still had to train, and I needed to be strong for them,” Williams says.

At first, she could only ride a stationary bike for short periods of time and recalls looking around the empty gym as the women were outside training and thinking, ‘Why am I here, why did this happen to me?’

She reflects on the time at 20, when she nearly gave up sport altogether. That disappointment mentally challenged and almost beat her. Not going to the Olympics has also been extremely hard, but this time, she says, she was able to draw on years of learning to help her.

“There are three pillars I rely on to give me strength - gratitude, empathy and mindfulness,” Williams says.

“I’ve realised these pillars come from my family upbringing and from the people around me. Mum and Dad, my partner, Tama, my two daughters - Tatum-Lee and Rema-Rae - family and friends are all helping me get through this.”

One thing is for sure, William’s contribution to women’s sport is remarkable and wherever the next stage of this journey leads her, she will do it with her trademark strength and determination.

Tenacious White Fern takes on new ref challenge

Sue Morris has dealt with her fair share of challenges in life, so it's no surprise she's the first woman to take on the role of NZ Cricket's match referee.

White Fern number 100, Sue Morris, is no stranger to hard work and dedication.

As a girl, she taught herself to bowl in her hallway; she finally made the White Ferns at age 30; then she battled a crippling disease which forced her to learn how to walk again.

And now she’s become New Zealand Cricket’s first female match referee.

A school teacher by profession, who's been helping with the Covid vaccination rollout, Morris admits it wasn’t a role she was expecting to fill. She simply responded to an article in a newsletter for past New Zealand players asking if anyone was interested in being a match referee.

After shadowing Tony Hill at Eden Park for a day, she was intrigued by the role.

Hill is a retired international cricket umpire, and Morris was fascinated sitting next to him throughout the day and hearing an umpire’s perspective.

In her new role as match referee, Morris will be tasked with writing match reports, summary appeals and recording stoppages to ensure teams don’t get penalised for a slow over rate.

“Captains will be fined if their over rate is slow, so it’s important every stoppage is recorded and radioed to the umpires,” she says.

The match referee works behind the scenes and alongside the coaches, grounds curators, players and umpires at men’s and women’s domestic cricket fixtures like the Super Smash. Morris says it is about managing the game to make sure it’s a positive experience for everyone.

“You really are the New Zealand Cricket representative to make sure the game flows,” she says.  

As a young country girl growing up in Papakura, Morris was always outside playing sports with her three brothers and was inspired early on by an older sibling who played for the 1st XI cricket team.

At 11, she already had a plan. “I found a love for bowling and just put it in my head that one day I want to play for New Zealand,” she says.

Sue Morris first played for Auckland women at 17 and her domestic career spanned 18 years. Photo: supplied.

Morris would spend hours in her backyard, her brother would bat as she bowled. She taught herself too, bowling down the hallway.

“I wanted to prove that a girl could play cricket,” she says.

But reaching the “pinnacle” at national level wasn’t an easy ride for the economical opening bowler.

Although Morris (nee Ruthe) had played for the Auckland women’s side since she was 17, she knew she was a “useless fielder”.

At a national cricket training camp, Morris was told it was because her hamstrings were tight and lacked flexibility. For the following six weeks, she did her exercises religiously, three times a day, and eventually she could touch her toes.

This dedication and hard work paid off and Morris made the White Ferns in 1988, at age 30. She played in eight ODIs at the World Cup in Australia that year and took seven wickets.

“I spent hours on my fielding, and if I hadn’t of made the changes and worked hard, I don’t think I would have played for New Zealand,” she says.

It was this perseverance and determination she developed in cricket – including a domestic career with Auckland spanning 18 years - that would get her through one of her biggest battles.

In 2001, now a mum to three daughters, Morris was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre disease. The unlucky 1 in 100,000, she was placed in intensive care and hooked up to a breathing ventilator.

The myelin sheath around her nerves was being eaten away, leaving her with permanent nerve damage and a loss of balance. It forced her to change the way she was involved with sport.

Morris was unable to walk for more than a year without being aided. “It was a lesson in the mind is willing, but the body is not,” she says.

“I remember being put between two parallel bars and just thinking, ‘how do I run?’”

Morris had to retrain her brain and body on movements she’d previously done with ease. “But if I can inspire someone by the way I have responded to difficulties, that’s important,” she says.

Sue Morris with Kilotilda, one of her World Vision-sponsored children she met on a trip to the Magugu village in Tanzania. Photo: supplied. 

Morris remembers a gift from a friend during her hospital stay, a Bible scripture that “filled my spirit,” she says. “It was Peter 5:10 which says, ‘After you have suffered awhile the Lord will restore you.’”

As a former children’s pastor, Morris says it spoke to her, “and made me think, ‘There are some things I can’t do but what can I do?’”

Not long after this, her decision to become a teacher made sense. “I look back and go wow, that was the right thing,” she says. “I’m passionate about helping kids be successful.”

Morris wrote curriculum for InnerFit NZ, a charitable trust that uses sport to develop children’s foundation life skills, and today she’s a relief teacher. She’s also mentored members of the White Ferns.

Two years ago, she dislocated an ankle and broke the other foot after standing in a pothole while teaching PE. Yet another physical set-back, but Morris found the silver lining.

“I spent a lot of time watching cricket. I would get one of my daughters to drop me off and I would hobble in,” she says. “I’ve loved cricket all my life and always been interested in the game.”

So, when Morris got the call to be a referee she jumped at the opportunity. Although she says she was unsure about all the media fuss on her achievement.

“I hadn’t thought about being the first woman [match referee] but now that I am, I encourage other women to give back to the game they love,” she says.

Morris is currently working in an admin role at a Covid vaccination centre in Māngere, but cricket is never far from her mind.  She’s managed to get herself a job as the liaison officer for match officials at the Cricket World Cup in New Zealand in 2022.

* NZ Cricket have also established a five-strong women’s umpiring panel to create pathways for women to the professional ranks. And trailblazing wāhine Kim Cotton has been elevated to the national umpire panel – another female first.

From ribbons to medals, and tears to spears

As a nationwide campaign encourages our tamariki to give running, jumping and throwing a go, Suzanne McFadden talks to three track and field stars about their first athletics club memories.

TORI PEETERS

Tori Peeters vividly recalls the tears. Floods of them.

It was a club night at the Waharoa Athletics Club in the Waikato, and Peeters was five or six.

The little blonde, tanned kid in the baggy yellow singlet had been winning every event she entered since she’d started at the age of four.

“I won everything because I was the only one in my age group,” New Zealand's No.1 javelin thrower says. “There were about 20 kids in the club – two of them were my brother and sister. I just remember being absolutely rapt because it was all sunshine and rainbows.

“Then one week they put me in a race with the older kids. Of course, I didn’t win, so it was full-on tears. Mum and Dad had to remind me who I was racing against.”

It didn’t discourage her; she was driven. When her family moved to Southland, the seven-year-old Peeters joined the local Gore Athletics Club and tried her hand at every event she could.  

“I have a clear file with all my certificates; the distance I did in long jump was pretty far for a little kid,” Peeters laughs. “But I had absolutely no idea about javelin. I didn’t see older kids throwing them around.”

It was in PE class at St Peter's College in Gore where she went into the little gear shed and pulled out the spear. “I threw it like a ball,” she says. “But at school athletics day, I was one of the only ones who could get it into the ground.”

Tori Peeters (left) with sister Stacey and brother Harry in Waharoa club singlets; then, right, sitting with Stacey after throwing javelin at the NZ schools champs. Photos: supplied. 

Her motivation to improve was her older sister, Stacey, who’d also given javelin a go (she’d go on to play professional netball in Wales).

“We were competitive siblings, and throwing further than Stacey gave me more of a reason to throw well,” Peeters says.

She broke all the school records, which grabbed the attention of local club coach Murray Speden.

“We’d go to the corner of the little grass athletic track in Gore, sheltered by the wind. I’d put on my rugby boots and throw,” Peeters says.

“I this day I still give Murray Speden a phone call and catch up with him when I’m down in Gore, and we debrief the season together. I still have such strong bonds with the people who helped me at club level.”

Now a member of the Hamilton Hawks club, Peeters narrowly missed out on selection for the Tokyo Olympics, but has a fresh view on the next three years.

After this summer’s domestic season, she has an action-packed agenda, starting with the 2022 world athletics championships in Oregon in mid-July and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham two weeks later. The 2024 Paris Olympics are in the frame, too. “My coach [Debbie Strange] and I are making a plan to compete in Europe,” she says. “We know I’m worthy of being there, and we’re not letting the selection of a team determine what we do.”

DANIELLE AITCHISON

Danielle Aitchison sprinting at the 2020 national track and field championships in Christchurch. Photo: Alisha Lovrich

Double Paralympics sprint medallist Danielle Aitchison simply did whatever her siblings did.

Growing up on a dairy farm in Patetonga on the Hauraki Plains, Aitchison followed her four brothers and sisters from sport to sport. They all joined the Te Aroha Athletics Club when she was 12 (she's the second eldest).

“When one of us wanted to play a sport, we all did. My older sister had a lot of the choice – so I also did ballet, tennis, hockey and netball, and sports in school like cross country and rugby,” the now 20-year-old says.

Born with cerebral palsy and almost complete hearing loss, Aitchison admits she initially found it tough competing with able-bodied kids. She loved running, but she was slower and sometimes teased for it.

But a born fighter, she stuck with it.

“Getting to hang out with my siblings made it fun,” she says. “I enjoyed the ribbon days, which weren’t based on your age but how you performed, so I was put in events with athletes with the similar times. It actually felt like a race.

“I still have all the ribbons; I’ve stitched them together to make a blanket.”

Danielle Aitchison on the top step of the dais with her brother and sisters at a Te Aroha Athletics Club ribbons day. Photo: Supplied. 

Aitchison drifted away from sport in high school, until 2017, when she saw an ad for the Halberg Disability Games.

Although she ran in socks against athletes wearing spikes, her talent shone through and she was spotted by track coaches. Two months later, she won three medals at the national secondary school champs.

“I didn’t even know there was athletics for disabled kids. I found my people there,” she says.

Aitchison, who won silver in the 200m T36 and bronze in the 100m at the Tokyo Paralympics, is happy to see the Para-athletics movement growing at the grassroots.

“When I was doing athletics as a kid, I didn’t see any other disabled kids. When I was competing at high school, there was me and two other girls. At nationals, there were eight girls max. But we’re slowly getting more people, which is great.”

She now belongs to the Hamilton Hawks club, but after years of training towards the Tokyo Paralympics, Aitchison is taking a well-earned rest from competing. She’s wrapping up her semester at Waikato University, where she’s studying social science, and hoping to see more of the country when Covid levels allow.

LAUREN BRUCE

Lauren Bruce prepares to throw the hammer at the Porritt Classic in Hamilton. Photo: Alisha Lovrich. 

 

Lauren Bruce can barely remember a time when she didn’t belong to New Zealand’s oldest athletics club.

The Olympic hammer thrower has been a member of the South Canterbury Athletics Club (formed in 1871), since she was eight.

“The sport, and the club, have been in my life ever since,” the 24-year-old says.

“Every year I go to re-register, and I think: ‘Do I stay with the same club in Timaru now I’m living in Christchurch?' But there’s always a part of me that feels like, well that’s where I started, so I should.” 

Bruce, who made her Olympic hammer debut in Tokyo, was a gymnast first and foremost until stress fractures in her spine forced her to retire at 14. But athletics always filled her summers.

“Mum tells me I came home from school one day after doing athletics and I said ‘I want to give this a go, and do it more often’,” Bruce remembers. “There was a group of 14 eight-year-old girls in the club, which was pretty big. But I’m the only one still going.”

Back then, Bruce enjoyed running and jumping, especially long jump, high jump and hurdles.

“We were encouraged to do all the events. Looking back, I see that was a really good thing. Today you see kids who only want to do throws because that’s what they’re good at. And I’m like ‘You’re nine, you don’t know what you’re good at yet’,” she says.

“I wasn’t great at throwing, but I wanted to be.” She was driven to beat a girl who always threw the shot further. 

Fourteen-year-old Lauren Bruce, mid-flight, clears a hurdle at the 2012 Colgate Games. Photo: supplied.

Bruce followed a friend to her first coach, Ian Baird, another advocate for kids to do all the events. He encouraged her to try the hammer, after she saw an older girl throw 54m. "I was relatively good at it, and I got hooked,” she says. 

The posture, co-ordination and timing Bruce honed through her gymnastics career helped shape the athlete she’s become. She started throwing the hammer right-handed – that’s the hand she throws a discus and writes with. “But I asked if I could throw left-handed, because that’s clockwise, and the same way I was doing all my turns and spins in gymnastics. It felt more comfortable,” she says.

Saturday club days led to training every day after school; the Colgate Games led to national championships and a bronze medal in hammer at the Australian Youth Olympics in 2013. “I spent a lot of time up at that track in Timaru,” she says, the same track that's home to Olympic shot put bronze medallist Tom Walsh.

Bruce moved to Christchurch to further her athletics career and came under the wing of national throws coach Dale Stevenson. She’s now a coach too, working with kids at the Selwyn Athletic Club in Rolleston.

“I was a little bit unsure if I wanted to do it, I’d just stopped coaching gymnastics,” she says. “But I’m glad I said yes. I’ve worked out there for four years now.

“I went out the other day and it was refreshing to work with these kids, where everything is new. Especially when the younger ones see hammer and say: ‘I want to try that too’.”

Bruce is back training, too, for her own summer season, the national champs in March and then heading offshore to prepare for the world champs and Commonwealth Games, for which she’s already thrown the qualifying distance.

* Athletics for Every Body is a nationwide campaign running during October and November to encourage Kiwi kids to give running, jumping or throwing a go. Athletics is a sport which embraces everyone, regardless of ability, size or shape.

You can find more information on how to find your local athletics club here; find out more about the campaign here.

Teen cyclist Christie proves she has skin in the game

When teenage cyclist Henrietta Christie began her season on the gravel roads of Manawatū, the last place she thought she'd end up was jostling with her idols on the muddy cobblestones of Northern France.

If it's possible to crash lightly during a bike race in Europe, then Henrietta Christie doesn't know about it. Of course, most cyclists leave it all out on the road. Christie just happens to leave a bit of skin behind too.

"I've had a small concussion, but mostly it's just been a lot of road rash: over both my arms, legs, chin, face, hands, shoulders," she says with a laugh from her base in Italy.

It's no wonder her first season overseas has been overwhelming. Christie's opening race of the year, the Gravel and Tar Classic in Manawatū, saw her line up with around 20 competitors. Her most recent race, the first women's edition of the famous Paris-Roubaix, had 129.

It's why a few cuts and rattled bones can be excused as the Christchurch teenager starts to understand the complexities of European racing. After all, when 2021 rolled around, she wasn't even thinking about going overseas.

Christie was expecting to do another season with her Kiwi team, Velo Project. She was coming off a great campaign with them, winning the junior time trial at the national road champs, and the junior Tour of Southland. 

That all changed after she spoke with Italian team BePink earlier this year. They were interested in signing her for the back-half of the season and offered her a contract until the end of December.

Like any New Zealand athlete, the 19-year-old had to weigh up the benefits of overseas competition, with the uncertainty of when she’d be able to return home. In the end though, it was a relatively simple decision.

Henrietta Christie at the head of the peloton backed up by her BePink team-mates. Photo: Flaviano Ossola.

"Doing something I love like cycling and doing it as a job is something I've been dreaming of for years, so when the opportunity came, I just wanted to take it straight away,” she says.

So by June, she found herself lining up for races in Belgium. It was a proper taste of the European roads, in more ways than one.

"I think you see a lot of New Zealanders in their first season crash in the first few races because it's just such a big jump. You have to go so far out of your comfort zone,” she says.

Rather than crashing and burning though, she's been crashing and learning - thanks to some helpful advice from experienced New Zealand professionals Mikayla Harvey and Georgia Williams.

"They've both been saying it takes time, and it's something you can't rush. To get that reassurance that they had all these crashes in their first year in Europe, helped me feel more confident that I'm just going to click one day and I'm going to understand how to do it,” she says.

She’s hopeful that might be the case with learning Italian, too. While her grasp of the language is getting better, she’s found the cultural difference the most challenging. Fortunately, she’s had New Zealand track cyclist Michaela Drummond, also a member of the BePink team, on hand to help her out.

"You do something and she thinks it's normal, where everyone else thinks it's extremely weird. It's good to be with someone who understands what you're doing half the time,” she laughs.

Her talent on the bike has already spoken for itself. A climber by trade, Christie flourished at the hilly French race Tour de l'Ardèche, winning the white jersey as the best young rider. After the first day, she was on equal time with former Velo Project teammate Ally Wollaston, before her team encouraged her to push on.  

"To get the white jersey on day four was phenomenal. I was standing there with a 30 second lead or something, and it was just unbelievable that I was leading it. To hold it for that day was amazing and I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off," she says.

Henrietta Christie, left, rode for NZ at the 2021 world road champs. Photo: Casey Gibson/Cycling NZ.

While the white jersey was an experience to savour, getting to wear the black one for New Zealand at the recent world road championships was even more special. Christie was selected to ride in the road race, alongside Drummond, Niamh Fisher-Black and Ella Harris.

"I looked up to Niamh and Ella from back home, so to be able to actually meet them and race with them was just unbelievable, I absolutely loved it," she says.

The significance of the occasion kicked in when she was on the start-line, surrounded by the biggest names in women's cycling.

"It was surreal. I didn't think at the beginning of the year that I'd be at the world champs standing next to my biggest idols, so I definitely pinched myself a bit," she says.

Christie did her best to try and get in an early breakaway, but unfortunately, the race didn't go her way. She didn't end up finishing, as she emptied the tank for her team-mates, but did her best to drink in the "insane" support from the raucous Belgian fans lining the streets of Flanders.

After such a demanding season, she’s now having a bit of a break to recuperate and knows how important it is to manage her body with a big future ahead of her.

"My coach [Elyse Fraser] and I are really focused on making sure I stay healthy, and that I'm not over-burning myself. As soon as I get too fatigued, we pull it right back and focus on recovery. Everything is about making sure that I'm still healthy for when I'm 20, 35, or whenever," she says.

Without an MIQ spot to come home to, Henrietta Christie is heading to the UK for a well-deserved break. Photo: Flaviano Ossola. 

It's a long-term plan that should ensure she continues to be part of a golden era of New Zealand cycling. There are currently 13 women competing in the American or European-based world tour or continental professional teams, headed up by Fisher-Black, who’s ranked as the number one young rider in the world. As Christie points out, they're building a strong community overseas.

"It's incredible because we're all here supporting each other and just looking out for each other. There's just so many girls - every race you go to there's always another Kiwi in another team and it's so good to chat and catch up, and it makes it feel a bit more like home which is nice," she says.

It's a salient reflection, especially with the ongoing troubles athletes are having trying to get back into the country through the managed isolation system. Christie doesn’t have a golden ticket to MIQ yet, so she’s heading to the United Kingdom for the time being to put her feet up.  

"I'm still hoping,” she says. “I'll keep trying each time, but I have some good Plan Bs in case I need to use them so I'm not too worried about it," she says.

Returning to New Zealand in the next few months might be a lottery, but it already seems like Henrietta Christie has secured her spot at the highest level of world cycling.

From 'unwomanly' to top of the rugby world

Women's rugby in NZ may be on a roll, but it took almost 100 years to break down the societal barriers stopping females officially taking the field. And the status of the women's game still feels precarious, writes Toni Bruce.

As we look forward to Saturday’s Farah Palmer Cup premiership final between Canterbury and Waikato, being broadcast live on Sky, it’s worth reflecting on how far women’s rugby has come in a relatively short time.

Earlier this week, a new women’s semi-professional competition, Super Rugby Aupiki, was announced, creating an additional pathway to national selection and a professional career. Even if the season only lasts four weeks, it builds on the success of this year’s one-off Blues versus Chiefs women’s exhibition match at Eden Park, which showed women’s rugby can attract both fans to the grounds and TV viewers.

This new competition reflects the rapid growth and growing professionalism in a game that New Zealand women have dominated since the 1990s.

Accolades and global recognition for New Zealand’s rugby women have come thick and fast, accelerating in recent years.

Five-time World Cup winners. Olympic gold and silver medallists. World Rugby team of the year. Five-time Women’s Sevens Series winners. Hosts of the next women’s Rugby World Cup next year. Not to forget that the Black Ferns 15s - leaving next week to play in Europe - are one of the most-winning Rugby World Cup teams ever.

The achievements don’t stop there. Individual players have won seven World Rugby Sevens and five World Rugby player of the year awards. Portia Woodman - now the most famous Woodman player - recently won World Rugby Women’s Sevens player of the decade and the women’s 15s try of the decade, as well as World Rugby women’s and Sevens player of the year awards.

Media have embraced her skill and talent, reflecting on whether she is “the best women’s rugby player on the planet” and describing her as the “Black Ferns wonder wing” and her rugby style as “fast, furious and full of excitement”. 

Then there are the New Zealand awards. Three-time rugby team of the year. First women to win player of the year and Māori player of the year. New Zealand Sevens player of the year. Twice New Zealand co-coaches of the year.  

Almost 30,000 fans turned up to watch the inaugural Black Ferns versus Wallaroos double-headers with the All Blacks and Wallabies in 2018, and the games attracted high TV ratings.

Former Poverty Bay representative and rugby fan, Richard Bruce, who has been watching rugby for 75 years, now prefers the women game because it’s more exciting. “It has all of the speed, energy and skill, without the brutality or the desire to hurt people,” he says.

Many players have become household names. Some will be familiar - Woodman, Michaela Blyde, Kendra Cocksedge, Sarah Hirini, Tyler Nathan-Wong and Ruby Tui. Others won their awards in the shade of little media or public attention, such as Kayla McAlister, Farah Palmer, Carla Hohepa and Monique Hirovanaa. 

The Black Ferns celebrate Pip Love's try against the Wallaroos at Eden Park in August, 2018. Photo: Toni Bruce. 

In the light of these recent successes, it would be easy to forget how hard women had to fight to carve out space for themselves in the ‘national’ game. Many Kiwis have no idea how long women have desired to play rugby.

What is shocking, but perhaps not surprising, is that it took almost 100 years to break down the societal barriers that stopped women officially taking the field. Indeed, until recently, rugby was so strongly naturalised as a masculine sport played by males, the idea of women playing was almost incomprehensible.

We’ve come a long way, baby

In the well-known phrase that emerged in the late 1960s we've come a long way from 1891 when the Auckland Star newspaper described women's desire to play rugby as "essentially unwomanly" and the game as something "for which women are constitutionally unfitted".

The women pushed back against such views, presenting women’s rugby as “a clever game without any of the roughness characteristic of men’s play” and arguing that the public would see “not the slightest breach of propriety”. Even though some media were mildly supportive - such as the writer who identified the players as “muscular girls of respectable character” - the attempt to start the first women’s team failed.

"We’re invited to the party and we are celebrated, but there’s always a risk that we could be kicked out.” - Dr Farah Palmer

We’ve also come a long way from women’s next attempt in 1921, when fears arose that playing rugby would simultaneously undermine women’s femininity and men’s masculinity.

As one journalist wrote, “Football is a man’s game, but if the ‘chummy’ girls want to play it, let them. But we don’t want our girls to become half-men. Personally, I have as much contempt for masculine girls as for ‘sissy’ boys.”  Even the New Zealand Education Department urged females who were interested in playing rugby “to consider the possible consequences...to the future mothers of the race”. 

A female London doctor quoted in the Auckland Star went as far as to suggest that women playing “strenuous sports” like rugby could lead to “racial suicide” because they would be unable to bear masculine sons. Instead, sons born to sportswomen “are apt to be puny and delicate, or generally emasculate or of inferior type.” 

Both these attempts, 30 years apart, failed, leaving rugby to further solidify its masculine status, and resigning women to roles supporting on the sidelines, washing team jerseys and providing food for after-match functions.

Indeed, it was further 50 years before women’s rugby finally gained some traction. A century after the first attempts, an official New Zealand women’s team competed at the 1991 Rugby World Cup.

Even so, women’s rugby was still marginalised as an amateur game, and the players’ sexuality and ability to bear children were often questioned. It is only recently that lesbian players have been openly and publicly accepted within the women’s game. We still await that acceptance for gay male rugby players. 

Female players occasionally faced outright hostility and public condemnation, and their experiences and successes were barely visible in news or television coverage.

Farah Palmer charges out of Scottish clutches during a 1998 World Cup match in Amsterdam. Photo: Getty Images. 

Echoes of earlier ideas have also continued. Dr Farah Palmer - after whom the Farah Palmer Cup is named - recalls being asked questions about her ability to have children and rugby’s effect on her reproductive capabilities.

Luckily her family’s concerns about injury quickly disappeared. “I think my mum was worried,” the former Black Ferns captain says, “but once she saw me play, she was, ‘Get in there! Get in that ruck!’”  Palmer also remembers the pressure to wear feminine clothes and make-up. 

Palmers’ ongoing involvement in women’s rugby since 1992 - as a player, captain of three Rugby World Cup-winning teams, and current New Zealand Rugby Board deputy chair - has allowed her to watch and influence the game’s development. Even in her time, women’s rugby has come a long way.

In the 1980s, she says “everyone was telling women it couldn’t be done, but they did it anyway. They played on the back fields, got changed in their cars, or tents, wore second-hand rugby jerseys from the men’s team from last season, had to put up with sexist jokes and innuendo at the after-match functions [if they were invited in]. But had a blast with their kindred spirits on and off the rugby field.”

She believes these early trailblazers “had the ‘freedom’ of doing rugby in a way that felt right for them... with very little input from the rugby fraternity. It was both liberating but still very much on the margins.”

The next generation demanded more and were “shocked or vocal” when they didn’t receive same resources, attention and level of respect. As a result, the media-savvy players “now have their own uniforms, often made for a women’s body”, are often visible in awards ceremonies, photographs and media coverage and have developed “their own way of sharing news and the message.”

The current generation are players, coaches, referees, administrators, volunteers, parents and leaders who have benefitted from the actions of earlier generations but are “much more aware of what is going on behind the scenes.”

They want “to change the system” by using their love for rugby, “status, mana and profile” combined with a “passion for women’s rights, gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and a ‘fair go’ to influence decision-making”.

So while we should celebrate the progress, Palmer reminds us that status of women’s rugby remains precarious. It feels like, she says, “we’re invited to the party and we are celebrated but there’s always a risk that we could be kicked out.”

The long fight continues.

* The Farah Palmer Cup grand finals will screen live on Sky Sport 1 on Saturday: The championship final, Manawatu v Hawkes Bay, at 11.30am; the premiership final, Canterbury v Waikato, at 2pm.

How Kiwi water polo star won Olympic bronze

Kiwi Rebecca Parkes is a superstar in Hungary, and a newly-minted Olympic medallist in water polo. She tells Gael Paton why she had to leave home to follow her dream.

How does a girl from Mt Maunganui find herself playing water polo for Hungary, winning an Olympic bronze medal and making the Olympic All-Stars team?

Rebecca Parkes, back at home in New Zealand on holiday, laughs when I ask her the question, then tells me, in her newly-acquired Hungarian-Kiwi accent, about the incredible journey she’s been on for almost two decades.

And the 24-hour decision that changed her life.

Parkes got her first taste of the sport playing flippa ball (a precursor to water polo) in Papamoa. She initially played basketball, but after an injury, she decided to switch to water polo.

At 11, she made her debut representing Tauranga in an U12 competition and was offered a spot in the A team if she’d play goalie. Her willingness to make sacrifices has continued throughout her career.

Moving through the age groups while she was at Mt Maunganui College, it became apparent to Parkes if she wanted to progress further in the sport, she’d need to transfer to a school with a water polo programme.

Parkes made the move to Auckland’s Rangitoto College, where water polo is considered a premier sport. She joined the school’s senior women’s team coached by Michael Buck, who’s also the fiancé of Olympic gold medallist paddler, Lisa Carrington.

Rebecca Parkes shows off her Olympic water polo bronze medal from the Tokyo Games. Photo: supplied.

During these years, Parkes played her way into the North Harbour senior women’s team, and represented New Zealand at U18 level.

Buck describes Parkes as “incredibly fast, strong and skilled from a young age, and also naturally tenacious and competitive”. Before moving to Auckland, Parkes had already developed a wide range of skills and very good fitness from playing every minute she could in every position.

“She was a great listener and had a strong desire to improve, which made coaching her easy and enjoyable,” Buck says.

Parkes’ water polo career took a major switch in direction in 2013, when she was playing for New Zealand at the junior water polo world championships in Greece. At that time, the head coach of the New Zealand women’s programme was Attila Bíró, who’d had a 16-year professional water polo career in Hungary.

On the last day of world champs, Bíró spoke to Parkes about an opportunity to play professionally in Hungary for a club in Eger, but she only had 24 hours to decide if it was something she wanted to do.

“To be asked liked that was exciting, but also nerve-wracking,” she says, “Up until then I’d been thinking about going to university in Hawaii to see where that took my water polo career.”  

But there she was, miles from home, away from family, being asked to make a life-changing decision.

Rebecca Parkes listens as Hungarian women's water polo coach Attila Bíró gives instructions. Photo: Getty Images. 

So, the following year, at the age of 20, Parkes relocated to Hungary to take up a professional contract with Egri VK in Eger for three years. She then transferred to the USVE Water Polo Club in Budapest.

She became a Hungarian citizen in 2016, paving the way to be selected in the Hungarian women’s team. By then, Bíró had returned to Hungary to be head coach of the women’s programme there.

“Bex really connected to the Hungarian style of play when we toured there twice with the New Zealand age group teams, Buck says. “She'd always wanted to get to the highest possible level in water polo and her move to pursue this in a foreign country with a difficult language showed a lot of courage."

Parkes has been settled in Hungary for the last seven years. She says living there has been easy for her and her Kiwi partner, Campbell, who moved there to be with her. “Life is simple,” she says. “I live and train without any problems. Hungarian people are passionate and proud people who love water polo.”

In fact, water polo is the national sport of Hungary. The historic ’Blood in the Water’ match between the Soviet Union and Hungarian men at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, at the height of the Cold War, reflected the struggles between the two countries. Blood spilled in the pool that day in a brutal semi-final won by Hungary, who went on to win gold – a victory regarded as a symbol for Hungary’s national pride. 

Rebecca Parkes (No.6) in a team huddle with her Hungary team during the Olympic bronze medal match v ROC. Photo: Getty Images. 

Parkes describes the homecoming after these latest Olympics as epic. "Everyone was invited to meet and greet the team and celebrate the victory, and it went on for days."

In the lead-up to this year’s Tokyo Games, the Hungarian women were tracking successfully. They’d won a bronze medal in the European championships, and silver at the 2021 World League super final in Athens, defeated only by the United States.

Their focus was on a medal at the Olympics, after finishing fourth at the last three Olympic Games.

They made their way through the pool rounds smoothly - drawing with Russia, and beating Japan and eventual gold medallists, the US, 10-9 (where Parkes scored a hat-trick). Although they narrowly lost to China, it was enough to see them through to the quarterfinals, where they beat the Netherlands, 14-11.

In the semifinal, Hungary lost to eventual silver medallists, Spain, 6-8, but went on to win the bronze medal match over the Russian Olympic Committee team, 11-9.

It was a dream come true for Parkes, only the second New Zealand woman to compete at the Olympics in water polo, after Francesca Snell played for Great Britain in London 2012.

To top it all off, Parkes was named in the Olympics media All-Stars women’s team - acknowledging she’s one of the best centre-forwards in the world.

Parkes says when she heard the news she’d made the team, it was “breath-taking… I can’t even describe how it felt. I got an injury in the quarterfinal and was afraid it would impact my performance in the semi and the final.

“I couldn’t believe that I had made the All-Stars team because it was so hard to play with the injury in those last two games.

“After we won bronze, my first thoughts were of Campbell waiting for me in Hungary, my family in New Zealand and my sister in China. I knew they were all with me through every match and would be screaming like crazy at their screens while they were watching.”

Buck was thrilled for Parkes and her family. “Water polo is one of the top sports in Hungary and only the very best can make it. So to win an Olympic bronze and be named centre-forward of the tournament is an incredible achievement,” he says.

The proof of her determination to succeed was in the bronze medal around her neck, as she stood proudly on the podium with her team-mates. The sacrifices she’s made have all been worthwhile, Parkes says, and the decision to move to Hungary was a good one - cementing her place as a world-class water polo player.

In a couple of months, Parkes will head to Greece to play for the Ethnikos Piraeus club and begin another chapter in her journey. As a proud Kiwi, she’s missed the beach so much living in land-locked Hungary, and believes the move to Piraeus, a port city within Greater Athens, would be a good change for her.

But she will return to Hungary to compete internationally. The country is her home away from home, and it’s obvious she has a bond with the people and their love of the sport.

While she’s home, and as soon as Auckland is out of lockdown, she plans to lead some training sessions with youngsters starting out in water polo.

“I’d like to think that water polo could become a sport that more people could play here in New Zealand. But it’s expensive and we are so far away from other countries; it makes it hard to participate in competitions,” she says.

Parkes hopes her story will inspire budding athletes to work hard and take opportunities to play overseas. She’s proof of the benefits of making sacrifices to achieve dreams.

Georgia Tong, the accidental Silver Fern

At 26, Georgia Tong has made it clear you can become a Silver Fern later in your netball career. Suzanne McFadden follows Tong's unorthodox path to wear the black dress.

When Georgia Tong made her unexpected Silver Ferns debut against England, there was a smattering of 50 people in the stands of the Christchurch Arena. One voice rang out above the rest.

Moments after the fulltime whistle blew in the final test of the Taini Jamison Trophy two weeks ago, Tong’s fiancé, Raniera Takarangi, performed a solo haka in her honour.

It was goosebumps stuff, that made everyone stop and watch. “And it was quite loud,” says Tong - his voice almost drowned out Dame Noeline Taurua’s post-match TV interview.

“But it was a very special moment. He’s very proud of me.”

Tong had found out the night before she was going to sit on the Silver Ferns bench for her first time, in the third and deciding test. Takarangi, a professional rugby player who’s just hung up his boots, jumped on a plane from Hamilton the next day.  

“I said: ‘But the flights are $600’,” Tong recalls. “And his words were, ‘Why have money if we can’t spend it on something as important as this?’”

It was a decision neither will ever regret. With just five minutes and 50 seconds left on the clock, Tong took the court wearing her favourite goal keep bib - and became Silver Fern #180.

Raniera Takarangi performs a haka for his fiancee, Georgia Tong, after making her Silver Ferns debut. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

It was unexpected, because she’d only been called into the Silver Ferns squad the day before the team assembled in Christchurch – on standby in case the four Auckland players stuck in lockdown couldn’t make it south.

And she was still recovering from a fractured rib, likely suffered during her Magic season.

“It was so surreal. I felt like I was in a dream and I was suddenly going to wake up,” she says.

It was an unconventional way to make a debut in the black dress. Yet that’s been the story of 26-year-old Tong’s netball career.

She likes it that way: “Because I can tell a different story.

“When I was younger, being a Silver Fern was never my end goal. I just wanted to be the best I could possibly be. But the closer I’ve got, the more I realise I can actually do this. Now that I’ve done it once and not felt out of place, I’m going to give it my best shot.

“My next goal is to actually be named in the team, rather than as an injury replacement.”

And within a blink, she's made the squad for Silver Ferns series against Aotearoa Men starting this weekend. 

***

Tong started playing netball at the age of four and has been smitten with it ever since. But it was never the be-all and end-all for her.

She grew up playing in Auckland, but rarely made rep teams. She was a natural defender, but playing in the same age-group as future Silver Ferns Phoenix Karaka and Temalisi Fakahokotau, Tong lived in their shadows.  

“I made an NPC squad at 21, but I pulled out to concentrate on study,” she says.  

Tong has three degrees: a BA in psychology, a BSC in sports science and a Masters in sports psychology. One day, she plans to be a sports psychologist. But now – for the first time – netball is taking centre stage.

In late 2017, she moved to Hamilton to live with Takarangi, a halfback playing for Waikato. It was almost like going home – Tong descends from Tainui; her marae is Poihakena in Raglan.

Magic defender Georgia Tong (left) contests a high ball with Stars midcourter Gina Crampton in the ANZ Premiership. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

The coach at her old Shore Rovers club called a friend, Mary-Jane Araroa, who was then coaching the Waikato BOP team in the Beko League, and told her about Tong.   

“MJ said I should come and trial,” Tong says. “I didn’t make the team, but I was a training partner standing in for an injured player for six weeks. When MJ asked: ‘What do you want out of these six weeks?’ I said: ‘I want to be around longer than that and make it hard for you to drop me’. Another injury got me into the playing 10.”

The next season, she captained the Waikato side, and in 2020, she made the Magic.

“I credit a lot of my success to MJ, because she gave me a shot as a 23-year-old who’d never made a rep team and she’d never heard of. So many coaches wouldn’t have.

“It places a lot of value on the National Netball League, because it proves you can play at any age if you want to make it.”

Tong quickly forced her way into the Magic’s starting line-up with her speed, aerial attacking game and disruptive defence.

Because she’s always on the move, her height is deceptive. She may not tower at goal keep, but Tong is actually six foot tall – 183cm.

“I’m a centimetre taller than Jane [Watson] and Temalisi,” she says with a laugh. “I’m quite slight as well.

“Noels keeps reminding me to be myself and play the way that I play. I’m very mobile as a goal keep and I attack ball out of the circle. And I try to confuse space for the feeder and shooter. Taller shooters can’t hold me which puts their whole game off.”

At the end of a tough ANZ Premiership season for the Magic, where they won just one game, Tong found she’d fractured a rib. She still has no idea how.

“I might have cracked it in a game - I’m one of those players who ends up on the floor a lot,” she says. “Then I got a cold and had a few coughing fits.”

“Noels is really good at telling you what you want to hear. It’s like she can read minds."

Tong spent Level 4 lockdown nursing the injury, riding a watt bike to keep up her fitness. “The Ferns physio was saying ‘We’ll make sure you’re ready just in case you get a call-up’. And I was like ‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen’,” she says.

She had two 30-minute court sessions before she flew to Christchurch, after a month away. “It was actually a blessing in disguise, because it gave me a break from netball and a refresh.”

When the phone call came from Taurua the afternoon before the Silver Ferns went into camp, the first thing the coach asked Tong was how her rib was. She’d been cleared to play by a sports doctor, and told playing wouldn’t make it any worse – only delay the healing.

“At my first training, I found I wasn’t going out for any intercepts. So the next day I wore foam padding on my right-hand side and that helped me mentally,” says Tong. “I felt it a few times during the week but nothing too bad.

“I actually got a bit of a knock in the game, so it was a bit sore after that.” By then though, it didn’t matter. She could finally call herself a Silver Fern.

***

Other players’ injuries have often opened the door for Tong. She joined the Silver Ferns development squad as injury cover this time last year, and played for NZA in the Cadbury Series.

It was Sulu Fitzpatrick’s knee injury before the third test against England last month which elevated Tong into the Ferns’ playing 10.

Before the game started, she’d felt “comfortable” in the warm-up team talk, delivered by first-time Silver Ferns captain Sam Winders – who’s also the Magic captain. And in those almost-six minutes on court, Tong felt safe knowing Winders was in front of her at wing defence.

Silver Ferns defenders Georgia Tong (left) and Kelly Jury sandwich English shooter Eleanor Cardwell. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

Winders says she was “stoked” for Tong - nickname GT - a mature player who takes everything in her stride.

“That’s certainly what she’s known for in the netball world – she’s very professional and extremely reliable. You know she’ll get the work done and be there on time, and if she doesn't have the answers right away, you just know she’ll do the research,” says Winders.  

“I think my brain works quite fast and so stuff comes out of my mouth without thinking much, especially on the netball court. And GT does an amazing job at filtering all the rubbish I have to say and just takes what she needs, gives me a thumbs up in reply, and that's all I need really.”

Tong reckons age has a lot to do with that (she turns 27 at the end of this month).

“It definitely helps that I’m a bit older. If I was 19 and had just been called in, it would be much harder. But I have a bit of life experience and perspective, so if I go on and don’t play well, at the end of the day, I’m okay,” she says.

“Noels is really good at telling you what you want to hear. It’s like she can read minds. Before I went on, she told me to play to my strengths and they had confidence in me.”

In her brief foray, Tong did as she was asked. She went hunting for a ball she saw outside the circle, and moved constantly, trying to confuse the English attack. But the Ferns couldn’t turn around a deficit (even though they’d led by 10 at halftime), losing 49-45.

She’d relish the chance to stay longer next time: “I’m one of those players who gets better the longer I’m on the court. I start to see the patterns in the shooters - I’m a defender who tries to con the feeder a little bit.”

That’s where her sports psychology comes to the fore (although she admits she’s not good at knowing which skills to apply to herself).

She’s open to playing further up the court, at goal defence and wing defence: “I feel my fitness is wasted at goal keep.”

The three-match Cadbury Series against Aotearoa Men, starting in Wellington on Sunday, may be Tong’s chance.

She was in New Plymouth for the weekend when Hamilton was plunged back into Level 3 lockdown. “I don’t have any of my gear, but I did bring my netball shoes. That’s all I need, isn’t it?” she laughs.

But if she doesn’t get another chance to pull on the black dress, Tong will be okay with that too.

“If I can walk away knowing I’ve done my best, if that one cap is all I get, then I’m still absolutely stoked with that. But I’m definitely going to try as hard as I can to get back there.”

* The Silver Ferns' three matches against Aotearoa Men in Wellington on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday will screen live on Sky Sport 1 and on TVNZ2 from 7pm.

Where are they now? Nikki Payne and Lynley Hannen

The first Kiwi women to win an Olympic rowing medal 33 years ago, the paths of Nikki Payne and Lynley Hannen have converged again - becoming neighbours, adventurers and beekeepers together.

In a home high on a hill in Nelson, two former rowers sat transfixed as the Tokyo Olympics unfolded.

Nikki Payne (now Dr Nikki Mills) and Lynley Hannen (now Lynley Coventry) live only 300m apart these days - despite choosing very different life paths. And so they watched much of the Olympics together. 

Inevitably, it triggered memories of winning their bronze medal in the coxless pair in Seoul 1988, when they became the first New Zealand women to win an Olympic rowing medal.

Watching the Games in Tokyo, they kept thinking: “Don’t the Kiwi women rowers rock!” And marvelled as one-by-one, they racked up four of New Zealand’s five Olympic rowing medals.

Quietly, they also felt a deep sense of pride at just how far the trail they’d once blazed had come. Looking back, Nikki can see that their medal “created the possibility for other women rowers to think they could do it too.”

In an era with few role models, the pair are convinced their Olympic success would never have happened without their “amazing coach”, Harry Mahon.

“Someone recently said it’s weird that coaches don’t get medals as well, and I thought, ‘That is so true of Harry’,” Nikki says.

Lynley is quick to agree. “He was instrumental in us getting our medal.”

It’s telling that this unassuming pair credit their coach with their success, but the road to the Olympic dais was also a result of Lynley’s astonishing athleticism paired with Nikki’s dogged determination and technical expertise.

Their successful partnership is an unlikely story that began with a fateful meeting on the banks of the Waikato River.

At the time, Nikki was already an accomplished rower, having won the 1986 world U23 single sculls title. Lynley, on the other hand, was in the New Zealand basketball team, following in the footsteps of her mother Anita Hannen. She’d only more recently taken up rowing as a way to keep fit over summer. Before long though, numbers at her local rowing club in Te Awamutu dwindled.

“So I wandered down to the Hamilton Rowing Club and bumped into Nikki,” Lynley says.

“I was looking for her,” Nikki says with a laugh. She’d heard of Lynley on the rowing grapevine and needed a new partner after her previous one “retired to have babies”.

“I loved pairs,” Nikki says. “So when Lynley came along, we gave it a go and it just kind of clicked.”

Lynley agrees: “I’d never been in a pair and didn’t realise how technical it was.” Lynley and Nikki laugh heartily at the memory of their first strokes together.

They progressed rapidly; Lynley deciding to focus on rowing rather than basketball. By the time the Olympic rowing trials were held in March 1988, they had become the national coxless pairs champions.

So they were surprised when only Nikki was invited to trial. Regardless, none of the four women who got a trial were selected for the Olympics.

In one of their many adventures, Lynley Coventry (nee Hannen, left) and Nikki Mills (nee Payne) climbed Mt Stokes in the Marlborough Sounds in February. Photo: supplied.

“At the end of the trial, the selectors said we weren’t good enough to go,” Nikki remembers. “I asked why Lynley didn’t get a trial when we’d been national champions for two years, but they said we didn’t have a record as a pair.

“I said ‘How do you get a record if you don’t send someone the first time?’ But they were unwilling to take a chance on us, so we paid for ourselves to go to Europe and raced the summer season over there.”

“Plan A was to get to the Olympics,” Lynley adds. “Plan B was to have a holiday in Greece.”

Under the coaching guidance of Mahon, they trained and raced all summer and did a stint of altitude training at St Moritz in Switzerland.

Fortunately the pair didn’t have to drown their sorrows with ouzo on a Greek island, because their international results - including placing second at the World Cup in Lucerne - forced the selectors to rethink their Olympic worthiness. The pair received a last-minute call-up into the team and were soon, miraculously, marching in the Olympic opening ceremony in Seoul.

On the day of the 1988 Olympic women’s coxless pair heats, Lynley and Nikki lined up at the Han River Regatta Course as only the second-ever New Zealand women rowers to contest an Olympics (single sculler Stephanie Foster had placed a creditable seventh in Los Angeles in 1984).

The pair sat in their boat awaiting the start of the race, easily identified by their black singlets and distinctive blonde pixie cuts. Behind them, the 2000m course stretched far into the distance.

This was the first time that women had been allowed to race over 2000m at an Olympics. Until then, it had been decreed women could only race 1000m, half the distance men raced. Despite their nerves, Lynley and Nikki felt confident they were capable of winning a medal.

Reunited: Nikki Mills and Lynley Coventry get back in the boat on the Tamaki River to train for the 2017 World Masters. Photo: supplied. 

They crossed the finish-line of their heat in second place, behind their great rivals, the East Germans, and went on to qualify for the final in the repechage. On the morning of the final, they began their day breakfasting in the Games village.

“The funny thing was the East Germans were sitting just down from us eating eggs on toast,” Lynley remembers. “We knew it wasn’t good to have protein before a race because it takes too long to digest. So we thought ‘Yes! The East Germans will have eggs sitting in their tummies.’ Even if it was just a mental thing, it made us feel like we had an advantage.”

In the final, the Kiwi pair comfortably beat the East Germans, by 5s, and crossed the line third behind Romania and Bulgaria. Lynley and Nikki (the lightest rower at the Games) delighted and surprised Olympic viewers back home, who until now had largely never heard of them. The pair had made New Zealand rowing history, despite facing the dominant crews of the Eastern Bloc.

After retiring in the early 1990s, Nikki and Lynley chose very different life paths.

“I had four boys [now aged from 19 to 26],” Lynley says, “and Nikki did medical degrees and a doctorate. She’s amazing. It was always going to be that way.”

Nikki’s PhD, investigating how breastfeeding babies suck and swallow, was awarded the 2020 University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor’s prize for best doctoral thesis. She has gone on to publish several papers and is regularly invited to speak at international conferences, such is her standing amongst global medical experts.

Lesley Coventry and Nikki Mills' medal haul from the 2017 World Masters Games in Auckland. Photo: supplied. 

For many years, Nikki worked as a paediatric ear nose and throat (ENT) surgeon at Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland, where she found surprising parallels with life as an elite athlete, something she wrote insightfully about in the medical news.

“My skills at applying myself in a very disciplined manner to rowing training equipped me well through medical school,” she wrote. “At that time in New Zealand, surgery was a male dominated specialty… When facing the ENT training selection committee, I was told … not to bother applying again. Regardless … I was tenacious in pursuing my dream, and on my third attempt … was finally accepted.”

While Nikki was becoming a world-leading doctor, Lynley was busy looking after her family and undertaking intrepid physical challenges: adventure racing, spring challenges, 24-hour races, biking, hiking, and running. “We’ve got hills here so that’s what I really enjoy doing,” she explains.

Despite their very different journeys, Nikki, who has a 21-year-old daughter, is also in awe of her former rowing partner.

“Lynley’s family is her priority,” Nikki says. “They are very tight. Lynley and Bill have an amazing relationship with their kids in a way that is quite exceptional in our day and age.”

Lynley looks at Nikki. “Aww thanks,” she says.

Nikki smiles back at her. “I mean it.”

Nikki Mills and Lesley Coventry prepare to check their beehives in Nelson. Photo: supplied. 

Nikki carries on, keen to share more about her treasured friend.  “Lynley is a spin instructor at a local gym,” she says. “I go three times a week to her spin classes. Lynley is an awesome instructor.”

The pair lived in different cities until last year when Nikki took a job as an ENT surgeon at Nelson Hospital. But they’d always stayed in touch and taken every opportunity to get their respective families together.

“We called it ‘Boot camp with Lynley’,” Nikki says. “We’d come and do seven-day adventures together, climbing mountains, rowing, biking, all from dawn to dusk. We loved it down here, so when the right job came up it felt like the right thing to do.”

The pair also reunited with former teammates and have rowed at various world masters and New Zealand masters events over the years, winning countless medals.

“We are always planning our next adventure,” Nikki says, having recently celebrated her 55th birthday with a week of cross-country skiing at Cardrona’s Snow Farm, along with Lynley and friends.

So what’s next on the bucket list for this multi-talented pair?

“We’ve started beekeeping together,” Nikki says, before the pair walked across Lynley’s property to decide where to place the hives. “Plus we’ve got a tramp organised in October.”

Olympic rowing medallists, pioneers, global medical leader, parents extraordinaire, adventure racers, beekeepers, inspirational humans … theirs’ is a remarkable list which is bound to keep on growing.

Chatham Islander has freeride world in a spin

From a girl who grew up roaming the Chathams on a dirt bike, Robin Goomes is now setting a new bar in the world of freeride mountain biking - especially with her revolutionary backflips.

Robin Goomes didn’t own a pair of shoes till she was 14. She didn’t need them.

Growing up in the Chatham Islands, everyone got around in gumboots.

And Goomes was always on two wheels. She remembers how much freedom she had, riding bikes in that weather-beaten outpost known as New Zealand’s last frontier.

“Everyone knows everyone, and it’s really chill. We’d just be riding our pushbikes down the street in the middle of the night and it didn’t matter,” she says.

When she was 10, Goomes graduated to a motorbike and hung out with the boys. There were no tracks on the island to ride on, so they’d spend hours roaring over farmland and across beaches.

“We just lived on our dirt bikes. We’d go into the hills and build our own tracks and jumps. It was so cool,” she says.

And it's not a massive leap from those remote paddocks to where she is now: the former solider turned shuttlebus driver is taking the freeride mountain bike world by dust-storm.

That carefree childhood goes a long way to explaining why 25-year-old Goomes is virtually fearless. Four months ago, she became the first woman in the world to successfully land a backflip on a mountain bike in competition, at the Crankworx Innsbruck Speed & Style event in Austria.

And not just once. Six times. “Just because I knew I could,” she says.

That performance signalled a change in the sport. The best female riders in the world saying they'll now have to up their game to keep in step with the rookie Kiwi rider, who’s been paying her own way to competitions around the globe in her first year competing overseas.

Right now, Goomes is in Canada, after riding the final event of the Crankworx BC tour on Silver Star Mountain. She’ll be home later this week (she booked her MIQ spot well in advance).

Her timing so far has been perfect. She’s launched her international mountain bike career just as freeriding for women has started to soar.

In a brief six-week tour, Goomes also dashed across to Germany to the Audi Nines – a famed freeride event where women were invited to ride alongside men for the first time.

The Kiwi was one of nine top female mountain bikers chosen to ride in slopestyle and freeride - a creative rather than competitive event. And she really made an impact.

The riders voted Goomes “Ruler of the Week” – the most impressive woman to land her tricks in the moon-like setting of a stone quarry in Hunsrück-Nahe. On the biggest jumps Goomes had ever attacked, she also pulled off a new trick - a 'backflip-can side saddle lander'.

The competition organisers called her “absolutely unstoppable” throughout that week.

Robin Goomes shows off her tricks in a jump-jam session at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Canada. Photo: Crankworx Photography. 

“It’s a big jam sesh, it’s epic,” Goomes says. “The highlight of my life, I think.”

And she’s already packed a lot of highlights into her 25 years. “I’ve been doing some living, eh?” she laughs.

From dirt to mountain

Generations of the Goomes’ family have lived on Rēkohu, the Chatham Islands (population 663). Her maternal grandparents are among her many relatives still living there, and she tries to go back to visit every couple of years.

Goomes was born in Christchurch and moved to the isolated islands when she was five. “It was a really cool place to grow up,” she says.

But with no high school on either of the main islands, she and her sister moved back to the mainland, living with their other grandmother in Christchurch for the school terms.

Missing her dirt bike, Goomes discovered a BMX track less than a kilometre from her grandmother’s house. “So the natural next best thing was to start riding a BMX,” she says.

She started racing at national level and continued right through high school, even after her family moved to Auckland and she finished her school years at Takapuna Grammar.

Robin Goomes has a laugh during slalom practice in Innsbruck. Photo: Crankworx Photography. 

Then she joined the NZ Army and had a “two-year lull” in her two-wheeled career. While based in Palmerston North, where she was a lance corporal in the engineering corps, a friend in the forces convinced her to go mountain biking on the local tracks.   

“I had the worst bike and he took me down the hardest track there was. It was so steep and so scary, but I was really hooked,” Goomes says. She bought a bike a week later, and every weekend travelled north to Rotorua to race in the forests.

After five years in the army, Goomes decided she wanted to pursue riding seriously, and left last year to move to Rotorua. She got a job driving the shuttlebuses for a mountain bike rental company into the Whakarewarewa Forest. 

“I’d work three days a week, then just ride and train,” Goomes says. Last summer, she headed to the South Island to make the most of the national mountain bike race season.

There she was invited to an all-women mountain bike progression camp in Queenstown – the first of its kind – where 10 riders were given help to progress their tricks and techniques. It was also about how to treat female mountain bikers in a more professional and empowering way.

It set me on the path I’m now on,” Goomes says.  “There were such good vibes, all the girls were pushing each other to learn new tricks.”

That’s when she decided to take her riding career offshore. “I was doing well in New Zealand, but you never know how that compares to the rest of the world,” she says. “I could be the world’s worst rider, but I’ll never know unless I go do it. So I had to take that risk.”

So, Goomes got her Covid-19 vaccinations and in June, went to Formation, a ground-breaking event for women’s freeride mountain biking, in Virgin, Utah.

She was invited as a digger – a reserve rider who, armed with a shovel, digs the lines and builds the jumps for their team rider.

Robin Goomes learned so much as a digger at the Formation women's freeride event in Utah this year. Photo: supplied. 

“It was a door opener,” Goomes says. “I got some riding in, too, and from that I should definitely have a spot as a rider next year.” She also crashed trying to complete a backflip - and knocked herself out.

The backflip

Fortunately with no signs of concussion, Goomes went on to race in Austria, where she met up with her Kiwi partner, Kieran Watkins.

“He rides, he doesn’t really race, but he came over just to support me,” she says. “Crankworx is full-on - I had three bikes, and it was event after event. There’s only a 30-minute gap between races, so I was really under the pump. He was there with food, water, bikes, and got everything sorted. It was so good.”

His support did the trick. Goomes won her first international event – the Crankworx Innsbruck whip-off (turning the bike sideways mid-air in a jump), which doubled as the European championships.

Then she set the mountain bike world abuzz, pulling off the trailblazing backflip in the speed & style event.

“I learned them two years ago to an airbag, and never did anything with it,” Goomes says. “That was until last summer in Queenstown, where there were good jumps and I started doing heaps of them.

“I wanted to do it in Innsbruck, but I knew it wouldn’t score well - it wasn’t even on our scoresheet. I just wanted to get it done, because I knew I could. It was cool, it got so much hype. I’ve had no broken bones yet, touch wood.”

Goomes made a quick trip home to New Zealand, then left again in August for events in Germany and Canada, where she’s racked up a handful of top five placings in the pro women’s events.

Robin Goomes competes in the downhill race at Crankworx Innsbruck. Photo: Crankworx Photography. 

While Goomes is also talented in downhill racing she’s decided to pursue freeriding.

“It’s quite funny though - a year ago I was doing tricks because it was fun. I didn’t really know what freeride was, because it was pretty much non-existent for women. It’s only really getting to a point where we could make a career out of it,” she says.

Goomes has been digging deep into her savings to pay for her trips so far (although she also won the $10,000 Mark Dunlop Memorial Scholarship – to help Kiwi mountain bikers launch onto the global stage, and received a £1000 donation from English riders Bex Baraona and Martha Gill to help her get to the Audi Nines).

“With the army, you earn a lot of money and don’t get to spend much, so I'd got myself to a point where I could do this stuff. Now I’ve blown the budget,” she laughs. “This year was my shot to do something good and get picked up by sponsors for next year.

“I want to go to the top. There’s so much room for this sport to grow for women, and I’m pretty keen to help push it as far as I can. I have a full list of tricks I want to learn and keep pushing the sport. And ideally make a job of it as well.”

Once she’s out of MIQ, she will be straight into the New Zealand leg of the Crankworx world circuit, at home in Rotorua on November 3. Then she’ll be behind the wheel of the shuttlebus again.

Goomes hopes to return to the Chatham Islands when she can.

“One day I’d like to go back and take my bike and build a track for the kids over there,” she says. “It’s the dream.”

My farewell to LockerRoom

Ashley Stanley signs off from her debut role in sports journalism, for LockerRoom, with this shoutout to women athletes, backers of opportunities for women writers and to one, special editor

After two years with LockerRoom, this is the hardest introduction I’ve had to try to formulate. 

Even with the countless hours of feedback, lessons on different ways to open an article, and tips and tricks on adding more details with fewer words, how do I ‘pull in the reader’ when writing about a definitive period in my life? 

Because that’s what my time at Newsroom, specifically LockerRoom and with editor Suzanne McFadden, has been. Life-changing in many ways: learning a new craft from scratch, meeting and working with different people in a foreign industry, and to now being in a position where hopefully more doors will open to explore. 

And even though my full-time LockerRoom role is coming to an end this week, I know there will be more to reflect on and uncover, long after I leave.

For now, when I look back on what has been accomplished, nothing about my time at LockerRoom has gone exactly to plan. But I’m pleased the jagged detour provided better views, especially when not a lot of people have been fortunate to say the same during this period.

Jumping over to sports journalism

On paper the timing and call was off when I decided to leave a secure 10-year career at AUT University for a new scholarship in sports journalism in late 2019. 

Because as we all know now, in early 2020, the Covid-19 global pandemic smothered the world and our way of living changed, moving at a rate most of us were not prepared for.

I’d gone from posting excitedly on social media in late January about heading to Auckland International Airport on my first day on the job to interview a Black Ferns sevens rookie heading to her first world circuit event in Sydney, to worrying about whether I’d even have a job in March, after the Piha Pro - my first ever media accreditation event - was cancelled (the first major New Zealand competition canned in what would be a domino effect seen around the world).  

Ashley Stanley on her first day at LockerRoom with Black Ferns sevens player Jazz Hotham. Photo: supplied.

But unlike the newsrooms who unfortunately had to let go or drastically change their sports departments, LockerRoom ramped up in the first Level 4 lockdown because everyone, including athletes, were at home. 

It was my first taste of learning about different types of sports journalism and what makes LockerRoom so special and unique. 

We didn’t need live matches to write about how sportswomen were coping with the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics or what athletes were doing at home to keep fit and motivated during lockdown. The topics we cover, who we focus on and how we cover them at LockerRoom is refreshingly different. 

It also helped that the scholarship I received was part of Newsroom and Sky Sports’ two-year partnership, an initiative aimed at getting more women into sports journalism. So, thankfully, my role was safe.

To get an idea on the significance of the scholarship, I want to list a snapshot of some of the work we’ve covered during the partnership.

Scholarship snapshot 

We completed several LockerRoom series - topics ranging from athlete development for young girls and women, to Muslim women in sport and the barriers they face and the solutions they know will make a difference. We also filmed a video series at Eden Park with the four Kiwi women leading the four major sporting events coming to Aotearoa New Zealand over the next two years.  

I reported on my first Olympics and Paralympics... from the comfort of my couch. Learning about a range of sports I wasn’t too familiar with on the go, working to file around different time zones, and figuring out how to ‘cut content’ for social media too. 

Ashley Stanley presenting at the Taranaki girls summit for LockerRoom. Photo: supplied. 

I was asked to present at a regional girls summit around women in sports media coverage, body image pressures, and the importance of health and wellbeing for young women. That I could share the purpose of LockerRoom and the stories around the women we cover - who come in all shapes, ages and sizes - was a massive reminder on how our words can influence people’s lives. 

I also wrote columns on topics I felt needed extra light or different opinions than those already in the media. Like how women in sport are treated is reflective of our wider societal issues around gender ‘norms’, the need to call time on racism, and how conversations around athletes' mental wellbeing needs to start much earlier than high performance environments.

Lessons not learnings

While reflecting on the range of work we covered, I also want to share three main parts that have really shaped my experience over the last two years. 

  1. Suzanne ‘The Suze’ McFadden

Without question, the biggest one has been Suze. It became very obvious early on that everyone needs a mentor, their very own 'Suze'. I’ll be forever grateful to have had and learnt from 'The Suze'.

To put things into perspective, Suze is an award winning journalist and author with over 30 years experience. Her latest achievement being named the 2021 Voyager NZ sports journalist of the year. 

So, this opportunity would not have been as rewarding and enriching if I did not have her guiding me through EVERYTHING. The one-on-one mentorship she provided was priceless; the countless hours Suze dedicated and poured into me and my thousand questions (on top of having to do her own work) is something I would not have received anywhere else. 

Suzanne McFadden and Ashley Stanley at the 2020 Women of Influence awards. Photo: supplied. 

From learning what a ‘cobble’ and a ‘nutgraf’ are, how to structure quotes properly, and all the grammatical minefields I need to watch out for in between (I can’t stop picking up when people say ‘learnings’ now when it should be ‘lessons’). 

I learnt the level of care and layers of roles she fulfilled to explain the ins-and-outs of sports journalism and the media industry is very rare nowadays, so this scholarship model has proved to be beneficial in many ways. 

But it’s her actions she continually chose to give regardless of the time of day, that showed me what kind of person she is. And that will always mean more to me than all the technical advice she shared. Thank you will never be enough, Suze. You already know.

  1. The power and privilege of platforms 

Being a journalist comes with the power and privilege of platforms. How journalists choose to use that is frighteningly up to them (and their editors). I say that because even ‘objectivity’ in reporting can be seen as subjective based on journalists' own biases and beliefs. And if the majority of journalists have similar life experiences and views, it limits the range of what is served to the general public. 

I felt powerful knowing the way I see the world would be reflected in the way that I write and structure my LockerRoom stories. But also slightly pressured because of that. I wanted to make sure I used this platform to share small parts of athletes’ and administrators’ lives in a way that was reflective of our conversations and relatable for readers. That power and privilege in shaping and framing stories is unbelievable and never left me while writing. 

  1. For my babies 

Every piece I wrote for LockerRoom, I did with my two children (and one on the way) in mind. Are these the topics and people I want them to read about? Have we redirected the light to people who are usually in the dark? Will they learn there are different ways of seeing and being in the world? 

LockerRoom allowed me to contribute a small slice of what I hope the world can be for my babies. When they’re older, I hope they are proud of what we have achieved through this scholarship.

Ashley Stanley interviews Rugby World Cup 2021 tournament director, Michelle Hooper. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

The articles may not be pushing policy changes, yet, but the difference to everyday people’s lives has been shared with us on the daily. The narrative around women in sport is changing. 

And being able to alter people’s perspectives on topics, or give light to people who are usually hidden, is what LockerRoom is about, and why it’s been a privilege to be a fraction of its purpose.

So, thank you for reading, sharing, liking and commenting on our articles. It truly does make a difference, especially when we’re only scratching the surface. 

Thank you to Tim Murphy, Mark Jennings and the wider Newsroom team for showing me the power of investigative journalism and always making me feel welcome... on the days I did make it into the office (shout-out to flexible working arrangements). 

And a big thank you to Sky Sport, especially Sue, Chris and Sophie, for committing to getting more women into sports media. Without your support, this invaluable scholarship would not be possible. I know the next person who's given the opportunity to work with ‘The Suze’ will make the role their own and carry on the much needed work, without skipping a beat. 

Fa'afetai tele lava, Faka aue lahi (thank you very much in Samoan and Niuean).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Believe me, it's just as difficult for me to write the outro to this story. Ashley has brought her beautiful, unique style to LockerRoom’s storytelling – always authentic, inquisitive, perceptive and compassionate. She grew as LockerRoom grew, became New Zealand’s Student Journalist of the Year and a highly-regarded writer on sport, on people and issues equally.

I’ve learned so much from Ashley, too (still coming to grips with Instagram!) and I've gained a friend for life. We hope she’ll continue to lend her voice to sports journalism - especially contributing to LockerRoom.

So now we’re looking for another writer, a graduate starting out in sports journalism, to fill the next two-year role. Someone who’s just as deeply passionate about bringing women’s sport to the forefront of New Zealand media, as we head into the two most important years in women’s sport in this country.

If you think you fit the bill, you can contact us for further information at lockerroom@newsroom.co.nz by October 13.

Paralympics coverage a good news story, mostly

Media coverage of the Tokyo Paralympics made leaps ahead, academic Toni Bruce has found, but the references to girls and ladies have to go.

Before the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, I identified 10 things to watch out for during the Games. Here, I reflect on seven ways that gender played out in my analysis of the thumbnail photographs used to promote stories on two major digital news outlets - Stuff and the New Zealand Herald - and during TVNZ Duke’s live coverage. The results suggest things are improving, but we can’t afford to take our eyes off the ball.

1. Growing interest is a win for women’s sport

The media and public interest in the Paralympic Games means sportswomen are increasingly in the public eye. As news coverage has moved from print to digital, media attention has consistently expanded. Tokyo 2020‘s 206 thumbnail photographs in two major online news outlets is a big jump from 11 to 39 photographs in three major newspapers during the print era. The increase in television coverage - from a two-hour highlights package in 2000, to 13 hours of daily, free live broadcasts plus packaged highlights in 2021 - allows audiences to see physically-skilled Kiwi sportswomen in action. The public’s desire to see the Games live became very clear in the rapid and loud criticisms of TVNZ’s failure to provide live coverage of some Kiwi events.

The result is that successful Paralympic athletes like Sophie Pascoe become household names. During Tokyo 2020, when Pascoe became New Zealand’s most successful Paralympian, she even earned a Facebook shout-out from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who wrote “Sophie, you are an absolute legend! Ten gold medals, so much hard work and training. You have well and truly earned your place as a sporting icon.” 

2. Female Paralympians are elite athletes

Sports media increasingly treat the Paralympic Games as an elite sports event, creating further visibility for sportswomen. At Tokyo 2020, ‘our’ sportswomen dominated the medal table, winning 10 of New Zealand’s 12 medals. They also dominated media coverage, featuring in 66 percent of photographs used to promote stories. Men were the focus of less than 30 percent of photographs - the rest highlighted mixed gender groups or images without athletes. This finding reflects the longitudinal growth and increasing acceptance of sportswomen as athletes who are worthy of attention, from 18 percent of images in 2004, to 33 percent in 2008, to 66 percent during Tokyo 2020.

What’s even more important is that media overwhelmingly treated sportswomen as athletes. Commentators focused on tactics, skill and past achievements such as world and Paralympic records, previous medals and highest placings. In the live broadcast we heard descriptions such as: “She’s such an exceptional swimmer. She knows her strengths, textbook strokes”, “She’s not going to get caught here. She’s too powerful”, “Her legend is safe”, and “She’s one of the greatest of them all”. 

Commentators also integrated each athlete’s disability smoothly, along with reasonably regular explanations of different categories - “for competitors who have the most severe visual impairment” or “a T11 athlete, which is complete visual impairment”. In seated volleyball, the commentator explained, “She’s a back row player so her buttocks have to be behind the two metre line if she’s attacking.”

3. The effects of nationalism

While coverage of female athletes’ achievements continues to grow, there are still some areas of concern. One is a previously identified impact of nationalism - the overarching focus on New Zealand athletes. This pattern continued at Tokyo 2020, with New Zealanders being the main focus of 86 percent of Paralympic photographs. Yet, even though nationalism strongly influences which athletes attract attention, the intensity of that focus is greater for sportswomen. During Tokyo 2020, 96 percent of female photographs focused on Kiwi sportswomen compared with 72 percent highlighting Kiwi sportsmen. The message for women’s sport is that the media’s primary interest is ‘our’ women, but men from many countries deserve coverage.

4. The pressure to win

Nationalistic effects are further intensified by the media focus on female athletes who win. Unlike male athletes, sportswomen need to win to gain media attention. This finding is broadly true for women’s sport but seems especially relevant for Paralympians. For example, in 2004, when Kiwi sportswomen won no Paralympic medals, they received no photographs and their results were buried at the bottom of other news articles. By 2008, when they dominated the medal count, the focus on female medallists was 80 percent.

The spotlight was even narrower in Tokyo 2020, with 81 percent of Kiwi female photographs featuring medallists. In stark contrast, a medal emphasis was only evident in 26 percent of images of Kiwi men and 28 percent of men from other countries. Although this low percentage may reflect the low number of medals won by Kiwi men, the long-term trend sends a message that sportswomen’s main value is as successful national citizens rather than as athletes.

Kiwi Nicole Murray rides in the C5 road time trial at the Tokyo Paralympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

5. Tunnel vision

The narrow emphasis on one or two athletes, previously identified in Paralympics and Olympics coverage, continued. Just as in 2016, Sophie Pascoe was the most visible athlete, female or male. She featured in 36 percent images of sportswomen and almost a quarter of all photographs. Her 49 images, including a cartoon, were far higher than the second most-photographed athlete, Lisa Adams, with 16. The good news is that five other Kiwi sportswomen - four medallists - featured in more than five photographs.

6. Just stop with the ladies and girls

Based on the live coverage I watched, male commentators really struggled with the word woman; many couldn’t say it except for the official name of a women’s event. They appeared comfortable using man to describe male athletes, but the generic use of woman proved a step too far. One male commentator frequently introduced male swimmers as “the man who”, “the man who swims in lane four“, “the man who is a gold medallist” or “the man who went fastest”. Yet, in an entire swimming session filled with introductions to men, not a single woman was introduced. Instead, across different sports, we heard a lot about ladies, whether it was “the lady in the middle has won the gold”, “that lady’s among them again” or “the lady on the right”.

One male commentator, who paused as he realised he needed to feminise statesman, still couldn’t say woman. His solution: “one of the elder states... statespeople of these Games.” The use of lady was widespread enough that I was surprised he didn’t default to 'states-lady'. I heard commentators of both genders occasionally refer to girls (but not boys). I only heard woman used once, during the women’s marathon when the female commentator explained “she knows this woman is trying to close the gap”, shortly followed by the male commentator stating “and there’s the lady who is in the gold medal position.”

7. Smiles and tears

Images and live commentary reinforced gender differences in expressing emotion. In news coverage, 96 percent of photographs of smiling athletes featured females, and almost all were Kiwi women. This focus may partly reflect their overwhelming success – 46 percent of smiling images were on the podium, or immediately following the realisation they had won a medal. Overall, almost half (47 percent) of female images showed them smiling. Live commentary was similar: “She’s just got a massive smile on her face” or “Always has a smile on her face”. The result is that media reinforce gender expectations, in which non-threatening smiles signify niceness.

Tears were almost expected of winning sportswomen: “and the tears tell a story”, “Sophie Pascoe breaks down in tears” or “I am sure there will be a few tears.” In contrast, male tears needed to be justified, like the male commentator who explained “the tears are flowing - quite rightly so - a bronze medal and a lifetime best”. Images of men smiling were rare, and live commentary instead highlighted celebratory actions or language more aligned with masculinity. A good example came from tennis, where the commentators described a female winner as “really emotional”, while a male winner who yelled, screamed and punched the air was “pumped up” and “pretty excited”. As his clearly upset opponent covered his face with his shirt, rather than describe him as emotional, a commentator explained “this will be a tough defeat to take.”

Overall, like the Olympic Games, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics get a tick of approval. But there are still some  areas where gender infuses media coverage in inequitable ways. I look forward to a time when sportswomen are valued and visible whether they win or not, and no matter where they come from.

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