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The women ruling the waves on America's Cup course

A young girl who once sent $5 to an embattled America's Cup team is now among the women on the water helping run the contest for the Auld Mug. 

As an eager and generous nine-year-old, Melanie Roberts posted a letter, with a $5 note, to OneAustralia’s America’s Cup team. It was 1995, and their boat had just sunk off the coast of her hometown, San Diego.

Roberts had gifted her weekly allowance with the hope it would help the team get back out on the challengers’ racecourse. She got a letter in reply from John Bertrand, skipper of OneAustralia, thanking her for “her great support”.

“It was very kind of you to send us $5,” Bertrand wrote, “but I’m pleased to say that we have not had to use your money and I am returning it to you.”

The $5 was spent long ago, but Roberts has kept the letter - and brought a copy of it to Auckland to show her boss, America’s Cup race director, Iain Murray. He was tactician on the OneAustralia the day it snapped in two.

Twenty-six years after being swept up in the America’s Cup, Roberts is now helping run the regatta for the world’s oldest sporting trophy, as assistant race director.

It’s her calm, measured voice you’ll hear across the airwaves, advising teams and others in the race that the start has been delayed, or a major wind shift has forced the course to be moved. Racing starts up again on Friday with the semifinal of the Prada Cup challengers series. 

“When things aren’t going well, you’ll hear me,” she says. “When things are on time, you won’t hear from me.”

Roberts has also brought with her the letter she received from the ‘95 America’s Cup victors, Team New Zealand, thanking her for her “colourful congratulations message”, which they’d pinned to the office wall of their Shelter Island compound.

She’s kept the two scrapbooks she filled with newspaper clippings and autographs from that Cup – one of them dedicated solely to the all-women’s America3 crew on board Mighty Mary (with Kiwi Leslie Egnot was at the helm).

Roberts was an America3 “super fan”: the nine-year-old asked to race on Mighty Mary as ‘17th man’ (the guest spot on board), but instead they gave her tickets for their spectators boats to watch the defender trials. She dreamed of having her own all-women’s crew in the Cup one day.

That dream never eventuated – in fact, there are no women sailing on board any of the cutting-edge foiling monohulls in Auckland. But Roberts is one of a number of women out on the Hauraki Gulf racecourse in crucial roles ensuring racing of the AC75s goes ahead, fairly and safely.  

Women like deputy race officer Maria Torrijo of Spain – one of the few people in the world who’s an international judge, umpire and race officer, Polish umpire Sofia Truchanowicz and Dunedin’s Kylie Robinson, the Race Management System operations manager, who sends out the course details electronically from the signals boat.

Aucklanders Miranda Farr and Liz Alonzi are part of the 128-strong fleet of course marshalls watching over the spectators.  

The women of America3, on board Mighty Mary, during the 1995 America's Cup defender trials. Photo: Getty Images. 

From the age of seven, Roberts learned to sail at the San Diego Yacht Club in a little Sabot dinghy, then crewed in two-handed boats through high school and college. She wasn’t particularly enamoured with the sport when she started out - until the 1995 America’s Cup took place in her backyard.

It hooked her in.

This is Roberts’ third America’s Cup. Her first job out of university was race co-ordinator at the St Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco – which put her in “the right place at the right time” when 2013 the America’s Cup came along. There, she got her first role in the Cup, assisting race management.

In Bermuda in 2017, she worked alongside Murray, on software operations. “Here it’s more of a communications liaison role.” On board the signals boat, she helps Murray set the race course, sending details to the teams, marshalls and broadcasters, and she keeps track of the deltas at mark roundings.

“I keep looking up from my screen on the boat and saying: ‘This Cup is awesome’. They’re doing a tremendous job, and the racing is so close and exciting,” Roberts says.

She didn’t expect to be in Auckland. Nowadays she works on Sir Russell Coutts’ global Sail GP circuit, raced in foiling catamarans. But the cancellation of most of the season through Covid-19 meant the America’s Cup fitted in perfectly.  

And she never imagined, as a nine-year-old, she’d be sitting alongside Murray – one of her early sailing heroes. “He has so much knowledge, and he’s calm cool and collected. We work well together, building up trust over the last few years,” she says.

THE COURSE TROUBLESHOOTER

Over a year ago, Miranda Farr was tasked with training a team of course marshalls for both the Prada and America’s Cups. The 128 marshalls – men and women – are all volunteers.

“A lot of them had been committed since November 2019, if not before,” she says.  

There were 560 applicants, whittled down to 200 – many of them with a high level of experience on the water.  

“It was amazing to have that level of commitment right through the Covid lockdowns, even when we were having to reschedule the training. The training programme was meant to be a year, but had to be crammed into three months. They’ve been amazingly positive people.”

Miranda Farr, who trained the race course marshalls for the 36th America's Cup in Auckland, with some of the marshalls' armada. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

Farr has spent most of her working life on or under the water. She has a degree in marine biology and has done scuba diving research, but she also has her commercial skipper’s ticket.

She also spent four years on land, in corporate project management. “I think the combination of my skills was good for this role,” she says.

Farr was a volunteer in race management at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron – the home of the America’s Cup – for five years before she was approached to work in the volunteers programme.

On race days, she’s on the water - in the roving course marshall vessel.

“She’s my trouble shooter,” says Martin Paget, the America’s Cup on-the-water operations manager.  “If we’re getting a bit of pressure on one area of the course, and the team out there need a bit of support, Miranda will go over and help them sort it out.

“A lot of it is about trying to get ahead of the game. If you don’t deal with the trickle of water to start with, the dam breaks…”

The marshalls have been given special powers from the Harbourmaster and Auckland Council to legally direct boats into the safe areas behind the orange buoys.

The America's Cup race courses in the Waitemata Harbour and Hauraki Gulf. Graphic: 36th America's Cup

“About 98 percent of people just want to know where they need to be and they’re just out there to watch the racing,” Farr says.

“We all have a background of being boaties, so we’re putting ourselves in the position of those people and thinking if we were out there watching the race, how would we want to be treated? We try to have the approach of having fun and still being safe.”

The marshalls are rostered on with four to each boat - a skipper, navigator, helm and crew. “They don’t work every day because they're quite long days,” Farr says. “Some of them are retired, others just wanted to spend their weekends doing this. There's a good culture - the banter is great too.”

Farr grew up wanting to be a scuba diver like her dad, and so studied marine biology. She was introduced to sailing working on sail-dive charter boats, and spent five years at the Great Barrier Reef.

“I worked in marine biology for a while, but I decided I much preferred people to counting molluscs,” she says.

The training course she led taught marshalls how to drive the 17 new 9m Rayglass Protector boats, while Maritime Police trained them in how to deal with spectators.

They also learned how to launch and retrieve the orange boundary buoys (nicknamed Teletubbies), and the massive red markers – 4m high and 800kg heavy - that the yachts race around.

“I genuinely believe every race day will get better because everyone will feel more comfortable in their role and in the systems. The public will be more comfortable too,” Farr says.

Liz Alonzi, owner and skipper of green trimaran Timberwolf, who trained to be an America's Cup course marshall. Photo: supplied. 

THE COURSE SCOUT

Auckland skipper Liz Alonzi is one of a handful of women in the racecourse marshall fleet. She could have simply been a spectator - taking Timberwolf, the 10.6m trimaran she brought back from the dead, out to the racecourse - but this role gets her even closer to the action.

“It just seemed like a really cool thing to be part of,” she says.

The software engineer spent last Saturday crewing in the scout boat – a smaller RIB that patrols a region of the racecourse.

“We were under North Head keeping the transit lanes clear,” Alonzi says. “The spectators were amazing. We had one guy who needed to swap his fuel tank in the middle of the course - fortunately it was long before the racing started.

“Our training was very thorough and intense and we were prepared for the worst of the worst situations, so I was expecting some challenging people out there. But so far it’s been the flipside; everyone is accommodating and chill.

“There are just good vibes all round.”

Racing in the best-of-seven Prada Cup semifinals between Luna Rossa Pirelli Prada and the New York Yacht Club's American Magic starts on Friday at 3pm, with racing continuing on Saturday and Sunday (

 and Tuesday if necessary). A course locator map on the America's Cup website helps spectator craft see the course boundaries.

At 58, waka ama legend still leads the way

Corrina Gage has represented New Zealand in a trio of water sports. But it's her love for waka ama - and the opportunities it gives paddlers from 5 to 85 - that keeps her racing and coaching around the world. 

Lake Karāpiro is quiet and still now. But last week, it was all noise and splashing water with over 3500 paddlers charging across the surface in outrigger canoes.

One of them was New Zealand waka ama legend Corrina Gage. 

The 58-year-old was back with her crew, Whaea Engines, competing at the waka ama sprint national championships. Both competitor and coach for the Ruamata Waka Ama Club in Rotorua, Gage has raced at every national sprint championship since the annual event started in New Zealand in 1990.

And even after three decades, Gage’s competitiveness and love for the sport hasn't changed. But her mindset and growth have evolved. 

“Through your sport your motivations change, eh,” says Gage, who's represented New Zealand in rafting, dragon boating and waka ama. “Initially, it's absolutely about winning and there's nothing wrong with that because you have to learn that discipline of training and what's required for higher performances.

“However, how many medals does a person need? There's that point where you start to transition, and your ego doesn’t require as much stroking. And once you’ve got those things under your belt and you’ve had that satisfaction, then you can move on.” 

The water sport enthusiast has won multiple domestic and international titles across her water codes and travelled the world for sport. Before waka ama, Gage came from an adventure sport background. 

“I started in whitewater kayaking as a kid, went into multi-sport, did flat water, represented New Zealand in some marathon kayaking races, also dragon boating, and then onto outrigger canoeing," says Gage, who has whakapapa to Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Tainui and Te Whānau-ā- Apanui. She still dabbles in whitewater rafting.

In the three events Gage's Whaea Engine crew competed at sprint nationals, they won the senior master women's double hull and the turns 1000m race and were second in the W6 500m event.  Not bad considering they had three paddlers filling in on the team for the regatta. 

“It's always hard to swallow a second," says Gage. "However, given that the combination we had [on the day] hadn’t paddled together at all, I can't be unhappy with second. And the crew that beat us most definitely deserved the win.” 

Corrina Gage (third from left) has represented New Zealand in rafting, dragon boating and waka ama. Photo: Waka Ama NZ.

But it was her coaching contribution at nationals that stood out for Gage. 

“Absolutely without doubt, the most satisfying moment for me was seeing the young men that I’ve been coaching from our club, Ruamata, come second in the double hull; then they won the turns race and came third in the 500m," she says. "Coaching young men is very satisfying to me as a female coach. I've coached men’s crews before but they're not always that open to being coached by females. 

“But these young men were outstanding. They asked me if I would help and they are so willing to engage and try different things. Seeing our young Māori men, at that age in particular, portraying healthy lifestyles, good relationships between males, and being good men, just being a part of that has been amazing.” The crew ranged in age between 18 to late 20s. 

In comparison to the mainstream water sports, Gage says the unique point of difference with waka ama is the option to compete in a single or crew boat. 

“And that’s huge,” she says. “When you're doing an individual sport, you're continually having to keep yourself motivated, apart from the support people around you. Then you go into a crew sport and you have others relying on you.”

It’s something Gage has welcomed as her career has advanced and shown in administrative roles in the governance side of the sport too.

Unlike other sports, age is no barrier in waka ama. Competitors over the week were as young as five and mature as 83. 

“It still allows you to be competitive within an age group and you're progressing with your peers through the sport,” Gage says. “The other significant thing is the variety within the sport. As with kayaking, you’ve got white water kayaking and flat water. I was lucky to experience both of them but they're still individual." 

The biggest drawcard for Gage - and the main reason she stays in the sport - is the option to compete in open ocean racing. 

“At 58, I can still be in competitive crews who are giving the 20-year-olds a hard time in the ocean," she says. "And it’s a technical racing day, so you don’t just get away with being fit on the day. 

“You have to be able to read what's happening with the conditions, have the skills required to cope with those changing conditions, be able to keep six people fully synchronised through whatever is happening and have that mental endurance over distance races.” The open water races can range from one-and-a-half to six hours.

This aspect of the sport has given Gage some of her biggest moments in her career. 

The “Super Bowl" of ocean paddling for women is Na Wahine o Ke Kai - a race in Hawaii that goes from the island of Moloka'i back to Oahu, finishing in Honolulu on Waikiki Beach. Gage has raced in the renowned event almost 20 times. 

“There's nothing like the feeling of crossing an ocean and there are no other canoes ahead of you when you come in to the finish line," says Gage. "And you might’ve started with anything up to 100 canoes on the start line.”

Her first win in the open division came in early 2000, and with the same crew she's taken out the master division every time they've entered.

Gage first got into the waka arm from kayaking when an Australian crew asked her if she'd race with them in Na Wahine o Ke Kai. 

“I told them I’d never paddled before so they asked if I would go a month before; I went and then did a 42 mile open ocean with them. That was my first time in waka ama and it has continued since then,” she says.

Corrina Gage and her national sprint champion Whaea Engine waka ama crew. Photo: Waka Ama NZ. 

In the last few years, Gage has also developed her overseas coaching base. Last year she was booked into eight coaching trips, from Brazil and Hong Kong to the United States and Singapore, in the lead-up to the world sprint championships in Hawaii. But Covid-19 struck and she was left stranded on the international front. 

“It forced me to be more innovative which has been a good thing,” says Gage. She used to have a day job at what's now known as the Hillary Outdoor Education Centre, but when she noticed her coaching was taking up more time than her paid work, she transitioned to full-time coaching 10 years ago.

As she also has contracts with Waka Ama New Zealand to assist with coaching courses to help build the capacity at home, Gage was able to develop skills around how to work with crews and individuals from a distance. 

"You don't have to be a world champion to be a world champion coach." 

With her track record, how does she keep improving as a paddler and coach?

“I think it's really important to always keep in mind that there will be something that you don’t know. If you think you know everything, then that’s going to be an absolute stain on your coaching,” she says. 

“I'm always open to learning new things from people who I'm coaching, listening to them in terms of what their unique challenges are and always being open to problem solving. Knowing that there's no one right answer to anything is key to anyone's coaching.” 

From a coaching perspective, the feeling of achievement, loss and ups and downs experienced as an athlete is still there. 

“It is a similar feeling and I have been surprised by that over the years," admits Gage. "Probably the biggest high for me in that regard - even though it was a long time ago and it was huge within our sport - was 2006 when New Zealand hosted a world championship and I was the overall head coach for that."

Each time a team took the water, she felt proud and rode the same emotional wave with them. “It's not always about your paddlers winning," Gage says. "What was their objective and did they achieve that objective? Did you assist them to improve their performance?

“I think when we talk about high performance, there's a disproportionate focus on higher performance being on winning as opposed to a higher performance for that particular individual or crew. And so it's about those incremental gains for everybody so their satisfaction does flow into it becoming a satisfying experience for me [as coach].” 

Gage's outdoor education experience meant she was already familiar with teaching technical skills from a range of sports - skiing through to rock climbing to kayaking and canoeing. 

“I think my evolution to coach nationally and internationally has, I'd like to think, been successful primarily because of my background and knowing how to impart information to others in a way that makes sense to them," she says.

“As with any sport, you can have lots of high-level competitors but they're not necessarily good at passing on how they do and what they do to others. You don't have to be a world champion to be a world champion coach." 

Her next goal is focused on long distance racing with her 50s crew. Half of the team who raced at the sprint nationals have been training for the longer format nationals. 

“Our intent is to contend for first overall, rather than just in our 50s age group," Gage says. "I say 'contend' - that’s going to be tough, but if there are people in front of us, we'll certainly be working for it."

There is a long distance race in Rarotonga scheduled for November. But if Covid-19 restrictions ramp up, they’re planning on racing within New Zealand so their training isn't wasted. 

Given all of her achievements, when Gage reflects back on her career, what does she want to have left behind in the sport?

“Wow, that’s a really big question, it's heavy,” she says. “For me it is most certainly not only about supporting New Zealand paddlers to be the best in the world - that is absolutely satisfying for us to beat other countries, you can't help that patriotic part of yourself. But entwined in that is also that journey around helping people to participate. Full stop." 

Engaging people in sport and knowing the opportunities waka ama provides in changing lifestyles is also what she thinks about. “There's that aspect our paddlers improving their performance and getting satisfaction out of improving their performance across all ages," says Gage. "And I'd like to know that I have contributed to all of those aspects.” 

With age not being a competing factor, Gage will keep going the distance in supporting her beloved sport and people. 

Round-the-world solo sailor steers clear of her fears

A change of plans for round-the-world single-handed sailor Elana Connor means she's helping Kiwi kids in foster care to go sailing - as she also seeks to 'demystify' the sport for women.  

Elana Connor wears a silver necklace engraved with the word “Fearlessness”. As she sails solo around the globe, it reminds her that her voyage is not about abandoning her fears, but “not letting fear drive the boat”.

It’s an important reminder for someone who gets “anxious and heart-racy and is afraid of everything” - as she makes an unexpected detour in her plans with a figure-eight circumnavigation of New Zealand.

And it's a memento she clung to as she sailed down the rugged, remote west coast of the South Island, barely sleeping as she battled problems with the engine and GPS electronics on her 10.4m yacht, Windfola.

The glitches meant she could only snatch 20 minutes of sleep at a time, before getting up and scouting the horizon for ships, and making sure she wasn’t headed on a collision course with the steep cliffs of Fiordland.

Her sole companion, a tiny rescue dog named Zia, is a great alarm dog when dolphins or whales are in the vicinity – but not an effective replacement for the radius alarm that usually sounds if a ship is approaching (providing Connor's GPS signals are working).

But Connor seems to thrive on challenges, especially at sea. “What I probably love the most about sailing on my own is when you’re out there driving the boat and you’re dealing with a situation, you just have to be in it. The survival instinct kicks in,” Connor says.

“Even in difficult situations, where I’m scared or anxious, the fear doesn’t take over my body as much as it does on shore. When I get close to land I get nervous - it feels dangerous. But out there on the ocean, you just have to keep doing stuff.”

Elana Connor and her sole companion on her circumnavigations, papillon mix Zia, at Mt Maunganui. Photo: supplied. 

Windfola limped into Milford Sound, where Connor was able to get some help from friendly locals. “The Sound was a place of such contrasts – all this stress and all this beauty; all this kindness but all this isolation,” she says.

Since then, she’s made it safely around the bottom of the South Island, and up to Dunedin, marking the halfway point of her fundraising journey.

I chat to Connor while she’s sitting on the boat, Zia patiently waiting beside her for a game of fetch. “We’re tied up to a funny little wharf with a rickety step over a hole in the pier. It just feels like luxury after Fiordland,” she laughs.

This is far from where Connor expected to be when she quit her job as a project manager in software and start-ups in Silicon Valley and sailed off from California across the Pacific Ocean over three years ago.

She was on her way around the world, stopping in Auckland to sit out the cyclone season in December 2019. But like a lot of boaties, she’s been left in limbo here while the Covid-19 pandemic has closed countries’ borders.

So rather than sit idle, the American woman decided to embark on a circumnavigation of the North and South Islands, raising money as she goes for New Zealand teenagers in care.

Growing up in a violent home, Connor was put into foster care at 15, and spent the rest of her teenage years moving between group homes. A competitive athlete – especially in swimming - she was pulled out of all sport when she went into care: “I moved around too much to be on a team,” she says.

“When you go into care, it’s embarrassing to commit to a team and not turn up. Or you don’t have carers who can take you to practice. That had a big impact on my participation in sport.”

So Connor has teamed up with VOYCE - Whakarongo Mai, a charity organisation helping to advocate for the more than 6000 children in foster or whānau care in New Zealand, to create a scholarship fund to send teens on a 10-day youth development journey on tall ship Spirit of New Zealand.  

She sees the Spirit of New Zealand opportunity giving kids “a booster shot of the life skills they would normally get from competing in sport.”

So far, a give-a-little page - Voyage for Voyce - has raised enough to send six young people on the boat; the first young woman recipient sailed this month. Connor breaks into tears as she talks about it: “She sent me a video when she got on the ship saying: ‘Thank you Elana’.”

Connor, who has a honours degree in international relations, wants young people in care to see they're also capable of “unlimited achievements”.

Elana Connor on Windfola sails past tall ship Spirit of Adventure on the Waitemata Harbour. Photo: Nathan Thomas.

Another reason Connor set out on her global circumnavigation was to “demystify" yachting for women, and make it feel more approachable.

“Woman to woman, part of the reason I’m doing this is because I found I was waiting to make decisions in my life – hoping I’d meet someone who wanted to do things with me. Well I haven’t met that person,” she says.  

“I had a big wake-up a few years ago where I was sick for a year, and I couldn’t do all the outdoors things I loved doing. And I had a boyfriend who cheated on me, and I was like ‘What am I doing? When am I going to realise I’m the person I’m waiting for’.”

Connor learned to sail by racing on San Francisco Bay as an adult, and when she started sailing solo “by default”, she discovered she loved it.

“But after my first passage from California to Hawaii, I had a couple of experiences where male captains came on the boat and gave me some advice or I sailed with them, and I instantly went back to deferring to them,” she says.  

“It’s maybe only now, 10,000 nautical miles later, I find myself feeling a bit more that I can hold my ground and feel like I’m an equal. To have to un-condition that says something about the way we raise women and teach them to move in the world of sailing. I want that to change.”

Connor is flying the burgee of Women Who Sail New Zealand on her Kiwi circumnavigation, which started in Auckland in mid-October, sailing around East Cape, through Cook Strait, down to Fiordland and through Foveaux Strait.

From Christchurch, she’ll sail north to cross Cook Strait again, heading up around New Plymouth on her way to Cape Reinga.

Elana Connor has learned to do most of the maintenance on her boat, Windfola, since starting to sail solo. Photo: Pammie Daynard. 

Her goal was to make it down the east coast to Auckland in time to watch the America’s Cup match in March. She has a friend who’s a boatbuilder in the American Magic campaign (who’s no doubt been working around the clock to get the damaged boat back in the water for Friday’s Prada Cup semifinal).

“The America’s Cup has been my north star on this trip,” Connor says. “I love racing whenever I can – I raced in Tauranga and Waikawa when I stopped in there.”

Before she left, she met American Magic skipper Terry Hutchinson, who showed her around the team base. “He hopes that when things are less secretive in late summer, we can bring some foster youth through the boat sheds. He said it would be really cool for them to see so many Kiwis working back there, and show them the potential job opportunities sailing has,” Connor says.

She's uncertain whether she will make it back in time to catch Cup racing. A stomach bug laid her low as she was preparing to leave Dunedin, but she should arrive in Christchurch in the next few days.

And she's also unsure what the future holds for the next leg of her odyssey. “My visa has been extended to June. The next leg of my circumnavigation was to the Indian Ocean and I was planning to go up through the Pacific islands, but that means stopping in six countries," she says.

In the meantime, Connor is happy having an open boat in each port she visits, where young Kiwis come on board Windfola to meet her; young people who grew up like she did.

“I know their names now – they are real kids with real dreams and excitement,” she says. “Hope is the great sustainer.” 

Where is she now? Jenny McDonald

One of hockey's most prolific goal scorers, former NZ captain Jenny McDonald remembers the disappointment of the 1980 Olympics boycott, the thrill of playing for the World XI and the battle to move from grass to turf 

Twenty kilometres south-west of Whangarei sits the tiny township of Maungakaramea. It’s where one of New Zealand’s greatest-ever hockey players, Jenny McDonald, grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s.

It’s the kind of place from which many top Kiwi sportspeople typically hail; where a kid might try all kinds of sports in the backyard and at primary school, before properly settling on one or two.

But if it wasn’t for her father, McDonald’s outstanding hockey career may not have got off the ground.

“I was into all sports back then,” recalls McDonald, who was then Jenny Bint. “It’s what we did when we were young. But I did have a [hockey] stick in my hand as far back as I remember.”

She played tennis and table tennis, but wanted to play more hockey.

“The problem was there weren’t any teams or clubs or local schools to play against. So my dad actually gathered people who wanted to play from the local area and we created a competition,” she says. “I started playing hockey in actual games from about the age of nine.”

And having three brothers to compete against meant McDonald had to work extra hard on everything to get the better of them, or to at least stay even.

McDonald left Maungakaramea for a place at teachers’ training college on Auckland’s North Shore, and after graduating in 1969, taught at Outram School, near Dunedin. Around this time, she met her future husband, Rex.

“That was how I ended up in Otago. Rex is from here, so that was it, really - I couldn’t get him to move. And we’re still here,” she laughs.

McDonald would teach at Outram School for almost the duration of her hockey career, which internationally stretched from 1971 to 1986.

She was a goal scorer with a freakish conversion rate - scoring at an average of more than a goal a game in the black uniform. In a total of 192 matches, she was on the scoresheet more than 200 times.

Probably the most famous of those goals she scored on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium, against England in 1977. The goal came from a penalty corner and turned out to be the match-winner in a 1-0 victory.

Incredibly, there were around 65,000 people in attendance. In those days it was an annual tradition for thousands of hockey-playing schoolgirls to go to Wembley to see the national women play.

McDonald remembers the crowd being completely deafening. “The noise was just horrendous; we couldn’t really hear each other at all. But obviously it was great to play there, in front of 65,000 people for goodness sake. Fantastic.”

There was also an unexpected thrill following the goal: “We were running back to halfway and one of the girls said ‘Look, Jenny’, and there was my name in lights on the board. That was pretty amazing.”

Jenny McDonald was the top scorer at world tournaments in 1973 and 1975. Photo: supplied. 

New Zealand had a strong women’s team throughout the 1970s. In 1975, they competed in what were ostensibly the world championships in Scotland. The previous year the inaugural Women’s World Cup had been won by the Netherlands, but New Zealand were to beat them 3-2 in a penalty shoot-out at the 1975 tournament and finish third.

McDonald was the top overall goal scorer. To some of the players from the other nations, this was a big deal.

“A German player asked me what I would receive for being the top tournament goal scorer,” she says. “And when I asked her what she meant, she said that if I’d been playing for them I’d have probably have been given a Mercedes Benz.”

It was no easy road being a New Zealand international in women’s hockey in the 1970s - the players had to fork out for half of the travel expenses. “That’s why most of us had full-time jobs,” McDonald says. That changed in 1984 when New Zealand made the Los Angeles Olympics.  

The Kiwi women had held high hopes of a medal finish at the 1980 Moscow Olympics - the first time women’s hockey was included at an Olympic Games.

“We thought we had a pretty good team before those Games,” McDonald says. “We were a solid group of girls and we’d all played together for a while. That’s what you really want. It’s the experienced players who tend to get you far in big tournaments.

“You add in a couple of younger players and the older ones can let them show off their flair without them having to worry about too much responsibility.”

However, they never got to prove it. History shows the New Zealand government fell in line behind the United States in boycotting Moscow after the Soviet-led invasion of Afghanistan. It was only at the eleventh hour the New Zealand Olympic Committee, at the behest of our government, announced there would be no official New Zealand team going.

The decision not to send a New Zealand team came as no great surprise to McDonald. “We’d heard the rumours already and the political stuff had been swirling around for a long time. All the other sports were pulling out, and the government was putting the pressure on not to go.”

McDonald had that year been named as the New Zealand captain for the first time – a responsibility she would hold through till 1986.

There was a slight silver lining to the cancellation - the national associations of some of the major nations who had boycotted got together and hastily organised a five-city tour of the United States.

“I think we only lost one game and it was just by a single goal to the Netherlands, who’d been the best team in the world for years,” McDonald says. “So at least something good came out of the whole Olympics thing.”

McDonald also received a huge honour - the only New Zealander in a World XI to take on the world champion Netherlands in a one-off encounter in Scotland. It was a chance to mix and play with the Germans – who with the Dutch were the only semi-professional female nations in world hockey.

"My husband told me I was much better when playing hockey. Not quite so grumpy."

It was also a time when players in New Zealand began transitioning from grass to artificial turf.

“There was quite a bit of adjustment to be done after that,” explains McDonald. “Even though the good grass pitches weren’t dissimilar to turf, in New Zealand the grass pitches sometimes had bumps, or were muddy, or occasionally were even just about underwater. Or we had snow where I was.

“The ball moved a lot faster on turf and to adjust you had to be a lot more accurate - it was mostly a matter of getting used to what we could now do.”

Then there was an international rules overhaul – no offside or obstruction and “free hits you could just take yourself and play on,” McDonald says. “And less restrictive umpiring sped the game up, which was another good thing. Because of the changes there seemed to be more space to do things.”

But only when the Kiwis played abroad. In New Zealand, the installation of turf was slow, even though McDonald pushed hard throughout the 1980s for as many turf pitches nationwide as possible.

“I kept coming back from overseas and saying that we needed to get turf put in. On grass in the 70s, we were ranked number three in the world for some years, and then as soon as turf came in we lost that ranking, and unless we could play on it more here we’d slip down even further.”

New Zealand finished sixth, and last, at the 1984 Olympics. McDonald, though, says the build-up and games on turf were enough, and there were other factors influencing their performance.

They were taken aback by the restrictive security at the athletes’ village, with ID cards and bag checks, lasers, wire fences and helicopters with search lights at night.

Tiny Outram in Otago must have seemed a world away. And forgetting their Athlete ID was a big no-no: “One of our girls took a shower, went out for dinner and then wasn’t allowed back in the village. She had to wait for a long time at what we called ‘the police station’ before our manager could get her out.”

What perhaps threw them the most was having no practice fields available: “The only time we could practise with a stick in our hand was in a 10 to 15-minute warm-up before the game. What we missed completely was the whole thing of being together. Our play became disjointed; you could see it happening, but couldn’t do anything about it.”

Jenny McDonald has now retired as a primary school principal and Otago hockey president. Photo: supplied.

McDonald represented New Zealand until the age of 36, but in 16 years only played 94 test matches; a far cry from the current era where a player can bring up that number of games in five years or less.

Would she have preferred to have played in the modern, professional environment with its myriad tournaments?

“It’s hard to know, or compare, because it depends so much where you are in your life journey,” McDonald says. “My love for the game, the desire to improve and be the best possible kept me involved.

“The modern rules allowing greater freedoms and skill-sets would excite me. But in any era, the team combinations and shared experiences create great and enduring friendships. What’s not to enjoy in any era? The whole experience was fun.”

She continued playing for Otago until the late 1980s, closing in on age 40. “A nice way to finish off with Otago was winning the K Cup for provincial hockey in 1986 and 1987. It was quite a big thing getting a K Cup badge for three Cups won as a player.”

But old hockey habits die hard, and after a season off, McDonald played in a Masters tournament, out of which was born a team called The Evergreens - who made it into the top league in Dunedin club hockey.

“My husband told me I was much better when playing hockey. Not quite so grumpy,” she laughs.

She finally pulled the pin at 53 years old after breaking her wrist. Later, McDonald became President of the Otago association, then chair of Southern Regional Hockey.

She retired from education in 2014 after being principal of Elmgrove School for 10 years. “I’d been in school since I was five, so I felt it was time to let go of all that,” she says.

These days she’s busy taking the couple’s St Bernard dog, Whitney, for walks, and tending to a garden of roses and vegetables. McDonald still follows local hockey and accompanies Rex on vintage car rallies around the south of the South Island.

“We also have a place at Glenorchy where we can escape to and appreciate nature and the simplicity of life,” she says.

After a career dedicated to hockey and education, who could argue Jenny McDonald doesn’t deserve the best retirement possible?

Harrison has one last beach dig before netball return

New Zealand triple-code star, Anna Harrison, can't stop returning to the courts - whether it's netball or beach volleyball. She tells Ashley Stanley what keeps drawing her back. 

The day before Anna Harrison leaps back into netball, she will have one more hit-out at another of her favourite old sports on the sands of Ruakaka Beach.

The former Silver Fern is due to start her stint back in the ANZ Premiership on Monday - after retiring from the sport for a second time in 2018 – this time with the Northern Stars.

But she still has one more beach volleyball tournament to tick off this weekend.

Not one to do things by halves, the 37-year-old who spent three seasons on the international beach volleyball circuit, will be competing at the national championships. The event doubles as the Northland Beach Slam, a leg in this summer’s New Zealand beach tour.

“I would’ve played the whole [beach volleyball] series this year if I hadn't signed with the Stars, but we start on Monday,” says Harrison, who will team up with Liz Hanna for the volleyball event.

“Back in my day, we played solid pretty much for four weekends over New Year and into January and then I would start netball. It’s different now but I just love getting back out there; it's such a great game.”

The mother-of-three also managed to get court time before Christmas at the three-star Mairangi Open; she and partner Jasmine Milton made it as far as the quarterfinals. These were the only two tournaments that worked with her netball schedule.

A triple-code New Zealand representative (she also played indoor volleyball), Harrison says she always planned to return to the sandy sport after finishing on the beach volleyball world tour in 2010, but timing hasn’t been ideal the last couple of years.

She didn’t play last year because she’d just had her second son, Benjamin, who’s now 17 months. Her eldest son Isaac is seven, and Georgia is six.

“The year before, after I retired [from netball], I played when I was a couple of months pregnant. But I’d always planned to come back,” she says.

“You’ve got top players on the world tour – not that I want to go back to that – who are well into their 30s, showing you can do it as you get older. And it’s easier on the body too.”

Anna Harrison and partner Susan Blundell in the 2008 NZ Beach Volleyball Open at the ASB Tennis Centre. Photo: Getty Images. 

In a sport that has always given Harrison great opportunities, about six other Kiwi players are putting their hand up for this year’s Tokyo Olympics.

The women’s Olympic contenders will continue mixing up their partnerships at the nationals, as they have all summer. National champions Shaunna Polley and Julia Tilley won’t defend their title together. Tilley is in the top-seeded team with Olivia MacDonald, and Polley joins forces with Analise Fitzi. Francesca Kirwan and Alice Zeimann are the tournament’s second seeds.

Harrison is looking forward to her latest netball comeback – even though it came unexpectedly.

It was almost a déjà vu moment, she says, to 2010 when she left beach volleyball to return to the Silver Ferns, after taking a surprise phone call to trial. She received a similar call from Stars head coach, Kiri Wills, last year.

“I didn’t go looking for that. That phone call from Kiz [Wills] was out of the blue for me. I wasn’t looking to go back to play franchise netball,” says Harrison, who’d played most of her career for the first northern-based team, the Mystics.

The 88-test Silver Fern had trialled as a shooter for the Shore Rovers club last year. She hadn't been “so nervous for a netball game in sometime” during the trials, but only managed a handful of games because of Covid-19 restrictions.

“I’m one of those defenders who’s always said I wanted to be a shooter - but I actually do want to be one,” she laughs. “That's one thing about me, I love a challenge and I love seeing what I can do. Playing as a shooter at the club opened up just another vision and I could see and understand the game better. It was awesome.”

It added to an already savvy set of skills for the one-time netball world champion and two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

The different perspectives Harrison brings will play a role in the way she attacks this netball season and shares her knowledge with teammates, on and off the court.

“You really can’t beat experience. And the more exposure you get to different positions, views, understandings, it all adds up - whether you’re conscious of it or not,” says Harrison, who made the Silver Ferns squad at just 19 in 2002.

“The challenge is trying to implement that stuff I’ve learned about myself and how to communicate, which has probably been my biggest downfall.”

Once fierce opponents, now Anna Harrison (left) and Maia Wilson will play together for the Northern Stars this season. Photo: Getty Images. 

Harrison has also spent a good chunk of her sports career studying and learning in different arenas. Last year she wrapped up a diploma in human development to go with her physiotherapy degree from Otago University.

And then she signed up for a diploma in positive psychology and wellbeing with an Australian institute.

“I was always interested in human development from a parent perspective, but this new one in positive psychology and wellbeing, that’s on a personal level,” Harrison says.

“Whatever I end up doing workwise after sport, that’s going to be helpful, because people are people and you work with them and that’s an important part of living.”

Progressing in career and life has given Harrison a good understanding of what she can and can’t do in preparation for an action-packed year.

“Being efficient is a part of experience and as you get older, you are a lot more mindful and aware of how your body is tracking,” she says.

“Like there is no way I could follow a programme that a 21-year-old is doing because I literally do not recover as fast.

“When I train, I train hard; it’s quality and I get the most out of it. And recovery is the key. Sleep is always so important for any athlete but as a mother, you'll be well aware that can be a challenge that sometimes you have no control over.”

The Stars have experience in managing athletes in similar situations, like Temepara Bailey and Leana de Bruin, who also made comebacks with the franchise. So Harrison has good support systems around her.

Come the end of the year, what will Harrison be happy with when she reflects on her time with the Stars?

“I guess one of the things I need to be mindful of going into the season is I potentially won't be able to play with the same intensity as I used to,” she says.

“I have to be smarter so I guess I would like to look at the season and be proud of the product that I put out on court but also do my part with helping these young ones. It's a cool opportunity to play with them and I do enjoy that aspect of the game.

“We have Oceane Maihi who’s just got the call-up to the Ferns camp this weekend so I’m really excited about playing with her. And there's Elle Temu as well.” Temu played for the victorious Pulse in 2020.

Anna Harrison is looking forward to an ANZ Premiership comeback season in the purple of the Northern Stars. Photo: Getty Images.  

First-hand lessons are priceless for young athletes coming through the ranks and Harrison says there’s no better perspective than being on court.

“If I’m in a position where I have the experience and I can see things and help in the moment then for a young player that’s pretty cool. It’s something I would’ve probably thrived on and appreciated.

“But I’m also well aware of not being too ‘oh yeah, have you thought about this?’ and overwhelming. So it’s a good challenge for me to try and pass on what I know in the right way.”

The sports fanatic, who’s stayed involved in netball through commentary work for Sky Sport, admits there’s a fine balance with her competitive nature.

“I am passionate and determined to be better,” says Harrison. “That can be very unhealthy at times as a person, but also the thing that gets you to the places you want to go with whatever it is you're into - whether it’s sport or business or arts.

“Your biggest strength is your biggest weakness and I’m really good at harnessing that for sport as a strength.”

So how will she manage the demands of sport and motherhood?

“The opportunity to come back to play netball with the Stars was probably really hard to turn down,” she says. “I had to weigh up a few things with the family, having three now, but you only live once. And being retired for two years, it sinks in that that part of your life is gone.

“So part of me is like ‘If I can still move and play, which is the goal, then why wouldn’t I?’ This season will be interesting, again, another phase in life, maturity and experience.”

One of her biggest worries when signing up was managing her own expectations and mulling over whether it was possible to commit to all fronts “without something giving.”

But her husband, Craig, a sport scientist involved in athlete development, is “awesome”, she says, and the couple have organised a babysitter for one night during the week to help out.

“I mean being tired and a grumpy mum, letting that part go downhill is probably...yeah, ask me that question at the end of the season,” laughs Harrison.

The New Zealand beach volleyball champs are part of the GJ Gardner Homes NZ Beach Tour, with the semifinals and finals streamed live on the Sky Sport Next YouTube channel. The ANZ Premiership starts in April.

Ocean swimmer won't let incurable cancer defeat her

Kate Wills is facing stage four cancer with the same fierce approach she takes into her ocean swimming - never say can't. 

Even on the mornings Kate Wills feels wretched from her fortnightly chemotherapy treatment, she drags herself up at 5am and goes swimming.

“I have to. It’s my job – to stay alive for my daughter,” she says.

Wills is an avid ocean swimmer – one of the best in her age group in the country. She’s been a regular face in the Banana Boat New Zealand Ocean Swim Series for the last 13 years.

And it’s that series the 59-year-old Taupō woman credits with keeping her alive.

Wills was diagnosed 20 months ago with stage four bowel cancer. She had very few symptoms apart from fatigue and then a severe headache. With a multitude of tumours in her lungs and one in her brain, it could have been a death sentence.

But Wills – who for years has saved other people’s lives as a front-line ambulance officer – was determined that it wouldn’t stop her doing what she loved. “It’s terminal but I refuse to even think about a use-by date. I have a 20-year plan and I’m focused on that,” she says.

And so she keeps swimming - in the pool, the ocean and her local haunt, Lake Taupō. Next weekend, she'll line up in the Interislander Swim the Lighthouse event in Wellington.

“It’s the event I least look forward to,” Wills says. “The water is always rough and cold, and it’s 3.3km long. And this year it’s right in the middle of my chemo treatment. I’m probably not going to do it well, but I’m doing my job.

“People keep saying I’m amazing, but I don’t feel like what I’m doing is amazing. It sucks. But you just do what you have to do.”

Wills is a woman who’s always been driven by her passions, and never been stopped by the word 'can't'. She’s been a professional sky diver for over 25 years – she was New Zealand’s first female tandem instructor (only the sixth woman in the world) and was the country’s first female parachute technician.

Then she started swimming seriously at 47: “I thought it would be a neat thing to swim across Auckland’s harbour,” she says. “I hated it; it was rough and I thought I was going to die.”

But she was motivated to get better and swim faster. So she started training for other events in the NZ Ocean Swim Series, and for the last five years, she's been coached by World Cup champion triathlete and Ironman winner, Samantha Warriner.

Kate Wills finishes an Epic Swim event in Lake Taupō. Photo: Fiona Dickinson

“One of the reasons I love doing the Ocean Swim Series is when I started in 2008, I said: ‘I’m doing this so I can stay fit and healthy in case anything goes wrong. I don’t want to be a burden on my daughter’. And boy, that was prophetic,” Wills says.  

Daughter Kelly is 23. She’s a make-up artist, but has spent this summer working as a lifeguard and swim instructor at the Masterton Pools.

Kelly will also be swimming in Wellington next weekend, but she completes the shorter 1km ocean distances. Mother and daughter support each other.

“After I had brain surgery, my daughter was saying ‘Mum you can’t do that!’ But I said to her ‘Don’t tell me what I can’t do; tell me what I can do’,” Wills says.

“Now she’s had a turnaround and she’s really encouraging. She’s proud of me – even if I’m a bit outside the norm. Staying alive for her is my goal.”

***

Every so often, Wills will wear a purple cap to her early morning trainings at the AC Baths in Taupō.

It’s a cap she was given in the Ocean Swim Series two years ago, when she feeling a little disoriented in the water. “I didn’t know then I had a 4.3cm tumour on my brain; nine weeks later I had surgery,” Wills says.

She kept the purple cap and wears it to let other swimmers in her Swim Smooth squad know she’s feeling a bit off-colour and she’ll probably be swimming slower. “They understand if I’m having a purple cap day,” Wills says.

Wills undergoes chemotherapy every fortnight – “for the rest of my life”. She has a permanent port where an infuser bottle is attached for three days, keeping her out of the water.

“By day five the chemo really hits hard. But I will drag myself out of bed on day five and swim,” she says. “You can’t help but come away feeling much better than when you’re lying in bed and want to die.

“The treatment is constant and it’s brutal. So I just can’t train like a normal woman trains anymore.

“I can get two to three days good training out of a 14-day period. Over the last four months whatever I can do on the bad days, I’ve got so much better. I’m not at the back of the lane on purple cap days anymore. I’m in the middle.”

Warriner coaches Wills twice a week, and is in awe of her attitude. The 2008 ITU World Cup overall champion and Commonwealth Games silver medallist has retired from competition and is now devoted to coaching through the Swim Smooth system.

“Everyone knows the challenges and the hardships Kate's facing, but she just gets on with it,” Warriner says. “If she’s not feeling well, she lets you know but she still gives her best effort.

“She’s very competitive in her age group and she thrives on the competition - age or illness are not barriers to her.

“She enjoys the freedom of being in the water, and she appreciates she's still here. The water is her happy place, and it’s what she needs.”

Wills is adamant she needs to keep swimming to stay ahead of the cancer. “Keeping my fitness up is so important. I’ve got a much better response to the treatment and fewer side effects than if I didn’t have my fitness. My blood tests have come back better than normal,” she says.

Kate Wills helps friend and sometimes rival, Carol Prop, with her wetsuit before last year's Swim the Shore event in Auckland. Photo: Elias Rodriguez | NZ Ocean Swim Series.

She continues to impress medical experts. “When I was having surgery to get the port put in, the surgeon told me the survival rate for stage four bowel cancer is about seven percent at five years. But he said: ‘because you’re so incredibly fit for your age, that’s increased your chances of getting into that seven percent survival rate has increased by 45 percent’,” Wills says.

“You take everything as a win. If you get up the morning and you don’t feel sick from the chemo, it’s a win.”

She’s been fortunate, she says, the tumours haven’t really affected her. When she was first diagnosed in May 2019, after her daughter took her to hospital with a headache and vomiting, Wills had been feeling fatigued - but she put it down to working long shifts in her job as an EMT (emergency medical technician) with St John Ambulance and studying for a degree in paramedicine.

“About 40 percent of people with bowel cancer won’t be diagnosed until they are stage four – when it has spread to other organs of your body,” Wills explains.

Bowel cancer cells had made their way to both of her lungs – the longest growth measuring 10cm. “My lungs are full of minor tumours. They were asking me: ‘How you could still be swimming?’” Wills says.

“I was swimming in squads doing 25m underwater with those in my lungs. But I didn’t get shortness of breath because they’re on the outer edges.”

Rather than have a large area of both lungs removed, Wills chose “a lifetime of chemotherapy to try to keep a lid on it”. And so far, it’s working. The 10cm tumour has shrunk to 3cm.

“I’m having such a good response because I keep going. I can still swim 25m underwater and I can still swim in ocean races.” Competitively too.

***

Wills spent her first eight years in a small fishing village in England. Even though her mother was terrified of the water, Wills would toddle into the sea at any chance she got. At five, her brother dared her to leap off a high breakwater into the harbour, which she did with no fear.

She moved with her hotel manager parents, first to the Bahamas and then to New Zealand when she was 12. She trained with a swimming club in Gisborne for two years, but wouldn’t get serious about swimming again for another three decades.

Wills did her first ocean swim, the 2008 Auckland Harbour Crossing, in 59m 27s, which put her 30th in her women’s 40-49 age group. Even though she didn’t enjoy it, she challenged herself to do better.

And that’s how she’s continued.  “It took me six years to work my up to get a bronze medal, but I did it,” she says.

Kate Wills exits the water after her first ocean swim event, the 2008 Auckland Harbour Crossing. Photo: supplied. 

Warriner says Wills has the attitude of a true athlete. “She tries to get better every year, but she’s very realistic as well – she wants to do better, but she also accepts that she’s in this chapter in her life where she may not always be able to do that. But she still gives it her all,” Warriner says. 

Wills has rarely missed an event in the NZ Ocean Swim Series, and in the 2016-17 series she was third overall for the season in her age division. But her 2019 brain surgery took her out of the water for three months and she took time to regain fitness.

She did the 3.8km Swim the Shore in Auckland before Christmas, even after telling daughter Kelly she thought it may be too far. “When I was healthy, I would have baulked at the distance. But I finished it without having to be rescued,” she laughs.

She finished fifth in her 50-59 age group: “That’s my aim now – to do my best to finish in the top five.” Last weekend she took out third in Swimming NZ's annual Epic Swim on Lake Taupō.

Wills lost her fulltime job as an EMT – having had a cerebral tumour, she’s no longer able to drive an ambulance. But she’s hoping to work for St John at major events.

That’s why swimming has become her “job” now. Other veteran swimmers continue to motivate her – like  60-year-old Taupō local Carol Prop, and 79-year-old Derek Eaton, who's the former Anglican Bishop of Nelson (“We text back and forth writing ‘Eat my splash!’ Wills laughs).

And of course, there’s Kelly. “When all you’re doing is struggling to get through those chemotherapy days, you tend to lose your purpose. But she’s my purpose – I need to get up and do my job for her.”

Kiwi bodybuilder trades Christmas for Ms Olympia

Former New Zealand gymnast Katya Nosova is now a champion bodybuilder, who was prepared to spend Christmas alone in quarantine to compete in the 'Olympics' of her sport. 

Katya Nosova was willing to do everything she could to pose on the world stage in her third Ms Olympia.

Despite a string of disruptions in 2020 through the Covid-19 pandemic, Nosova managed to touch down in the United States in late December for the pinnacle professional event of the IFBB - the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness. 

The 31-year-old was the solo Australasian athlete to compete in "the Olympics of our sport" in Orlando, Florida, and the first ever from the region to qualify and compete on three separate occasions. 

Ms Olympia is the women’s equivalent of Mr Olympia, the bodybuilding contest made famous by Hollywood actor turned politician Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Originally from Russia, Nosova and her family moved to New Zealand when she was 16: “for a better life and better opportunities.”

Growing up, she competed in rhythmic gymnastics in Russia and carried on to represent New Zealand in the sport after the move. She won a gold medal for New Zealand at the 2010 Pacific Alliance  championships in Melbourne in 2010 - the highlight of her gymnastics career. 

After a string of injuries, Nosova decided to finish up in her first-chosen sport at the age of 21, but wanted to remain active and to try something different. She started going to the gym and there met her now husband, Max Arefyev, who was involved in bodybuilding. She became hooked too. While Arefyev no longer competes in the sport, he is Nosova’s number one supporter. 

Nosova made it her goal in the sport she took up six years ago to place in the top 10 of international bodybuilding's bikini division - especially at Ms Olympia. 

Although she finished 16th in the 2020 event, she was eighth in Ms Olympia Bikini in 2017, and has had top 10 placing in events like the Iron Games, the Arnold Classic and won the Sacramento Pro bikini event in 2019.  

Nosova is now waiting for a 2021 international bodybuilding schedule to be determined. In the meantime, she's training twice a day; early mornings before work are dedicated to cardio sessions and in the afternoon, she focuses on weights and sometimes another cardio workout.

“Until then, we'll just train,” she says. “That’s the beauty of our sport: there's always things to work on, there's always things to touch up and change.” 

On top of her bodybuilding commitments, Nosova has a full-time corporate sales role and takes posing classes on the side. Her posing services will ramp up soon with the NZIFBB events starting in May.

“I’ve got a studio at home and I teach girls how to pose on stage,” Nosova says. “That’s quite a big aspect of the judging criteria, your overall stage presence and poses. I absolutely love it.” 

With the backdrop of Covid-19, the 2020 Ms Olympia is one contest Nosova will definitely remember. But her first Ms Olympia in 2017 is another competition she will never forget.

“That’s where I placed eighth, still the best placing I’ve done and especially because it was the first one,” says Nosova. “And we also got married the day after that Olympia, so that was obviously memorable.” 

There’s a bit of a backstory to their wedding. It was planned - despite many people thinking it was spur-of-the-moment Little White Chapel ceremony when she mentions getting hitched in Vegas.

Earlier in 2017, Nosvoa was scheduled to compete in Sacramento and beforehand Arefyev - then her fiancé - said: "If you win this show, why don’t we get married in Las Vegas?" 

“And I won that show,” Nosova laughs. “So we got married at the Grand Canyon the day after the event.”

Katya Nosova marrying the man who introduced her to bodybuilding, Max Arefyev, in the Grand Canyon. Photo: supplied. 

Even though December's result wasn't what she'd hoped for, the fact the event went ahead at all and competitors made it into the US, was an achievement in itself. 

“I think everybody deserves a gold medal,” says Nosova. “Because just to qualify for Ms or Mr Olympia is a big challenge and a big achievement. But to go through the pandemic - that was something really different. But we all did it.” 

Nosova says her decision to fly to the US, for just nine days was “worth it.”

“I'm really fortunate that I had the opportunity to go, that I had the funds to do that,” she says. “Because it's a self-funded sport and this trip was the most expensive I've ever done.

“So there were lots of sleepless nights and a lot of additional stress than there normally is. Athletes from Europe and Brazil couldn’t fly direct to the USA, they had to stay 14 days in a different country before coming to America.” 

To make the 2020 Ms Olympia, Nosova continued her training routine with her coach, Kim Oddo, who's based in California, through two New Zealand lockdowns. She kept training despite a postponement from September to December, purchased return flights to the US that came with the risk of being cancelled, had to change internal flights four weeks out from the event as Las Vegas went into lockdown and organisers shifted it to Orlando.

And then when she returned to New Zealand on Christmas Eve, Nosova flew to Christchurch and bunkered down on her own in managed isolation for the next two weeks. 

Onlookers may have thought it easier to pull out at the first hurdle, as there were many more hurdles in a year that will be etched in history. And Nosova admits she when the NZ quarantine requirements were introduced she began to question whether she still wanted to go.

“But that’s the kind of sacrifices you make for doing something you really love and are passionate about," she says.

Where is she now? Penny Kinsella

 

An international player, selector and self-confessed cricket stats nerd, Penny Kinsella has now played a hand in recording the rich history of the women's game in New Zealand.

Penny Kinsella’s cricketing career was perched on the cusp of change for the White Ferns.

“My first tour to Australia, we each needed to pay $300 to go,” says Kinsella, who debuted for New Zealand in 1987. She would do a huge amount of training for “not many matches” a year.

“But before my time, players actually had to purchase their own material and get their tour blazers made themselves, so I didn’t think it was too bad.”

It’s a far cry from where the current White Ferns find themselves, with professionalism, central contracts and maternity leave clauses now in place.

Kinsella has been well-positioned to track the progress of the women’s game, first as a player – for Wellington, Central Districts and the White Ferns - then as a national selector, and most recently, as part of a project team compiling the history of women’s cricket in New Zealand.

Playing 20 one-day games and six test matches through until the 1994-95 season, Kinsella was involved in some of that history herself. She was active during the transition from the Women’s Cricket Council to New Zealand Cricket, bringing with it changes to tour life.

“Following the amalgamation, we went to Aussie and played a series against them in coloured clothing, with a white ball under lights. We went from making sure we got the most out of every dollar, to staying in apartments in Brisbane, playing in colours at the Gabba. It was really quite outstanding,” she recalls.

Kinsella, now deputy principal at Onslow College in Wellington, was also part of the first New Zealand cricket team to make a World Cup final in 1993. While unsuccessful, playing on the hallowed turf of Lord’s – every cricketer’s dream – still ranks highly in her mind.

Test cricket was another highlight. Financial viability has robbed today’s White Ferns of the opportunity to play tests.

“I was lucky enough to play six tests. It’s so tactical, such a competitive experience without it being high pace,” Kinsella says. “That aspect of cricket can’t be replicated in any other way, and it’s a shame the current players don’t have that to look forward to.”

White Fern No. 97, Penny Kinsella, receives her cap from NZ Cricket chair, Greg Barclay, in 2019. Photo: supplied. 

A full domestic schedule of 50 and 20-over cricket, plus the emergence of international Twenty20 competitions, like the WBBL in Australia, keeps players busy - and remunerated. It’s just another sign of how the game has progressed since Kinsella was padding up.

“The idea of professionalism didn’t even creep into my mind,” she says with a chuckle. “The most matches I ever played in a calendar year was about 10, so you never really felt you could make a career out of it. We did a huge amount of training and physical preparation for not many matches.”

That’s how she ended up in teaching. Searching for a career that would enable her to continue playing, she headed into education, knowing the summer holidays would give her that opportunity.

With a science degree and teacher training under her belt, she began teaching in 1988 and hasn’t looked back. “I love the idea that you’re supporting people. You help grow kids into adults, and you can open their eyes to so many different pathways.”

Her tenure and experience led her to take on the leadership role of deputy principal, where she enjoys mentoring other educators.

Selecting is ideal for a self-confessed cricket stats nerd. In 2005, Kinsella began the first of two three-year stints as a selector for the White Ferns, and loved being able to watch cricket as a job.

“The opportunity to be strategic and still be able to contribute to the game at a national level was something I found really exciting,” she recalls. “The season was still quite compact at that point, but it was a time where women’s cricket was just exploding; there were so many new, talented players coming through. I enjoyed seeing the pathway for some of emerging players, some of whom are still White Ferns today.”

Penny Kinsella batting at a White Ferns practice with keeper Sarah Illingworth in 1994. Photo: NZ Cricket Museum Collection.

A firm believer in volunteerism, Kinsella gives back to the game she loves in every way she can.

She was a driving force in bringing back girls’ cricket to Onslow College, coaching and managing the side. She assists Cricket Wellington with selecting and coaching age group squads, and is on the board of the Cricket Museum, based at the Basin Reserve.

“It’s really exciting to have been involved in bringing the Cricket Museum into the 21st century,” she says. “There will always be a place for bats and balls, but we’re looking to tell the stories of cricket using interactive things like virtual reality,” Kinsella says.  

“How far could you hit a virtual bowler? That interactivity is what’s going to make the younger generation interested.”

Capturing the history of NZ women’s cricket

A new book released last week, The Warm Sun on My Face: The Story of Women’s Cricket in New Zealand, is a comprehensive telling of women’s involvement in the game.

While the words are enlightening, even browsing the myriad images demonstrates the progression through the years, from on-field fashion to techniques and equipment.

Kinsella had been involved in gathering statistics, notes and stories from women’s games in New Zealand with historian and cricket fan, Adrienne Simpson, in the mid-1990s. Sadly, Simpson passed away, but her family passed on her research to the Cricket Museum. There, former curator Jamie Bell discovered her work and got the ball rolling on making something of the incredible resource.

Over time, a project team grew to include Kinsella, former NZ cricket captain Trish McKelvey and and first-class cricketer Elizabeth Scurr, the first female board chair of Cricket Wellington, Sally Morrison, and author Trevor Auger. A huge cricket fan, Auger spent "every spare moment" over four years pulling together the weighty 676-page book.

Penny Kinsella with the new on the history of NZ women's cricket at Eden Park No.2 - where she made her White Ferns debut. Photo: Suzanne McFadden 

“We’re so fortunate Adrienne did all that research, as some of the people she spoke to have since died,” Kinsella says. “She had put together a treasure trove of information, interviews and newspaper clippings. She spoke to players from New Zealand’s first women’s match in 1935, discovering that places like Matamata and Whanganui were real women’s cricket strongholds.

“It helped us get a feel for what these pioneer women went through to build the game and structure it into what we see now. It’s been inspiring to be part of the team and a real pleasure to bring it to completion.”

Women’s cricket has endured through key points of social and historical importance – wars, natural disasters, even apartheid. The book’s narrative approach captures those points, and presents one of Kinsella’s favourite memories of the research process.

“I really enjoyed talking to [White Fern] Shirley Cowles, who had been on the last official cricket tour to South Africa before the boycott,” she says. “The team were protested by Halt All Racist Tours [HART] and had to assemble in secrecy to leave on the tour. She had some stories to tell about what it was like in South Africa at the time. She didn’t realise people could be treated so differently because of the colour of their skin.”

There is, of course, space dedicated to the White Ferns’ World Cup win on home soil in 2000.

With the postponed 2021 Women’s Cricket World Cup to be held on our shores next summer, Kinsella is hopeful the White Ferns can stake a claim for the trophy again.

“We have some absolutely brilliant, experienced players, which is a huge positive,” she says. “What I’d really like to see in this extra 12 months we have before the tournament is some runs being scored by that next tier of players. If those experienced players don’t come off with the bat, we have the ability to still build a 50-over innings.

“We definitely have the talent, it’s just a matter of harnessing it and developing a real stickability at the crease.”

And if they manage that, the 2022 White Ferns might just add their own chapter to the richly storied history of New Zealand women’s cricket.

The Warm Sun on My Face: The Story of Women’s Cricket in New Zealand by Trevor Auger, with Adrienne Simpson (Upstart Press, $69.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

The Lauz of motion come to a stop

Laura Langman is rolling down her long white socks and hanging up her black dress. The most capped netballer in Silver Ferns history, is she also the G.O.A.T?  

She has been a phenomenon in netball, and would be in most sports. It would be difficult to find another Kiwi athlete – woman or man – to rival Laura Langman’s astonishing record.

When it looked like her international career was over after 141 consecutive tests – and 18 months in the world netball wilderness (following her controversial ineligibility when she chose to play a season in Australia) - Langman came back to captain the Silver Ferns to the World Cup victory that was missing from her screed of achievements.

The 34-year-old has now called time on her dazzling career on the eve of the naming of the next Silver Ferns squad. She’s playing out the rest of Australia's Super Netball season with the Sunshine Coast Lightning, and then looking for a “new adventure”.  

LockerRoom has collected memories from some of those who’ve been alongside her on this one.

Laura Langman brought back the long white socks when she returned to the Silver Ferns in 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

The long white socks:

From the first time Dame Noeline Taurua saw Langman, 15 and fizzing, she was wearing long white socks pulled up to her calves that became her trademark. “From day dot she had those socks pulled up – just one of those little special things that make her Lauz,” Taurua says.

Langman explained their origins are before her netball days - an old habit from growing up on a dairy farm in Te Pahu, south-west of Hamilton, where she’d tuck her trouser legs into her socks before putting on her gumboots.

“Even in trainings she wore them like that too,” says Taurua. “I think for her it became part of her routine, pulling up her socks and starting her work.”

First impressions:  

Langman was a 15-year-old at Hillcrest High School when she first came onto coach Taurua’s radar trialling for the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic.

“We had a game and she went up against Jenny-May [Clarkson]. Usually kids who play against Silver Ferns get overawed by them, but she just got stuck in and never backed off,” Taurua says.  “She showed great promise, which was what really caught my eye.”

It’s Clarkson’s first memory of Langman, too: “Here was this kid who was wet behind the ears and I’d been around for a while. We stood on the edge of the circle and talked about the trajectory of the ball as she was putting it in to the shooter, and I told her ‘That kind of ball needs a little more spin and a little more height on it’. And then she executed it in that same game. I remember thinking ‘Wow, this kid is something special’.”

Irene van Dyk recalls Langman as a "nuggety" 16-year-old wing defence in the Magic squad. “I had to do a drill with her and I was like ‘Where are you?’ She was so fast and so strong. I said to myself, ‘Irene you are out of your depth here, this kid is going places’.”

Laura Langman playing for the Magic in 2006. Photo: Getty Images

A head for numbers: 

Langman is a chartered accountant, who studied for her degree and has worked all through her netball career. But she was never hung up on her own statistics. “Are you sure they triple-checked that?” she’d say before a milestone game.

For the record: Langman played 163 tests for the Silver Ferns, and was the first New Zealand netballer to reach 150 tests. She played the first 141 of those without missing a game for the Silver Ferns between 2005 and 2016.

She won World Cup gold and three silver medals; a Youth World Cup title; two Commonwealth Games golds and one silver; one ANZ Championship title as captain of the Magic, and one Super Netball title with the Lightning.

Colourful language:

As well as bringing her dynamic on-court skills, leadership and dedication to the Silver Ferns, Langman also brought laughter.

“As she’s got older, some of the strange words she pulls out have been really funny,” Taurua says. “Words like wakachangchang.  She definitely adds lightness and humour to a team.”

In her first training session back with the Silver Ferns - after a season away from the game - Langman said: “It felt like I’d blown a huhu valve”.

Clarkson remembers interviewing Langman and her long-time team-mate Casey Kopua straight after last year’s World Cup victory. “And Laura said in her cow-cocky voice: ‘It was a bit of a bumpy ride - I had to squeeze my bum cheeks together’.”

“Although she’s a perfectionist she doesn’t take life too seriously,” van Dyk says. “She knows there’s always a time and place for laughter.”

After the final whistle of the Silver Ferns 2019 World Cup final victory over Australia. Photo: Getty Images. 

A netball obsession:

Langman’s commitment to netball could almost be described as an obsession at times during her career. She has trained religiously, and the fact that her body has held out for 17 years of elite netball is testament to the recovery work she pours in.

I remember the eager 21-year-old preparing for her first World Cup, in Auckland in 2007, with a fractured foot (one of the rare injuries in her career). But come hell or high water, she was going to play. She got medical clearance a few hours before the first game.

“She’s gone through stages of being quite obsessive about everything she did. She was so committed to netball. But she’s more balanced now,” Taurua says.

The break she took from the game in 2018 gave her “an appreciation for other things in life – and she’s still been able to produce the goods and have balance in her life.” And finally win a World Cup.

A one-time telling-off:

Van Dyk, who was fed by Langman for most of her Silver Ferns career, recalls a test series where coach Ruth Aitken moved Langman from her usual wing defence to centre for the first time. “At some point Laura came off the circle edge too soon, and Ruth yelled at Laura ‘Stay on the circle edge!’ And I swear Laura’s eyes were so big because Ruth never yelled. And Laura never came off the circle edge again - in her career. That's the only time I ever saw Laura got told off.”

Words to describe Langman:

Taurua: Loyal. Dogged. Tenacious. Committed. Funny.

“She’s just been a great servant of our game. She did everything to uphold the mana of wearing the Silver Fern. Whether she’s playing for the Silver Ferns or a club, the team has always come first.”

Van Dyk: Class. Integrity. Work ethic. Humorous. Humble.

“The legacy Laura leaves behind is work hard, practice what you preach, lead by example, be a Fern 24/7, lift your values and give it everything you’ve got.

“In my book, she is the all-time greatest, without a doubt.”

Bowing out:

Her decision to retire has been more than two years in the making, Taurua says, even before she asked Langman if she would help her to win the World Cup.

Langman actually first considered ending her career back in 2015, when she got her first fulltime job as an accountant, and wanted to do something different.  

“She’s been involved in netball at an elite level for half of her life, and she’s committed so much that she really hasn’t had time to live her life and do other things,” Taurua says. “It’s sad, but it’s lovely for her and [husband] Adrian. She can go surfing and skiing now, and not worry about getting injured. She’s got nothing else to prove or that she wants.

“She’s still playing amazing netball. But she’s playing for the pure joy of the game, and you couldn’t finish up any better than that.”

Netballer Kelly Hutton keeps one step ahead of cancer

In a follow-up to LockerRoom's most popular story of 2020, Kelly Hutton is walking, working out and playing netball again, striving to stay ahead of cancer. 

In a race with time, Kelly Hutton is making the most out of life.

Exactly a year after she was told she had advanced ovarian cancer, the pioneer Canterbury Flames netballer crossed the finish line of the Queenstown half marathon.  

The month before, she’d walked the best part of 12 hours dressed as a hot dog, and won gold at a Masters netball tournament.

And she’s keeping up her fitness, training every other day in a homemade gym alongside Silver Ferns shooter Te Paea Selby-Rickit.

So impressive for a woman who endured major surgery and six rounds of chemotherapy this year.

“It was nice to tick the half marathon off,” Hutton says. "It was really hard, but I kept reminding myself, there’s a reason why I’m doing it. And I’d remember lying in bed in March when it seemed such an unachievable goal."

In April, we introduced you to Hutton’s heart-wrenching but inspiring story. It would become the most read story in LockerRoom in 2020. 

Kelly Hutton (the hot dog) with sister, Megan Hutton, left and former Silver Fern Angela Mitchell. Photo: supplied 

Last year, Hutton was happy working in Bahrain, and captaining the Bahrain national netball team. Around the time of her 45th birthday, she became overwhelmed with exhaustion and had an unrelenting pain in her side, but managed to keep playing sport.

Then a CA125 blood test, which helps diagnose ovarian cancer, showed her tumour markers were “through the roof”. Surgeons discovered advanced stage 3 cancer galloping through her abdomen.

So, Hutton came home to Christchurch with her mother and sister, former Southern Steel netballer Megan Hutton, by her side to face aggressive treatment - made tougher by going through it in Level 4 lockdown.

But since her last chemotherapy in May, Hutton has been building up her strength again. She’s been tackling walking tracks, like the Tora Coastal Walk in the Wairarapa, and training in the gym a friend built in her garage, which they call “Jo's Box”. Selby-Rickit – working towards her second season with the Mainland Tactix – is training there too.

“Te Paea is cracking into it. And I figure if I can keep up with her, I’ll be doing okay,” Hutton says. “My body is getting used to it, and I’m not sleeping as much as I had to before.”

Her only real setback has been a torn meniscus in her knee.

“I started running and really enjoyed it. But then I fell in a bloody hole,” she laughs. “There’s probably a bit of degeneration in there from netball too.” She’s going to have knee surgery next.

It meant she had to walk the 21.1km, alongside the Shotover and Kawarau rivers, to achieve the goal she’d set herself after her third debilitating round of chemo. Her other sister, Lisa, and friend Nicola McNally walked alongside in her support. And she needed it.

“After the first kilometre, I wasn’t feeling well. I’d got a little bit carried away the week before and hard with a few training walks,” Hutton says. “But it was a cool thing to do. Next year, I want to run it.”

Kelly Hutton (right) with sister Lisa and friend Nicola McNally finishing the Queenstown Half Marathon Photo: FinisherPix

All her walking and working out is helping Hutton stay on top of her health. "It makes me feel like the old me isn’t quite lost yet," she says.

"It’s been most important from a mental perspective, because every time something went wrong in the past [the death of her dad and young nephew, and the Christchurch earthquakes], the first thing I did was go for a run. So I want that outlet back."

Hutton had a "cracking early Christmas present" with her three-monthly oncology check-up a fortnight ago.

“My bloods were better than ever, and my CA125 test is the lowest it’s ever been. I’m the most ‘cancer-free’ I have been since this whole nightmare started,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

But Hutton is under no illusion that the cancer has been beaten.

“It’s a loaded gun. It will come back. My oncologist said: ‘Remember it’s not going to be like this every time’,” she says.

Her body is “still a wreck” from the chemotherapy, and she’s been suffering with the symptoms of menopause since her ovaries were removed.

“And then there’s the real mental mind games, which have been much harder than I thought. There’s the threat of it recurring hanging over your head and you realise how much you’ve had to give up in your life,” she says. “My life is very different from a year ago.”

But she's not dwelling on it. She’s walking the Abel Tasman Coast Track in the New Year and then the Banks Track on the Banks Peninsula mid-January. “I’m looking at doing the Milford Track at the end of January, but that may be too much,” she says.  

Hutton may look to coach a school netball team next season, with Selby-Rickit offering to be her assistant coach. Hutton has the pedigree, having played for Canterbury and the original Flames side in 1989 - when the Coca Cola Cup introduced semi-professional netball to New Zealand - and captaining the New Zealand indoor netball team. 

She's become somewhat of a crusader in the fight against cancer - she was “honoured” to be asked to speak at the Cancer Society Ball in Christchurch (postponed by Covid-19). And she raised $8100 in the Relay of Life Otautahi with her team, the Hutton Sizzlers (hence the hotdog suit).

The Hutton Sizzlers also won gold in netball at the South Island Masters Games, the team including former Silver Ferns shooter Angela Mitchell.

Hutton organised the team, but with her bad knee, didn’t take the court often. “I put myself at goal shoot, and just put my hand up for the ball,” she laughs.

“But I'd love to play again one day. Never say never.”

Sharp elbows help Kiwi cyclist Olivia Ray go pro

Once warned off cycling by her parents, New Zealand's latest pro rider, Olivia Ray, is now promising to buy them tickets to the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Olivia Ray wasn't meant to win one of her early races in America. There was another young woman, who'd been competing for years and raced for Rally, one of the big teams in the United States. She was unstoppable. Until Ray arrived.

"I beat her a couple of times and everyone was thanking me for beating her. They said she'd been unbeatable for years, and I was like, 'Oh, I don't know who she is',” she says.

Only a few years later, the foot is on the other pedal. Ray has just signed for Rally herself, and thanks to her aggressive and fearless racing, has turned herself into a similar force to the one she came up against when she first arrived in the US.

That was back in 2017, after she decided to take up a full scholarship in Georgia. Once she arrived though, she found it hard to adjust.

"It was pretty awful. It's so different over there,” she recalls. "I wouldn't have expected it because it's America, they speak English, it's all pretty relative. But the food, and the people and how people act, I think I had a bit of a culture shock."

A trip home to see her family for Christmas helped her reset, and when she returned, everything was easier. She now calls it her second home.  

On the bike, Ray developed her cycling skills in the furious world of criteriums. The short races involve several laps around a closed street circuit, with plenty of sprinting and shoulder-to-shoulder action thrown in. If you think of a whole bunch of stressed Christmas shoppers racing down an aisle at The Warehouse for the last toy, you’re not far off.

While the crit scene is quiet in New Zealand, with just a small handful of them every year, the stakes are much higher in America. A lot of the races are held in the afternoon or at night, with the streetlights beaming down and large crowds hanging over the barriers.

An ecstatic Olivia Ray after winning the 2020 national criterium championships in Christchurch. Photo: CMGSport Action Images

Ray didn't put any pressure on herself as she came to grips with the frantic format, instead trying to soak everything in and learn as much as she could. After thriving and winning plenty of times throughout the US, she's developed a style of racing that works.

"I'm aggressive. That looks like going from the back of the race and getting to the front in a quarter of a lap. It's a combination of not letting anyone get in front of me if I don't want them to, or throwing some elbows,” she says.

Her impressive performances meant she signed with a team called ButcherBox this year, but she only got a few races in before the coronavirus pandemic locked her down. With her studies for a marketing and advertising degree shifted online, she decided to head home to make the most of the summer and get some racing in the legs.

Ray’s first hit out was the national criterium championships in Christchurch last month, an event she’d always wanted to come back and win. While she admits she took it a bit too seriously and got quite stressed about it, she out-kicked her rivals to take the title and is still “coming off the high” of getting to wear the national champion's jersey.

She then switched to the track, testing herself against the country’s leading riders at the Cambridge 3 Day Champs in the Avantidrome. In front of interested eyes from the national selectors, she won the elimination race and the tempo race.

Ray’s hoping to continue her success on the road and the boards, even though that has its challenges.  

A road cycling sprinter like Ray normally does endurance events on the track, but she's keen to stick with sprinting in the velodrome too. That means she’ll be coming up against athletes with a different build to her, who have trained specifically for that discipline. As Ray points out, what she’s trying to do is like if Usain Bolt decided to do the marathon as well as the 100 metres.

"People say that you can't do it, but I hope I'll be that rare person to be able to at least try to do both well,” she says.

Olivia Ray came away from the Cambridge 3 Day Champs in the Avantidrome with two titles. Photo: Cullen Browne

It's not the first time she's been told that. Growing up, she was desperate to emulate her brother Alexander, who cycled at Auckland Grammar.

"My parents wouldn't let me. They said I was going to crash and they'd have to drive me everywhere and all of this,” she laughs.

But after signing up in Year 10 at Diocesan School, she rented a bike and never looked back. The sport has always run strongly through her family, although not always with pleasant memories.

In 2018, her brother was hit by a car while out on a training ride in Auckland. He was placed in an induced coma, suffering collapsed lungs, 28 breaks in his ribs, a cracked pelvis and many more injuries. Stuck on the other side of the world, Ray found it difficult to comprehend how her parents were feeling and what it was like by his hospital bed.

"The crazy and amazing thing is that he's 98 percent ok now. The only thing he struggles with sometimes is, like what I'm doing right now, figuring how to make a sentence work,” she explains.

After the crash, her relationship with her brother strengthened.  

"He was a bit reserved before and now he talks to me. We ride together and we play-fight and we say, 'oh I'm better than you', so it's a good little rivalry we've got going,” she says.

Ray’s got plenty to brag about now, after getting a call “out of the blue” from leading American team Rally. They compete on the women’s World Tour, with three-time New Zealand Olympian Joanne Kiesanowski one of their sports directors.

"When I first saw the message, I started crying...it's completely random and absolutely amazing. I didn't think it was happening at the time,” she says.

The team is planning to do a bunch of races in America, along with a few stints in Europe depending on the coronavirus situation.

Then it's onwards to the Paris Olympics in 2024, although Ray is not quite sure how that’s going to look.

"I keep telling my parents and my coach, I'll buy you tickets to Paris," she laughs. 

"I want to be the best and I want to show what I can do. Figuring out the best pathway to show that, to go to the Olympics or the world championships or World Cup, you really have to dial in what you want to do, and that'll be the process I have to figure out in the next few months."

When she’s quizzed about her sporting idols, she mentions the attributes of Serena Williams, Kobe Bryant, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish.

But with her cycling future looking incredibly bright, it’s her brother who sums it up best.

“I’ve always said I want to be like him," Ray says. "But he says, 'why don’t you just be you'.”

Dressage star plans to head where some fear to tread

Melissa Galloway would go to great lengths to reach her Olympic dressage goals; making the move to the United Kingdom in the midst of a global pandemic is one of them.

The 27-year-old is aiming to ride at the postponed Tokyo Olympics next year, but will have to jump a number of hurdles to get there.

Galloway, New Zealand’s leading dressage rider, says it’s a huge decision to move to the Northern Hemisphere in February as a new strain of Covid-19 spreads through England.

“But it’s either go all guns blazing and move over there, or just sadly give up the dream until Paris [2024 Olympics],” she says.

“Which is what I could do, but at the same time, because we're working with animals, you just don’t know how long they're going to last. And anything can happen in the next four years.”

To qualify for next year’s Olympics, Galloway needs to place well at certain international shows. The events are not available in New Zealand - and Australia is no longer holding any because of Covid-19.

Right now, Galloway and her main horse, Windermere J'Obei W, are “going amazing” and she wants to build on that.

The pair kicked off the season in March by winning Horse of the Year after turning heads across the Tasman in February at Willinga Park on the south coast of New South Wales.

It was there she finished a very close second to Australian Olympian Mary Hanna at the Dressage by the Sea event. But it was worthy of praise, given it was Galloway’s first international event with her own horse. They only featured in their first grand prix together late last year.

They carried on their fine form in mid-March, winning the CDI FEI grand prix in Hastings. Galloway also placed third at the same event on her second grand prix horse, Windermere Johanson W.

Last month, Galloway and J'Obei W won the Bates national dressage championships - finishing ahead of Rio Olympian Julie Brougham and Vom Feinsten, back on the main stage after a year of chemotherapy and surgery for abdominal cancer.

Galloway's results are reassuring in her bid to make the Tokyo Olympics. She's looking to fly to the UK in the first week of February.

“We’re making plans but if it's looking really bad over there with Covid and lockdown and things, we’ll just have to pull the pin,” she says.

No surprises Galloway is willing to put her team in the best position to be competitive. She’s known for following her instincts and bucking norms.

She started training her own horses from a young age. And now J’Obei W and Johanson W are competing at grand prix level - the highest competition stage in dressage.

Galloway left school at 17 to train in a barn in the North Island before moving back home to work on the family stable, Windermere, in Tuamarina - a small settlement in Marlborough, where the population is just under 250.

At 18, Galloway moved to Germany to train horses and broaden her riding experience with Hubertus Hufendiek, the renowned dressage rider, coach and trainer. She met him while he was living in New Zealand.

She was only meant to go for two weeks but ended up staying for a year, and on her return to New Zealand she wanted to start anew. Galloway sold her horse and started looking for a younger option.

“I actually rode a horse in Germany by a stallion called Johnson and when I came back to New Zealand, there were these two very young horses,” she says. “One was only a year-and-a-half old and the other was three-and-a-half years old and they were both by that same stallion, so they really caught my eye.”

At first there was push back in selling the pair to Galloway as the horses had a reputation for being quite difficult and she was young and unproven. But after hearing she had ridden the stallion in Germany, she was able to visit the owners “and the rest is history”. J’Obei W and Johanson W have been with her ever since.

Melissa Galloway and J'Obei W have racked up the accolades in the last few years. Photo: Mark Watson Photography

Johnson W, the elder of the two, had gone to three different breakers before she purchased them because he was so difficult. “He was a handful. He bucked me I think six times in the first six months I had him. And he bucked me off in my first competition with him,” recalls Galloway.

“And still to this day, there's a little bit of that in there but he's a lot better. I think the higher level he got with his dressage, the better he became which is really cool.”

Why did she persevere as a young rider?

“I just have that real determination and I always believed in him. When I first fell off I was so upset,” she says. “I wanted to be the first person that hadn’t fallen off him because I knew everyone had.

“As much as he is a bit of a pain, I always believed he had the talent and he does. I just needed to keep persevering to bring it out, really. His younger brother, my best horse now, was a lot easier.”

Galloway has always wanted to train her own horses, even more so knowing the obstacles of living in New Zealand - cost and availability.

“To be honest, I’ve always been like that from a young age. When I got my first horse, everyone suggested ‘Oh you should get a schoolmaster [a safe experienced horse] or something because they know what to do’. But I never wanted that,” she says.

“I was like a 15-year-old girl with a five-year-old horse, which is not what most people would recommend, but it taught me to ride and train. I’m pretty young for someone that’s actually taught two horses now at grand prix level who are doing really well. I’m pretty proud of that.”

Galloway says she didn’t want anyone to question her ability based on potentially buying top-notch horses.

“Even when you do spend a lot of money, you still have to be able to ride the horse which takes a lot of skill,” she says. “But I think you feel a lot more accomplished if you’ve done it yourself.”

Riding at Willinga Park before lockdown, a few international judges from America and Germany noticed the synergy between horse and rider.

“They said there's a real difference with my horse, there was something about us that they knew we had been together for years. And I thought that was really cool,” Galloway says.

That was a highlight of her career so far. “Even though I have won other cool things, going to Australia with your own horse and the whole journey of it all…we went over as the underdogs, there were a lot of other top riders from New Zealand going and nobody expected me to be the one that came out on top. So that was pretty cool,” she says.

Galloway, who married husband Lachy two years ago, has also been working with New Zealand dressage champion Vanessa Way for the last six years.

The awards they have reaped have been steadily improving. In 2016, J'Obei W was crowned North Island’s young horse dressage champion, and by 2018 they'd won the New Zealand U25 grand prix championship and came out on top of the Prix Saint Georges class at the FEI world dressage challenge.

She got into dressage through her mother’s love of horses. While Galloway’s dad was really sporty, he had no involvement with the animals. “My dad actually went to the world wakeboarding championships, like, many years ago. So we kind of grew up with all sorts of sports - wakeboarding, snowboarding, mountain biking and all sorts of stuff,” says Galloway, who recently ran a half marathon.

“My sister and I used to sit out by the kitchen and beg mum to let us ride her horse. And eventually we got a little Shetland pony we had to share. We went through pony club and that whole thing." Her younger sister now competes in showjumping.

Galloway, who describes dressage as “dancing with horses”, had been a dancer when she was younger and thought that may where her career lay.

“Dressage is pretty much the perfect combination of the two. And I love the challenge of it. No one has ever got 100 percent in dressage, so everything can always be better,” she says.

“The feeling you get when you’re in complete harmony with your horse is really indescribable – and trying to reach that feeling all the time is what keeps me driven.”

Her advice to those wanting to follow a similar path: Believe in yourself.

“That’s really taken me a long way. In any sport, there are always people who have opinions, there's different coaching, people of influence that tell you different things,” she says.

“I’ve always stuck to my guns, and stuck to what I really believed in with my training, and what I wanted to do. That goes with anything really, so try to believe in yourself and your system. The way you want to do things. Anything is possible, just go for it.”

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