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LISTEN: Extra Time examines two big issues in women's sport this week - postponing the Rugby World Cup and the Silver Ferns' battle for the crown that eludes them.
Rio Olympian Helena Gasson has found a new gear - breaking 20 NZ swimming records in the past 18 months.
Once close to death, Louise Duncan has overcome the severe impacts of meningococcal meningitis and is back in the saddle - riding dressage for NZ and on the verge of the Tokyo Paralympics.
A sailing rookie hailing from the mountains of Colorado, Kelly Hartzell plays a crucial part in Team New Zealand's defence of the America's Cup. She explains her role as a mechatronics engineer to Suzanne McFadden.
As the Silver Ferns finally return to the court against archrivals Australia, world champion goal keep Jane Watson is ready to face a few more challenges on the eve of her 50th test.
Fingers crossed, Mary and Ross Watson will be sitting in the virtually empty stands of the Christchurch Arena to witness their daughter reach a Silver Ferns milestone.
A scattering of less than 100 family and friends should be allowed into the stadium to watch the Silver Ferns play the Australian Diamonds in four tests over the next six days, with all games now being played in Christchurch (to minimise the movement of both teams in alert Level 2).
That’s played in the favour of the Watson family, who now live in the Garden City – but who brought up their daughter, Jane, in the small South Island towns of Cave and Miller’s Flat.
Watson, now the senior defender in the New Zealand side, will almost certainly earn her 50th test cap on Wednesday, the second test in the long-awaited Constellation Cup.
Watson - who turns 31 on Sunday, the day of the final test – isn’t too caught up in the numbers. “It will probably mean more to my parents,” she laughs.
And there’s no doubt it will mean a lot to the Watsons. They’ve watched their daughter overcome a cruel streak of challenges - a heart-stopping condition in her teens that needed a pacemaker, falling seriously ill with a rare infectious disease and the death of her partner – to become one of the most respected goal keeps in international netball.
“Fingers crossed they'll be there,” says Watson of her greatest supporters through her tough times. She'd invited “a solid group” of family and friends to watch her landmark test before the country’s Covid-19 alert levels were elevated again on the weekend.
Watson hasn’t spent a lot of time pondering reaching 50 tests; the athletic and relentless defender becoming only the third player to do so in the current Silver Ferns line-up - joining Shannon Saunders who’s made 77 appearances in the black dress and Bailey Mes, hoping to add to her 71 caps after a year out with injury.
“It’s funny because you don’t think it’s going to come around and suddenly it’s here,” says Watson, who admits hating netball until she was a teenager.
With the Silver Ferns treating their preparation for this series as if they’re in a bubble within a Level 3 lockdown, Watson won’t be able to hug her family after Wednesday’s test.
“With no interaction with the crowd, it will be just seeing them from afar and chatting with them on the phone later on,” she says.
“It’s weird, but we’re pretty good at rolling with the punches now. We were exposed to the restrictions of no crowds through the ANZ Premiership last year, and I think that’s prepared us very well for what to expect here.
“We’re just being extra cautious around sanitisation, doing our check-ins wherever we go, not going to malls, to protect ourselves and our spaces so that we can actually have a game.”
Just how unique this series is, isn’t lost on Watson.
It’s the first international netball played anywhere in the world in 2021. And Tuesday will be the first test Australia has played in 492 days; their last against the world champion Silver Ferns in the deciding encounter of the Constellation Cup in October, 2019.
That’s a game Watson has well and truly forgotten. Not because it was so long ago, but it was a personal performance she didn't want to remember.
The Ferns went into that test in Perth leading the series 2-1. A win would have given New Zealand the Constellation Cup for the first time in seven years.
Watson played the first half of that test, but went to the bench when the Ferns trailed the Diamonds, 31-18. Although they rallied, New Zealand lost 53-46 and the trophy stayed in Australia.
“For me, the last game was terrible, so I’ve forgotten about it,” Watson says. “I just moved on, took my learnings and got on with the next game.”
Diamonds captain Caitlin Bassett had a stellar shooting game in that test, and the towering Australian centurion is back in the very raw Diamonds, under new leadership, who came out of 14 days’ quarantine in Christchurch on Monday.
Watson says she’s always raring to take on Bassett (who she’ll meet on a more regular basis in this season’s ANZ Premiership, with the shooter joining the Magic after this series).
“I don’t mind the challenge,” Watson says. “I think what’s cool about our team is that we’re very unit-focused in the defensive end. So whatever the challenges we face, we like to do a variety of things together to combat it.”
It’s a very tight defensive unit the Silver Ferns take into these four tests. With pregnancies, injuries and poor fitness depleting the squad, coach Dame Noeline Taurua has chosen just three circle defenders – Watson, Karin Burger and Sulu Fitzpatrick.
It’s not something that worries Watson, who for the first time is the most senior player in New Zealand’s defence.
“I have full trust in Noels and the decisions she makes around the team. She’s obviously got a plan around how she will play things,” she says. “You’ve just got to trust the process, and if you get court time, play your heart out and do what you can to contribute.
“It’s quite nice, actually, that there aren’t a whole lot of combinations there, so you have more time to work with those [other two] players.”
Watson and Burger are now team-mates in the Tactix – with Burger moving south from the Pulse - so they’ve been able to train together in the lead-up to the Constellation Cup.
Although she’s a senior leader in the Ferns - now sharing the vice captaincy role with midcourter Gina Crampton – Watson doesn’t see her role within the team changing.
“What I do on court isn’t going to change, whether I’m young or old, or experienced or not. This is who I am and how I approach things. I just go out there and do my job and hopefully help someone else do theirs," she says.
“I’ve obviously been chosen [as vice captain] for a reason, so why change myself? I just do me and hopefully can add value to other people’s journeys.”
The Ferns have spent some time analysing their opposition, but they’re a bit of a moving target. Half of the 14-strong Diamonds squad have yet to make their debut in international netball and for the first time in a decade, there's a new coach, Stacey Marinkovich, in charge. They will also have a rotating captaincy policy, with a different player calling the shots on court for each test.
“There are definitely some unfamiliar faces in there, that’s for sure,” Watson says. “It will be really good to see what Aussie puts out there in the first game.
“Even though we have analysed the Aussies figuring out how they might play, the major focus has been on ourselves and what we do well, and playing to our strengths.”
This might be New Zealand’s strongest chance to win back the Constellation Cup – a trophy that has spent just one year of 11 in Netball New Zealand’s crammed silverware cabinet.
And Watson is primed for the challenge.
All four tests, at the Christchurch Arena, will screen live on Sky Sport 3; Tuesday and Wednesday 7.15pm tip-off, Saturday 4.15pm and Sunday 3.15pm.
New research into the wellbeing of New Zealand's top sportswomen has some surprising revelations, that should help lead a change in culture for happier, healthier, better performing female athletes. Ashley Stanley reports.
Almost three quarters of New Zealand’s top female athletes in a new national survey feel elite sport is putting them under pressure to look a certain way, potentially damaging their health.
One in four of the Kiwi sportswomen at the top of their game have been diagnosed with a stress fracture at some point in their careers.
And nearly a quarter have been iron deficient, while a third reported their menstrual cycle was affected by their training volume.
These are some of the findings just released from research carried out by a team of experts in New Zealand, published in the Frontiers in Sport and Active Living journal.
The WHISPA (Healthy Women in Sport: a Performance Advantage) group behind the research includes members from fields like sport medicine, physiology, nutrition, sociology, coaching, psychology, endocrinology and former athletes. It’s a High Performance Sport New Zealand initiative formed in 2017 to focus on women’s health, wellbeing and performance following the 2016 Rio Olympics - the first Games where there were more women than men representing New Zealand.
The research involved 219 female survey participants, either carded athletes - those who receive funding from HPSNZ - or development sportspeople in high performance pathways across a number of sports codes in New Zealand.
Holly Thorpe, the socio-cultural lead of the research, acknowledged a survey has strengths and limitations, but the group decided it was the best way to get a snapshot of female athlete health in New Zealand at a point in time. The research aimed to identify factors influencing elite female athletes’ health, wellbeing and performance.
“This survey was not about diagnosing athletes with anything,” says Thorpe, a sport sociology and physical culture professor at the University of Waikato. “It's really about mapping across the sport sector and athletes to really identify key trends, that we can use to start being more focused in directing change initiatives.”
The survey is unique, because there is next to no data in this area of sport. “I feel very confident in knowing that this kind of multi-disciplinary approach around female athlete health is world-leading. No one else is doing it like this," Thorpe says. "And this has been the ethos of the WHISPA group from the very beginning."
Many of the participants also added comments to the survey responses to give more context to their answers. “I take that as a sign that the athletes wanted to have a say on some of these issues. And to be able to do that anonymously went well,” says Thorpe.
Bruce Hamilton, the initiator and connector of WHISPA, says most of the data is “pretty consistent” with international trends, but there were surprises in being able to quantify some of the issues.
“I don’t think anybody who works within a high performance sport environment would be too surprised by the topics and the areas we covered,” he says. “Some of the numbers may surprise people though.”
Hamilton is the director of performance health at HPSNZ - a role responsible for the health care provision across all carded sports in New Zealand. And he also holds a dual position with the New Zealand Olympic Committee as the health team leader, responsible for preparing the health care needs of the team heading to Tokyo later this year.
One of the biggest revelations to the group was the difference in what individuals were being diagnosed with, says Hamilton. “And what we’re actually seeing from the symptoms they were describing.”
Conditions like oligomenorrhea (irregular menstrual cycles) and amenorrhea (the absence of menstrual cycles) which were diagnosed previously in 12 percent of participants, but in this study half of the athletes mentioned symptoms consistent to those diagnoses. “I think that’s a real area that highlights to us the need to be able to diagnose and support women comprehensively,” Hamilton says.
Another of the figures which surprised Hamilton was 23 percent of our female athletes have been diagnosed at some point in their career with a stress fracture.
“That’s a pretty significant number - one in four,” he says. “While that is not outside the realms, I think when you see that number in the cold light of day, it has quite an impact.”
The research shows stress fractures and iron deficiency were closely connected with oligomenorrhea and amenorrhea, menorrhagia (menstrual bleeding that lasts for longer than a week) and disordered eating practices.
“Forty-seven percent of elite female athletes have been diagnosed with iron deficiency sometime during their career,” says Hamilton. “And while there is a good academic basis as to why that is, I think that number certainly reinforced what we saw, but was probably higher than what we thought it might be."
On the other hand, Thorpe says the research data and findings did not surprise her. One of her areas of interest is women in sport, and she has already conducted research interviewing female athletes in three different sporting cultures, including weightlifting and endurance sports.
“I've heard these things before,” says Thorpe. “But it was really great for the socio-cultural side of the survey to be able to put numbers across sports and the significance of some of these issues that elite female athletes are facing.”
One of the findings that was “pretty striking” to Thorpe was 73 percent of all athletes believed elite sport was putting pressure on them that was damaging their overall health.
“And 54 percent of the athletes believed or felt pressures to conform to a particular notion of femininity,” says Thorpe. “So the idea around beauty that wasn’t associated with performance, but they felt those pressures.”
Eighty percent of those women reported the biggest cause of that was social media and 15 percent tried disordered eating methods to reach those societal standards. Other factors in conforming to looking a certain way are the general public, media and the athletes’ own perceptions.
Thorpe has already completed international research focusing on elite female athletes and social media, but not in New Zealand.
“[Social media] is really helpful in terms of building their brand, audiences and promoting their sport,” she says. “But with that can come various forms of online abuse and trolling. And it can, overall, increase body image pressures which is clearly evidenced in our survey.” This was mentioned more than any other performance-related pressure by participants.
The survey is the tip of the iceberg, says Thorpe. “These are elite carded sportswomen in Aotearoa. I feel very confident that underneath are much bigger issues that are being experienced by non-carded athletes, in more developing athletes.” This research somewhat supports this notion with more injuries seen in developing participants in comparison to senior athletes.
Hamilton points out there isn’t just one factor causing pain points for women athletes.
“To be honest, I think it’s a number of factors we want to address across the board,” he says. “I think understanding, education, and communication of everybody - athletes, medical staff, nutrition staff, psychology staff, coaches, all of the support staff - around individuals.”
Athletes reported barriers to communicating issues they experience include the lack of quality health information available and to a lesser degree, the gender of coaches and support staff.
On top of communication issues, socio-cultural components, such as cultural and organisational factors, can impact the effectiveness of health and performance support for female athletes.
This research has reinforced WHISPA’s desire to make a difference and have a positive impact on women’s health and wellbeing. And they’ve already started driving some initiatives within HPSNZ and outside the organisation.
A number of educational forums and conferences have been held over the last couple of years for the general public, athletes, parents and coaches as well as presenting research and the group’s expertise at international forums.
They’re also connecting key experts from areas like physiology, endocrinology and sport medicine with national sports organisations, so those individuals are working closer together, developing relationships and sharing knowledge.
A PhD scholarship has just been announced to help with further research on the back of this survey. It was part-funded by Orreco (the international company that created the FitrWoman app) and the University of Waikato.
The release of this research seems like perfect timing as HPSNZ’s 2024 strategy is being launched soon, which includes a wellbeing programme. Hamilton knows things will take time “but we’ve started the ball rolling, largely around education and trying to support best practice.”
So where can the biggest gains be made?
“How do you motivate change when our athletes, coaches and sports organisations are already at capacity? This is more. We need to do more," Thorpe says. "But it needs to be a must do, a need to do, not a nice to do. This actually needs to happen.
“I think we can connect the dots over recent years, and see elite sporting culture is highly problematic in terms of the power relations and in the effects on male and female athlete health and wellbeing. So I think we need a cultural shift. But how to bring that about is strategic.”
She says people need to be brought along with the change. “Rather than pointing fingers or telling people they are doing it wrong. I don’t think that brings people with us.”
Highlighting and encouraging examples where athletes and coaches are already being proactive in this space and leading in a healthy way is one option. “I think there are assumptions that to really perform, you need to be deep in the pain and putting up with a lot of horrible stuff," says Thorpe.
“When actually our athletes are going to be better, they're going to stay in sport longer, their bodies are going to keep moving and be healthy well into their older years if we can look after them in these environments."
There are performance advantages in having healthy and happy athletes, adds Thorpe. “We don’t have to have unhappy, unwell athletes for them to perform.
“So this is actually a big change, this is culture change. And I see this survey as a little, but very important part, in bringing disciplines together and getting a united message that is backed by hard data.”
Listen: This week's Extra Time podcast from RNZ dissects the women's White Ferns' cricket challenge against England, the men's Black Caps vs Australia and the start of Super Rugby
A Kiwi pro boxer inspired by her kids to 'keep going', now has her eyes set on a world title fight. Ashley Stanley reports
Mea Motu may be blitzing through her boxing opponents now but it was only last year the featherweight needed some nudging into the professional arena.
The mother-of-five has plenty of support behind her but it was her eldest son who convinced her to give the big leagues a good shot.
“All of my family are into sport, so my kids are proud and happy I’m doing it,” says Motu, who turned professional in October. “It was my son that actually said to me ‘Mum, you're good at it, keep going’.”
The support of her coach Isaac Peach and boxing gym also gave the 31-year-old the confidence to turn professional after a decade of toing and froing in the amateur ranks.
She was no stranger to winning in that side of the sport, with achievements including New Zealand champion in the 57kg division and a Golden Gloves title in the 53kg welterweight division.
“I'd have a year off, then go back for six months because I just liked fighting and it was fun,” Motu says. “But with pro, I’ve become more passionate. I'm taking it more seriously and I love it.”
Last year during lockdown, Motu was approached by Peach to see if she was interested in going to his family's gym in west Auckland. She agreed to go in and see what it was about.
“I showed up at his doorstep and he was like ‘I want you to go pro’,” recalls Motu. “And I said ‘no’ because I didn’t think it was for me. He thought I would be good so I said ‘I'll give it a go’. And now I’ve been hooked since.”
It’s been a whirlwind. And Motu hasn’t wasted any time, with a record of 5-0 already under her belt.
Motu’s fifth professional fight was a rematch with Ayisha Abied earlier this month as the co-main event of Peach Boxing's Pro-Am fight night. The pair had fought in December but Motu was then coming off a stint of pneumonia and Abied comes from a kickboxing background so both fighters were wanting to show how much they had improved. Motu won by unanimous decision.
Motu says she was still feeling a bit shocked but happy about the fight.
“At first I was kind of disappointed at myself because I felt that I could’ve done better,” she says. “I'm so hard on myself but then after thinking about it for a little bit I was like, ‘oh no, I did well’.”
Another woman on stage doing well at Motu and Abied’s rematch was ringside presenter Leilani Momoiseā. The avid combat sport fan has her own podcast, Snacks and Chats, which features episodes with fighters such as Israel Adesanya and Genah Fabian. Momoiseā says she got into combat sport through watching David Tua, as she grew up.
“As a Samoan family of course we followed David Tua’s career with great interest and great pride and so that was probably my first memory of combat sport,” she says. Momoiseā is believed to be the first Pacific woman to present a professional combat sport event.
Momoiseā says being ringside was great, especially for Motu and Abied’s fight as it was one of the more exciting of the night.
“I just thought it was really cool to have a women’s fight as the co-main event and for it to be so exciting,'' she says. “I knew Mea could bang [from the last fight] so it was interesting to see that up-close.
“It was intense and you could just feel it more when you're right there. I thought it was also cool how much the crowd really got into it. It was clear that people really love her [Motu]. And they really wanted to see her succeed.”
Motu is scheduled to have a bout every month until June to help prepare her for the WBU lightweight world title fight against Gentiane Lupi in October. Her team is wanting to host the event in Kaitaia, where Motu was born and raised. “I'm definitely going for a world title,” says Motu, who hails from Ngāpuhi and Te Rarawa.
Ahead of her March fixture against Tania Reid, Motu wants to get her fitness up and will tend to a niggle from her match against Abied. They’ll be fighting for the vacant New Zealand Professional Boxing Association female light title.
The reason why Motu is “hooked” this time around and is fast accelerating through her professional fights is because of the people surrounding her.
“It’s the gym itself and having a coach and a team that fully believes in you, it's so encouraging,” Motu says. “Like there were no questions or doubts, as soon as I started training, he [Peach] was like ‘you're going to be a world champ’.
“And I was like ‘what? He hasn’t even seen me or know how good I am. I haven’t even tried professional boxing' so I was like ‘nah, he's a joke’. And then I had my first fight and I was like ‘I do believe him’. He knew straight away.”
They've got a real family vibe about the gym, says Motu. “They're all about the kids, they’re always there to help with school stuff,” she says. “They're so proud and supportive and Isaac is always encouraging them. He's hard on them but he cares about them.”
Her eldest child, David, who is 13, is also making a name for himself in lawn bowls. He plays out of Royal Oak Bowls and has won a number of tournaments and awards including the ‘Most Promising Young Māori Bowler for 2021’ at the recent Aotearoa National Bowls Tournament. He is also fluent in te reo, as is her second child and both were raised in full immersion schools. Motu’s youngest is 10-months-old.
She says they come from a competitive family so her children are used to seeing her box and juggling commitments.
“My kids are brought up around it and they fully support me. They love the sport and team sports like rugby league,” says Motu. Her cousin is NRL premiership winning Melbourne Storm utility Brandon Smith and her mum and younger sister have been involved in boxing from a young age.
“They fully support me and they're the ones that push me to be better. They're the ones that make me strive, they're like Mum, you better win, don’t give up.”
Symone Tafuna'i is producing the fastest times of her burgeoning sprinting career this summer - while coming to terms with her mental health struggles.
Every time rising New Zealand sprint talent Symone Tafuna’i settles down in the blocks to compete, she glances down at the back of her hand.
Written in marker pen is the word ‘smile’.
The quirky ritual acts as a reminder to relax and be happy – a little antidote to her mental health battle. A building block to help guide the Aucklander through her struggles.
On the track, Tafuna’i is in outstanding form right now. Last month she set a 100m personal best time of 11.84s in Hastings. She lowered that to 11.83s in Christchurch earlier this month and maintained her excellent recent streak at the Porritt Classic in Hamilton by recording 11.84s for second place behind Olympic hopeful Zoe Hobbs. On Saturday, Tafuna'i will compete in the Sir Graeme Douglas International meet in West Auckland.
Off the track Tafuna'i is also thriving, after landing a dream job with TVNZ.
Yet, although in “a good place” with her mental health, she admits it’s an ongoing battle and she hopes her story can act as an inspiration to others.
In 2018, the west Auckland-based sprinter recorded her first sub-12 second 100m to sit joint sixth on the annual New Zealand rankings with a best of 11.95s. But by the end of that year, she was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.
“Just getting to the start line was really hard for me,” Tafuna’i says.
“My winter preparation [for the 2019 season] started off great until I tore my post tibialis tendon in a freak accident during a training session. This was the start of the rapid decline of my mental health.
“I had dropped down a dress size, I wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping, I was going through a number of personal issues, which triggered the depression and anxiety.”
Among the multiple issues she was dealing with included the sudden death of her aunty Sesa, who was “like a second mum” to Tafuna’i. “She always video chatted with me every week to check in. So not having those regular catch ups with my aunty really affected me.”
She emerged into the 2019 season “in a dark hole.”
Perhaps counter-intuitively given her struggles, Tafuna’i enjoyed a solid domestic campaign that summer. She finished a highly creditable fifth in the senior women’s 100m final at the national track and field champs – only for her mental health battle to tighten its grip as the year progressed.
She describes it as the worst year of her life. Tafuna’i was studying towards a degree in communications at the time.
“Normally I’m a very good student but my grades started dropping. I was only just scraping through. I was starting to develop dark, suicidal thoughts. I trialled multiple therapy sessions, but nothing seemed to work,” she says.
Some days getting out of bed became a trial. She skipped some training session and lectures. As a last resort she went on anti-depressants. The drugs helped but had the side effect of leaving her lacking in energy – not the perfect scenario for a sprinter.
“It took time for me to adapt [to the anti-depressants],” she explains. “I felt numb, it took a lot to feel excited or hyped and when I did, it exhausted and fatigued me mentally and emotionally.”
Thankfully, the support that she continuously receives from her parents (both of Samoan heritage), her older sister, coach James Mortimer, mental performance coach David Niethe and physios Anousith Bouaaphone and Peter Lee, has also helped Tafuna’i with her on-going mental health journey.
A key element to her recovery has been taking on an attitude to be kinder to herself – hence the introduction of her pre-race routine to write the word ‘smile’ on the back of her left hand and her mum to do the same on Tafuna’i ’s right hand.
“To be kinder to myself is the most important lesson I’ve learned over the past two years,” she says. “I was super harsh, which impacted on my self-confidence and self-esteem.
“When I used to prepare ahead for a competition, I would swear at myself, thinking it would help me to feel angry or excited. But all it did was put me down.”
Writing the word smile was suggested by her mental performance coach.
"It helps when I’m in the blocks - when I look at the back of my hands, I automatically feel relaxed which allows me to run better,” she says.
Starting her running journey from the age of three after joining Avondale Athletics Club, Tafuna’i also featured as a national standard swimmer until opting to focus her sporting endeavours solely on athletics from the age of 16.
The decision proved inspired, as she snared national U18 bronze medals in the 100m and 200m. But she feels a key moment in her athletics development came after joining the training group of current coach Mortimer in 2017.
“James is very understanding and makes his athletes’ feel comfortable in the training environment,” she explains.
“With the training squad he has cultivated, he acknowledges we all have individual goals but that we all respond differently to his training programme. He’s always patient and takes the time to check we are all okay, and never puts any pressure on us.”
Tafuna’i is also delighted to call New Zealand’s fastest woman’, Zoe Hobbs, a training partner. Hobbs, who earlier this season blitzed to a New Zealand resident record of 11.35 – within 0.03 of the 28-year-old national 100m record, says it is “a honour” to train alongside the 2019 World Championship representative and she has learned a lot from her fellow sprinter.
“I have a lot of respect for her because we are quite similar in that we are both very goal driven,” she adds. “Zoe is amazing to watch as she puts the same amount of energy into everything she does, both on and off the track”.
In her life off the track Tafuna’i has also excelled - graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in communication in her goal to becoming a sports reporter. Last year she was given a golden opportunity after successfully applying for an internship at TVNZ – where she was mentored by former Black Fern, journalist and presenter Melodie Robinson.
Tafuna’i is now working as a desk assignments co-ordinator alongside other aspiring journalists and reporters, and she’s been working with the America’s Cup production team.
“When I had the opportunity to be mentored by Melodie, I took it with both hands,” she says. “After battling with depression and anxiety I felt like the goals I set out for myself started to align.”
TVNZ have also been accommodating Tafuna’i’s athletic goals, including her training five days a week.
The North Harbour Bays Athletics runner knows mental health issues have not magically disappeared but a more positive, carefree mindset has helped.
“I’m running well and I think that it’s because I’m generally happy with myself. But it took a long time to get here,” she explains.
“I’m managing my mental health and it’s reflected in my results and day-to-day life. However, I still have my good and bad days and that’s okay. I’m kinder on myself, and as a consequence having more fun training and competing.”
Joanna Sharpe has become the first woman to cycle the length of New Zealand in just under a week. She rode over 2,100km to help raise awareness for Bowel Cancer New Zealand. But experienced her own battles along the way to setting the fastest time and a Guinness world record.
Osteoporosis, coeliac disease and a psychotic break are just some of the gruelling conditions Joanna Sharpe overcame cycling the length of New Zealand.
The 45-year-old pushed the pedal, her body and mind to the limit when she became the fifth person and first woman to travel over 2,100km to complete the ‘long white ride’ - biking from Cape Reinga at the top of New Zealand to Bluff at the bottom in a week.
Sharpe has been planning the feat for the past two years. The initial attempt at setting the fastest time for a woman and Guinness world record was meant to be carried out last year but Covid-19 had other plans. So she had a good lead-in time to prepare.
But there was one major incident she did not expect.
“Unfortunately what happened was I suffered quite a significant psychotic break just under 24 hours before we finished,” says Sharpe, who was sleeping about 45 minutes to an hour each day.
“That meant I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know where I was, I didn't know what I was doing and I didn’t recognise anybody which made it quite challenging for the team.”
Her support crew of five, including wife Jude, were guided by a mental health nurse who was part of Sharpe’s wider encore team and that expertise helped manage the situation.
“But we knew at that point that I was on borrowed time when it came to finishing,” Sharpe says. “Because if I was to suffer a second psychotic break then that could be quite significant in terms of the way they would need to deal with me after and how I would recover. So probably the most difficult thing from a recovery perspective has been the mental side of things.”
And that is saying a lot given the expected setbacks didn’t make the route any easier, either.
“I expected my knees and ankles to be sore, surprisingly my stress fractures held up quite well,” says Sharpe. She was diagnosed with osteoporosis, a degenerative bone disease, in her mid 30s and had endured coeliac disease for 10 years before.
“I suffered quite bad edema, where you retain water in your tissues and of course that starts leaking through your skin so you get a lot of blistering and saddle sores. It's like sitting on a thousand pieces of razor blades but not being able to get away from them.
“We had road closures, we had road slips, we had 90km headwinds that brought me to a halt, we had to book to be part of a convoy going through earthquake works in the South Island, you name it, there were so many issues.”
Sharpe aimed to complete the ride in five days but with the unforeseen issues meant she finished in six days and nine hours.
What kept her pedalling through the pain?
She says records are nice to have but her main reason for sitting in the saddle for just under a week was to help raise awareness for Bowel Cancer New Zealand.
“For me, the main driver for this is that I had a good friend, Britt Mill, who through misdiagnosis by medical professionals meant that she received a terminal diagnosis for bowel cancer in her early 30s,” explains Sharpe. “And to me that is traumatising. There's no need for that.
“If my pain brought the attention to a cause that meant one family didn’t have to experience losing a loved one, it would be all worth it. That was honestly what kept me going.”
Along the ride, Sharpe recalls seeing a number of people who had lost loved ones coming out to show support.
“It actually chokes me up to even talk about it now,” she says. “I remember a particular mum and dad, they were there with a photo of their son who had passed away from bowel cancer. They were there just to thank me for raising awareness.”
Sharpe says her own seamless experience a couple of years ago with a potential bowel cancer scare was how people should be treated.
“I was suffering from extreme bloating. When I say extreme, you could have mistaken me for being late term with twins,” says Sharpe. “I had huge changes to my bowel habits, I was suffering from cramping and spasms that were so severe I could neither sit down or stand up.”
So Sharpe went to her doctor and they put her through to a gastroenterologist straight away. “They found precancerous polyps in my colon which they removed. It was so easy. I was sedated and couldn’t even tell you I was having a colonoscopy.”
But that was not the case for her dear friend, who spent the last 18 months of her life raising awareness among young people.
“Britt had all of the same symptoms, together with fatigue,” says Sharpe. “She experienced a lot of weight loss and went to the doctors for six years and was repeatedly told it was anxiety, it was irritable bowel syndrome, you name it, they suggested it.
“By the time she got an accurate diagnosis, unfortunately the bowel cancer was so advanced that it was terminal. So I think Britt and I give you complete opposite sides of the spectrum of what can happen.”
The pair spoke about the ‘long white ride’ at great length but the postponement meant Mill didn’t get to share the achievement as she passed away early last year. Her family said she would’ve been proud.
Sharpe has been taking it easy, but come April she will reassess her health and healing to see if she can take on two more big long distance records this year.
“Because if you achieve all your goals, it probably means you're not setting the bar high enough,” says Sharpe. “Let's give a couple more crazy things a go, make the most of my mobility whilst it lasts, then see what 2022 has to hold.”
Sharpe took up ultra-distance cycling after her osteoporosis diagnosis left her with no option to participate in impact sport. She used to run. “That was quite a hard diagnosis to get quite young but the bone surgeon treating me at the time suggested I take up cycling.”
On the spot, Sharpe decided she wanted to take up cycling, with a grand goal of representing New Zealand.
“So we literally went from the medical appointment to the bike shop and bought my very first road bike," she says. "I hadn’t had a bike since I was like eight-years-old when I used to BMX.”
Sharpe had no idea how to clip in the bike and had a bumpy ride in the beginning but eventually got the hang of it. “I was taken off on a hit and run where I broke my hip and pelvis so it was a bit of a long road learning how to ride a bike.”
But her tenacity caught the eye of sponsors and she eventually reached her goal by qualifying to race for New Zealand at the amateur world championships in Europe - an event she would attend three more times for both the time trial and racing.
“I also won a number of domestic races, the K4 which is classed as being the toughest one day race in the world,” says Sharpe, who also received a bronze medal at the World Master Games in New Zealand. “I did four laps of Taupo [first woman to finish The Taupo Maxi in 2019], various bits and pieces and from there I started racing internationally.”
And then Covid-19 hit, but it did not stop her. She set two new world records last year - she’s now the 12 and 24-hour distance world record holder on a virtual bike. “And I'm also the 12-hour distance world champion which happened in December.”
This year she planned to compete in the ‘Race across America’, one of the longest international events and a smaller version called the ‘Race across the West’, a 1550km ride which Sharpe won, virtually, last year. “Assuming we can't race in the real world, then I would like to virtually try and defend my title.”
Would she recommend the ‘long white ride’ to other women?
“I would recommend it to anybody who would see it as a personal journey of discovery,” says Sharpe. “If that's what you want to get out of it and you feel inspired to sit on a bike seat for a lot of days then all power to you. I'll be the first person at the side of the road, cheering you on and giving you all of the advice I possibly can to help you achieve that goal.
“But equally if your goal is to inspire your whānau to get fit and healthy by doing a 5km run then I'm also your woman. Because I'll be 110 percent behind you doing that as well.”
Sharpe says she feels like everyone has something inside of them to give. “I'm not the fastest, I'm not the smartest, I'm not the most creative, but we can all do a ‘thing’ and for me I can ride a bike. And I can suffer a reasonable degree of pain,” she says.
“So this was me just doing my thing. If we all did a ‘thing’ that we were capable of doing, we can actually make a difference to the world. And I know that sounds really corny but be that as it may, I think it's true.”
The White Ferns were in Christchurch on February 22, 2011, about to play the Australians in an ODI series, when the deadly earthquake struck.
Frankie Mackay, a young Canterbury all-rounder, was about to make her international cricket debut. Ten years later, she’s been recalled into the White Ferns for their ODI series against England, the first game on Tuesday at Christchurch’s Hagley Oval.
Mackay tells Trevor Auger about that terrible day in this excerpt from his new book, The Warm Sun on My Face – The Story of Women’s Cricket in New Zealand.
Tuesday, February 22, was set down as a training day for each team, and the Australians had first use of the facilities at Lincoln, about half an hour’s drive away. The New Zealanders had the afternoon shift, and shortly before one o’clock they were gathering at their hotel in Cathedral Square to take the three team minibuses south for their own practice. Some of the team were already in the vehicles, others were in the hotel lobby when the earthquake struck.
Frankie Mackay, the 21-year-old Canterbury all-rounder had come into the squad for the February matches and had just been told in a team meeting she would debut at the top of the order in the first of the One Day Internationals.
She had just walked through the lobby towards the doors out into the square when the quake began. She and Amy Satterthwaite grabbed one of the large pillars in the entranceway and wrapped themselves around it to stop being thrown to the ground.
It was from there they saw the spire of the Christchurch Cathedral begin to tumble. Mackay recalled tapping Satterthwaite on the shoulder and shouting at her to look at what was happening, and Satterthwaite screaming back that she was.
In the vans the players explained that they lost their sense of physical perspective. They thought the Cathedral was falling on them as, terrified, they scrambled to escape. When the shaking stopped the team gathered outside the hotel in the Square. Some couldn’t stand and said sitting down made them feel safer.
Mackay explained: “There were White Ferns curled in little balls in the middle of the Square.”
All-rounder Erin Bermingham (who would graduate from police college in 2015) reacted by trying to help people and attempting to remove rubble to see whether anybody was trapped beneath the debris of the Cathedral. White Ferns manager Christina Ryan had to try and slow her down, anxious that she would end up injured herself.
Mackay remembered looking round and seeing that the adjacent Press Building, home of Christchurch’s morning newspaper, had collapsed and was on fire. People were coming out with blood on their faces and running down their arms.
She realised this wasn’t just about the Cathedral. “You think, ‘we’re in a world of trouble here’”, Mackay says.
The team abandoned their three vehicles, and clad in their New Zealand training gear, ran through the quake-ravaged city to nearby Hagley Park, which had become an impromptu evacuation point.
From there they decided to walk north-west up Fendalton Rd, where one of the Canterbury players in the team had a flat, but they continued past to where Sophie Devine’s parents lived.
By this time Mackay had been able to text her parents. When she saw her father drive through a police cordon towards her it was “probably the happiest moment of my life” and certainly the instant when she was hit with the enormity of what she’d been through.
There had been relief in the Mackay household when they heard from their daughter - her father had calmly been thinking she was staying at Lincoln until her worried mother was able to convince him that she was actually in the centre of the city.
The team, still covered in the dust and debris of Cathedral Square, were bundled into various cars and taken to Lincoln, where the Australians had been holed up. They took one look at the dishevelled New Zealanders and thought ‘what the heck is happening?’
It had been a damp morning and the Australian women had been practising indoors. Their first indication that something was happening was a loud noise like roller doors being opened, and then the floor started to move violently.
Experienced Australian player Lisa Sthalekar was initially confused and crouched down as if she was riding a surfboard as the awareness hit home that she was in an earthquake. Her teammates were screaming and running and they all headed to the exit and gathered amidst nervous laughter.
Remarkably, with calm restored, they went back inside and completed their training, interrupted by a sharp aftershock which again sent some of the players running outdoors.
They had their ice baths after the session and only began to comprehend the seriousness of what had happened when they were told the roads were closed and they couldn’t get back to Christchurch.
They had nothing other than their cricket gear, the clothes they had trained in, and whatever they had brought with them in their backpacks. Lincoln University gave them all shirts and jerseys to change into, as well as a bed for the two nights before they could get a flight back to Australia.
By now they had seen the television coverage and their minds were occupied with the ‘what ifs’- especially the thought of what might have been had they foregone training because of the poor weather and been out in central Christchurch looking for lunch when the quake struck.
Frankie Mackay had her own ‘what if’ story when she opened her wallet and found a receipt printed at 12:52pm the previous afternoon, from a small food hall where she and her mother had enjoyed lunch. Exactly 24 hours later, two people died there.
The New Zealanders also stayed at Lincoln, and like the Australians, only had the clothes they were wearing to training and their backpacks. Their cricket gear was stuck in the vans now cordoned off in Cathedral Square and their clothing and the other personal effects they had on tour were in their hotel rooms – in Mackay’s case on the 12th floor.
Fortunately, the hotel was relatively unscathed, but it was still several weeks before the players would see their belongings again.
The death toll from the Christchurch earthquake was 185 people. Although the New Zealand and Australian cricket teams were physically unharmed, the impact of their experience was immense.
The tour was quickly called off, with the Australians heading home. In due course it was decided to reschedule the three ODIs in Brisbane in June.
That helped motivate Mackay and get her re-focused on the training necessary to secure a place in the side. Playing cricket for New Zealand had been all she had wanted to do and she had been on the verge of achieving that ambition when, as she recalled, “it could all have been taken away”.
There were other challenges for her and her teammates. Her Canterbury teammate Kelly Anderson had been scheduled to make her international debut alongside Mackay, and now her home had been rendered uninhabitable by the earthquake.
She, her husband and their dog - together with another cricketing friend whose house had also been damaged - all moved into the Mackay family’s modest three-bedroom home. For several weeks Mackay slept on a mattress on the lounge floor, watching as much as she could of the men’s ICC World Cup (being broadcast from Sri Lanka) before falling asleep.
For Mackay, cricket was a passion, almost an obsession. At Cobham Intermediate School she played with the boys and opened the batting with future Black Cap Corey Anderson, and around this time she fell under the coaching eye of White Fern Selena Charteris. With her guidance Mackay began playing senior cricket for the Lancaster Park Club when she was 12.
Between playing, coaching and learning about the game, her life revolved around the sport, to what she acknowledged was probably an unhealthy level. She was advised to find work outside the game as a way to keep her sport in perspective and her life better balanced. A voracious reader, she became a librarian and fitted that in alongside her cricket coaching.
She would make her long-cherished debut alongside Anderson in Brisbane later in 2011, opening the batting for New Zealand and top scoring with 36.
Over the following years Mackay struggled to replicate her domestic form in international cricket and after she was omitted from the New Zealand team, the message was to improve her fitness, strength and conditioning and score her runs more quickly.
Eventually sheer weight of runs and wickets forced her recall to the T20 side to play India in early 2019, and after scoring 10 not out from number six in the order, she was given the new ball to open the bowling with her flat off-spinners. However, three balls into her first over, she damaged her ankle. Surgery and rehab kept her off the field until the following season.
She had a fall-back position in the game through commentary. Her growing media experience and exposure in Canterbury coincided with a deliberate move by Sky to offer more diversity to their cricket broadcasts by broadening the commentary team.
Articulate and knowledgeable, the role gave her ample opportunity to illustrate her technical and tactical acumen, and she immediately made a positive impression. Black Cap Jimmy Neesham tweeted: “I think it needs to be said in a climate that’s been quite unwelcoming to women commentators @FrankieMac71 is very, very good”.
* Mackay captained the Canterbury Magicians to victory over the defending champions, the Wellington Blaze, in this month’s Super Smash final, and after a two-year absence, was recalled into the 13-strong White Ferns side to play three ODIS against England, starting Tuesday. Games will be live on Spark Sport.
In the space of a year, Kiwi runner Ruth Croft has twice been the first human home in an ultramarathon. She tells Suzanne McFadden how she did it, and why beating the boys shouldn't matter.
As Ruth Croft made the final dash of her remarkable victory in the Tarawera Ultra 102km last Saturday, she gave a little nod of her head to the Sudima Hotel.
She spared a glance over to the carpark of that MIQ hotel in Rotorua where she’d begun her build-up to the race. A race in which she would break the women’s record, and be the first runner – man or woman – to cross the finish line.
It was a quick recognition of thanks. “That’s where it all started,” she says.
Every morning for 14 days – including Christmas Day - Croft and her Swiss partner, Martin Gaffuri, would start running at 4.30am when no one else was around, repeating a 250m loop of the carpark until they’d knocked out 20km.
Then they would spend the day in their small room, sometimes running on a borrowed treadmill.
(Well, truth be told, it broke after just three days, and so the day before the race, Croft had to collect it from the hotel, jam it into a tiny rental car and get rid of it at the scrap metal yard).
Croft never complained about her time in quarantine – simply grateful to be back home from Covid-ravaged Europe, with the promise of being able to run “a normal race” again.
Perhaps it was that freedom driving 32-year-old Croft as she ran an outstanding race under the scorching sun on the forestry roads and bush trails between Rotorua and Kawerau.
Her aim was to break the women’s record held by American Courtney Dauwalter, one of the world’s great ultramarathoners. And she did so by exactly seven minutes.
Finishing ahead of everyone else – the first time a woman had done so at Tarawera - was just a bonus.
“I had a plan going into it, and it’s always good when you stick to your plan and execute it. I was really happy with how it all worked out,” she says.
Yet there was one part that didn’t sit so well with Croft.
“Comparison is the death of joy,” she wrote on Instagram the day after her victory.
After being flooded by feelings of excitement and gratitude, came a little confusion. While she was overwhelmed by the noise her win had generated, she wondered if her race record would have attracted the same attention if any man had run faster than her on the day?
“Sadly, probably not,” she wrote, hoping to see a day when women’s accomplishments could be recognised without comparing them with those of men.
“Until then, gentlemen, you’re going to have to get used to being chicked!” (Chicked = getting beaten by a woman).
This wasn’t the first time Croft had taken out the overall title at an ultramarathon.
She made headlines this time last year, winning outright the Old Ghost Road 85km race on her home ground, the South Island’s West Coast. She set a new women’s course record there, and was 16 minutes faster than anyone else in the field.
But what we don’t hear so much of is Croft’s achievements at the front of female fields in the most renowned trail races around the world.
The full-time athlete won the last two 56km OCC races at the prestigious UTMB week in Chamonix, France, and the last two Mont Blanc Marathons. She was also second at the last world trail champs in 2019 and won the 2018 Golden Trail Series run across the globe.
A few days after Tarawera, back home in Greymouth, Croft talks about the attention her most recent win has garnered. “First of all, it’s been really positive. Trail running doesn’t get much light,” she says.
“But it’s crazy how much interest it’s got from the angle of ‘woman beats men’. It doesn’t give any context to it, or talk about the race itself, or that I got the women’s record. It’s just more focused on just beating the men.
“I’m positive if I’d just won the women’s race and got the record, it would have got no media attention whatsoever.”
But ultrarunning is one of the few sports where female athletes can beat their male counterparts.
Dauwalter is often the first runner home; last year she captured the crown at the Big’s Backyard Ultra – the last runner standing event in Tennessee, running virtually non-stop for 68 hours and 283 miles (455km).
Two years ago, British runner Jasmin Paris was the first woman to win the gruelling 268 mile (431km) Montane Spine Race along England’s Pennine Way. She shattered the course record by 12 hours – while expressing breast milk for her baby at aid stations throughout the race.
Another Kiwi, Caitlin Fielder, was second runner overall in the Tarawera 50km this year.
“I’ve always said I think females race smarter,” Croft says. “We don’t race out [at the start], we don’t get so involved. We’re a lot more patient over the longer distance and better at pacing, is how I see it.”
Her latest victory, the always humble Croft insists, needs to be put into some context.
“Yes, I beat all the men – and I don’t want to downplay that or downplay Kiwi guys either – but there wasn’t an international field. If you compared my time to last year’s race, I would have been seventh overall,” she says.
Regardless of who was at the startline, Croft revelled in the race – and the company.
“I really enjoyed the first 30 or so kilometres when I was running with a group of guys. They were totally supportive,” she says.
“The beginning of the Tarawera is so flat and not super interesting, so it’s a good time to catch up with people, and meet new people, and see what they’re doing for the season.
“I really enjoy the social aspect of it. At the end of the day, it’s just running. Coming from Europe, I’m just super grateful to have a normal race experience.”
As a professional runner, Croft has honed her skills to a fine edge. Her ability to shrink down time spent at aid stations along the course route no doubt played a part in her record time of 9h 21m 3s.
“Over 100km, there are about nine aid stations. If you waste three minutes at each station, that’s 27 minutes you could have finished faster,” she says. “It's just through practice; it's in and out – they’re not really rest stations at all. I go into them knowing exactly what I need and want.
“Martin has crewed for me in a lot of my races, so we have a system – there’s no messing around.”
Croft’s parents, Frank and Clare, were her crew in her first 100km race, at Tarawera in 2015.
“They were so stressed about it. Mum made strict rules they weren’t allowed to talk to me - Dad just handed me my bottles. Then they crashed the car as well,” Croft recalls.
“They came to Tarawera this time to help Martin - my dad was getting really involved with the sponges, and Mum was yelling “get out of the way, Frank!” It was so funny.”
Completing the 102km last weekend was something of a watershed moment for Croft. It was her return to longer distance ultras, which she had veered away from in the last three years.
“I was too green when I first started,” she admits. As her back story, Croft fell out of love with running after a four-year track and field scholarship at the University of Portland, and moved to Taiwan to teach English. But running’s pull was too great, and after a couple months she started up again.
“I started getting into trail running in Taiwan, and there’s a lot of hype around 100 milers – Western States and UTMB – and I got caught up in wanting to do those. I think my intentions were in the wrong place; I was getting into these races and not enjoying it,” she says.
“So I decided to step back to the 50km and marathon distances. But last year I noticed I was doing the same races - and I don’t get motivated by doing the same events over and over.”
Now Croft knows she’s ready to finally tackle 100 miles (that’s 161km).
“I’m really motivated by the change. I’m excited but also scared at the same time,” she laughs.
She's won an entry into this year’s Western States – the world’s oldest 100-mile race in Olympic Valley, California. That’s at the end of June, but Croft is very aware it may not happen with the continuing ripples from Covid-19.
“California have been a lot stricter, postponing races,” she says.
“I’m pretty scared about it to be honest. Especially after finishing the Tarawera 100km on Saturday, and then the thought of running another 60km seemed a terrible idea. But I obviously won’t be running as fast, and I’m ready for something different, a new challenge.”
Next week, Croft and Gaffuri will set up base in Wanaka, running in the mountains to prepare for her next challenge – the Christchurch Marathon in April.
Croft has shown her incredible versatility finishing eighth in the 2019 Seoul Marathon, and winning a spot at the marathon world champs - the first Kiwi woman to do so in six years. But she chose not to go, focusing instead on trail races, which are her bread and butter.
In the back of her mind has been the possibility of running an Olympic marathon.
“I'd need to knock four and a half minutes off my PB - which is quite a lot. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s the reason I want to do Christchurch, to see if I can get closer to the 2.29 mark,” she says. The women’s qualifying time for Tokyo 2021 is 2h 29m 30s.
“It’s tricky when most of my sponsorship is around trail running, so a lot of my salary is tied in with bonuses. I would need more than a year of just road training to focus on an Olympic marathon. At this point it’s a bit hard to justify switching over to give the road a crack.”
But with an athlete as talented as Croft, nothing seems unattainable.
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