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Questioning her future on the track after a string of injuries, Anna Percy swapped hurdling for sprinting – with instant success. Now she’s ready for a showdown with New Zealand’s fastest woman, Zoe Hobbs.
It’s not often a track athlete switches events – dropping down the distance they run and doing it successfully.
In the case of rising Kiwi sprint star Anna Percy, the change from the 400m hurdles to the 100m sprint is an example of a young athlete able to express her physical gifts in the right event with the right environment to do so.
At a club meet in Christchurch in November, Percy became the third-fastest New Zealand woman ever – her time of 11.40s placing her just behind national record holder Zoe Hobbs (11.27s) and Michelle Seymour (11.32s), who’d previously held the record for 25 years.
“It’s crazy to think I’ve gone from just breaking 12 seconds to 11.40s in the space of 10 months,” says the 24-year-old Percy, who also recently graduated with a degree in engineering.
Starting athletics at age 15, Percy was initially a short hurdler (100m hurdles) and after a couple of years moved up to the longer 400m form.
She laughs and says she wasn’t fast enough back then to be a short hurdler. Having made the jump up to the tough 400m distance, Percy became the national junior record holder – a title she still holds.
But after four serious hamstring injuries, Percy was left questioning her future in athletics.
After a break, she decided to make the switch to sprinting at the 2021 national track and field championships – and finished fourth in the 100m final.
That result gave Percy and her long-time coach Andrew Maclennan validation of her potential as a sprinter.
In the 2021 off-season, Maclennan introduced a totally new training system for Percy and her training group – shifting away from conventional sprint training to focus on developing her spinal engine.
“Traditional speed training is about very up-and-down movements in the gym,” Percy explains. “We’ve moved away from that – doing more side-to-side movement instead of just the frontal plane.”
Percy says the spinal engine training has been a major breakthrough and is excited about so much progress with less than a year’s training under her belt.
With an unconventional, but research-based, approach, the results are paying dividends for Percy and her training partner, nationally-ranked sprinter Rosie Elliott. They both set huge personal bests to open the 2021/22 domestic season.
“My acceleration phase in the race is my strength. I feel like I’ve just got so much drive out of the blocks,” says Percy. Her strength metrics – like the Olympic lift, the clean – have gone up 15kg in a year.
Having Elliot as a training partner has been hugely beneficial, Percy says. As a 400m hurdler, she was often completing training sessions on her own, but now she has competition with every repetition they do.
“It’s hard turning up day-after-day completing all those nasty sessions,” she says. “It’s tiring at times by yourself.”
And it was frustrating. While the 100m is a more explosive event, Percy says the extension of the lead leg over the hurdle, combined with the rigorous training required for the 400m event, led to multiple injuries and led to her questioning whether to continue pursuing the sport.
In 2019, Percy represented New Zealand at the World University Games in Napoli, Italy, and by her own admission, she severely underperformed, with a disrupted build-up due to her ongoing hamstring related issues.
“It was a hard time – every athlete has hard times, but it’s how you respond to them,” she says.
Back in New Zealand, she took a few months off from the track to concentrate on finishing her engineering degree at the University of Canterbury (graduating last year with first-class honours in mechanical engineering), and to figure out if she wanted to continue in athletics.
“I was embarrassed of my performance at World Unis and I need to step back from the disappointment,” she says.
Growing up in Christchurch, Percy wasn’t the fastest kid at school, but played a lot of different sports and was most serious about trampolining. She trained as intensely as a 10 and 12-year-old as she does now, and then took up athletics for fun.
“I never had any success as a kid. I won a medal at the NZ secondary school nationals in my last year, but up until then it was pretty slow going,” the St Margaret’s College graduate says.
“It’s not about how fast you run when you’re 10 or 12, or even when you’re 20. At 24, I feel like I’ve finally found what works for me.”
Percy’s early season form is far from slow going. It’s not only a huge bonus for her personally, but helps create a strong bid for a 4x100m women’s relay team to qualify for the two major championships in 2022 – the world track and field championships in Oregon in July and the Commonwealth Games in August.
In their first hit-out of the year in Timaru, the team of Percy, Elliott, Hobbs and Auckland-based Georgia Hulls ran under the current national record time of 44.20s, but were disqualified because of a baton exchange outside the zone.
“It’s exciting having so many girls running as quickly as we are,” Percy says. “If we can get the baton round smoothly, we believe we can do the time we need.”
The team will come together for another crack at the relay on February 4 at the Capital Classic in Wellington – the Commonwealth Games qualifying standard for the 4x100m relay is 43.30s.
Individually, the sprinters will continue to push each other for places in the team, starting this weekend at the Potts Classic in Hastings. The hot Hawke’s Bay track with a gentle tail breeze typically produces excellent sprinting conditions.
It’s Hobbs who’s set the standard for the current group – the 2019 world championship representative took hold of the national 100m record outright in December last year.
“I have the utmost respect for Zoe,” Percy says. “It’s incredible what’s she done – not only for herself but for the women’s sprinting scene.”
Percy knows she still has a lot to learn to progress to the top speeds she believes she can run.
“When I ran 11.40s I was out there by myself, so I’ve got to learn to race other people,” she says.
Her ultimate dream is to run at the 2024 Paris Olympics, and she believes this is possible.
“I love the pursuit of how our bodies work and how we can make the most of it,” she says.
“There are so many different things you can do to improve, and it’s just finding the right one for you. That’s the exciting thing about it.”
It hasn't been the start to 2022 the Silver Ferns wanted, but star midcourter Sam Winders reckons her team will take plenty from the northern Quad Series - with the Commonwealth Games squarely on their horizon.
The Silver Ferns won’t be using Covid as an excuse.
Even with a limited build-up to the four-game Quad Series in the UK this week, the Ferns came in prepared.
Experienced midcourter and Silver Ferns Player of the Year, Sam Winders, says the team knew what to expect in England. Despite Omicron reaching its peak in the UK and the effects the pandemic have had on the Ferns' preparation, Winders believes the team did everything they could to be ready to take on three of their greatest rivals.
So far, they've won just one game - an 11-goal win over South Africa this morning after losses to Australia and England in the pool stages - and they face the Proteas again tomorrow to determine third and fourth places. But Winders stresses with just under 200 days till the Commonwealth Games, the Ferns will take home more from these clashes than simply the final score.
“Now’s the best time to be figuring things out in the build-up to the pinnacle event in six months' time. There’s so much that’s going to come out of this, lots of learning, but hopefully lots of positives too,” she says.
Winders jokes there’s no shopping or sightseeing on this northern tour, but one of the perks of the strict Covid protocols is players getting their own hotel rooms.
The Ferns days are limited to two court sessions and time in the hotel gym, but they also have video analysis, statistics and plenty of other resources available to them while in their bubble.
“Besides the English team, the two other teams are in the same boat as us," Winders says.
Regardless of the final outcome in London, the Quad Series acts as perfect preparation for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in July.
The Games could have very similar Covid protocols to what the team are experiencing in London right now. And Australia and England are again shaping up to be the Silver Ferns’ toughest competition in Birmingham, with England the reigning champs and playing on home soil.
In their first international match of the year, the Ferns were beaten comprehensively by the Australian Diamonds, never holding the lead in the 14-goal defeat. There were more promising signs in their game against the England Roses, but ultimately the Ferns fell short again, letting an eight-goal lead slip and losing 49-46.
A full court performance saw the Ferns record a comfortable 54-43 win over South Africa, but the side let momentum slip in the final quarter, up by 19 at one point in the third stanza.
Ferns fans may be a bit worried by the New Zealand performances on court, but getting wins on the board wasn’t the only goal for the current World Cup holders.
“We’ve got a lot of other objectives we’re working towards as a team," Winders says. "Things like combinations, getting people working as a unit, nailing some of the structures we’ve been working on. And getting better clarity on what it looks like to put these out under pressure and against some of the best teams in the world."
Going into the series, the Ferns had 365 caps of international experience between the 14 touring players, while the Roses had 912 - even after the withdrawal of 110-cap veteran Jo Harten after a positive Covid test.
Young Ferns shooters Grace Nweke and Tiana Metuarau have both spent valuable minutes up against quality international defence, and coach Dame Noeline Taurua has rotated her defenders throughout the series to trial combinations.
The Ferns selectors have a monumental job ahead of them, with many players standing up in the Quad Series despite being on the losing end. And the side may welcome some experienced heads back before heading to Birmingham.
Vice captain Jane Watson won’t be present, with the defender expecting her first child in May. But two other mums could be back - seasoned veteran Katrina Rore, on 137 caps, may put her hand up after returning from having her first baby, along with captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio in the shooting circle. Ekenasio welcomed her second child last year and was a stand-out for the winning Ferns side at the World Cup; her leadership has been missed in her time away from the court.
Their potential return would be a major boost for the Ferns, and would also help with combinations - the duo will team up at the Magic in this year's ANZ Premiership alongside Winders and fellow Ferns midcourter Claire Kersten.
Winders was the bright spark in the Magic last year, captaining the side that only managed one win from 15 games - but 2022 brings a largely new-look side.
She's looking forward to building on the connections from an ultimately forgettable season, as well as forging new relationships with incoming players.
“There’s some really exciting young players in the mix so there’s heaps to look forward to,” she says. “I’m just excited to see what we can bring, hopefully something a bit different, tapping back into that winning Magic history.”
Always the optimist, Winders can see the positives out of the tough season.
“It’s not the first time obviously that I’ve been part of an unsuccessful - on the scoreboard - kind of team, but there’s so much other stuff that comes out of the season whether you’re winning or losing,” she says.
“For me, it’s about fronting up each week, working on my game, working on getting better and trying to contribute to what I can in whatever team I’m in.”
Overlooked for the 2019 Netball World Cup, Winders has stood out at both centre and wing defence ever since. One of just three players to feature in all seven internationals last year, her consistency and on-court passion have helped make her a solid option in the midcourt, and led to her being named Silver Ferns Player of the Year in 2021
When asked if the accolade changed anything for her, Winders laughs.
“Definitely not,” she says. “It’s always nice when there’s an awards nights, but netball is a team sport…I can only do it because of my mates around me.
“That’s what I really like about our culture - it's a team-first kind of culture and you have the freedom to be yourself within that. That’s what makes our team so great. But at the end of the day, what are you bringing and what are you giving to allow the team to thrive?”
Someone who always brings a down-to-earth approach to her netball life, this series has emphasised that for Winders.
New mums and Ferns returnees, Phoenix Karaka and Kayla Johnson have brought their babies with them to the UK, giving the Ferns 'aunty duty' on tour.
“We love it, it’s so much fun, it just adds something completely different,” Winders says.
“It changes your perspective a little bit. Netball’s really awesome - it’s what we do and it’s such a big part of our lives - but obviously it’s not everything.”
“When we’re on tour and we’re in this netball bubble, you can get really goggles on…having a little human running around as well makes you be like ‘oh yep there’s all that happening too’.”
The Silver Ferns will play South Africa for third on Thursday morning, with Australia and England qualifying for the final.
After losing her daughter and two friends in a car crash, Dr Lucy Hone has a new outlook on life - doing one thing each year that challenges her. This year she's taking on the Coast to Coast race, calling on her expertise in resilience to help her.
As Dr Lucy Hone navigates the demanding Goat Pass during the Coast to Coast, she’ll be carrying her friend Sally with her. And the memory of their daughters will be close by.
The iconic South Island multisport race is a new adventure for the 53-year-old, but she’s taking it in her stride.
“I believe that every year we’re alive, it is precious,” says Hone.
In 2014, Hone lost her 12-year-old daughter Abi - as well as close friend Sally Summerfield and her daughter Ella - in a car crash; the trio were on their way to Lake Ōhau for Queen’s Birthday weekend.
“Sally was a really great friend of mine, and I often think that I like to do good shit for Sally,” Hone says. “She loved being backcountry, she was an outdoors girl, she loved running. So I'll be carrying her across Goat Pass with me and I'll be thinking of her, and all of them.”
They're part of the reason Hone likes to do one thing every year that challenges her, and this year’s challenge is close to home for the Christchurch local.
“More than anything, losing them taught me that life is so precious and you have only got the one life. I just don’t want to find myself languishing,” she says.
The idea of competing in the Coast to Coast event had always been in the back of Hone’s mind, having run half marathons with her husband in the past. But she had a few reservations that stopped her.
“I've always wanted to do it, not in a burning ambition kind of way, but I’ve always had this slightly simmering thought that maybe I’d do it one day,” she says. “I had imagined I couldn’t do it because I was scared of going over Goat Pass.”
Goat Pass is a notoriously difficult area, trekking up riverbeds, crossing rivers and navigating rocky terrain. Hone laughs when describing herself as “like an old nana on the rocks”, not overly keen to run the whole track.
A gamechanger for Hone was when their coach from Team CP, Richard Greer, told them the pass is walkable in nine hours.
The ability to interchange between running and walking, and still complete the course within the 11 hour cut-off time, suddenly made the idea possible for Hone.
“The other thing that made it possible for me was when I discovered the tandem category,” says Hone.
On February 11, Hone will line up on Kumara beach alongside husband, Trevor, to compete in the two-day tandem event.
There are 67 tandem teams competing this year, required to run and bike within 50m of each other at all times and paddle a double kayak.
The Hones have been training together, completing their compulsory kayaking course, riding their bikes and running up the hill in their backyard during lockdown.
“Even though we argue all the time, we’ve got each other’s backs,” says Hone. “We’ve been married 28 years and, for me, I just knew that with him, I could do it.”
She admits there have been a few miserable early mornings when their alarm goes off at 5.30am for training, but says having the empathy of your partner is "amazing".
“While it is challenging and I don’t underestimate it, we're both in it together. We go out for a three-hour run and we come home and we’re asleep, both of us on the couch within half an hour, which wouldn’t be great if your partner wasn’t doing it,” Hone laughs.
The couple is staying local over summer, taking some time off to spend with their two sons, Ed and Paddy, but also keeping up training on the river.
The difference in their approach to training makes Hone laugh.
“One day, Trevor was running along fantasising about beating Richie McCaw and he said to me ‘What are you thinking about?’. And I said ‘I’m thinking about not being here with you, being with girlfriends and running slower’.”
One part of the training process Hone is familiar with is mental endurance. The co-founder of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience earned her PhD from AUT in 2015, with her thesis on understanding and measuring wellbeing.
“People don’t understand what resilience is,” says Hone. “Resilience psychology is about working out how you get through whatever you’re facing, examining and being aware of your thinking patterns and whether they are helping you or harming you towards your goal.
“It’s massively advantageous for me to understand my thinking, which is what I do. What I’m trained to do is to understand the way I’m thinking and how that is interacting with my training.”
A surprise for Hone was how demanding the kayaking section would be. With compulsory training beforehand to navigate the Waimakariri River, the "uncontrollables" on the day are where Hone’s understanding of resilience comes in.
“That’s what resilience psychology is about - being able to do that mental agility to focus your attention on the things you can change and accept the stuff you can’t,” she says.
On the day of the race, the river will be packed with boats, and as the weather and river get drier, more obstacles emerge. Hone is calling the kayak section “the great unknown”, but that’s part of the challenge.
“I've been telling myself it’s okay to do hard things, to not be comfortable, either physically or mentally,” she says. “I have to keep showing up at the river, and it’s pretty scary but it is okay and getting better all the time. Every time you go, you get that little bit better and that’s really rewarding.”
Around 30 percent of competitors in the Coast to Coast are women, but Hone wants to encourage women to take on their own challenges.
“I really encourage women to believe in themselves physically and not let other people’s opinions or what they’ve done as they’ve grown up, their family norm, establish what is right for them,” says Hone.
“And to take on a challenge that intrigues them because the growth you get from doing those hard things is fantastic and massive and we can do hard things - even though it’s sometimes not fun and involves tears.”
Even though the starting line is still just under a month away, Hone already feels the sense of accomplishment.
“That sense of mastery is a fantastic drug, so I always encourage people to believe in themselves because I didn’t think I could do Goat Pass. And now I know I can.”
New Zealand’s most decorated Olympian and Paralympian have added another title to their names.
Dame Lisa Carrington and Dame Sophie Pascoe, the peerless sportswomen, have been recognised in the 2022 New Year Honours list for their accomplishments. (The third woman receiving the top honour today is Dame Marie Shroff, Cabinet Secretary from 1987 to 2003 and then Privacy Commissioner until 2014.)
Carrington and Pascoe have 25 Olympic and Paralympic medals between them - 16 gold - and are two of the 11 Kiwi women in sport recognised on this year’s list.
Dame Sophie Pascoe, Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit
The family of New Zealand’s most successful Paralympian received one delayed, but extra special, Christmas present this year.
Dame Sophie Pascoe kept the news of her new title secret from her family while they camped together at Golden Bay over the summer, wanting to surprise them.
The first person the swimming legend told was the woman she calls her "biggest supporter" - her nana, Yvonne - over the phone, before telling her partner, Rob, in person after work.
“They were both so happy for me,” says Pascoe, who hadn’t told anyone else of her damehood until today.
Initially surprised when she received the email, Pascoe’s humble nature shone through, thinking of all the other deserving people out there, and admits she’s still coming to terms with the honour.
“As athletes we don’t train for these titles, so to receive one for what we do and how we can make a positive impact in our society and throughout the world, I’m just really really honoured,” she says.
The 28-year-old won her first Paralympic medal at the 2008 Beijing Games at the age of 15, and has gone on to earn 19 medals over four Paralympics.
Pascoe, who became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009, also has an extensive list of people to thank: “...To my parents, to my partner, to my family and friends and then obviously Roly, my coach, my core support team, Team Pascoe that are working with me everyday to be the best athlete I possibly can be."
She also wants to thank the everyday Kiwis who have supported her.
“It’s a team that gets you through what you do, I definitely couldn’t do this on my own and they’re very much part of this legacy. They’re the ones who have been able to help me achieve my dreams and become the person and the athlete that I am,” she says.
Recognised as a role model in the disabled community role and the Paralympian movement, Pascoe was chosen as New Zealand’s Para Athlete of the Decade at this year's Halberg Awards, and went on to win four medals at the Tokyo Paralympics - a challenging Covid-affected campaign for the swimmer.
Qualifying for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games will happen in April, with Pascoe only gunning for one event - the 100m freestyle.
Beyond that, she hasn’t committed herself to any competitions.
“Anything long term post-Comm Games, I haven’t really planned too much,” she says. “I’m sort of leaving it as an open door to see whether I continue or may venture outside of the pool. I’m not too sure at this stage.”
Sports Minister Grant Robertson said of Pascoe: "She will be New Zealand’s youngest ever Dame, but there is no doubting her rightful place in our sporting history.
“Sophie has had an astounding career. She made her international debut at just 13 years old and has not stopped performing at the highest level since then."
Dame Lisa Carrington, Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit
Dame Lisa Carrington is having a typical Kiwi summer - spending time with whānau at the beach in her home town of Ōhope.
Her achievements are far from ordinary, however, as she became New Zealand's most decorated Olympian this year; her three gold medals from Tokyo adding to her two existing golds and one bronze.
Carrington was blown away when she received the news she would become a Dame.
“It's an acknowledgment of the work I’ve done and things I've achieved so far in my career, but it’s also a tribute to all the people who support me in what I do,” says the canoe racer, undefeated in the K1 200m event since 2011.
“My fiancé, Bucky, my whānau and friends, my Canoe Racing NZ training partners and teammates – the list is long.
“My coach, Gordy [Walker], has been with me all the way and our partnership just grows from strength to strength."
There’s to be no rest for the Halberg Awards’ Sportswoman of the Decade recipient - the 32-year-old already committing to competing in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
Aside from her own career, Carrington supports and coaches young paddlers at her home club in Ōhope, and helps Canoe Racing NZ to grow the sport.
While Carrington’s mind is firmly set on Paris, her new title hasn’t quite stuck yet.
“I'm still in the process of getting my head around it – I think it will take some time for the magnitude of such an honour to properly sink in.” (Like Pascoe, Carrington is also a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, from the 2013 New Year Honours).
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this morning: “Lisa and Sophie are our greatest ever Olympian and Paralympian.
“No one who saw them will forget Lisa Carrington’s golden days on the water in Tokyo earlier this year. But she is far more than our greatest ever Olympian. Humble and kind, she is a role model for girls and boys across the country and continues to give back through her coaching of young paddlers.
“Sophie Pascoe is our greatest Paralympian, winning 19 medals across four Paralympic Games. A ground breaker and trendsetter, she is a role model within and beyond the disability community and an advocate for equality."
Other sportswomen and administrators honoured today:
Dr Michèle Hawke, Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit
Dr Michèle Hawke’s gymnastics legacy spans the globe, judging competitions around the world. Before becoming a Federation of International Gymnastics qualified judge in 1980, she studied at the University of Auckland, receiving her PhD in geology and earth science in 1983.
Hawke established the New Zealand junior development training squad, a programme supporting young gymnasts to reach their full potential - some going on to represent New Zealand at world championships and Commonwealth Games. She now lends her expertise as the chair of New Zealand's women’s artistic gymnastics technical committee.
Gaye Bryham, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit
Gaye Bryham’s work at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) combines her passions for education and sport. In 2000, she became deputy head of AUT's School of Sport and Recreation, a position she still holds - showing her commitment to her two fields. Bryham also helped establish AUT Millennium, the health and fitness centre dedicated to high performance and community sports alongside health and wellbeing.
Celia Patrick, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit
The first New Zealander on the board of the International Tennis Federation, Celia Patrick has been an essential part of Tennis New Zealand over the past decade. Her work establishing relationships with stakeholders and regional groups boosted tennis within New Zealand, and her experience over 40 years has also helped grow the sport on a global scale.
Jane Tehira, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit
Overcoming many obstacles as a Māori athlete in the 1950s, Jane Tehira was the first woman to play for New Zealand in three sporting codes. Representing her country in basketball, softball and hockey, she was inducted into the Māori Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. Winning seven national titles along the way, Tehira also played netball and rugby and was a natural leader, captaining several teams in Akarana.
Laura Thompson, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit
Laura Thompson has five Paralympic medals to her name as a sighted pilot, breaking a world record at the London 2012 Games with Phillipa Gray. Retiring after collecting a silver and a bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Games with Emma Foy, Thompson transitioned to coaching. In 2020, she was chosen for the Te Hāpaitanga programme, supporting her coaching career and her role as the para cycling national development coordinator with Paralympics New Zealand.
Beverley Douglas, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit
Bev Douglas is a legend in the New Zealand netball community, with her commitment spanning over 50 years. Her expertise has been used in a variety of roles, including as a team manager, board member and netball statistician. She was the team manager of the New Zealand U21 side who won the world youth championship in 1992 in Fiji. In 2015, Douglas was elected Netball New Zealand president, a position she held until 2019.
Marilyn Moffatt, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit
First involved with the Lyall Bay Surf Life Saving Club in 1971 as a 14-year-old, Marilyn Moffatt was part of New Zealand’s first women’s surf boat crew, and has won three national titles and four world championships. She has also spent time as treasurer, board member and team manager at Wellington Surf Lifesaving. Her commitment to reducing barriers for women in surf lifesaving made her the perfect candidate for president of Surf Life Saving New Zealand in 2019, only the second woman to hold the role.
Rosalie Wrathall, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit
Rosalie Wrathall was the first woman to be president of the Tūrangi Golf Club and led the way with her work to grow and support the women’s game. With over 40 years of service to golf, Wrathall was a board member of Women’s Golf New Zealand, and also won numerous titles on the greens.
Ina Hansen, Queen’s Service Medal
Along with teaching at Tawa College for 38 years, Ina Hansen has also impacted the lives of rugby players throughout the Wellington region. From coaching her son’s team in 1973, Hansen went on to chair the Wellington Secondary Schools Rugby Union in 1991 - the first woman to do so.
Expecting her first baby, BMX legend Sarah Walker wants to share her IVF story so other female athletes can be aware of the choices they have to start a family, before it's too late.
Sarah Walker knows she’s one of the fortunate ones.
At 33, the Olympic BMX silver medallist is pregnant with her first child. But she’s aware it could have been very different.
Walker and her husband, Vin Elliott, made a decision last year to harvest her eggs, have some of them fertilised and frozen. A back-up, in case - when they were ready to try - they struggled to conceive a child.
Through collecting her eggs, fertility specialists also discovered scar tissue throughout Walker’s uterus.
“If I hadn’t gone through that process, I probably would not have got pregnant because of the scarring,” the three-time world champion says. “I could have tried for two years after I retired from BMX and not got pregnant because of this undetected issue.”
As it was, Walker became pregnant without needing to use the frozen embryos - soon after she missed out on selection for the Tokyo Olympics.
She and Elliott learned the unexpected, but exhilarating news the day she ended a fortnight in MIQ, after she’d been presenting medals at the Tokyo Games as a member of the International Olympic Committee.
Walker wants to share the story of her pregnancy journey, because she wishes she’d been given information about the choices she could have been making earlier in her professional career.
Choices around when a female athlete should start thinking about having children, and start planning for a family.
“I wish I’d had an awareness of what was happening with my fertility, rather than at 28, discovering there’s a simple blood test that could give me a year or two to think about what to do next,” she says.
It’s a conversation she wants all sports to have with their elite female athletes, as their careers grow longer, while their chances of having children diminish with age.
“No one has ever talked to me about it,” says Walker, who’s been riding internationally since 2003, when she was 15. “Once it was ‘you’re a female athlete thinking about having a baby, so your career’s done’. But globally we’re seeing female athletes becoming mums and returning to their sport.
“The stereotype is shifting, but there’s still a real lack of information out there for women.”
Walker and Elliott have just arrived home for Christmas in Cambridge, having spent a week in the Southern Alps. Walker, who’s now six months pregnant, calls it their babymoon.
“It’s something I haven’t been able to do for a lot of my career. Taking a week off training to go for long walks in the Alps doesn’t exactly marry up nicely with BMX sprint training,” she laughs. She married Elliott on New Year’s Day, 2019.
Back in 2016, when she missed out on qualifying for the Rio Olympics after breaking her arm, Walker began contemplating starting a family.
“I was thinking, I’ll be 32 in Tokyo in 2020 - is that getting too old in terms of my biological clock?” she says.
Through her own research, Walker came across the Anti-Müllerian Hormone test, better known as AMH, which can predict how many eggs a woman has in reserve.
“I’d never heard of the test, and I wish that I’d heard of it much earlier,” Walker says. “It was $80 for a blood test to find out how many eggs you have in relation to your age.
“When you’re making a commitment to a four-year Olympic cycle, that’s really important information. Especially when you’re having the athlete versus family situation, having that information is so powerful.” (The cost of an AMH test today is around $100.)
Walker discovered she was in the ‘orange zone’ - the 25th centile – which meant she was likely to have a reduced ovarian reserve.
“I talked to a fertility doctor and their first reaction was ‘You need to start trying for babies now’. And I was like ‘No no, I want to go to Tokyo’,” she says.
“I just wanted to know how long I could put it off for. It was such an unusual conversation because I guess most people who go to an IVF clinic do it as a last resort - they’ve been trying and haven’t been able to conceive.
“But it was really empowering for me. On one hand, I had the information that there’s not a lot of eggs left, but at the same time I could ask ‘What are our options? What are the risks of waiting? At 32, does it mean it’s off the table or it just makes it harder?’”
It would form part of her decision to commit to a fourth Olympic campaign.
“We took a risk – but hey, I take risks on my BMX bike every day,” Walker laughs. “I committed to Tokyo – because while the numbers said it would be harder to have a baby afterwards, it wasn’t impossible.
“I decided then I would rather have a family than win a gold medal at Tokyo. If I won a gold medal and couldn’t have a family, that would suck. I didn’t want that to be an option.”
It’s a phenomenon blooming around the globe – elite female athletes freezing their eggs to preserve their fertility and start their families later.
In 2019, WNBA champion and five-time Olympic gold medallist, Sue Bird, froze 10 eggs looking towards starting a family in the future (she’s engaged to US football star Megan Rapinoe). She pushed for the egg harvesting procedure to be included in the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement.
English netballer Geva Mentor froze her eggs while she was playing in Australia, looking ahead to her life after netball.
American boxer Christina Cruz froze her eggs because she didn’t want to give up her dream of fighting at an Olympics, or give up on her dream of becoming a mother.
In New Zealand, netball, rugby and cricket are leading the way with maternity policies for their elite players. The agreements ensure paid maternity leave and support for athletes through their pregnancy, and help to return to the sport after the baby is born.
Walker is concerned other sports aren’t so proactive in informing their female athletes about fertility and menstrual health, and then supporting them if they choose to have a child.
“Having a family was important to me, so I went and found that information myself. It wasn’t something I was guided to do by High Performance Sport NZ or Cycling NZ,” she says.
“To help female athletes to have those discussions early in their careers, so they’re able to understand what their body’s doing and what their options are, empowers an athlete to make informed decisions. Rather than having a really long career and finding they can’t have children and going through that heartbreak.
“But right now, we aren’t exposed to that information unless we go searching.”
When Covid forced the year-long postponement of the Tokyo Games, Walker heard her biological clock ticking louder.
“I was like, ‘Shit, that’s another year and I’ll be 33’. After you turn 30, your egg reserves decline quite a lot each year. This was more risk than I was originally willing to take,” she says.
Walker had to find out whether going through an IVF cycle to harvest her eggs would work in with her training for Tokyo, and whether the medications used to mimic the body’s reproductive system would be on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substances list.
“I didn’t think I’d have a break to do an IVF cycle. But when Covid hit, I was like ‘Let’s do this’,” she says.
Two medications used in IVF treatment, clomiphene and letrozole, are prohibited in sport, but athletes who want to go through the IVF process while they’re still competing at national or international level can apply for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE).
Walker’s body responded well to the treatment, and she produced enough eggs to give the couple peace of mind.
“I learned I probably could have done it earlier, in the years between 2016 and 2020. It’s workable with your training, and it was relatively painless,” she says.
“I was transparent with my gym coach because I needed to have a light week in the harvest week. I had a day off training afterwards.”
Going through the IVF process, the specialists found the lining of Walker’s uterus was “unusually thin”, she says, and further investigation revealed a lot of scar tissue. She’s still unsure why she had scarring, but if she hadn’t had it removed, it’s unlikely she would be able to get pregnant. “Getting the IVF treatment was so worthwhile,” she says.
Walker was then able to “go all-in” with her training, trying to win the one Olympic BMX spot New Zealand had secured before Covid hit.
With travel restrictions and health risks, she decided not to head overseas to compete in the remaining Olympic qualification events – and was narrowly pipped for the ticket to Tokyo by her training partner and national champion, Rebecca Petch.
Nevertheless, Walker still went to Tokyo with her IOC role: “Handing out the medals turned out to be an incredible silver lining.” The highlights - awarding the BMX medals to friends and rivals, then presenting Kiwi paddling legend Lisa Carrington with two of her three gold medals, and trampolinist Dylan Schmidt’s surprise bronze.
There were often 14-hour days, and back in MIQ in New Zealand, Walker felt like she was going through the “post-Games slump”. As it turned out, she was suffering from morning sickness.
“It was super surprising,” she laughs, when the pregnancy test they bought at a pharmacy on the way home from MIQ was positive.
Since she was shoulder-tapped by IOC president Thomas Bach in 2016, Walker has been a member of the IOC’s Athlete’s Commission, where she can ensure the voices of New Zealand athletes are being heard.
As an athlete advocate, she’s determined to speak up for female athletes being encouraged to think about families early in their careers.
“Thinking about a family doesn’t mean you’re not committed to your sport. It proves you are, because you’re willing to decide how that impacts the rest of your life,” Walker says.
“We’re seeing more women coming into sports leadership roles, which I think will have a positive impact on allowing those discussions to happen.”
She believes each sporting code should advise and support their female athletes.
“There’s no maternity policy within cycling. As an individual athlete, if you get pregnant, you’re off to the side until you can prove you’re going to be good enough to come back - with little support in the meantime. Or one athlete has support, and another hasn’t,” she says.
“And I think the AMH test should be funded by HPSNZ, so every female high performance athlete can have that test if they want to.”
Although she’s about to become a mother in March, Walker has no intentions of announcing her retirement from international competition.
“I’m an older athlete and the assumptions are that I will retire now. Those questions started after I didn’t make the Games team,” she says. “But I was like ‘Let me process this first’.”
Walker admits she reinforced her love for BMX after she missed out on Tokyo, going down to the local track and riding her bike for enjoyment.
She hasn’t been able to continue to ride – she had bleeding at week 15 of her pregnancy when her placenta was in the wrong spot – but she knows she still loves the sport. And she’s in no rush to make a decision on her future.
“Post-Olympics, you see pressure on athletes to commit to the next cycle, or stop altogether. You’re either all in or all out,” Walker says.
“Why can’t they have a season off or have more time to decide? For me, the focus isn’t on the financial support I may or may not get, it’s about my passion for the sport and whether I want to commit to training through to Paris or not. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.”
Maybe a baby will help her decide.
Athlete advocate and LockerRoom writer Sarah Cowley Ross looks back at a fascinating year in women's sport, where the highs and lows were amplified by a global pandemic.
1. Ko is back….and back to her best. Now ranked third on the LPGA Tour, Lydia Ko's highlights in 2021 were winning the LOTTE championship and a bronze medal at the Olympics. What struck me most watching her play-off for a medal in Tokyo, was Ko acknowledging a good shot from her opponent and all with a beaming smile across her face.
2. Time on task matters. After a two-year hiatus from international rugby, the Black Ferns played their end-of-year tour in the Northern Hemisphere, and the gap really showed in their defeats to England and France. You simply can’t beat international competition and the standard we’ve come to expect from our world champion Black Ferns just wasn’t there.
Super Rugby Aupiki will start in March 2022, contested by four sides. The competition will be a huge step forward for the women’s game leading into next year’s Rugby World Cup in Aotearoa - but it comes with an increased player responsibility. Noticeably missing from the announcement were female head coaches at any franchise.
3. Lisa Carrington. Greatest ever. That is all.
4. Our female Paralympians in Tokyo were outstanding. Starting with the beautifully shocked Tupou Neiufi winning the 100m backstroke in the pool. Our track and field stars Lisa Adams (shot put), Anna Grimaldi (long jump), Holly Robinson (javelin) and Danielle Aitchison (100m and 200m) performed exceptionally well in the Olympic stadium. And our Paralympic queen, Sophie Pascoe, came home with yet another medal haul - cementing her legacy in the pool and New Zealand sport.
5. Signing off from her debut role in journalism, Ashley Stanley will forever be a LockerRoom legend. Ash describes her two years as a fulltime writer for us as life-changing in many ways, but in a major part due to the mentoring she received from our extraordinary editor Suzanne McFadden.
And now the Sky Sport scholarship has brought Merryn Anderson to LockerRoom - a young woman with a real passion for sport and storytelling. Credit to Ashley for all her brilliant mahi in her time, and credit to those wonderful people who help bring other women up, empower them and set them free to continue to flourish in sports journalism.
6. Let’s learn from our young sportswomen – rangatahi and tamariki are our future, so invest in and listen to them. Three messages stand out for me in 2021:
Asha Jenkins (aged four): “Mum, are girls not allowed to do the America’s Cup?”
Erica Fairweather (17): “It wasn't my best performance but I won't let it define my Games experience,” following her eighth place in the final of the 400m freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics.
Arizona Leger (25): “Our acts today will determine what kind of ancestor you will be tomorrow,” as keynote speaker at the Women + Girls Summit.
7. Commercial relationships are critical to the success of our sportswomen and sports teams. With the Big Four – three World Cups and the IWG World Conference on Women & Sport - coming to our shores in the next two years, savvy partnerships need to be created to maximise this incredible commercial opportunity.
The Ford naming rights sponsorship of the Football Ferns signals the commercial intent and opportunity leading into the 2023 FIFA World Cup. While global sport sponsorship is reportedly down 30 percent through the pandemic, here’s hoping not all of that money has been taken from women’s programmes.
8. After a decade at the helm of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, Kereyn Smith leaves a huge legacy. During her tenure as CEO and Secretary General, Smith has undoubtedly raised the profile and strengthened the mana of both the NZ Team and the NZOC.
She has now passed the mantle on to Nicki Nicol, who has extensive commercial acumen and leadership gleaned from her time at NZ Rugby.
9. Rest in peace Olivia Podmore. A hugely talented young cyclist, with a smile that lit up a room, she battled not just the administration in her sport but her own personal demons. She deserved better. We await the findings of the Heron Report 2.0, but her death cannot be in vain - having called out both Cycling NZ and High Performance Sport NZ in her final Instagram post. The recent mass exodus of staff from Cycling NZ staff may finally be a turning point for the sport.
10. The Wellington Phoenix finally rose to the challenge entering a female team in the A-League. Bravo to the club for appointing two female coaches in Gemma Lewis and Natalie Lawrence. We wish them good luck in their maiden season, with the added challenge of being based across the ditch.
11. Athletes have powerful platforms and are increasingly using them to speak up. Global superstars such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka used their global influence to have a conversation about mental health. The disappearance of Chinese tennis superstar Peng Shuai prompted a social media hunt for her.
Closer to home, via Instagram, we saw Silver Fern Maia Wilson speak up about body image and expectations, and in recent weeks Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate called out the Black Ferns coaching staff after she suffered a mental breakdown on their latest tour. Athletes are not afraid to voice their opinions through social media and the ripple effect is huge.
12. Kiwi trail running queen Ruth Croft continues to complete mind-blowing challenges in the middle of nowhere and in 2021 she pushed herself to greater heights. Overall winner of the 102km Tarawera Ultramarathon - men and women - and in a women’s course record time, Croft then completed her first 100-mile race at the prestigious Western States race in California finishing second. It’s inspiring (and slightly crazy) to be able to ‘race’ over that distance, and keep your feet moving with your mind intact for 160km.
13. Emma Twigg did not get fourth at her fourth Olympics. Instead, she smashed the field in an Olympic record time on Sea Forrest Waterway and in doing so, she will be the Kiwi epitome of resilience for decades to come.
In what was a glorious Olympics for the NZ rowing team, our women on the water dominated - with gold to the women’s pair (Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast), silver for the double (Brooke Donoghue and Hannah Osbourne) and silver to the women’s eight.
14. Despite giving us all a heart attack in the semifinal against Fiji at the Tokyo Olympics, the Black Ferns Sevens Sisters lived up to their mission, to leave mana in their wake and collect the gold medal.
The team have faced some hard challenges since the Rio Olympics five years ago, but they haven’t shied away from doing the dirty work to get through those hard times. They were led by inspirational captain Sarah Hirini, who was later deservedly crowned NZ rugby player of the year. As a nation, we are immensely proud of their individual brilliance, but as a team they are outstanding.
15. By the end of 2021, all New Zealand sports organisations must have a minimum of 40 percent women on all their boards – national, regional and local. Several NSOs look like they won’t achieve this target, therefore won’t be able to secure full investment from Sport NZ.
Diversity brings better decisions. While this quota is about gender, we need to continue to push for other groups to be represented when making decisions. Let’s consider the impact for the LGTBQI+ community, ethnic groups and our disabled community.
16. Well done Netball NZ and Dame Noeline Taurua on creating a philosophy encouraging more Silver Ferns mums, so players like Ameliaranne Ekenasio, Katrina Rore, Sulu Fitzpatrick, Kayla Johnson and Phoenix Karaka and can continue their sporting careers, knowing their employers will support the demands of motherhood and sport.
And continuing to lead the way for mums in sport is Dame Valerie Adams. There wasn’t a dry eye in the nation when she said her bronze medal in Tokyo meant more than her two golds, because she’d won it as a mother of two children. Mālie.
17. A successful career in world motorsport for Kiwi women seems entirely possible with the likes of Courtney Duncan and Emma Gilmour paving the way internationally. Duncan won her third successive motocross world championship in Italy in October, while rally driver Gilmour has secured a spot with the prestigious Formula 1 Team, McLaren, driving a fully electric off-road car in the 2022 Extreme E Series.
18. Momentum is building for our Big Four - three World Cups (cricket, rugby and football) and the IWG Women & Sport conference. The significance of hosting these major international events should not be lost on New Zealanders. It all kicks off in March with the ICC Cricket World Cup – and the tickets are very affordable. I’ve brought a family pass to the White Ferns vs India and I’m pumped to bring my son and daughter to the game.
Having Porse childcare free at every game during the CWC22 is such a brilliant move by the tournament organisers. With innovative ideas to break down the barriers to fans, and a sharing of ideas between the Big Four, a huge spotlight will shine on women and girls in sport in New Zealand and globally.
19. Two alpine rock stars Alice Robinson and Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, will spearhead our winter sport wāhine at the Beijing 2022 Olympics in February.
Both young women made their mark on the snowsport world in 2021, and have ended the year with career-highlight performances (although Robinson is now in quarantine with Covid), putting their rivals on notice that they intend to bring home gold from Beijing.
20. Wellbeing in sport should not be exclusive to athletes. Absolutely, athletes are the heart of our sports, but to get the heart to pump you need all systems firing. We must acknowledge the stress on coaches, support staff and administrators and be better at being human-first sporting organisations.
21. Sport has the opportunity to bring people together. More than ever, we are hungry to be together, to do the things we love with the people we love. Let’s find ways to continue this – safely - so we can all benefit from the richness of sport in New Zealand.
It’s been a year like no other (particularly for our loyal Auckland readers) so give yourself a break over the holiday season. Sport and recreation can do wonders for the soul and are pillars of public health.
From all of us at LockerRoom, thank you for reading our words through 2021. Let’s keep shining light on our incredible women and girls in sport.
Sisters Sarah Hirini and Rachael Rakatau share a huge respect for each other's achievements on and off the rugby field, and now they get to join forces as Hurricanes in the new Super Rugby Aupiki.
She may be New Zealand's rugby player of the year and an Olympic gold medallist, but Sarah Hirini still looks up to her big sister, Rachael.
A fulltime accountant and a mum of two, Rachael Rakatau has also been rewarded for her own rugby prowess, joining the new women’s Hurricanes team for next year’s inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki competition.
It’s the first time in a very long time the two Goss sisters from the Manawatū will play together, with Hirini a powerhouse addition to the Hurricanes side.
Despite having different names across the back of their jerseys, Rakatau and Hirini have an unmistakably strong sisterly bond.
Rakatau has to pause for a second when talking about Hirini, becoming emotional about her younger sister’s dedication to the sport.
“It’s all the off-field stuff she does that’s really inspiring and has helped her get to where she is today,” says 31-year-old Rakatau.
Hirini, 29, has just won three honours at the New Zealand Rugby Awards, including the Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Player of the Year - capping off a year where she led the Black Ferns Sevens on a redemptive journey to Olympic gold in Tokyo. (She also passed her private pilot's licence earlier this week.)
The awards are testimony to her dedication, says Rakatau, but she knows her sister doesn’t play for the accolades.
“She just does everything in her power to make herself better,” she says.
Hirini is equally proud of Rakatau’s accomplishments. “It's really easy to look for inspiration when you have a sister like Rachael doing everything she does,” she says.
“Now I feel really fortunate to be playing alongside her in the Hurricanes, in the inaugural season.”
Hirini was the first player to be announced for the Wellington-based team back in October and her sister’s selection at lock helps make the Hurricanes a stacked side.
Only taking up the sport when she was 22, Rakatau has been in and out of rugby for the past decade - an ACL injury and two pregnancies pausing her playing time.
She’s recognised as a leader, co-captaining the Manawatū Cyclones to win this season’s Farah Palmer Cup championship.
Rakatau balances being a mum to daughter Keita (three), and son Paora (almost two) with her fulltime job as an associate partner at Allan O’Neill Accountants.
She’s sitting in her car as we talk, having to leave work and pick both her kids up from daycare because Keita is feeling unwell.
Now she’s preparing to spend her afternoon working from home while looking after both kids.
She laughs thinking of adding a professional season of rugby into the mix next year.
“I’m just thinking about how I’m going to do all this with the kids next year, but it’s going to work!” she says.
Super Rugby Aupiki will be played over four weekends in March, but trainings during the three months beforehand will keep Rakatau busy commuting to Wellington and back.
Before even finalising her contract, Rakatau had sorted out babysitters for her kids, getting family to pitch in outside of daycare hours.
Her husband, Paora, is a construction foreman, working from 6am to 6pm, so they rely heavily on support from family to keep things running smoothly.
“This isn’t possible without the support of our families, both my husband, his family and my dad now, just helping out and making this possible,” she explains.
“How she finds time to sleep or do anything, I don't know,” says Hirini, who lived with Rakatau and her kids during the Manawatū Cyclones season last year.
Growing up in the Manawatū, family had a heavy influence on the duo and shaped them to be who they are today.
The sisters lost their mum, Ronnie Goss, earlier this year, and choosing the Hurricanes to be closer to family in the region was an easy choice for both of them.
Rakatau still lives in Palmerston North, and says keeping that rural connection is important to both sisters.
“We learned a lot about work ethic, grit and resilience through our parents and their working environment as farmers,” says Rakatau on their upbringing. “We’re really proud to come from that rural background.”
Rakatau had no doubt Hirini’s first choice of Super Rugby team would be the Hurricanes, knowing how loyal the dual Olympic medallist is to her family and home.
Hirini is grateful to her extended family’s support. “It means everything to us and I know it's a huge honor for our whānau to have us both playing for the Hurricanes in our home region,” she says.
It’s not only the proximity to home that’s special for the family, though, with Rakatau full of praise for the rugby community in the region.
Manawatū Rugby Union were “incredibly supportive” of Rakatau throughout her two pregnancies.
“When I was pregnant, they kept me in the high performance programme, so I still trained and did stuff with the girls,” says Rakatau, who worked as the Cyclones’ assistant manager in 2019 while she was pregnant.
“They supported me through coming back with my son and now, with two kids, they help me out with babysitting. The kids have to come to training sometimes so it’s really important.”
The sisters were supposed to line up together for the Manawatū Cyclones last year, but an injury ruled out Hirini, which makes next year even more special.
“Well, I hope to make the [playing] 23,” says Rakatau, on the chance of taking the field alongside her sister. “That was one of my drives - to be able to play with her. I’m just really excited.”
Rakatau considered calling it quits at the end of this year, unsure if she’d receive a Super Rugby contract and considering having another baby. The offer from the Hurricanes wasn’t the only thing that called her back though - Rakatau eager to continue what the Cyclones team started.
“I could see some of the younger girls in our team really developing and I know they look up to me,” says Rakatau, who was co-captain with Selica Winiata (who’s also signed with the Hurricanes for next year).
“I thought I just need to be there one more year for them so they can grow more confident and then they’ll take over when I go.”
Hirini and Rakatau won’t be the only sisters on the field for the Hurricanes this year, with young guns Lyric and Dhys Faleafaga also part of the 28-strong squad.
Rakatau describes the women’s rugby community as “very hard working” and praises how far professionalism has come in her playing days.
“I don’t think people realise how much work it takes to be a woman’s rugby player,” she says. “That’s the reason why I play - the connections with all the girls. It’s hard work but it’s so rewarding.”
One of the Black Sticks' goalkeeping greats, Helen Clarke, has been facing her greatest adversary yet - with her keeper husband repaying the love and support she gave through his own cancer journey.
In the past three decades, Black Sticks goalkeeper Helen Clarke and her husband, Glyn, have been through a hell of a lot together.
After first meeting as young goalkeepers playing hockey at the Somerville club in Auckland back in 1989, they both went on to wear the silver fern.
She would become the Black Sticks captain, and when she retired after a stellar 13-year international career, she was New Zealand’s most capped women’s hockey player.
He would be her greatest supporter, counsellor and analyst throughout her career.
“It was really fantastic because we bounced ideas off each other,” Helen says. “There were things he did in the men’s games that I’d then try in the women’s game. If you had a bad game, he'd analyse it and I could trust him because he knew what he was talking about.
“He was always on your side, and you knew it was only to try to get you better.”
That care and encouragement has continued away from the hockey turf. They married 28 years ago, and together, they’ve raised two teenagers, Nick and Sophie, who are both keen hockey players.
And for the past five years, Helen and Glyn Clarke have had to fend off their biggest challenge yet – both facing their own cancer diagnoses, and helping each other through their invasive treatments.
Both goalkeepers say it was their sports backgrounds - especially being part of a team - that best prepared them to take on the disease.
A different kind of team
At the age of 50, Helen Clarke has a head of tight curls she never had before. “My chemo curls,” she says, smiling. “Though maybe I’ll get to keep them, because there are curls in my family.”
In the past two years, she's been through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation for breast cancer. But her treatment continues – she’s now on the Herceptin drug after her cancer was found to be HER2 positive (more aggressive and more likely to return).
Around 20 percent of the 3300 Kiwis diagnosed with breast cancer each year have HER2-positive cancer.
“That’s up to a year-and-a-half of extra drugs. And then there are hormone drugs, too,” says Helen. She’s also wearing a glove and sleeve for lymphedema; the swelling in her right arm a side effect of her treatment.
And yet, she’s still her usual upbeat self. They’ve just celebrated Glyn receiving the all-clear from his oncologist, five years after he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. He needed a bone marrow transplant, and stints of up to 45 days in hospital.
“He’s their poster boy - he hit all the milestones,” Helen says of her husband, who works in land surveying.
She’s doing well, too. She took this year off teaching at Ficino School in Mt Eden, but will return part-time next year while her treatment continues.
“To be fair, there are people out there who are doing it a hell of a lot tougher than I am. It’s not stopping me from doing anything,” she says.
“I’ve just started playing golf again – it’s good for keeping my arm moving.”
Sport remains a staple in their lives, and they have no doubt it prepared them for their health challenges.
“Sport teaches you to take one little step at a time. You don’t get results by jumping to them,” Helen says. “Sometimes you’re going to have to take a step backwards or sideways, it’s not always going to be straightforward.
“There were games where we lost by big scores - and goalies don’t like that - but you learned to deal with it, not dwell on it, and move on because you had a game tomorrow. It’s the same with this. I can’t change what happened to me, I can’t wish it away. But I can control how I focus on it and how I deal with it.”
Glyn, who played in goal for the New Zealand U21 side, agrees: “In a team, you can only control what you can control. It’s the same with cancer.”
Helen continues: “This is what the oncologist says I have to do, and I’m going to do it. I have all my experts in a team around me. I used to have my fullbacks - now I have my oncologist and surgeons. They’re all professional at their job and I have to play my part.”
And those who’ve played hockey with the Clarkes for decades (Glyn’s still playing, and Helen last pulled on the pads two seasons ago), gathered around them again during their toughest days.
“We’ve had lots of messages, help and support” Helen says. "That’s the amazing thing about team-mates, you can lose touch - have children, become immersed in your own lives. But when something happens, suddenly they’re there asking: ‘What do you need? What can we do?’ It’s been really cool."
The Tokyo Olympics opened the floodgates in the Clarke household.
“For ages, when there was a Comm Games or the Olympics, you’d talk about the experience to the kids, and they’d go, ‘Oh yeah’, but it didn’t really click,” says Helen, who played at three Olympics and two Commonwealth Games, where she won a bronze medal in 1998.
“Now they’re at an age where they understand and appreciate my medal. They asked a lot of questions watching this year’s Olympics.”
That sparked many memories for Clarke, who feels her long international hockey career happened in “a different lifetime”.
Memories like the 1998 World Cup in Utrecht in the Netherlands - a joint men’s and women’s tournament for the top 12 nations. “We stayed in ‘Camp Hi-de-Hi’ out in the wops and all bussed to the hockey venue,” she recalls. The Black Sticks finished sixth.
“But you can’t beat the Olympics for an event - surrounded by athletes you’d normally watch on TV. It was absolutely phenomenal.”
She warmed the bench at her first Games, Barcelona 1992, but was the No.1 keeper at the 2000 Games in Sydney - where a strong Black Sticks side came close to making the semifinals, but ended up sixth. “The stadium was packed - so loud you couldn’t talk to your players,” she says. “We got the rough end of the stick with some calls.”
Four years later, she played her final international at the Athens Olympics, where the bus was checked for bombs daily. New Zealand were once again sixth.
Clarke became New Zealand’s first female goalkeeper to play 100 tests, and when she retired from international hockey in 2002, she was the most capped Black Sticks woman on 166 tests.
From her debut in 1991 to the 1998 World Cup she played her first 50 games. “We just didn’t play very often,” she says. “Then it took me only two years to get the next 50.”
Today the list is topped by recently retired Black Sticks captain Stacey Michelsen, who played 296 tests over her 12 years.
Clarke believes her international longevity came from playing in goal. “Your body doesn’t take quite the same hammering as a field player’s. Well, it’s a different hammering. I didn’t have to do all that running on the turf,” she laughs.
“It’s funny because while you’re in it, you’re striving to stay in and keep up with other keepers around the world, and you don’t take the time to step back and realise what you’re actually doing.
“It’s not until you’re finished and you’re talking to other people, and they say: ‘That’s amazing’. You hadn’t really thought about it in those terms.”
In sickness and in health
Near the end of 2016, Glyn wasn’t feeling like himself - constantly tired; struggling to run with son, Nick, to the summit of Mt Eden; with small cuts that wouldn’t heal. Helen convinced him to ask his doctor for blood tests.
The following Friday evening, the couple – dressed to the nines - were at a hockey function in Auckland’s city centre. “Glyn’s phone started ringing during the entrée,” Helen says.
He took the call, then told Helen he had to go to hospital. “He gave me a taxi chit to get home and set off walking across Grafton Bridge to Auckland Hospital,” she recalls. A stunned Helen was put in a taxi by a friend and met Glyn at the emergency department.
“We were dressed in our finest and the young doctor had to tell us the bad news: ‘You’ve got acute myeloid leukaemia and you won’t be going home for a couple of weeks’,” Helen remembers.
“He was in and out of hospital from October till his bone marrow transplant in March.”
Once Glyn’s treatment was finished, there was more anguish: Helen’s mum was diagnosed with dementia in 2018 and died the following year.
Then 2020 brought Covid and more personal heartbreak and worry. Helen was due for her routine breast screening in April, but the nationwide lockdown meant her mammogram was delayed until September. “That’s when they found the cancer,” Helen says. “My first chemo was less than a month later.”
“It was quite freaky when Helen got sick, too,” says Glyn. “Our ability to stand relatively strong was so important, and we stood strong for each other. We always tried to take a positive approach and it made things so much easier.”
Throughout their treatments, the couple made sure they kept their children informed.
“The kids have been unbelievable through the whole thing,” Helen says. “You have to be honest with them, or they’ll stress from not knowing. Sometimes they could only FaceTime Dad in hospital when he was having a bad day.
“Some days I’d been struggling to get out of bed, and they’d ask if I was okay. It’s been massive for them to have a grounding in coping and resilience.”
Glyn has played for the Somerville club for over 30 years, and defended goal and coached their division one side this season.
In 2017, he ‘volunteered’ his wife to play for Somerville’s premier women’s side again, when their regular keeper snapped her achilles. Helen played for three seasons.
“I hadn’t put my gear on for 14 years,” she says. “It was fun – I didn’t train, I just rocked up on the weekend and played hockey.
“I told them ‘If I go down, I won’t be getting back up, so you have to gather round and help me’. What they really liked was the calling - they found it easy playing in front of me because I’d tell them where they should be.”
She was surprised, she says, by how little the game has changed for keepers, other than the penalty shoot-outs to decide drawn matches. “In terms of technique, keeping is still keeping. The kit hasn’t changed either,” she says.
Helen is keen to get kitted-up again for the Grey Sticks – a team of her old Black Sticks mates. They played at the World Masters in Auckland in 2017, but Helen was supporting Glyn through his treatment at the time.
They’re looking at playing in the Pan Pacific Masters next year. By then, Helen reckons, she’ll be ready and willing.
Risi Pouri-Lane has represented NZ in three sports, but she's found her true calling in sevens. As the Black Ferns prepare to rejoin the World Series, the young playmaker from Motueka has already made sevens history.
She’s just 21, but Risaleaana Pouri-Lane already holds a rare Olympic record.
Risi, as she’s best known, captained the New Zealand sevens team to gold at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.
And in August this year, she was a valuable team member of the Black Ferns Sevens at the Tokyo Olympics, who also won gold.
This outstanding accomplishment makes Pouri-Lane, Olympian #1477, the only New Zealander to have won a gold medal at both a youth and summer Olympics.
And this young woman, with her humble confidence and calm presence, takes it all in her stride. “For me, winning these accolades are bonuses to what I do. I play rugby because I love playing it. I feel like the rewards are when that little kid comes up to me and is inspired in some way,” she says.
“Knowing that someone has just decided to play rugby for the first time in their life because of me, or the Black Ferns Sevens as a whole, that's what fills my heart.”
And that’s not all that makes Pouri-Lane so exceptional. The professional sevens player has also represented New Zealand in two other sports - judo and touch.
Sport is in her blood. Her father, Kevin, was a New Zealand age-group wrestler, and her mother, Lealofi, was a body sculptor.
Her older sister, Keilamarita, has represented Samoa in rugby sevens, as well as playing rugby for Canterbury before being contracted to play in Japan for three years.
Born in Auburn, Sydney, Pouri-Lane left with her family when they decided to return to New Zealand when she was three years old, settling in the small South Island town of Motueka.
Pouri-Lane was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when she sat on her bed and devised a plan to get to the Olympics to play sevens. It was a driving force for her, and she documented her thoughts in colourful word bubbles with clear goals and inspirational affirmations, which she proudly shows me.
The goals, along with her academic pursuits, included making the Black Ferns development squad by 2018 and the Black Ferns Sevens for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics.
She also wrote in her plan: “Do heaps of speed, agility, fitness and power work”. And in bright red large writing, the ultimate sacrifice: “No Maccas for as long as possible.”
Her first goal was soon realised, selected for the New Zealand sevens development squad in 2017 when she was just 16, playing in Japan and Australia.
“I was still in school during that time, so I had to juggle my schoolwork and make sure I was still passing my tests. But at the same time, training and performing to the best of my ability,” she says.
Joining the Black Ferns Sevens for their Commonwealth Games debut on the Gold Coast in April 2018 was a highlight. On finals day, as 13th player, she was doing her duty laying out the game jerseys for the team, when she got told to pull on a jersey herself.
She sat on the bench for most of the historic game against Australia but ran onto the field for the last moments of the game to be part the celebrations as the team won gold. She says she made the most of that “unreal experience”, soaking up every moment in the team environment.
Pouri-Lane was smashing through her goals, feeling things were all going according to her elaborate plan.
But she remembers being at the national sevens tournament in Rotorua later that year, when a teammate got a call-up to join the sevens development squad. “I didn’t get a call, and I was thinking, ‘Oh no, I’ve been dropped’,” she says.
Within an hour, Black Ferns Sevens coach Allan Bunting phoned to offer her a player contract. “I went from thinking I wasn’t good enough, to being offered a spot in the Black Ferns Sevens,” she says.
At the age of 17, Pouri-Lane was the youngest fully-contracted sevens player for the Black Ferns.
For as long as she can remember, Pouri-Lane has been playing sport. She began judo training at a local club when she was five, and went on to win a few national competitions; by 2016, she'd represented New Zealand at the Oceania championships.
Pouri-Lane says many of the skills she learnt in this disciplined martial art have helped her on the rugby field, in particular the ability to defend and tackle.
At 10, she started playing touch rugby as a social player, but it wasn’t long before she became competitive. She played in the transTasman tournament in the New Zealand U18 women’s team when she was 17.
Pouri-Lane speaks highly of her two Motueka High School coaches, Mark Kelly and Bevan Thomas, who she says had a significant impact on her sporting career. From 2015 to 2017, Thomas coached her in the school's girls rugby team, the mixed touch team he took to the national secondary school tournament in 2016, and the Tasman women's sevens at nationals.
“Risi was very committed to training as well as being a great listener and a very fast learner,” Thomas says. “Because of the other sports she played, like judo, her physical and technical application was huge. Even though most girls were twice her size in the early days, she had no fear of the physical nature of the game.”
Another important quality he recalls is her ability to stay calm under pressure. “She never got rattled in times when others did and she was great with younger players in our squad, nurturing and mentoring them. Whenever we finished training, tournaments or games, she always, without fail, would thank managers and coaches,” he says.
“It takes a village to raise a child, and Risi has had many coaches, and I’m sure she has taken gems from all of them. Every sport she's played - judo, athletics, touch, rugby, netball - have all helped her get to where she is now. She loves the challenge and the battle.”
Although Pouri-Lane is a natural talent in so many sports, rugby was always her favourite.
“I started playing when I was 11 as the only girl in the boys’ team, and from that first game, I knew it was the one for me. I just loved being in the environment,” she says.
“I loved the contact, the team spirit, just everything about playing and being able to get out there and have fun.”
She played both rugby 15s and sevens for Motueka High School right through her school years.
It wasn’t always simple. In 2015, she had to decide between three big national secondary school sports events - for touch, athletics and sevens - all on the same weekend. “That was, I think, the stepping-stone towards my genuine interest in sevens, because I ended up choosing the Condor nationals,” she says.
Clearly, it was a good decision and the last three years have been exceptional, despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the numerous sacrifices she’s made to reach her goals.
Pouri-Lane left home to be closer to the sport she loved, moving first to Hamilton and then to Mt Maunganui, where she now lives as part of the terms of her contract with the Black Ferns Sevens.
As we're talking, she names many of the Black Ferns’ teammates who’ve supported her, including Kelly Brazier, Ruby Tui and captain Sarah Hirini, the Kel Tremain New Zealand rugby player of the year. “I just try to learn and observe as much as I can from the older girls, because the reality is they're not going to be here forever,” Pouri-Lane says.
She’s about to trial for the Black Ferns Sevens team, who will rejoin the World Series on leg three in Malaga, Spain, in late January. She’s hopeful she’ll make it, she says, if she keeps working hard.
Another situation which required Pouri-Lane to draw on her inner strength was when all team members had to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
“I have never been vaccinated in my life, even as a baby. It was one of the biggest decisions I’ve had to make so I could continue to pursue my goals,” she says.
She felt like she was going against all the values and beliefs she’d been brought up with, and it was a very long and difficult process that affected her mindset and her training.
“Probably the hardest thing was telling my parents that I had to be vaccinated, because I knew they were strongly against it and that's just how we've been brought up. It was hard, but I know they still love me. I'm still their daughter and nothing's changed,” she says.
Asked how it feels to have the honour of being the only New Zealander to win Olympic gold at the youth and summer Games, she answers in her usual humble way.
“My faith is a huge part of my life and I feel that any talents I have are God-given gifts that I am able to express on the world stage,” says Pouri-Lane, who has just been named Sportswoman of the Year at the Nelson Sports Awards.
“I always think back to everyone who’s helped me because there is no way that I could have accomplished any of those things without the help of so many people.
“My family are very, very quick to keep me humble and grounded, which I love about them. They don't see me as any different, although I know they are proud of me. But you know, when I go back home, I'm still the same Risi and I've still got to do my chores.”
What does the future hold for this incredible young athlete, who has already achieved so much by the age of 21?
“I feel like my journey has only just begun, which in a way seems crazy, when I’ve already achieved so much. But when I think about what I can still give to the team, and for the jersey I wear, I want more - in terms of the legacy I want to leave behind.
“I think I have a few more years in me yet and I definitely feel like I haven't shown my full potential. But I know it's coming.”
The latest casualty of Covid constraints, the IWG world conference on women & sport - one of four major sports events in NZ over the next two years - has been delayed six months.
The world’s largest conference on women and sport, to be hosted by New Zealand in 2022, has been postponed - the decision becoming inevitable with around 1200 of the world’s sports leaders unable to attend because of the global pandemic.
It’s the third of the 'Big Four' women’s sports events taking place in New Zealand over the next two years to be delayed by the worldwide effects of Covid-19.
Two of the three women’s World Cups – cricket and rugby - were put off for a year, and will be played here next year. The FIFA Women's World Cup remains on target to go ahead as planned in 2023.
The 8th IWG World Conference on Women & Sport was to have been held in Auckland in early May 2022, and has now been pushed out six months to November 14-17.
But in a silver lining, the global event now dovetails neatly with the end of the Rugby World Cup, which has its final at Eden Park on November 12.
The pandemic had already changed the face of the four-yearly summit, transforming it into a digital-physical hybrid event.
But with New Zealand’s borders not opening until May 1 next year, it meant overseas presenters and sports leaders couldn’t clear the seven-day self-isolation period in time to attend the conference.
Rachel Froggatt, secretary general of the International Working Group (IWG) on Women & Sport, says organisers had to decide whether to continue to hold the conference in May, but it completely online, or to postpone it.
With the advice of partners, and the help of extra funding from Sport New Zealand to tide them over to November, they chose the latter option.
“The postponement gives us the best shot of realising the original vision we have for the event, to advance sport by empowering women and girls,” says Froggatt, who's also CEO of Women in Sport Aotearoa, who are delivering the conference.
Pushing back the IWG conference was triggered by the government’s announcement last month that New Zealand would open its borders to international travellers on 11.59am on April 30 next year, followed by seven days of home isolation.
Froggatt says with the event slated to take place on May 5-8, any international conference delegates wouldn’t be clear of quarantine in time to attend.
Around 600 presenters are expected at the conference, and 90 percent of those are international.
“We’re also expecting over 600 international leaders to attend. With the International Olympic Committee as a partner, they want to bring their international family to New Zealand, too,” she says.
Over the last three weeks, those running the IWG secretariat in New Zealand for the past three years put together a “fast, but robust consultation” to find a solution. They consulted with Sport NZ, the Women in Sport Aotearoa board, the IWG global executive and funding partners including the IOC.
After landing on six possible scenarios, they whittled it down to two – a purely digital version of the event or postponement.
“The overwhelming preference was to postpone,” Froggatt says.
“We were incredibly fortunate to receive funding from the government – much the same as they did with the cricket and rugby World Cups. Now we’re in a position to deliver the original vision – a highly collaborative, highly connected open learning experience, to advance equity for women and girls.”
Moving to mid-November also means international leaders attending the Rugby World Cup, to be played in Northland and Auckland, could stay on for the conference. “We have the very enthusiastic support of the Rugby World Cup and New Zealand Rugby,” Froggatt says.
They also have the “unanimous support” of the IWG global executive in making their decision, and the UK secretariat, who take on the running of the next four years of the IWG from October 1.
There is a back-up plan, too, if border restrictions in November are back in place.
“If the worst happens and the world is still in a state of flux, we can deliver a fully digital event,” Froggatt says.
“We are in a really good place with the planning and set-up of the conference, so we will be able to spend the extra six months focusing on Women in Sport Aotearoa initiatives to advance gender equity in New Zealand.”
Determined to promote equality on and off the field, the Northern Districts women's and men's cricket teams now share a Brave new name and are celebrating pride in the Super Smash.
The weather forecast predicts potential showers on Friday, but one thing’s for sure - we’ll see plenty of rainbows in Hamilton.
Seddon Park, the family-friendly cricket ground with its lush grassy banks, will play host to the Pride Round of the Super Smash today - a double-header between the women’s and men’s teams from Northern Districts and Auckland.
It’s not just about gay pride either. Pride Round is all about promoting equality in cricket, in keeping with New Zealand Cricket’s theme of the sport being “a game for all New Zealanders”.
And it’s fitting Northern Districts will host the matches for a second season running. The concept behind Pride Round links in perfectly with the teams’ new identity.
From now on, both the men’s and women’s teams will be known as the Northern Brave, a decision in the works since 2017. The Spirit and the Knights are now united as the Brave – the first major association in the country to have women’s and men’s teams playing under the same name.
“We’re going through that journey so little boys and girls can look at our teams and aspire to be what they see,” says Northern Districts CEO, Ben MacCormack.
It’s been a tough start to the season for the Brave, with many of their players stranded in Auckland’s lockdown - captain Brooke Halliday among them. With the borders now open, Halliday is one of four players who return to the side for the Pride Round.
Kate Anderson, who’s stood in as the Northern Brave captain, was part of the inaugural Pride Round match in January. It was, she says, an "awesome experience".
It gave female cricketers the chance to play under lights for the first time, swapping the match order so the men played in the afternoon and the women received the prime-time slot.
Anderson says the round was evidence of the association’s commitment to always push for better opportunities for their women’s team. “It showed that it wasn’t just lip service in terms of equality,” she says.
Cricket has always been an accepting game for Anderson, now 25, who played through high school and was part of the White Ferns squad this year.
“I think cricket - and especially women’s cricket - has really led the way in terms of that,” she says. “I’ve never felt not accepted or that I can’t bring myself to cricket, which has been awesome.
“It’s made it quite a comforting, safe environment for me to play in and I hope that’s something young girls and boys actually can see.”
While captaining the Brave, Anderson’s key to fostering a supportive environment as leader was simply to enjoy the game.
“If people are having fun, they’re probably bringing themselves forward, and I think that’s really important that people don’t shy away from who they are,” she says.
“People are bringing their true selves to cricket, to trainings and to the games and I think that’s also how you get the best out of them when they’re comfortable in the environment.”
While Pride Round celebrates New Zealand’s rainbow community, it’s also a chance for everyone to be celebrated for their identity.
“It’s not just gay pride, it’s including everyone and making sure everyone has a place where they can feel comfortable and feel like they can be themselves,” says Anderson.
“Even just in our team, there are people from all over the country and all over the world, really,” she says. There’s a diversity in age, too - the women’s team ranging from 15 to 36.
With big names like Tim Southee and Mitchell Santner in the men’s team sporting rainbow bat grips and shoelaces at Seddon Park as part of the last Pride Round, Northern Districts promise this season will be even more colourful.
Players from both the men’s and women’s Brave teams were involved in the decision-making process and their feedback shaped this season’s event.
Along with the bat grips and shoelaces, the Brave are incorporating the rainbow in the logo on their hats, an easy way for every player to show their support.
It will also be the first game of the season for the Auckland Hearts and Aces, finally free to travel and play cricket after being in lockdown with travel restrictions since August.
After a successful event last season, the Aucklanders were eager to be a part of Pride Round again - a chance to showcase the sport’s acceptance for all.
“It’s just showing that young people, no matter who they are or how they identify, if they’re watching, they can see people either similar to them or supporting them,” says Anderson.
The decision to host Pride Round and the Brave name change aligns with Northern Districts’ reputation as a progressive association.
“That’s been something we’ve really worked hard on over the last couple of years to bring our men’s and women’s brands together,” MacCormack says.
He recalls a moment a few months ago where his four-year-old daughter summed up their new name perfectly.
“We were at a Super Smash training hub and there was an 18 or 19-year-old girl and boy, both in polo shirts that were taking the session and she said to me ‘Look Daddy, there’s a Brave boy and a Brave girl; they’re the same’,” he says.
A dad of four, MacCormack’s passion for portraying cricket as a sport for all is evident. “Having that one brand allows for that, where a boy and a girl can stand there and watch men’s or women’s cricket and say ‘I can be that, I can aspire to wear those colours’,” he says.
With a home Cricket World Cup starting in March of 2022, initiatives like Pride Round and free childcare at the World Cup games are proof of how women’s cricket is leading the way to make the sport a game for everyone.
Anderson sums it up perfectly.
“It’s where people can come together and be treated as equals. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you do...everyone just comes together for a common goal of playing cricket and having some fun.”
Waikato teen Laura Littlejohn will compete in her first major international event as the only Kiwi swimmer at the world short course champs this week. And she's on track to make a splash.
Teenager Laura Littlejohn knows the world championships are the pinnacle of short course swimming competition. But she’s still disappointed she cannot yet call herself an Olympian.
The 17-year-old was hoping to make New Zealand’s 4x200m freestyle relay team for the Tokyo Olympics, but fell short at the qualifying meet, despite being one of the country’s four fastest freestylers. Her place was taken by an eligible backstroker.
“It was definitely disappointing and not what I wanted. But I learned a lot from the whole experience and being in that sort of pressure, which I’ve never been in before,” she says.
That pressure is about to ramp up. From Thursday, the student at St Paul's Collegiate in Hamilton - who trains in the school’s pool - will be in Abu Dhabi, competing in the senior world short course (25m pool) championships. It’s in the midst of a pandemic, but Littlejohn is not too bothered by that.
“It will definitely be a different experience,” she says. “There will be Covid testing all the time. Abu Dhabi is a very good place, it has 70 cases a day – less than New Zealand - so that’s a good sign.”
Littlejohn has qualified in four events, the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle, and the 100m individual medley (IM).
Despite missing some training, locked out of the pool for several weeks while the country was in lockdown, Littlejohn hopes to produce her best times at these world championships.
Her times are already handy. Her 50m freestyle best time, 24.85 seconds, is the second-fastest time by a female Kiwi teenager. Her 100IM time of 1m 00.59s, her 200IM time of 2m 10.51s, and her 100m freestyle time of 53.92s are the fastest any female teenager has ever swum in New Zealand. And all would have had her in the top 18 at the last world champs.
It will be Littlejohn’s first major swimming competition, having never competed outside New Zealand or Australia until this month. It’s also a user-pays trip (Swimming New Zealand decided not to send an official team to the UAE), but she’s had financial assistance from her school, the New Zealand Swimming Alumni and Swimming Waikato.
“Not many people get to do this in these Covid times,” she says. “I’m excited, this is my first big meet and I’m just looking forward to seeing the way different athletes approach big meets like this.
“Hopefully I can take some of these things back and put them into my own training.”
It was the 100m IM at the 2020 national short course championships in Hamilton in October that first qualified Littlejohn for the worlds, an event initially slated for December 2020.
Littlejohn was also one of just two New Zealanders to qualify for next year’s world junior championships in Kazan, Russia. Tokyo Olympic finalist and world junior 200m freestyle champion Erika Fairweather has also met juniors times, but to qualify, swimmers must be 17 on December 31 - the day Fairweather turns 18.
The 2021 swimming year was tough, as all national long course meets and some smaller meets were cancelled due to the pandemic.
“There were so many missed opportunities, but it was possible to make worlds happen,” Littlejohn says. “We just jumped on it and thought ‘Why not give it a crack and see what happens?’
“I really just wanted to get some international experience, put my toes in the water, just learn a lot about international racing and get to see how the real elite top dogs do it.”
In addition to the cancellations, the New Zealand short championships were also abruptly stopped during the first day when Auckland went into lockdown.
“That was really hard,” Littlejohn says. “I felt I had a good build-up to it. I was training well, then all of a sudden - bang! Lockdown.”
“I just had to refocus and set myself more goals, and it was at that point I was trying to figure out whether going to the world champs would be possible. Once I knew that I could, that was my new goal.
“When I don’t set myself goals, it can be challenging to keep going and keep mentally in the right head space.”
Littlejohn’s coach, St Paul’s head coach Graham Smith, says Littlejohn is resilient and knows how to deal with the sport’s curveballs.
“Laura has an ability to handle that really well, bounce back from it quite quickly and be able to handle some of these setbacks. You’ve got to be good at the mental part of the game,” he says.
Smith, who’s originally from Scotland, won’t be in Abu Dhabi; Littlejohn has travelled with her mother, Jenny. Smith has arranged some coaching and support for his top swimmer through contacts within the Irish team and he’s confident she will excel.
“She’s just a kid who is really driven, and has a passion for performing well,” Smith says. “I’m 100 percent confident in sending Laura away without a coach knowing that she will be able to handle this situation and will be able to gain and grow from this experience.”
The Littlejohns will also have a different Christmas day this year – it’s the day they return home.
“I’ll be spending half of Christmas Day in the air and the other half in a hotel,” Littlejohn says.
She first competed in the pool the day after her seventh birthday, and she currently holds more than 60 Waikato open and age group records.
She also holds 10 national age-group records – the most recent three in the 50m freestyle, 200m IM, and 100m butterfly set in Dubai last weekend in a lead-up meet to the world championships.
And she’s 0.35 seconds outside the national open record for 100m freestyle.
She’s always played sport, including cross country, athletics, gymnastics, water polo, badminton and netball right up until last year, when she felt she was good enough to focus on swimming, despite the daily 5am alarm for training.
“I could just see myself having a future in swimming,” she says. “I was really enjoying it, and it was something that I really wanted to pursue. I’ve always looked for challenges, I don’t usually choose the easy route. But it’s a super fun sport.”
Sport seems to run in the Littlejohn family. Littlejohn was the St Paul’s Collegiate sportswoman of the year in 2020 and 2021. Her older brother, Ben, is also a swimmer and at Harvard on a US college scholarship; sister Kate is rower who’s also on a college scholarship at Stanford. Both won sportsperson of the year awards while at St Paul’s. Laura would like to follow them to the US after she leaves school next year.
For the past eight years, she’s been volunteering at Riding for the Disabled (now Waikato Equitherapy) helping look after the horses and support riders. It helps her keep perspective, doing something outside of sport.
“I can help kids who are less fortunate and who can’t do things that I am lucky enough to be able to do,” she says.
After the world champs, Littlejohn is eyeing the 4x200m freestyle relay team for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year, but she’s using her Olympic trials and worlds competition as a stepping-stone to her big goal: the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“When I’m in the position to try and qualify for Paris, I’d have been through these processes. I just need to get stronger and faster,” she says. “I love swimming. I love to race. I want to be competitive, to continually improve, and do the best I can.”
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