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Just 19, Katie Doar has grabbed the attention of the hockey world with her silky skills, and is on her way to her first Olympics in Tokyo alongside her childhood idol, Stacey Michelsen.
For over four decades, Barbara Wheadon has helped to shape basketball - here and internationally - in her many roles, and has been recognised with the sport's highest honour.
After agonisingly missing out on the Olympics, then getting Covid-19, a change of scene is helping Kiwi rider Michaela Drummond keep her cycling dream alive.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open on mental health grounds may have cracked open the door for a change in the way we conduct post-match media conferences.
In part two of Olympic Bonds, on Tokyo-bound athletes and a special person who's helped them get there, super paddler Lisa Carrington and coach Gordon Walker reveal what's kept their relationship going strong through three Olympic campaigns.
They’ve been working together almost every day for 10 years, so there’s obviously a lot Lisa Carrington and her coach, Gordon Walker, share.
You can be one of the most dominant Olympic athletes on the planet, it seems, and still get the jitters. And there’s nothing like the intensity of an Olympic competition to really rattle Carrington - and Walker - in the final moments before a race.
“I can only remember a few real nervous moments, and one is the Olympics. Like real nervous,” says Walker, who has experienced his own competition anxieties from his days as a multisport champion. “There’s just no comparison in nerves.”
“For you, or for me?” Carrington, the double Olympic champion says, laughing.
They’re sitting in her North Shore kitchen, after a frosty morning training paddle on Lake Pupuke. “Yeah, the nerves at an Olympics are like nothing else.”
And maybe both will be suffering more than ever when paddling's superstar lines up to race on the Sea Forest Waterway on Tokyo Bay in the first week of August.
It will be two years since Carrington last raced internationally. No one knows what form her competitors will be in, and only she and her coach will know how potent she is.
And she’ll be racing in an unprecedented four Olympic events – two solo and two in a crew.
It’s Walker’s job to help steer Carrington through the tension in the last 20 minutes before she pushes her boat off from the jetty and heads out to the start-line.
“It can be really challenging, and she’s really nervous, but when you’ve accepted the nerves and found the way through them, then we have a bit of a plan. And then she’s off and then that’s it.
“But it’s pretty awesome when I know what the intention is, what she’s trying to do and I see her put it in place.”
Like at the 2019 world champs in Szeged, Hungary – the last time Carrington raced at a major event. She won two world titles, in the K1 200m and K1 500m, in what she believes was the greatest performance of her career.
“We felt the way for her to do her best there was to really be assertive and confident and aggressive,” Walker says. “And when I saw her do it, it was like ‘Wow, holy cow, that’s actually happening’. When you know where she’s at, you know it’s only going to end one way, and that’s a pretty cool thing to watch.”
For Carrington, it’s a matter of trust - the not-so-secret ingredient in the longevity of their athlete-coach relationship, that’s led to 17 world championship medals (10 of them gold) and three Olympic medals.
“It’s partly because I know Gordy can help me so much. It takes a long time to develop trust, and a long time to be able to share what you really need to get the most out of yourself,” Carrington, who is about to turn 32, says.
“And to be able to challenge each other to get it right. Not that I challenge you heaps, Gordy. But it’s more like I can question - and it not be a bad thing. It takes a bit of time to have the maturity to have those conversations in a really productive way.”
Carrington doesn’t just go to Walker for training advice.
“I look to Gordy for a lot of guidance, because I question myself. Instead of thinking negatively, or having that insecurity, I ask him ‘What’s real about this? How can I work through this?’,” she says.
“That’s incredibly helpful to me, the times I guess it’s great to really have that relationship. I don’t think many people would have that kind of thing.”
When they started working together in late 2010, neither had established themselves in canoe racing.
Walker has a vague recollection of first seeing Carrington paddling on Lake Pupuke. She’d just moved to Auckland from Whakatāne, to paddle alongside the best in the country, and Walker was training for multisport events like the Coast to Coast, which he won three times.
“I’d been there for a few years, people had come and gone. But I remember a group of young paddlers coming through and Lisa was a part of that,” Walker says.
“At that time, we had some really good male paddlers – which has kind of flipped, now. But whoever turned up back then, there was a long way to get to the top.
“Man, if you saw where Lisa was then to where she is now… it’s hard to imagine that gap.”
Zimbabwe-born Walker began coaching Erin Taylor, New Zealand’s first female Olympic canoe sprinter who’d competed at the 2008 Beijing Games, and Carrington was selected in her first New Zealand team. Then Walker became the women’s coach for Canoe Racing NZ.
“Part of why we’ve stayed together so long is that I’ve always known there’s a lot more to give, a lot more to do, and a lot more to learn,” Walker says.
“You always feel like you have to go back tomorrow because you haven’t learned enough. Training is hard and intense, there’s always a lot of tension and pressure from all sorts of different areas. But it’s about being able to stay together through those times that are difficult and challenging.”
Carrington reckons over the years the challenges have become harder to negotiate.
“I guess the bigger the challenge, you can think ‘well I could fold to it’, but I don’t think that it's in either of our natures to fold. We have such a desire to work through it,” she says.
“I probably demand too much from Gordy, to be honest. To have these top performances, especially at the Olympics, you don’t just clock off at 5pm. Even for Gordy.
“I don’t think it’s an easy job being a coach. If I put that much demand on myself, unfortunately I put that on him too - in the nicest possible way, I hope.”
Walker doesn’t feel burdened, he shares the same drive and passion, he says. He thrives on the challenge of helping Carrington – who hasn’t been beaten in the K1 200 since 2012 – get stronger and faster every year.
“Lisa has a really dynamic mind, so it’s like with food – she really likes something, and then gets really sick of it quickly. There always has to be something new, but not fashionable,” Walker says.
“She will learn that thing, then it’s on to the next. There are two streams – one that’s dynamic and constantly changing and then one deep down that’s consistent. So there’s things that have never changed - advice from 10 years ago that’s just the same today.”
They follow the Darwinian philosophy on change - where the fittest win out because they best adapt to their environment.
“We’re just trying to adapt. We stripped back [Carrington’s] performance from the year before, looked at it and said: ‘Okay out of these 10 things, can you improve one and keep the other nine the same?’ It’s really simple,” he says.
“One of the reasons Lisa is so good is that she can keep improving. If I was one of her competitors, that would be one of the hardest things to come to terms with. As good as she is now, if you want to beat her you’ve got to think about where she’s going to be in another year.
“There are so many areas where she can change and improve, like strength, fitness, flexibility, nutrition and mentally - the way she approaches things has changed immensely.”
Carrington and the rest of New Zealand’s canoe sprint team are about to head to Australia for a few weeks’ training and acclimatisation on their way to a very different Olympics in Japan.
The pandemic hasn’t changed Carrington’s approach towards Tokyo. “I’ve just had another year to get better. Not competing is tricky… I miss out on the experience from racing in high pressure situations, but the training can be quite good because we don’t get disruptions,” she says.
“Gordy has the vision and the plan. I can just work on the daily stuff and be present in the moment. He helps me stay on course to where I need to get to.”
They’re on the water Monday to Saturday, twice a day most of the time. Carrington jokes that it’s “unfortunate” Walker lives just down the road from her: “We even bump into each other at the supermarket.”
But Walker insists his paddlers have balance in their lives, making sure they spend time with family and friends.
“The hardest thing as an athlete is having balance,” says Carrington, now engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Michael Buck. “We’re kind of always on the clock, especially if we want to be better. But it’s all about prioritising those things, like seeing family and friends, and doing the things that make me me.”
Walker’s family have always been around canoe racing. Carrington was recently looking back at photos of the 2012 London Olympics, where she won her first gold, and Walker’s three young children were there celebrating with her.
“I still see them as that little. But I’ve learned so much since then, and Gordy has been a huge part of that,” Carrington says.
Has Walker ever seen an athlete like Carrington?
“No. And I’ve seen some good ones,” he says. Like 2004 Olympic canoe silver medallist Ben Fouhy, and cyclist Hayden Roulston, a 2008 Olympic silver and bronze medallist: “Both flippin’ remarkable”.
“But one of the incredible things about Lisa is that she’s a combination of amazing forces. She has multiple amazing physical capabilities along with a mentality that wants to grow a lot. And a desire to want to keep going.
“Ten years ago, she was a world champion. She could have stopped then as our only female [canoe sprint] world champion. But to have done another year, then another year, then another with such a consistent approach, that’s different.
“It’s a privilege to be able to work with her, to have the time to do it. It’s kind of a joint passion, which is pretty cool.”
Young nurse Courtney Smith narrowly missed winning NZ a place in mixed doubles curling at the 2022 Winter Olympics, but she's determined to give it one more shot.
Curling and Covid-19 vaccinations will take up much of Courtney Smith's time for the rest of this year.
The third-year Dunedin nursing student is in her final days of quarantine in Auckland, after returning from the curling mixed doubles world championships in Scotland.
Smith and her doubles partner, Anton Hood, travelled across the world to compete for a direct spot for New Zealand at next year's Beijing Winter Olympics.
The 21-year-olds fell agonisingly short of their goal - a last-stone loss against the United States ruled them out of playing for the last direct entry for Beijing.
But it's not over yet. Both Smith and Hood are determined to win the national mixed doubles title this season and get another opportunity to make the 2022 Olympics at the final qualifying event later this year. There, they could grab one of the two spots still available to make up the 10 Olympic curling nations.
“The goal for Anton and I is to take away all the things that we've learnt from competing on this world stage and put that back into our local season so we can work on getting that top spot,” says Smith, after finishing 12th in the world. "I've come away with so much that I want to work on when I'm allowed out [of quarantine]."
Another mission Smith has for the year is to complete her nursing qualifications and to help get the people of Dunedin vaccinated against Covid-19.
She will be straight back out on the ice, too, with New Zealand's domestic curling season starting this week.
Given the hectic lead-up and number of obstacles the pair went through just to get to Scotland, Smith is in high spirits going into the season.
Smith and Hood had not played together on the ice for nearly five years. But when last year's New Zealand mixed doubles champions were unable to make the international event, Smith and Hood took their place, even when the task to be competitive at a world championship and Olympic qualifier was massive.
“The commentators kind of laughed when they realised we'd only had five days of training before we flew over and stepped on that world stage. It was pretty intense,” says Smith, who was the 2019 national women’s junior curling champion.
“It was a whirlwind experience. We didn’t actually think we would be able to make it over until about three weeks beforehand, and we almost didn’t catch our flight at Auckland Airport."
The airline they were leaving on was initially not convinced they had all the documentation they needed, but after frantically searching through their pile of papers, the pair found the one required sentence which allowed them to fly.
“So I was just so thankful to be over there. It was my first world event outside of playing in the juniors,” says Smith, who represented New Zealand at the 2016 Lillehammer Olympic Winter Youth Games.
They were one of the youngest teams competing in Scotland and the only team who travelled with no support staff. But Smith says they were fortunate to have national coach, Peter de Boer, travel to Dunedin before they flew out to go over certain game scenarios.
For Smith, the weeks leading up to the world championship were “absolutely mental.”
She trained before and after her 8am to 5pm work hours on nursing placement. Some sessions involved driving to Naseby, one-and-a-half hours from Dunedin, to train with Hood in New Zealand's curling capital, then either driving home late that night or early the next morning.
Smith grew up in the small Otago town of Maniototo, which has an ice rink five minutes down the road. But she didn’t pick up curling until she was 13, when a friend encouraged her to join the school team.
“I never like to do things by halves, so once I started, I just wanted to get better. Then that never really stopped," Smith laughs. "I love the drive in sport; it’s a really important part of my life.”
How would she then describe the sport to someone who hasn’t seen it before?
Smith says the basic idea behind the sport is throwing a stone down a sheet of ice. “There's this colourful target at the end, which we call the house, and at the very centre of the house, is this black dot called the pin,” she explains.
“Basically, if you can get as many of your stones as close to the pin, that’s a good start.”
When she’s not on the ice, Smith is doing what's needed to complete her nursing qualification by the end of this year.
Before she left for Scotland, Smith managed to fit in getting some immunisation certificates on top of her coursework. She still needs to finalise the requirements but when she does, Smith will work part-time as a vaccinator in a local Dunedin clinic.
She says the pandemic has had major influences on the nursing course, but admits she feels for the students who've recently graduated.
“We’ve had a lot more education around global pandemics now, where they were suddenly thrown into this whirlwind that they weren’t prepared for in any way,” she says.
“But I have huge respect for every single health professional in this Covid pandemic because if you look at the state of our health system at the moment, and how much stress people are under compared to normally, Covid has been an overwhelming time for them. My heart goes out to a lot of people.”
Seeing the differences while competing in Scotland, showed how “lucky” New Zealand is, Smith says.
“They're still going through a lot,” says Smith. “I'm actually really worried about what we're going to see in about five years time with the burnout in people in the health industry because the tax on this is huge. In New Zealand we’re lucky with how things have gone; it could definitely be a lot worse but it could also be a lot better.”
Nursing was a natural career choice for Smith. In secondary school she was part of St John's youth programme and completed a cadet training.
“I’ve always been interested in health. I just love the medical side of things and I really do care about issues and people,” she says. “And it’s something I can take anywhere with me which is really awesome."
In the meantime, she’ll have to do much of the same with her time management skills when it comes to both her study and sport. Especially when she starts the next 120-hour placement in three weeks time at ICU in Dunedin.
While in quarantine, Smith is trying to submit two assignments - she made a point of not studying much while she was in Scotland. “I didn't want to swamp myself by doing coursework while I was competing,” she says.
“With curling, it’s a lot of strategy, thinking, analysing things, so I have to be very aware of what I’m doing outside of that. Because you really don’t want to have mental burnout so it's just about finding the activities that complement what you're doing.”
Her focus in the sport is always on her own performances. “It’s a big honour putting that uniform on, so it's just about trying to be the best you can be, at that time,” says Smith.
“So for me it's about resetting and taking what I’ve learnt and implementing that into my training, so next time I step out on that ice, I’m always improving."
Smith and Hood will leave quarantine on Thursday and hop on a plane to Dunedin. The next day, they’ll get straight back onto the ice after a month away from home, when the curling season starts.
“I’m just really excited to be curling again,” Smith says. “It's going to be awesome to be out, back on the ice and doing something.”
Eleven New Zealand women, led by Dame Ruia Morrison, have been honoured for their services to sport in the 2020 Queen Birthday Honours list.
To be a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit:
Dame Ruia Mereana Morrison, MBE - services to tennis
New Zealand has never seen a women’s tennis player who’s achieved as much as Dame Ruia Morrison – in a career where she smashed barriers and helped others do the same.
In her heyday – from the late 1950s to the early 1970s – Morrison was a trailblazer for both women and Māori in tennis.
The girl from Tikitere, Rotorua, of Te Arawa and Ngāti Tūwharetoa heritage, was the first Māori to play at Wimbledon in 1957 – the 21-year-old getting there thanks to a massive fundraising concert featuring Māori bands.
She would compete again for the next three years – making it as far as the fourth round, but even more importantly, making a lasting impression on the tennis world. She was invited to return to Wimbledon in 2013.
Morrison was a national champion 13 times – her most memorable victory over the legendary Australian Margaret Court in the 1960 New Zealand singles final. She captained New Zealand’s Federation Cup team against five nations, and would become a coach and a mentor to many aspiring tennis players.
In 1960 she was honoured with the MBE, and she’s a life member of Aotearoa Māori Tennis and Tennis NZ, and a member of the Māori Sports Hall of Fame.
Morrison, now a sprightly 85, still lives in Rotorua and remains a big tennis fan.
To be an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit:
Margaret Mary Baker - services to Special Olympics
A key member of the Special Olympics since 1985, Baker has coordinated the Hawke's Bay Special Olympics programme for more than 30 years, and travelled to World Games coaching the NZ swimming and golf teams. She organises trips for Hawkes Bay athletes to compete and raises funds for teams and events.
Mary Joan McFarlane - services to swimming
In 2019 alone, McFarlane spent 232 hours volunteering on the pool deck at national swimming events, more than any other New Zealand technical official. In a 50-year volunteering career, she started officiating at swimming events in 1970, qualifying as a national starter in 1983, and has officiated at international swim meets at the Pacific Games and World Masters.
To be a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit:
Kathleen Margaret Farrell - services to netball
Since the 1950s, Farrell has been a volunteer with netball in the Waikato - as an administrator, player, umpire, coach and manager. She established the successful Verdettes club in 1970 and a midweek netball competition. As a coach, her teams have won the national club champs and the NZ U21 title, she's been instrumental in running club competitions at Minogue Park Netball Complex, and she's filled many executive roles within Waikato netball.
Colleen Janice Lyons - services to netball and education
A top netball umpire and administrator, Lyons has been involved in every aspect of the game since 1965. Since becoming an umpire in 1972, she continues to control games at all levels. She's chaired Netball Otago and been a trustee of Dunedin's sport and recreation Edgar Centre. As a teacher - and assistant principal - at Queen's High School till her retirement in 1982, she coordinated more than 30 netball teams every year.
Phillis-Jean Meti - services to sport, particularly golf.
A three-time world long drive golf champion, world record holder and current world No.1, Meti has also represented New Zealand in discus and shot put at the 2003 Oceania Games and Youth Olympics, and at two waka ama world championships. She also played netball for the Cook Islands for eight years in the Pacific Challenge Cup. A strong advocate for youth - particularly girls - in sport, Meti teaches golf and coaches waka ama crews.
Maxine Khrona Shortland - services to netball and governance
A former top player, Shortland is a director of Netball New Zealand with 40 years of experience in netball, including manager, coach, administrator, governance and parent netball convenor. She coached Bay of Island College to win the inaugural national schools title in 1993 and again in 1994. She is also a business leader with 25 years in governance, including Global Women NZ.
Reverend Janice Ellen Stead - services to sport and the community
After playing for New Zealand in nine cricket tests between 1966 and 1972, Reverend Stead went on to promote women's cricket to a wider community through TV and radio commentary. She was on the Canterbury women’s cricket executive and is a life member of Canterbury Cricket. She was also heavily involved in table tennis - on the Canterbury Table Tennis committee for more than 25 years and playing for New Zealand in the Australian veterans champs.
Karen Vercoe - services to sport and governance
Playing for New Zealand in rugby and touch rugby, Vercoe worked in schools as a Sport Fit co-ordinator and for an outdoor pursuits trust, and has been a Hillary role model. A graduate of the University of Auckland Business School, she's now chief executive of the Te Arawa Lakes Trust and chair of the Data Iwi Leaders Group.
Heather Margaret Williamson - services to netball and the community
After helping establish the Tokoroa Netball Centre, Williamson has been on the centre’s management committee for more than 50 years, holding almost every role. She played for South Waikato and has coached and umpired to high levels - writing national exam papers and selecting umpires for national tournaments. She was Sport Waikato administrator of the year in 1995.
The Queen’s Service Medal:
Vanessa Ann Taylor - services to bowls and the community
Taylor has been recognised for her significant contribution to the Stokes Valley Bowling Club - making it more accessible and widely promoting the club and the sport. As secretary of the club for seven years, she helped Stokes Valley win Bowls NZ club of the year in 2018 and Wellington club of the year 2020, and helped raise funds to give all members a free uniform.
One of the latest cricketers to earn a White Ferns contract, wicketkeeper Jess McFadyen has a colourful sporting background - having spent four years playing hockey overseas and now pushing football for a living.
When Jess McFadyen left Wellington for Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she must have been dreaming of a future in the Black Sticks.
The talented young athlete, who'd collected a number of sports in her kit bag, had taken up a four-year hockey scholarship at Wake Forest University, renowned for its strong field hockey programme.
McFadyen prospered in her years at Wake Forest, becoming a critical goal scorer and defender for the Deacon Demons, and adopting a strong work ethic.
But when it was time to come home in 2015, McFadyen had a sporting change of heart.
“I'd been so immersed in hockey for four years, that it was time to give my body a rest and change tack,” she says. “I’d always loved playing cricket, so I was really keen to jump back into it.”
Now, after playing her way into the Wellington Blaze and evolving into a leading runscorer and the side's No.1 wicketkeeper, McFadyen has been offered a White Ferns contract for the first time.
“It’s one of those things you never expect to happen,” she admits. “But the last two seasons with the Blaze I’ve had more opportunities – I’ve been able to open the batting and I’ve had more time with the gloves behind the stumps.
“Nothing beats game experience, especially being able to keep in a game with, in my case, four or five top White Ferns bowling at you. And the more opportunities I get, the more it’s all falling into place.”
And of course, her timing couldn’t have been better with the World Cup 2022 just around the corner.
She now has to figure out how to balance her new cricket commitments with her job in yet another sport – working in marketing and communications for Capital Football. She’s lucky, she says, that her boss is former Black Cap, Richard Reid.
“He looks kindly on my training. He understands what’s needed,” she says with a laugh.
Wellington-born and raised, McFadyen started her sporting career as a softballer, but switched to cricket at Onslow College “because I wanted to bat longer”.
She was playing hockey, too, following in the footsteps of her mum, Rosemary, and dad, Malcolm, who represented New Zealand at age-group level.
McFadyen played in Wellington age-group sides right up to under 21s, sometimes alongside a woman who would ultimately influence her cricket career, White Ferns captain Sophie Devine.
Her priorities were different then, McFadyen admits. “I giggle at the time I left what you’d call a cricket emerging players camp to come back to Wellington for a game of hockey,” she says.
McFadyen moved to Samuel Marsden Collegiate for her final year, and it was a chance conversation overheard in a school hallway that put her on a path to the United States.
“I was talking to a mate about wanting to go to college in the US, when a teacher walked past and heard me,” McFadyen says.
That teacher was Nicola Kaiwai, a former top New Zealand tennis player, who'd taken up a sports scholarship at Wake Forest University.
“She said Wake Forest had a really good hockey programme and she knew the coach, so she sent her an email,” McFadyen says. "It’s outrageous how these things happen, isn’t it?"
McFadyen recalls her four years in North Carolina as one of the best experiences of her life. “The whole time, you’re living in a professional environment. The resources, the media, the schedules, the travel,” she explains.
“One of the biggest things I learned over there was a work ethic. It wasn’t uncommon to have three trainings a day; you’re a fulltime student and a fulltime athlete.”
McFadyen graduated with a degree in studio art and communications. On the field, she changed her game, moving from striker into defence.
“Our team was always really competitive, playing in the strong Atlantic Coast Conference, and my head coach and the players around me taught me a lot in terms of development and how to push boundaries,” she says. “I had some fantastic influences.”
But by the end of her time, a series of “gnarly” injuries – including two prolapsed discs in her spine – meant McFadyen was ready to take a break from the rigours of hockey and throw herself into a different code.
Not that cricket isn’t demanding on an athlete’s body. McFadyen has just undergone surgery for a torn meniscus in her knee, ruling her out of the first White Ferns winter training camp at Lincoln University next week. It’s frustrating, she says, but the best time to get it fixed.
“People ask me do you regret going to the States to play hockey when you could have stayed here and maybe this would all have happened a few years earlier? And I say, 'No, not a chance',” she says. “I’m so thankful for that experience, it blew my mind, and also thankful I could come back and play cricket.”
McFadyen is one of three players offered a White Ferns contract for the first time, along with Northern Spirit's Brooke Halliday, who made her White Ferns debut last season, and Canterbury Magicians all-rounder Frankie Mackay, who earned her White Ferns recall against England in February.
For as long as McFadyen can remember, she's been a wicketkeeper. “I just want to be involved in the game as much as possible,” she says.
The White Ferns contract - which brings with it an annual retainer payment of between $44,000 and $64,000 - also means McFadyen will get to train alongside experienced New Zealand wicketkeeper Katey Martin. That's something she’s really looking forward to.
“She’s been a White Fern for a long time now, so I hope to tap into her game nous, better understand nuances and sharpen up some technique. Look at the whole picture,” McFadyen says.
She also realises she will learn the difference between domestic and international cricket.
“You can certainly see there’s a massive step up, especially in the way the current White Ferns who are in the Blaze train in our squad. The different intensity and mentality and professionalism when they come back into the group lifts us all to another level. So I know where I have to get to.”
White Ferns coach Bob Carter believes there needs to be more development of wicketkeepers rising through the ranks, and McFadyen has shown her abilities in both the Dream11 Super Smash and 50-over Hallyburton Johnstone Shield for the past two summers.
“She has a wise head on her shoulders and will be an asset to the group, I’m sure,” Carter says.
It’s not only with the gloves that McFadyen has made an impression. In the 2019-20 season, she smashed the eighth-highest score in New Zealand’s women’s List A cricket, with 153 not out against Otago. That put her in the company of her old hockey team-mate Devine.
Last summer, she was the third leading runscorer in the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield racking up 397 runs.
She’d like to think she’s repaying the people who’ve helped her get this far in cricket. That includes two former Blaze coaches – Mark Borthwick, who she trained with when she was young, and her batting coach Ivan Tissera. Then there’s Blaze Fitness trainer Andrew Smith, who’s helped her in the gym. And of course her family, who've kept her grounded.
“It would be so cool to see all that work we’ve put in together coming off to get to that next level, and represent my country,” she says.
And to do so at a World Cup, at home, would be beyond her wildest dreams.
“You never want to get ahead of yourself, but it would be an amazing experience. There’s no bigger carrot than a World Cup at home to get you to push your boundaries,” she says.
“You’ve got the Rugby World Cup and Football World Cup here in the next two years as well; what an amazing time for women’s sport in New Zealand. To hopefully be part of that is really cool.”
After a year of living in fear in Covid-ravaged Europe, Kiwi Paralympian Miriam Sheppard is back home and picking up new challenges - throwing metal and diving into oceans, Ashley Stanley discovers.
Miriam Sheppard is not quite done with sport yet. In her mid-30s, the Paralympian still has plenty of fire in her belly.
That's why she's picked up a discus and a javelin, and has set her sights on swimming across Cook Strait in the not too distant future.
She's already represented New Zealand in swimming and triathlon. And then moved into a different area of sport, working for the International Paralympic Committee in Bonn, Germany.
But Paralympian #147, who swam at the 2004 Athens Games, wants to give other disciplines a good crack to see where they land her.
In the last five years, Sheppard (née Jenkins) has become interested in throwing the discus. “This is kind of a recent thing, that I wished I had known about earlier in my life,” she says.
“I didn’t have an opportunity to really try throwing when I was younger and I think I could've probably been a good discus thrower, so I'd like to try and see if I can.”
The 35-year-old is also going to try her hand at throwing the javelin, and get back into swimming - but this time in the ocean, to swim seven of the world's toughest open water challenges.
Sheppard says picking up new sports in your 30s isn't the easiest, but there are quite a few Para athletes who have started later in life, or transitioned from another sport and have been successful.
During her time working with the IPC, Sheppard was involved in setting the qualifying standards for the European Para athletics championships in Poland. They're taking place right now, the largest Para sport event being held before the Tokyo Paralympics start at the end of August.
“I used to look at [the qualifying standards] and be like ‘Yeah I could probably do that',” she laughs. “But that might also be wishful thinking.”
Her track record suggests otherwise. Sheppard won gold at the 2009 ITU Paratriathlon, becoming the world champion in the TRI3 classification, and still holds the New Zealand Para women's record for the 800m T37, on the athletics track.
Her parents are originally from the United Kingdom, but Sheppard and her older sister, Louise, were born and raised in Kirikiriroa, Hamilton.
She suffered a stroke when she was born which left her with mild cerebral palsy. The left side of her body was affected and she has issues with motor skills and balance.
It didn’t stop her playing a number of sports growing up including netball, soccer, water polo and hockey. But her true interest lay in swimming, triathlon and track and field.
“I started swimming when I was six months old and I could swim before I could walk,” laughs Sheppard. “Individual sports were definitely my forté, especially swimming.”
Sheppard didn’t think her love for swimming would take her to places like the Paralympics and the IPC.
“I really just loved being in the water and all types of water. I loved swimming in lakes, rivers, the sea and the pool,” she says. “I love being under the water. If I ever have a break from swimming, and then come back to it, when I go under I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what it's about’."
She represented New Zealand in swimming from 2001 to 2006. But towards the end of her swimming career, she moved into competing for New Zealand in triathlon and in track and field events.
Triathlon was another sport Sheppard and her sister participated in when they were younger. When it was introduced into the 2000 Olympics, the Jenkins siblings' interest in the sport grew.
“I remember watching the Olympic triathlon with Louise, and Simon Whitfield from Canada won and we were both like ‘Wow, this is so cool’. So we started competing,” Sheppard recalls.
“When I went to world champs in 2009 and I won, I remember thinking then, ‘Oh could this mean that I'm all right at triathlon?'” She also competed at the 2012 ITU world triathlon grand final in Auckland and finished third in the TRI3 field.
Track and field was something Sheppard picked up on her own when she was eight. “I would just go out and run because I wasn’t really good at it so I thought I should get better. Then I started going to athletics when I was 14,” she says.
But back then her commitment to swimming meant she didn't have the same opportunity to compete in track and field.
She even met the qualifying standards for the 100m sprint in her Paralympic classification field as well as qualifying in swimming for Athens. “But it looked like I would do better in swimming so that’s what I got selected for,” says Sheppard.
The 2004 Athens Paralympics was not a good time, admits Jenkins. “I didn’t like being there,” she says.
“I was pretty miserable so that was honestly a lowlight, which kind of sucks because the most important event in my career essentially was not enjoyable.” She finished sixth in her S9 women’s 400m freestyle heat and didn't make the final.
She puts it down to having a lot of things on her mind. Plus she was also only 18 at the time.
“That’s kind of a dumb age. I felt like I had a really good lead up to that event, and I had very high expectations,” says Sheppard. “Then I performed, by my standards, very poorly and I didn’t make the final of the only event that I was competing in so it was very disappointing for me.”
At the cerebral palsy world championships the following year, Sheppard ran in the 400m and 800m races as well as swimming. It would be the only time she was able to do both disciplines at the same time on the international stage.
She came away with gold medals in three swimming events and the 800m track race, and two silvers in swimming and one in the 400m track event.
It’s the 2009 triathlon world championships on the Gold Coast, though, that stick out when Sheppard reflects on her career. It was the first international event her family was able to attend, “and I had an extremely good swim that day,” she says. That year she was named Waikato Sportswoman of the Year and Tri New Zealand’s Performer of the Year in 2010.
It’s her experience and skill that saw Sheppard land the IPC competitions manager role nearly two years ago. Within three weeks of receiving the news, Sheppard had left her job at the Department of Conservation at Aoraki Mt Cook and had moved to the German city of Bonn.
It was, she says, a really cool experience. “Something that I really like doing is looking at results and most of my job was checking and uploading results from Para athletic meets around the world. So that was a real highlight for me in the role,” she says.
She also worked at the 2019 world championships in Dubai, and managed to see a lot of her friends who were part of the New Zealand team.
Covid-19 meant her role at IPC changed: “I was planning to be the main coordinator for the Grand Prix series that world Para athletics host each year and then every single event got cancelled. So that was really difficult." Sheppard moved to running the online education programme for Para athletics technical officials.
“But then it just got really difficult to live in Germany,” Sheppard says. “Being afraid, but also having cerebral palsy makes you more susceptible to getting Covid and having longer lasting side effects from it.
“So I just lived in fear basically for all of last year and then flew back to Aotearoa in October.”
Sheppard was in Germany for only 15 months and says it's a part of the world she'd like to return to eventually.
“I do really love athletics and I think it’s a life changing thing for so many people. It gives them so many opportunities, and it's nice to be involved in that,” she says.
“But I’m also really passionate about conservation and the environment which is why I’m at DoC.” Sheppard is now back there working in their internal communications team.
Of the lessons Sheppard learned in her career, being patient is the main one. Lockdown tested her patience last year but she kept moving once the gyms re-opened. Her motivation will help when she swims in the inaugural Hot Spring Spas Iceberg event on Waiheke Island in early July.
She’s completed other New Zealand Ocean Swim Series events but she’s enjoying working towards a goal after a couple of tumultuous years. “Just going to the gym every day with no goal sometimes gets a bit tiring,” says Sheppard.
“And to be honest, I really want to win. When I entered, I was like ‘Yeah I’m going to win’, and then there's also prizemoney so that will be cool.”
Sheppard still has a bucket list to tick off in the sport.
“I told my dentist in 2001 that I was going to swim Cook Strait the following year and I still haven’t done it. My dentist hasn't let me forget about that so I want to swim it,” she says.
“And I’d like to complete the Oceans Seven, which is seven major ocean swims around the world. Ideally, Cook Strait first and then the Moloka’i Channel in Hawaii is my next goal.
“I also spend a lot of time at the gym, so I think that would serve me quite well in throwing. I think my running days are over. But I'm keen to throw some tin around.”
Behind every Olympian are their often-unsung supporters, who help them turn up to training every day and to compete on the world’s highest sporting stage.
In the first story of LockerRoom’s Olympic Bonds series, Suzanne McFadden speaks to Dame Valerie Adams and physio Louise Johnson – the double Olympic champion’s right-hand woman through the extreme highs and lows of her athletics career.
Dame Valerie Adams’ voice falters and her eyes spill tears as she reflects on one of the most important relationships in her life.
She’s talking about someone she’s had a connection with for more than 20 years, a woman she calls “My Louloubelle”.
“I owe Lou for a lot of things. For her physio expertise, sure, but also as a person,” Adams says of physiotherapist Louise Johnson, who’s treated the shotput legend through four of her five Olympic campaigns.
“She’s been the only person I can really trust wholeheartedly with everything. The only person who has outlived every relationship I’ve had in my life. And that’s marriages, coaches… she’s the only one still standing strong. I love her.”
We’re on a three-way Zoom call – Adams in her final week in Christchurch, where she’s been training with new coach Dale Stevenson; Johnson at work at High Performance Sport NZ in Auckland, where she’s a senior performance physiotherapist.
Theirs is a unique relationship. As well as helping to repair the two-time Olympic champion’s shattered body, Johnson has been a sounding board for Adams. A confidant. Even a bodyguard.
“When I’m in the zone, with my dark glasses on, Lou folds her arms or puts out her hand and says ‘No, stop’ to anyone who approaches. She’s great,” Adams says.
Johnson even cooked dinner for one of the world's greatest field athletes every night when she went to work with her in Switzerland, when Adams was coached by Jean-Paul Egger.
"Don’t think I’m a 'Yes' girl," Johnson is quick to point out. "I say no to Val, but probably only twice a year."
It's a partnership built on trust and understanding, Adams says. “Sometimes I don’t like to put things on Louloubelle, but sometimes I have no choice. I have to talk to someone who understands me as a person and understands my needs and how I operate" she says.
“From there she’s able to navigate through how I get those needs met. I have an athlete’s body, but I also have a mother’s body, with the complications I had after my second birth.
“Sorry for getting emotional…”
The emotion flows both ways.
“It’s been a huge privilege," Johnson says. "Dame Valerie has had such an influence on my children – just knowing you can be a superstar and not be a dick. There have been highs and lows, but we’ve all really enjoyed the journey.”
They both have a clear memory of when they first met - Adams was an incredibly shy 16-year-old and Johnson, a former Black Stick, had a physiotherapy clinic in Pakuranga. Adams came to her with an ankle injury, accompanied by coach Kirsten Hellier.
“I remember you were so quiet. I knew straight away that you needed a different type of care, because you didn’t say a word, Kirsten spoke for you,” Johnson says. “It took three treatments before you started talking to me.”
"So I lay down on a slab and Lou gave me a good rub. And I cried and I talked and I cried and I talked" - Dame Valerie Adams
Adams’ first impressions of Johnson? “Well, she was small. Really tiny.” Johnson is 1.57m compared with Adams’ 1.93m height. “But I remember Louloubelle making me feel really comfortable.
“I’d come from an environment where you don’t go see medical people – you kind of deal with it at home. And going to someone in a clinic, I’d feel very intimidated and very shy; I felt it was a waste of their time trying to help me.
“But I remember her making me feel like I wasn’t wasting her time but getting the help I needed. That made me relax and do what I needed to do.”
Johnson realised straight away she was dealing with an astute and smart young woman. “That’s street smart as well, Sunshine,” she says to Adams.
“She knows her body really well and she understates some of her issues… she’s as tough as nails. She would be really sore – and it’s not until she’s on all fours in an airport that she’d tell people how much pain she was in.
“So I knew instantly with Val’s intellect that she needed to be part of her treatment. We needed to have really good communication and know what she’s feeling.”
She also saw how Adams moved differently to others and with her body awareness, was quick to learn movement patterns.
“And I found out that you hated needles,” Johnson says to Adams. “When I offered you acupuncture, or suggested you get an injection in the back of your ankle, you were out. I thought you might never come back.”
Adams throws back her head in laughter. “I’m still a pussy when it comes to needles. But I have a technique now to cope with it - through singing,” she says.
“Well, when I say singing, it’s more like ‘Dah, dah, dah, dah’. I’m holding onto Lou’s hand for dear life while they’re jabbing me and sound comes out my mouth.”
One of the obvious reasons their relationship has stood the test of time – and the intensity of competition at the very highest level – is sticking to their defined roles.
“I’m not her mother or her coach,” Johnson says. “It’s such an amazing journey to be around Val, and I needed to be careful that I wasn’t being sucked in personally. Because I’ve seen that with people as well; they latch on to her.
“So I make sure I differentiate between business and personal life. That I give to Val, but still have my own life. And she has her own beautiful family now too.
“We fell into some really good habits. Like working in Switzerland, we had very distinct, separate time. So you can’t flip from work to personal, and hang out watching Jeremy Kyle."
Adds Adams: “It worked because we were both on a mission. Lou would be there for five days to fix my ongoing injuries or niggles. As soon as she turned up, I was hanging out to see her from a physical point of view, but also cause I love Louloubelle and I needed to see someone from home.
“But as soon as Louloubelle touched down, it was work and train. We know where the boundaries are, and she’d go off for her walks or whatever she needs to do to fill her cup."
"I love watching you play the game - the Tongan stare-down, being friendly with your competitors, because you know it unnerves them." - Lou Johnson
Adams has had her fair share of injuries over 20 years – she’s undergone eight surgeries (not counting her caesarian sections). Johnson has been there for every one of her sporting operations. "She takes me to the hospital, sometimes she’s in the theatre with me, and then she takes me home,” Adams says.
She grateful to Johnson for connecting her with other medical specialists or seeing other opinions when she’s treating her.
“I love the fact Lou is never threatened by other medical people. She has no ego. She knows when to tap into the resources we have. Ultimately, it’s about helping the athlete, not benefiting the physician.”
“I’d say I’m a health navigator,” Johnson leaps in. “I’ve always said Val is too big a job for one person. You always have to seek peer reviews, and Val knew they were people I trust – a shoulder expert, a lower back expert, a hand therapist.
“It’s important you have a good strong network of people, otherwise we would both be sucked dry.”
Johnson has gathered some “unbelievable” memories working alongside the four-time world champion, including 2009 when Adams successfully defended her world title in Berlin.
“Here you were, a young beautiful Tongan woman in Hitler's stadium, and I was with my gay sister and her wife. It was like ‘Oh, how the world has changed’. That was an incredible high,” the physio says.
And then Adams’ silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2018, after the birth of her second child. “My legs were like jelly, because I knew what she’d come back from,” Johnson says.
But the greatest achievement Johnson has witnessed is Adams’ personal growth.
“You are the GOAT of shotput, but the way you’ve grown as a person, the autonomy you’ve gained, and the influence you're going to have on your community for decades to come is what I’m truly proud of,” she says.
“And the fact you’ve bought a house. That you made some money through it, because you deserved every cent.”
Adams chips in: “Because there’s no money in throwing.”
The two-time Olympic gold medallist remembers the moment in 2012 she discovered an administrative bungle meant her name wasn’t on the start list at the London Olympics, just hours before she was to compete.
“I ran into Lou’s room first. I felt very lost, nervous, upset and angry. I wasn’t in a good way physically or mentally and then I had to face the media. So I lay down on a slab and Lou gave me a good rub. And I cried and I talked and I cried and I talked. I gathered myself together to go out and deal with whatever came my way,” Adams says.
“It goes to show just how open and honest and trusting our relationship is. Special people you hold on to and they are still on the bus for a reason”
Then Adams poses a question to Johnson, something she’s never asked her before. “Do you ever get nervous when I’m competing?”
“A little bit,” says Johnson. “The time I love the most is when you walk into the call room [where athletes go before they walk out to compete]. Up to the moment you walk in there, I’m still on duty; you could stub your toe and need me to get a Bandaid. But the minute you’re in that room, you’re about to go on stage – no different to Alicia Keyes. And I just go ‘what will be, will be’.
“I’m a little nervous sitting in the stand. But I love watching you play the game - the Tongan stare-down, being friendly with your competitors, because you know it unnerves them. What people see on TV – 1.3 seconds of explosiveness - is only a fraction of what goes on at a competition.”
When Adams looks up and sees ‘Louloubelle’ at the end of an event (six world championships among the many), she feels relief.
“Celebration comes later. But then, unfortunately, no matter how good the competition has gone, Lou has the tough job of fixing me the next day, which is when I get worse. The anti-climax as my back seizes up,” she says.
The Tokyo Olympics will be Johnson’s sixth Games – her third with Adams, who leaves this weekend for the United States to prepare for Tokyo. Johnson doesn’t expect the myriad restrictions brought about by Covid-19 will affect Adams’ performance. She's had the best throw in the world so far this year. “And Val loves a bubble,” she says.
This could be their last big show together, but that will be Adams’ decision, it seems.
“I made a personal pact with Val,” Johnson says. “I tried to quit a couple of times. Not seriously. But every year I’d say ‘Right I’m out… I need to reapply for my job, do you still want this?’ Val got sick of it one day and said: ‘You retire when I retire’.
“It’s so important not to take this relationship for granted. The key is to have that trust but be able to step in and step out. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. It’s been really good fun.”
Could Kiri Wills be the next Silver Ferns coach? The woman at the head of the Stars says she still has plenty of mahi to do - including winning an ANZ Premiership title.
During the intensity of a netball season, Kiri Wills has three secrets to success she follows to the letter.
Wills, once a top attacking player, has won championship titles with secondary school sides and the New Zealand U21s during her 20-year coaching career. And now she has her eyes set on an ANZ Premiership title with the Northern Stars.
To help get her there, she's following her "tricks" to unwinding and de-stressing from the franchise coaching role - no alcohol during the season, reading a good book, and engaging with the family's two rescue dogs.
“I’m a voracious reader. I’ll read everything from murder mystery to historical novels,” says Wills. “The only way I can really switch off is to have something that distracts me, so Netflix is great, but reading also winds me down from a game.”
She finds it hard to get to sleep already so opts out of drinking for the three-month season as well. “I find if I’ve had a couple of wines at night, that sleep is shorter and it's not as deep. So that’s my number one tip actually,” Wills says.
“And if I’ve had a really crappy day or I’m really unhappy about something, our two rescue dogs are amazing. You just get to the front door and they’re just so happy to see you. That’s therapy for all of our family. How can you be grumpy when they’re so happy to see you?”
It’s obviously working for Wills. She recently celebrated her 50th game as an ANZ Premiership coach, when the Stars beat the Magic - the franchise she finished playing netball with in 2007 and won back-to-back New Zealand titles with during her stint there.
And the Stars sit at the top of the table halfway through the premiership season, with six wins from seven after a nail-biting 57-56 extra-time victory over the Tactix on Monday night.
Wills also represented New Zealand at U21 level, and played most of her national league netball for the Auckland Diamonds before moving to the Magic. After playing, she spent time in assistant coaching roles at the Mystics and went on to be the Silver Ferns development squad coach and NZ U21 head coach position in 2015. Two years later, she led the New Zealand side to victory at the World Youth Cup.
“I love coaching. And I’m so blessed that I’m paid to do something that I love. I think if I wasn’t being paid, I’d still be doing it - so my husband is quite relieved," Wills laughs.
The 50 game milestone crept up on her quickly, catching her by surprise.
“I got a service award from Auckland this year which reminded me I've been coaching since 1998. That was prior to a number of the players in my team being born so I’ve been coaching all of their lives," she says.
"So this 50 is kind of the tip of the iceberg. I think all of those school teams, club teams, age-group rep teams, they prepare you for this level and then when you get here, it's just continual learning.”
Wills admits she doesn’t tend to use milestone games to motivate the players. “I actually try, where possible, to treat every game as another game. Like, let’s just do it,” she says.
Still, she was really pleased to get the win against the Magic in her 50th game.
“I guess I really did want that win,” says Wills. “Especially because our last game against them [Magic], we came off a little bit shaky, and they closed the gap. It wasn’t a very convincing win so we wanted to be much better than that first game and they came through and they were.”
Even though Wills says the build-up is not centred around milestone matches, the Stars acknowledge the occasion in the changing rooms beforehand with a Samoan celebration led by shooter Amorangi Malesala. The proud south Auckland law student was also instrumental in creating and leading the Stars haka against the Pulse (before the Stars' first loss of the season).
The Stars franchise have also celebrated Gina Crampton’s 100th and Jaime Hume’s 50th game this season.
Growing up in the Far North, Wills says her life in the community there led to her becoming a “people person”. Raised in Kaitāia until she was eight, Wills moved to nearby Ahipara with her family and stayed in the southern part of Ninety Mile Beach until she went to Otago University.
“Everything up there is shared. We used to go camping around Reef Point [west of Ahipara] where there are no facilities, and our parents used to just put up tents, we’d dig a long drop, and it was a real communal way of living,” Wills says.
“And I think I’m at my best when I’m surrounded by a lot of other like-minded people and I think coaching is a really good place for people like that.
“If you enjoy other people's company, and enjoy working towards something together, coaching is just a really nice way to do that. And I just get a massive kick out of helping people to achieve their goals.”
For Wills it was a natural progression to go from player to coach. She initially wanted to be a PE teacher, but her mum explained how difficult the career path was when she was exploring options.
So instead, Wills went into sports administration at Baradene College after Otago University, working 15 hours a week while still playing competitively.
It was at Baradene that Wills got into coaching, after she couldn't find enough people to cover the growing number of netball teams.
“I ended up coaching the Year Nine team one team and I actually discovered that I really loved coaching,” says Wills.
“I didn’t stop playing until 2007, so I was actually coaching for nine years while I was still playing. And then I moved through my career goals.”
Wills went to Auckland Girls' Grammar and coached them to become New Zealand secondary school champions before moving onto St Cuthbert's College to be their director of sport.
Under her guidance, St Cuthbert's got into the New Zealand secondary schools competition for the first time. Wills had the likes of Silver Fern and Mystics defender Sulu Fitzpatrick in her team as well as her Black Ferns sevens champion sister, Theresa.
Of course the team goal of winning the ANZ Premiership is always there as a head coach, but for Wills it's also about making sure each player is progressing, no matter who they are.
“If I can help them to be better in some way...if you work through something together, and it happens the way that you want, then you go ‘Oh yeah, that’s awesome’ and again that shared experience of achieving something.”
A new assistant coach this year in Paula Smith and manager Debra Charteris contribute heavily to reaching those team goals. The new additions to the Stars coaching line-up have bolstered the core group who've been at the franchise for a while, making a solid foundation.
Wills says she’s been very fortunate with her assistant coaches and management groups throughout her career.
“I’ve had Julie Seymour for U21s, I’ve had Bubby [Temepara Bailey], and now I’ve got Paula [Smith]. She and I get on really well,” she says.
“She uses her initiative and she's confident enough to lead things when I want her to, so she's been really supportive. Bubby was exactly the same.”
Being able to laugh with fellow coaching staff is important, too, as the role can be stressful on the sidelines. “So to have someone that you can blow off steam with is quite nice. Although now that the mics are on we don’t do it as much as we used to,” laughs Wills. Coaches in the national league are wearing microphones this season.
The Stars have been the dominant team in the league this year. They now have a three-point lead over the Mystics, who lost to the Pulse on Sunday, and will meet them this weekend for the first time this season.
Wills says it was the contracting decisions and openly sharing the franchise’s values upfront with players that's helped the Stars' results.
“I think one of the key things for Di [Lasenby, the Stars general manager] and I when we’re talking to players and their agents or managers is we talk about our values in the Stars. Not only what we’re creating but what that person needs to be bringing with them,” she says.
“Because quite often when you're negotiating with players and their managers, it's all about 'what is the team going to give me?'
“So yes, there's a skillset, and yes they have to meet all those physical things, but there's also a way of being, and I think this team has come together really well.”
Crampton and Anna Harrison - current and past Silver Ferns - were critical signings for the Stars, says Wills. “But I think the success we're seeing at the moment is actually the improvement and the uplift of everybody else around Maia [Wilson], Gina, and Anna - our spine,” she says.
“The competitiveness of our squad internally means the standard of our training is really, really high."
So how would the players describe Wills?
“I think they would describe me as passionate,” she laughs. “In a good way. I really care about the club and what we produce. And they can feel it, in the way that I speak with them, and the way that I drive things.
“They would say I like to have a bit of fun, and I like it not to be too serious. But I draw the line and they know when it's time to work and when it's time to play.
“And I think they also appreciate that I treat them like adults, I don’t schedule their lives into minutes, and I’m not all over them about things that I think they should be responsible for themselves. So I give them their independence and I think that’s important because they are adults.”
Her goals for the next 50 games as coach?
“I want to ensure that the Stars have a really strong legacy. We look to the Pulse the last couple of years, but probably the most successful franchise in New Zealand domestic history has been the Southern Sting-Steel,” says Wills.
“I think that to be a part of a franchise that is consistently putting out results, year after year, is something that I would like to be a part of.”
Wills says people often talk about her coaching the Silver Ferns, but it’s not a focus for her at the moment.
“I just look at Noeline and I think she did 17 years at franchise level before she became the Silver Ferns coach. I’m in my fourth year, so I’ve got a long way to go,” she says. “If that happened, that would be great but it's not on my radar at the moment.
“I just want to make the Stars franchise as good as it can be. And I think probably a little goal inside of that is I want to make as many Silver Ferns as I possibly can in my space and support their programme.”
Winter Olympic medal hopefuls Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Alice Robinson headed back into a troubled world after very different Kiwi winters. But both came out of the experience so much richer.
It’s not an easy decision to leave the safety of New Zealand’s Covid-free bubble and head straight back into the middle of a global pandemic. Why would you?
The answer for Winter Olympians Alice Robinson and Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, while not simple, is compelling: Because your sights are set on Olympic gold medals and your main competitors have already stepped up to the plate.
If you’ve ever questioned the grit or determination of our winter athletes, take another look.
These young sportswomen – Robinson just 19 years old, and Sadowski-Synnott recently turned 20 – have been doing the hard yards and Covid-19 is just one more hurdle to overcome. It’s been a challenge, but in some unexpected ways, there have been benefits for the two young snow-sport stars, now both back at home in New Zealand.
We’re 10 months into an 18-month qualifying period for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, and there wasn’t much happening in the way of competitions when Olympic qualifying kicked off in July 2020.
But the Kiwi winter worked out well for Sadowski-Synnott and other members of the New Zealand snowboard team. With New Zealand borders closed but their home training ground, Cardrona Alpine Resort, still providing a full training facility, they had the whole place to themselves. In any other year, the world’s top snow athletes would also be in New Zealand.
“We really weren’t sure if we’d even get a New Zealand season, so when we did, it was a really good one and we had more than enough facilities to train just like any other year,” says Sadowski-Synnott. “We kind of had a private park; that was insane.
“Me and my coach put a lot of work into the season, since we weren’t sure if we’d be able to go overseas to compete. I think coming off that and then having a good rest before going into the Northern Hemisphere at the start of January set me up for a good one, just being prepared mentally and physically.”
By “a good one” she means defending her 2019 world championship title in snowboard slopestyle - the first athlete ever to do so - and backing this up with silver in the big air event a few days later. Along with a silver in slopestyle and bronze in big air at the X Games, bringing her X Games medal tally to five.
In fact, Sadowski-Synnott made the podium at every major event she entered this season.
A cynical mind might question the quality of the field and the level of competition because the rest of the world was being held back by Covid.
“Everyone was there,” explains Sadowski-Synnott. “I felt like I had a head start over everyone because I had four or five months in New Zealand, but at the same time everyone was training on airbags or on dry slopes overseas, so it felt like everyone came out of the gates swinging.
“At the first competition, the World Cup Big Air in Kreischberg, Austria, the level was insanely high. It was really cool to see no one had taken a step back because of Covid. It seemed like everyone was a lot hungrier.”
Sadowski-Synnott won the Kreischberg World Cup with a brand-new trick, a backside 1080, which she mastered during the New Zealand season.
The Alpine Skiing World Cup tour also saw a full contingent of international athletes fired up for their Olympic qualifying races - but unfortunately for Alice Robinson, the New Zealand season had been an entirely different story.
“I was playing catch-up with all the other athletes. Apart from their lockdowns in March and April they pretty much had a normal pre-season whereas I was missing six months on snow because of not having any coaches here.”
While Robinson could get to the snow, getting quality training was near impossible with her entire coaching and technical support team back in their European or American homes, unable to enter New Zealand.
“Maybe if you’re a bit older you can manage these things and it’s a bit easier on your own, but I still rely really heavily on my team,” she says. “Maybe the conditions here are better but I can’t really do anything without them. I had to go overseas to train.”
For Robinson, crunch time came in August, with new cases of Covid-19 recorded in the community and New Zealand starting to move back up the alert levels.
“I was like, ok, I’ve had enough,” says Robinson. “It was getting too close to the start of the Northern Hemisphere season and I hadn’t really done any training, so I just needed to get over there.”
Not everyone will be able to relate to the idea of intentionally putting yourself in harm’s way, but then not many Kiwis have held a world ranking in alpine ski racing. None of us, in fact. Robinson is the first to attain this feat in the alpine disciplines. Would we honestly expect her to sit back and watch her Olympic medal dream disappear?
“If it [the World Cup tour] is on, I’ve got to go,” Robinson explains. “All the races were going ahead so we just had to learn to live with it and get on with it and that’s just what everyone did.”
Sadowski-Synnott had a similar mindset. “I was pretty uncertain about going over because of getting Covid. A lot of people end up with long-term problems and for someone who’s training for the Olympics and wanting to peak at the Olympics it would really not be good,” she says.
“That definitely played on my mind, but this was the only chance to qualify so we had to just take the risk.”
Robinson appeared to be back on track, with her coaches and support team with her, but the results didn’t come quite how she’d hoped and the stress began to mount.
“A lot of people expected a lot from me, and I don’t think anyone really understood how much my year had been affected by Covid and how much training I’d missed,” she says. “I think I was a bit naïve going into the season thinking it would all just happen so easily when I’d missed so much.
“I hadn’t had the miles that everyone else had. It’s kind of like a snowball effect, when one thing starts to go not so well, it just accumulates and you’ve got to find a way to get over the obstacles.”
At that point, the pandemic came in to play again.
“Most people I would normally reach out to for support were in New Zealand and far away - Mum, Dad, my sister and brother. I had some of my friends over there but no family which was harder for me because I’ve never really done that before,” Robinson says.
Robinson knew it would be several months before she’d be able to get back home with limited spots available in managed isolation.
“The earliest I could get back was April and I’d known that since January. So I was like, whatever happens, if the season gets cancelled because of Covid or I get hurt, I can’t get back. It was very stressful.”
But you don’t get to the top of an extreme sport like ski racing without having guts, and soon enough Robinson began to turn things around.
“I realised that’s just how it is, you can’t really sit there being gloomy, you’ve just got to get on with it,” she says. “Things started to come right. I kind of got over the stress of wanting the results and I just wanted to ski well again, and that went hand-in-hand with the success.
“Building my confidence back over time from being at rock bottom to being back on the top was something that felt quite far-fetched at some points in the season.”
Robinson finished her season on a high, winning the FIS Giant Slalom World Cup finals in Austria, having earned World Cup silver two weeks before, fourth place at the world championships, and a career-best 10th in the Super-G.
“I definitely learnt a lot about resilience this year,” says Robinson.
“The lessons I’ve learnt this year have been very hard, but I think they’ve made me a stronger person and a stronger athlete and that’s going to help me a lot down the track. Knowing that I’ve been in more difficult situations before and I’ve handled it, so I can handle anything now.”
Sadowski-Synnott experienced her lessons in resilience as a shy 16-year-old, thrown somewhat unwillingly into the limelight after her 2018 Olympic bronze medal.
“It was very overwhelming and pretty crazy,” she says. “I definitely felt the pressure following that and it definitely affected my results the following year. But now I’ve matured as an athlete and as a person.
“My way of looking at it is that with every up comes a down and with every down comes an up. So there’s always something to look forward to and something to humble you because you’re not always going to be up so high.
“I’ve learnt how to deal with it which is very important going into this next season.”
Because next season is the Olympics, and the huge weight of expectation.
“I feel it, but I think that’s expected and I think it would be worse if there was no expectation,” says Robinson. “People expect something of you because they know you can do it.”
Sadowski-Synnott agrees. “It’s exciting having that expectation now because after Korea I was scared of it. I didn’t think I belonged in the realm of the top five or the top 10, but now I feel like I’ve put in the work.
“If I got anything less than what I’m aiming for, it would be a disappointment. That’s just what I’m going to have to deal with if it happens - but I’m aiming for the top.”
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