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The Tokyo Lowdown: Day Zero

In your daily guide recapping the fortunes of Kiwi sportswomen at the Tokyo Olympics, our rowers had an up and down Day Zero.

The Tokyo Lowdown: An Olympic preview

After 5 years' wait, they're finally here: the Tokyo 2020(+1) Olympics. Be prepared for new sports, empty stands, expressions of solidarity, Covid cases, typhoons and surprise medals.

Kiwi shutterbug ready to fire at Tokyo Olympics

It takes a sharp eye, a supple body and super-quick reflexes to be a top sports photographer, and Kiwi snapper Alisha Lovrich has prepared well for the Tokyo Olympics.

Memory Games: The vault that launched 1000 smiles

A mysterious Tui in a pool, a breathtaking pole vault and a freakish rowing double: LockerRoom's David Leggat, a reporting veteran of five Olympics, shares his favourite memories. 

Olympic Bonds: The Spoors and their eight sisters

New Zealand's Olympic women's rowing eight boasts two pairs of sisters. But the Spoors sisters tell Sarah Cowley Ross they never dreamed they'd go to Tokyo together.

It wasn’t until earlier this year sisters Lucy and Phoebe Spoors even imagined they might row together at an Olympic Games.

In the past, if they’d ever thought about the Olympics, it was their other sister, Grace – Phoebe’s twin – that they pictured would go with Lucy, the eldest of the trio.

“I remember thinking when we were younger, Grace just wants it more than me,” Phoebe says.

But Grace pursued a career off the water, and Phoebe - who'd once disliked rowing - was then inspired to be like her big sister. So for this combination of Spoors siblings to be in the same team - let alone the same event – making their Olympic debut together is an extra special feeling, they say.

The Spoors are part of the sweep squad for the women’s rowing eight, the reigning world champions and gold medal favourites in Tokyo.

They’re one of two sets of sisters in the eights squad of 10, along with Kerri and Jackie Gowler. And it’s why, they say, the crew have a special relationship.

"The whole group genuinely cares for each other. We're a wider group of sisters," Lucy Spoors says. 

Having grown up in Christchurch, Lucy and Phoebe Spoors share a house in Cambridge, and train with the rest of the national rowing squad on Lake Karapiro.

Rowing has brought the siblings, who are three years apart, closer together. And although it was initially Lucy who inspired her younger sister to strive to make the New Zealand team, they now support each other and drive each other to be better.

(Above: Lucy, left, and Phoebe Spoors receive their Olympic silver fern on being named in the rowing team for Tokyo).

Spending so much time together every day – on the water or at home – means there’s inevitably some friction, but the sisters are not happy to sit in tension.

“We never let things get to a huge boiling point because we’re not happy to let things stay in that space for more than half a day,” Phoebe, 27, says.

“If there are any issues that are hard to talk about, then the easiest person to talk about it with is your sister.”

And they say that ability to connect as sisters, and the love they have for each other, helps the entire boat.

“Communicating is easy for us as sisters – we see this as our asset. It’s an asset that the wider group get to share as well,” Phoebe says.

Although they share a unique bond, their paths to the Tokyo Olympics have been quite different.

Lucy was a keen basketball and netball player at Christchurch Girls High School, who discovered rowing after a suggestion from the school’s sports coordinator.

“I loved it from the first go,” says the linguistics graduate. “I had the immediate dream of going to the Olympic Games.”

After making the New Zealand junior team in Year 12, Lucy won a scholarship at St Peters’ College in Cambridge for her final year at school.

That year she was part of the four who won the 2008 world junior championships in Linz, Austria. She made her elite women’s international debut at the 2010 world champs on Lake Karapiro.

In contrast, when Phoebe first hopped in a boat, she wanted to hop straight out.

“I remember thinking ‘there’s no way in hell I’m doing this again. I can’t believe I’ve got roped into this – it’s way too hard’,” says Phoebe, who’d go to watch her big sister at regattas where their mother was often the regatta manager. 

But she stuck with it, and she and twin Grace rowed at Maadi Cup together. Grace made the national junior team at high school, and then took up a scholarship at the University of Washington.

Phoebe Spoors rowing on Lake Karapiro. Photo: Art of Rowing. 

Phoebe initially missed out on an American college scholarship - admitting “she wasn’t good enough” and needed to spend a year getting in better shape. She eventually joined Grace at college in Seattle.

At the end of their schooling, Grace, who’d won a world junior bronze in the four in 2011, decided to finish rowing and concentrate on her career. She now lives with her American fiancé in New England, selling medical products.

There was a switch in Phoebe’s mindset towards the end of her time in the States when she realised she could also row for New Zealand - feeling empowered by Lucy's success back at home.

Phoebe found she was closing the gap between them physically and began to think: “If she can do it maybe I can, too.”

After completing her political science and communications degree, Phoebe returned to New Zealand in 2017 and making the national rowing summer squad, and the following year she raced at the world championships in the elite women’s four.  

Being around Lucy, by then a ‘well-established’ rower, accelerated her learning curve.

“Until that point, Lucy had lived away from home since Year 13, so we had only really seen each other at Christmas and for a short summer break each year,” says Phoebe.

“So in a way, rowing has brought us back together, even closer.”

Describing each other’s strengths as rowers, Lucy says Phoebe is really calm under pressure. And her little sister doesn’t realise how strong she is.

“She has more raw power than I have,” she says.

Mentally they’re quite different, Phoebe says. “Lucy’s fiercely competitive, and has a real sense of determination and experience to back that fierceness up.”

Olympic rowing flatmates Olivia Loe, Brook Robertson, Lucy and Phoebe Spoors. Photo: Getty Images. 

The sisters live with Lucy’s partner Brook Robertson and Olivia Loe – rowers who are both Tokyo-bound in the men’s pair and women’s quad respectively.  

The Spoors love being able to debrief at the end of day, constantly checking in with each other.

"It's so nice just to be able to ask each other: 'Is this worth worrying about?'" says Lucy, 30. “Most of the time it’s the other one saying to you ‘You don’t need to worry about that, who cares!’”

Virginia Spoors, mother to the champion rowers, says all three of her daughters are very close. She reflects on how unique it is for Phoebe and Lucy to be in a position that not many sportspeople ever get to experience.

“Their relationship is based on honesty,” says the proud mum. “They’re lucky to have each other and Phoebe really grateful to have had the insights from Lucy coming into the programme.

“They may be sisters but it’s how they fit into the team dynamic that counts.”

Lucy narrowly missed out on going to the Rio Olympics five years ago – her quad crew fell short by three seconds at the final qualifying regatta.

After that, she switched from sculling to sweep oar rowing, and was part of the eights crew who made history winning the world title in 2019.

As the current world champions – with no competition for nearly two years – Lucy knows they have a target on their backs.

“But I’m confident that we’re much better than 2019. We’ve put in a lot of hard work and I do feel prepared,” she says.

The 11-strong NZ rowing eight squad for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

Two years ago, Phoebe was in the women’s quad crew on the World Cup circuit. “I’ve come in and out of the [eights] boat as a reserve over the last few years,” she says. “But as a group we’ve been training really hard together for three years.”

The tight-knit sweep squad have remained largely unchanged over that time. When the boat is at its best, they say it's like a calm, connected unit. 

The Spoors family, including Grace, had planned to be in Tokyo cheering the sisters on – before Covid changed everything. So instead they will be supporting from New Zealand’s Olympic HQ at The Cloud in Auckland with other parents of the women’s eight.

The ability to share the highs and lows of sport as well as help each other achieve their goals is something that the Spoors sisters don’t take for granted.

“We’re incredibly grateful to do this together,” says Phoebe.

Adds Lucy: “To be able to finally say: ‘I’m an Olympian’ is a way of representing how long a journey it’s been for me and how much work we’ve done.

“It feels like the pinnacle.”

* New Zealand's Olympic rowing campaign starts on Friday morning at 11am, live on Sky Sport 3; the women's eight have their heat at midday on Sunday, on Sky Sport 6.

The woman who stitched up our Olympians

Ever wondered about the team behind New Zealand’s Olympic uniform? Rebecca Baker goes behind the scenes to find out what goes on overseeing the design and production of clothing for over 450 Kiwi team members.

When a fraction of the 211 Kiwi athletes who’ll compete in Tokyo march in the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday night, back in Auckland Liane Smithies will be closely watching the cut of their cloth.

At the Olympics, the black uniform with the silver fern is a symbol to which Kiwis feel really connected. It's the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s ethos that our teams and athletes showcase our unique culture and values on the world stage.

Smithies, the NZOC's uniform project manager, and her team of tailors have helped bring that vision to life.

Describing herself as “56 years young”, Smithies trained at a fashion design school and has spent 30 years working in the garment industry, the last six with the NZOC.

The way Smithies sees it, her Olympic event requires a sewing machine, a whole lot of attitude and a big heart. Although it does not grant her medals, it’s still a rewarding, but sometimes brutal, experience.

She believes it's crucial to have the athletes as part of the uniform process, especially when designing the village and podium wear. So she forms focus groups with athletes to voice their opinions.

“I truly believe that we all feel good about ourselves when we’re wearing clothes that we like,” she says. “If we wear clothes we feel dumb in, we don’t feel good about ourselves and we may lose confidence. My role is to make everyone feel good about what they are wearing at the Games.”

Liane Smithies alters opening ceremony trousers for the 2021 NZ Olympic team. Photo: supplied. 

It’s Smithies intention to make a uniform that’s presentable and comfortable for every member of the New Zealand team.

She measures each person and discusses how they wear their garments. Smithies is honest and straight to the point about what looks good and what doesn’t. So the unique “dynamic garments that work” are produced in a swirl of blunt opinions and colourful swearing.

She credits her 16-strong production line as a “well-oiled machine”, who can adapt to any curve ball that’s thrown their way.

“You can’t be a perfectionist because things change all the time,” she says. Instead, adaptability is a key attribute because “the deadlines don’t change and the garments still have to meet high standards.”

For these Olympics, the New Zealand teamwear is dominated by the traditional black, but there are also 'flashes of Pacific blue' in the clothing. New Zealand is written in Japanese script, katakana, as a nod of respect to the host nation. Quick-drying fabrics and white and light grey options have been used to keep athletes cool in what's predicted to be the hottest Olympics yet. 

Flagbearer Hamish Bond in the NZ uniform and Te Māhutonga, the team’s kākahu [cloak]. Photo: Getty Images. 

To the public, Smithies’ job might seem like a dream, but really it’s a hectic nightmare. “I love helping at the Games, but it isn’t a walk in the park as I work solo for up to 30 days straight,” she says.

She jokes that “coming home… exhausted and sleeping in my own bed” is her favourite Olympic memory.

But on a more serious note, watching her production team’s hard work parade before the world at the Olympic opening ceremony is a highlight. “It always gives me goosebumps and brings tears to my eyes,” Smithies says.

Smithies was lucky enough to attend the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games where she worked in the athletes’ village as the alterations guru.

But the strict regulations that have come out of the Covid-19 pandemic mean she’ll be watching from home this time around.

“The majority of the team have been measured and assigned sizes that should fit okay,” Smithies says. “Generally, most athletes will be in the village a shorter time than at other Games, so they can cope if items are not a great fit.”

Still her team put a ‘swaps programme’ in place where spare uniforms have been sent to Tokyo, so athletes can trade uniform items to help get a better fit or in the unlikely case of a uniform malfunction.

Surfer Ella Williams shows off the silver fern on the 2021 NZ Olympic tracksuit. Photo: Getty Images. 

Smithies emphasises the NZOC’s integrity lies at the heart of the organisation. One way this comes through is in her own mantra: “Repair. Reuse. Upcycle.”

Extending a garment's life beyond the Olympics is an important sustainability goal for Smithies. This starts with the design, where she adapts the logo placement and colour of the garment so Olympians will feel comfortable wearing the uniform once the Games are over.

It brings her joy knowing the uniforms aren't going to waste. Whether garments are passed down through the family or donated to people who need them most, they will always have a story to tell.

She believes New Zealand is “a humble country with humble values”, which becomes obvious in the Games Village where the NZOC, in an act of respect and friendship, gift any leftover uniforms to low decile areas of the host country.

Smithies does her part to help other countries on a smaller scale. At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, she watched the Ghana women’s hockey team playing the Black Sticks (NZ won 12-0).

“Their uniform was practically falling off them”, she says, so she helped alter their playing strip afterwards to be more presentable and comfortable for the rest of the competition.

(Above: The label sewn into the New Zealand Olympic team's blazer)

The ethics of NZOC preparation help create a uniform that means more than just a piece of fabric because it honours the athletes and people around them.

Beautiful things can happen, one stitch at a time.

Olympic Bonds: The Ferns keeper and her dive teacher

In the final countdown to the Tokyo Games, our Olympic Bonds series talks to the Football Ferns No.1 goalkeeper, Erin Nayler, who's indebted to her dad for teaching her how to dive.

It all began when Erin Nayler and her dad, Mark, would drag the family’s mattresses off their beds and out onto the back lawn of their home in Whenuapai, on the outskirts of Auckland.

Nayler was 10 years old, an aspiring footballer who’d been put in goal for half a game every week because no one else in her Lynn Avon club team wanted to do it. You know how the story goes.

She decided she wanted to take goalkeeping seriously. She’d already broken her wrist bravely saving a goal.

“I did save it, didn’t I?” she turns and asks her dad, during a rare visit home.

“Yeah, you saved it. And you played out the whole game. We didn’t realise it was broken until afterwards.” She was one tough little girl.

Back then, she asked her dad – one of her two biggest supporters and her toughest critic – to help her learn to dive without landing awkwardly, so she wouldn’t hurt herself again.

“Out came all the mattresses on the grass out the back, and I taught her how to dive without fear,” Mark Nayler recalls. “We progressively pulled the mattresses away till she was just diving on grass.”

It worked. Over the next 19 years, Nayler never broke another bone. And her mum, Diane, never complained about grass-stained mattresses.

Erin Nayler and her dad, Mark, in Auckland at the naming of the NZ football teams for Tokyo. Photo: Suzanne McFadden. 

It wasn’t only Nayler who was leaping and lunging onto bedding in the backyard. Her brothers, Hayden and Cameron, joined in, and they eventually became goalkeepers too (their youngest sister, Katie, didn't want a bar of it).

“I like to claim I was first, right Dad?” Nayler laughs. “I was always trying to dive higher than Hayden. He was very good at it, too. It was always very competitive between us.

“We were all tall, so maybe that’s why we all ended up in goal.” Nayler is 1.76m (5ft 9in) before she stretches out her long levers. “Or maybe we weren’t just very good in the field, now that I think about it…”

But neither of the boys would reach the lofty heights their sister has. In an international career spanning eight years, she’s played 71 games for the Football Ferns, and tended goal for professional club sides in the United States, France and England.

Tokyo will be her second Olympics, kicking off tomorrow night when the Football Ferns play Australia's Matildas, two days before the opening ceremony. 

Her dad remembers spotting Nayler’s abilities soon after she joined in at her brothers’ training sessions, when she was eight.  

“The biggest thing I recognised with Erin was her very, very quick reflexes, and for a keeper that’s a fundamental skill to have. Thankfully, she’s still got them,” he says.

“That’s what sets keepers apart - if they're quick to react, like a racquet sport player. It's really key."

Mark Nayler was never a goalkeeper himself. He spent his football playing days in defence. He knew enough, though, to teach his daughter the basics – first as her school coach, then as a sort-of sideline analyst. “I was able to give her constructive criticism,” he says.

“Yeah, he’s been good - and bad - at times,” Nayler says. “As a kid, I was always asking him for advice, and he would give me very critical advice. Sometimes I wouldn’t want to talk to him after the game.

“But most of the time Dad was really helpful. He helped me to refine parts of my game at a young age, and taught me to really enjoy the game and believe in my goals.”

She knows he’d still be standing behind the goal, urging her on, if he could be.

While Mark was playing the hard-nosed parent, wife Diane (pictured above with their three eldest children) was the softer one.

She was Nayler's No.1 fan, cheering on her daughter at the 2015 World Cup in Canada and the 2016 Rio Olympics. She’d get up at 3am with Mark to watch Nayler play in goal for French club FC Girondins de Bordeaux.

But, sadly, Diane died in April 2018. Just six weeks before Nayler played for the Football Ferns in rare home game with Japan in Wellington - a game her mum would have loved to see her play. 

“Just so you know, Dad is definitely the tough parent,” Nayler says. “Mum would be very upset about me going away to play overseas; she’d always be wanting me to come home. But it’s been great having the balance of them both.”

Mark Nayler says he now tries to be both in Diane’s absence.

“I am the person that I am, but trying to be the person that Diane was isn't easy. I have struggled with that at times,” he says. "But that’s just life isn’t?

For the past four years, Nayler has only been able to make fleeting visits back home, typically only a smattering of days here and there. Her most recent trip was last month, when she returned to train with the Football Ferns before the squad was named for Tokyo. It was the first time she’d been back to New Zealand for a year.

Nayler keeps in touch with her dad regularly through online messaging and video calls. “Thank God for technology,” Mark says.

Erin Nayler saves an attempt from Cameroon's Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene at the 2019 World Cup in France. Photo: Getty Images.  

He tries to keep up with his daughter’s games, though there wasn’t a lot to watch this season - she got to play just one game for the English Women’s Super League club she was contracted to, Reading.

While she spent almost all of a frustrating season on the bench, she was able to focus on her training building up to these Olympics. 

She’s now looking for a new professional club side and would be keen to stay on this side of the Equator – maybe playing in Australia’s W-League (especially if Wellington Phoenix can get a women’s side together) - in the run up to the 2023 World Cup, co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia.

Being that much closer to home would make the Nayler family - and her Kiwi fiancé, Jordan Carter - happy.

When the Football Ferns open New Zealand’s Olympic campaign, playing archrivals Australia in the Tokyo Stadium late Wednesday, there will be no family in the stands. There will, of course, be no-one in the stands in these Covid-stricken Games.

To be honest, Mark Nayler says, he was half-expecting these Olympics to be called off all together.

“But I’ll be up watching every game in the early hours of the morning,” he says. He and Diane went to Japan in 2012, to watch their daughter play in her second U20 World Cup.

Football Ferns keeper Erin Nayler punches the ball clear of Dutch striker Shanice van de Sandren at the 2019 World Cup. Photo: Getty Images.

At 29, she sees herself as an “old hand” in the Football Ferns squad. “I think as a goalkeeper you can tend to last a bit longer than the other players,” she says.

Now she's passing on all the tips and tricks she's learned through her career in an e-book she wrote last year, entitled The Goalkeepers Handbook

After the Rio Games, where New Zealand notched up their first win at an Olympic tournament but couldn't get past the group stage, Nayler wasn’t really looking ahead to the next Games. "You can get injured; anything can happen in that time," she says. "But then Tokyo was on my radar, so it’s a real honour to make the Olympic side again, given the year I’ve had with not so much game time. I can't wait."

She isn’t perturbed that the Football Ferns are in the ‘Pool of Death’ with Australia, World Cup champions the United States and 2016 silver medallists, Sweden.

“Any group you get in the Olympics is going to be tough. And as Kiwis we’re always the underdogs and we step up to the challenge,” she says.  

“It would be great to get some points off Australia first-up. The US are a different kettle of fish, and if we can nick a point, or maybe even three, that would be incredible. But I believe we can do it.”

Mark Nayler is sure he’ll get the chance to watch his daughter play for the Football Ferns, up close again, in the not-too-far-off future.  

“I’d like to see her playing at the next World Cup as well. Just two years away, eh Erin? I’m sure you’ll be in the mix,” he says.  

“I’m football mad [he has a soccer-inspired number plate], so I live vicariously through Erin. She’s done very, very well, and I’m immensely proud of her.” As her mum would be too. 

* The Football Ferns' opening Olympic match against Australia kicks off on Wednesday 11.30pm (NZ time), and will be live on Sky Sport 8. 

Where is she now? Vicky Latta

On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, David Leggat talks with Vicky Latta, the only Kiwi woman to have won two Olympic medals in the challenging sport of three-day eventing. 

Had life taken a little twist in her teens, Vicky Latta’s life may have been more about mastering the world of ballet than eventing.

At one point, the jeté, adagio and arabesque would have been front of her mind, rather than sitting in a saddle trying to master the equine skills needed for the world’s most demanding equestrian circuits.

“You know how kids decide what they want to be? Well, I wanted to be a dancer,” Latta says.

As life turned out, Latta won two Olympic eventing medals - more than any other New Zealand woman has - and has a place in the sport’s pantheon alongside the likes of Sir Mark Todd, Blyth Tait and Andrew Nicholson.

Now 70, and retired from her careers with horses and law, Latta looks back at how she was good enough, at 15, to have the suggestion put to her to travel to the London Royal Ballet School.

But then she heard about a New Zealander a grade ahead of her, a leading pupil in London who'd suffered a fall which ended her budding career.

“She was stunning. The story wasn’t actually true, but she didn’t like the environment and decided she was out of it,” Latta says.

But the injury story stuck in the teenage Latta’s mind. There was the thought: “Your career could be over, then what?”

She'd always loved animals. Living with her parents at Titirangi, she had a pony at 10 and always had cats and dogs.

“Travelling to Newmarket for school, there were paddocks everywhere and I‘d count the horses. Horses always fascinated me,” she says.

Vicky Latta congratulates Broadcast News after the dressage test at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Photo: Stuff. 

In her early teens, life revolved around school, horses, ballet and piano, not necessarily in that order.

“I liked music, wish I’d kept it up, but we had a nun who whacked me over the knuckles if I played a bad note.” Latta didn’t appreciate that.

On finishing school, she settled on law as a “good all-round degree”, joined an Auckland practice and became a partner.

Business was the priority for a time. Equestrian – and she did plenty of showjumping as well as eventing in those days – was done when it could be fitted in.

That changed as her prowess caught national eyes.

Latta made a New Zealand team for a trans-Tasman test at Gawler, South Australia, in 1987 and for around the next decade she was there or thereabouts with the elite New Zealand eventers.

She had a very consistent horse, Match Point, but her real success came when she bought Chief off prominent New Zealand horse personality Merran Hain.

Chief, a New Zealand-bred bay thoroughbred gelding of British and French stock, became one of the world’s best eventers with Latta.

They made the World Games squad for Stockholm in 1990.

Back then travelling across the world with a horse was an expensive business. But, using a ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ philosophy, Latta decided to “have a crack”. Her law partners were supportive, so she thought she’d give it six months and see how it went.

They won their first two events in England, and then were sixth at their first major three-day event at Saumur, France. Off they went to Stockholm and finished a creditable 11th.

They were ninth at the famous Badminton trial in 1991, despite Latta’s misgivings after she’d seen the course – “I wondered why on earth I thought that was a good idea”. Then they were on the Olympic team.

By the time of the Barcelona Games, Chief was ranked among the world’s leading horses and in 1992, the combination was never worse than fourth at any event (including third at Badminton).

Chief and Latta finished fourth in the individual event at the Barcelona Olympics - one place behind bronze medallist Tait - as well as winning silver in the team’s event. That remains New Zealand’s best team result.

The NZ eventing team with bronze from the 1996 Olympics: from left Vaughn Jefferis, Vicky Latta, Blyth Tait and Andrew Nicholson. Photo: Getty Images. 

Those Games are remembered for the disastrous final day’s showjumping leg when Nicholson’s horse, Spinning Rhombus, ploughed over or through several fences, dropping New Zealand out of the gold medal position.

But Latta is a fierce defender of Nicholson’s bad day. As she points out, had she not gone into an incorrectly marked penalty zone, costing 10 points, New Zealand would still have won the gold; ditto for Blyth Tait and Messiah’s lost time penalties.

“Anything slightly different and we’d still have been okay,” Latta says.

She enjoyed the “brillliant” Games in Spain, but that could not be said for Atlanta four years later.

It’s important to remember Latta was an amateur, riding and competing alongside professionals. She and Chief won a creditable six events on the circuit in their time in the United Kingdom.

Chief was then retired in 1995 but Latta had a decent, developing replacement in Broadcast News.

The horse didn’t have a lot of experience but showed encouraging signs and was named in the Olympic squad. “I thought, ‘oh well, we’ll have a crack at it," she says.

Rule changes were brought in, among them the shortening of the cross country in anticipation of serious heat.

Latta and Broadcast News were the best of the New Zealand team on the dressage, but the cross country did them in.

“Andy [Broadcast News’ nickname] was a bit ‘ditchy’ – not a fan of ditches — and as we approached about the sixth fence it had a big ditch. I tapped him on the shoulder and he obviously felt ‘sod that’,” she recalls.

“At the next fence [a double] I checked him back to steady him and he launched. He jumped the first fence but landed at the foot of the second and hit his nose on a concrete pipe. I went sailing over his head as he stopped suddenly and that was that.”

Still, she received her team bronze medal, along with Tait, Nicholson and Vaughn Jefferis. Tait and Sally Clark won the individual quinella as New Zealand reinforced their status among the world’s best eventing nations.

Vicky Latta spent a decade riding at the pinnacle of eventing. Photo: David Leggat.

The dreadful exchange rate at that time meant Latta either had to turn professional, which she didn’t fancy, or head home.

She’d had 10 years at the top and “it was quite hard going. I decided I probably wasn’t as keenly competitive [as others] and it was time to get out really,” she says.

Regrets? No, she’d had a terrific career and had been an integral part of New Zealand’s best period in the sport, even to this day.

Chief was going to come home too, but the fare to transport him went up, so he found a new job in England, babysitting yearlings. Latta reasoned if he was happy, it would give her a chance to visit.

He was put down at 28 in 2006, due to stomach growths which could not be controlled.

As for Latta, she did a stint as the New Zealand team manager, highlighted by winning a swag of medals in the teams and individual events at the World Games in Rome in 1998, including gold for the eventing team, and individual gold and silver for Tait and Todd respectively. Under Latta’s stewardship, that still stands among the greatest single World Games achievement by any nation.

She admits she felt a bit ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ in that role and no doubt her former team-mates probably thought she might be a pushover to getting their way on important decisions. Somehow you’d doubt that with this intelligent, determined woman at the helm.

Latta went back into practice, doing IT and sports law for another six years.

For the past 10 years, she’s been the secretary of the Carbine Club – which raises funds for the disabled sport - having been one of the first six women admitted; she's also a life member.

Latta has little to do directly with the sport now, but she has much to reflect on with pride and satisfaction. 

She would have been keen to stay involved and help school young horses and riders. However, as she points out ruefully, when you’re in the saddle “you don’t bounce so well as you get older”.

* Twelve New Zealanders have won Olympic eventing medals; six of them are women – Margaret Knighton, Tinks Pottinger, Latta, Sally Clark, Caroline Powell and Jonelle Price. Latta is the only one with two of them.    

Why Chance is a fine thing for Football Ferns in Tokyo

When Football Fern Liv Chance suffered a serious knee injury in England, she wondered how she'd ever return to international football. Now she's a pillar in the NZ side at the Tokyo Olympics. 

Liv Chance is lying in her hospital bed, hours after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery, and she tells her boyfriend how she’s going to get back up again.

First of all, she’s going to learn to walk again after her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) repair. Her longer-term targets are to be selected in the Football Ferns squad for the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France, and to start every game.

In and out of the Ferns squad since making her debut in 2011, Chance admits those goals felt like make-believe.   

“After my surgery thinking about playing again felt like an impossible dream,” says the now 27-year-old. “It was important to take it a day at a time and set small achievable goals. It was getting off one crutch, and then no crutches, and then walking and then building up to running again.”  

When the midfielder ruptured her ACL playing for Everton in June 2018, the World Cup was 12 months away.

But Chance set about achieving those seemingly impossible goals. And for nine months she was fully committed to her rehabilitation.   

Football Ferns coach Tom Sermanni has been impressed by Chance’s thoroughness, focus and discipline.

“She put everything necessary in place to make a full recovery in as short a time as possible, without cutting corners,” he says.

Liv Chance says she had her good days and bad days in her rehab from an ACL reconstruction. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek

Chance went onto achieve both of her goals at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France and was one of New Zealand’s best players. Sermanni describes her as a natural leader.  

“One quality that stood out in France was her confidence to back herself and keep looking to get on the ball, even when under pressure,” he says.  “She also showed a great willingness to make forward runs and support our strikers. Liv’s shown great character and is a real asset to our team.”

Now two years, on Chance is looking to back up her impressive World Cup performance at the Tokyo Olympics, as the Ferns take on the might of Australia, USA and Sweden.  

“It’s going to be a huge challenge. We’re not favourites, but we know that football is a funny game, and anything is possible,” she says.

‘The best moment in my football career’

Chance remembers standing in the tunnel of the Le Havre Stadium in France in 2019, as the Ferns prepared to take on the European champions, the Netherlands, in their opening World Cup game.

The noise was deafening.

Adrenalin and nerves were coursing through her body as she took the hand of a young French girl who was her player escort ahead of her World Cup debut.  

“It was a surreal and incredible feeling, and without doubt my best moment in football,” she says.   

“It’s that moment that all footballers long for. To be on the world stage representing your friends and family and your country. There is nothing better.”  

Chance almost capped a dream debut when her shot in the 12th minute hit the crossbar and came out. She’s known for those sorts of moments.

Chance scored a stunning goal for the Brisbane Roar in the semifinals of the W-League this season, and now wants to show her quality on the world stage.  

Brisbane Roar's Liv Chance (centre) makes her way out of a Melbourne Victory sandwich during the 2021 W-League semifinal. Photo: Getty Images.

“My goal is to be a complete, confident player,” she says. “Tom has backed me and given me the confidence that I needed a little bit. I needed a push and he said: ‘Do what you like to do and be the player that you want to be’.”

Sermanni says Chance brings some unique qualities to the team: “She has great vision and ability to produce passes that open defences and create chances. She also has a knack of scoring special goals.”

Down and out

Chance vividly recalls the moment she ruptured her ACL in 2018 while playing for Everton away to Reading in the Women’s Super League in England.

One of the Reading defenders kicked a long ball down field, and Chance chased it. The player she was marking had a bad first touch, Chance was ahead of her, and the opposing player hit her from behind.

“I wasn’t concerned, but two days later we thought we’d get a scan just to be sure. It showed a partial tear of my ACL which was enough for surgery,” Chance says.

She had set her rehab goals but was frustrated when she didn’t have the resources and support at the Everton Women’s Football Club to achieve them.

This is a common problem – women’s teams are often under-resourced, and that support can be the difference between a successful return to sport or a re-rupture of the ACL.

The rehab specialist for the Everton men’s team, Matt Taberner, noticed how poor Chance’s development was at that stage of her rehab and he took over. It was a game-changer.

“I spent nearly every day with him for eight months leading into the World Cup and that support changed my mentality,” she says.  

Tauranga-born Liv Chance is in line to make her Olympic football debut in Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images. 

The minimum time for an ACL reconstruction rehabilitation is nine months. Chance was able to achieve hers in nine months in a professional environment. For younger athletes it’s recommended to delay a full return to sport until at least 12 months post-surgery.

Chance says coming back from a serious injury has its ups and downs and one day she saw red.

“I was supposed to start running on the field, and I had been building up to it for months - but it was snowing outside and so all the fields were closed. I was so pissed off…  but I got over it,” she laughs.

ACL injuries in female footballers

Chance isn’t alone when it comes to suffering an ACL injury.

ACC statistics showed between 2008 and 2017, there was an increase of 120 percent in the number of girls aged 15 to 19 that had ACL reconstruction surgery.

ACL injuries have become more prevalent in 10 to 19-year-old females, where previously this injury was seen as a professional sports injury.

ACC injury prevention partner Nat Hardaker says the evidence shows the greater prevalence of ACL injuries in females is in part due to the neuromuscular strength deficit girls tend to develop as they go through puberty.  

“This doesn’t get adequately addressed as they continue to progress through to higher levels of their sport, so we often find that girls aren’t as physically prepared to cope with the increased demands of the game,” she says.

“There’s also a genetic component which further highlights the importance of developing functional strength as the primary strategy for preventing these injuries.”

Sermanni, who’s coached at the highest level of football for more than 40 years, has seen many female players damage their ACLs. “The mechanics of the female body seem to make them more susceptible to ACL injuries than their male counterparts,” he says.

When asked what she does differently since her ACL injury, Chance replied: “Everything”.

“I thought I was invincible when I was young,” she says. “I thought ‘I’ll be fine’. Now I take better care of my body. Every time I train and play, I do my pre-activations and I warm-up properly with a dynamic warm-up like the ‘FIFA 11+’ warm-up. It’s a habit now.”  

Liv Chance with her parents, Alison and Brent Bell, at the naming of the Football Ferns side for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek.

Chance says the support that ACC and High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) offers players in their recoveries from injury is massive.

“To know that they are taking care of you during a really hard time is so important,” she says. “It can be a lonely journey as a player when you’re injured, so it’s great to keep connected.”

ACC supports NZ Football to integrate player welfare and injury prevention into everything they do to ensure players optimise their health and performance.

Don’t take your body for granted

Chance encourages all young women footballers to get into the habit of warming up properly and doing activations with bands and stretching.

“Football is a game where there are lots of changes in direction and jumping so you need to be ready for that,” she says. “If you feel like you’re not stable on your landing, then it’s about repetition and building up that strength. We all have weaknesses in our bodies, so it’s just a matter of identifying them and strengthening those areas.”

She says it’s crucial to stay patient and hang in there during the rehabilitation.

“It is a rollercoaster journey coming back from a serious injury. You’ll have good days and bad days,” she says. “It’s important to reach out to people who’ve done their ACL and been in that position because they’ll be able to help you.”  

But above all, Chance says, prevention is the best approach. “Don’t take your body for granted,” she says. “The cost of a major injury is huge and you want to do everything you can to prevent injury so it doesn’t impact on your football and your life.”

Next Wednesday, Chance will be back, waiting in the tunnel ready to represent New Zealand on the world stage again.

* The Football Ferns' opening Olympic match against Australia's Matildas is on Wednesday 11.30pm (NZ time), and will be live on Sky Sport 8. 

Memory Games: Swimmer spurred by giant flippers

Paralympic bronze medallist Rebecca Dubber remembers a legend's big feet, being in awe of Sophie Pascoe's passion and swimming before a crowd of 17,000, in the Memory Games Q&A with LockerRoom writers who've been to a Games.

What's your first Olympic or Paralympic memory?

I think my first memory of an Olympics was the 2004 Games in Athens. I was attending swimming lessons at the time, and my instructor happened to ask me who my favourite swimmer at the Games was. We watched some of the swimming at home, and I remember my dad talking about Ian Thorpe and his big feet. He was the only swimmer I knew by name, so I said Ian Thorpe - "because of his big feet". To this day, my dad still likes to remind me about it.

The enormous feet of Australia's five-time Olympic gold medallist, Ian Thorpe. Photo: Getty Images. 

At the time, I don't remember the Paralympic Games being very widely talked about or shown on TV. Later that year, I attended a competition in Whakatane where I met Paralympians who’d been to the Athens Games. I was in awe of how cool they were and how fast they could swim. Looking back, this may have been one of the moments that cemented my drive to become a Paralympian.

The Beijing Games were the first Paralympics I remember seeing. It was a bittersweet time after I missed out on qualifying. But watching my teammates compete filled me with immense pride and helped fuel my fire competing in London four years later.

What are your favourite Games moments - first watching from afar and then being there?

My favourite moment watching from afar was seeing my teammate Cam Leslie win gold at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. Cam was someone I really looked up to and tried to learn from when I got the opportunity to train and compete with him. He even inspired me to study communications at university. I remember either staying up super late or getting up super early to watch him on TV, and being so excited when he touched the wall to claim gold. It was a truly inspiring moment.

At my first Paralympic Games I remember walking out onto the pool deck for my first final. Never in a million years did I imagine walking out in front of 17,000 people to swim. It was daunting and exhilarating knowing my family was somewhere in the sea of people clapping and cheering.

Rebecca Dubber on the starting blocks at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Photo: supplied.

I saved the best for last - my favourite moment of all was at the Rio 2016 Games, when I won my bronze in the women's s7 100m backstroke. I experienced the heartbreak in London of coming fifth in the same event.

I didn't have the greatest build-up to Rio, which left my confidence going into the competition a little shaky. Heading into that final, I felt sick to my stomach and heavy, like I had the weight of not just my own, but everyone else's expectations on top of me. Somewhere in the water I managed to leave all that behind and claim my place on the podium. It was my proudest sporting moment and one I was lucky to share with my family and support team.

What's your dream scenario to play out in Tokyo?

This is a hard one; I feel torn when talking about the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. I understand and support the perspective of the Japanese public, who desperately want the Games to be cancelled for their safety and everyone else attending.

But then, I also understand and support the perspective of the athletes, who’ve put their lives on hold and continued to train to the best of their ability for this final moment in a massive five-year campaign.

I’ve been following the developments of the Games closely, reading through every new addition of the playbooks to see how the cogs will work to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible with the least amount of risk. I'm curious to understand what life will be like for the athletes attending.

So my dream scenario for Tokyo has two sides. One is that every athlete gets to experience the Olympic/Paralympic Games they’ve trained for, to give them the satisfaction of knowing they made it and came out the other side. The other is that hosting the Games doesn't cause any adverse issues for the Japanese public and they have the opportunity to embrace and enjoy the Games.

It will be such an incredible thing to see the Games come to life during these next couple of months. It would be amazing to see it become a beacon of hope and unity for all that the Games is meant to signify around the world.

What event are you most looking forward to?

The event I'll definitely have my eye on will be the women's s7 100m backstroke at the Paralympics. This was the event I won bronze in, so it'll be interesting to see how the field has changed and developed since then.

I'll also be keeping an eye on all my former Paralympic teammates across all sports to see them smash the competition and bring home some well-deserved medals.

Sophie Pascoe is looking to add to her nine Paralympic medals at her fourth Games in Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images. 

It will be incredible to watch Sophie Pascoe swim in her fourth Paralympic Games; as a former teammate and role model, I was always in awe of Soph's passion and determination to be the best she could be. It was incredible to witness that up close for so many years, and I'm looking forward to watching her dominate the field again, although this time from a little further away.

In the Olympic line-up, I'll be watching and cheering on our swimming team, especially Lewis Clareburt, who’s had a phenomenal few years rising up the world rankings and has a great chance of producing incredible results.

The Olympics and Paralympics are such a special time, and these Games will definitely be ones for the history books.

Weighing up the emotional side of transgender debate

The physical advantage a transgender athlete may have has dominated debate around participation, but there are other perspectives, like mental and emotional impacts, that haven't been part of the discussion, writes Ashley Stanley

During her 20 years playing netball, Sarah Michelle Hansen-Vaeau says she’s experienced bigotry and hate.

While much of the focus may be on what physical advantage the Polynesian transgender woman may have on the court, it's her mental state, she says, that takes a knock.

A transgender athlete's mental and emotional wellbeing doesn’t seem to have been taken into consideration in the latest public discussions around athletes like Kiwi weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, who'll be the first recognised transgender athlete to compete at an Olympic Games in Tokyo.

It's just one of many factors that appear to be overlooked in this controversial topic. And it's not the first time. 

Hansen-Vaeau, believed to be the first international transgender sports coach in the world, has heard the common one-sided argument focusing on her physical abilities while playing. Mostly at the expense of a more holistic view of her health and wellbeing. 

"I don’t care what anyone says, I’ve played 20 years of international netball, trained against nearly every professional club side and franchise and international teams and there's always a little bit of that on your mind," says Hansen-Vaeau, referring to people questioning whether she has an unfair physical advantage.

“People often think of the physical but most sports it's your mental prep, it's your ability to participate and perform in an environment. The brain moves everything, so if your brain is elsewhere or you’ve got these things happening, your performance is going to inevitably decline."

A New Zealand survey of the health and wellbeing of transgender and non-binary people found they were nine times more likely to have high levels of psychological distress, and half avoided playing in sports teams, worried about discrimination.

Hubbard’s selection into the New Zealand Olympic team has tipped the public into another divided ‘debate’ around transgender athletes. 

It's hard to miss the opinions flooding online platforms, filling newspaper headlines - both in New Zealand and around the world - and the heated discussions between colleagues and family members.  

But there seems to be a few perspectives missing from these conversations and spaces.

"There are so many barriers where it's easier for trans people to opt out of playing sport and that has huge implications on that sense of connection," - Jack Byrne, University of Waikato researcher.

Very few, if any, transgender athletes have spoken in media coverage, and the public discourse seems to focus primarily on either the ‘for’ or ‘against’ argument around Hubbard’s inclusion, and in extreme cases, her existence. 

What could be fleshed out further, is a more broader, inter-related picture around transgender athletes, communities and society, and the impacts when discussing already-marginalised people’s lives. 

Points that may seem irrelevant to Hubbard’s achievement, but are connected and necessary in understanding different views and the bigger picture.

Factors like what kind of experiences do transgender athletes encounter; why are their voices often not included in coverage? More generally how is health and wellbeing for transgender and non-binary people? Is testosterone the only factor influencing athletic performance, and how will society and sport be shaped around this historical moment? 

To add to the questions, so far there hasn't been a lot of research around transgender athletes, and there is no definitive data or statistics available surrounding the number of trans athletes across sporting levels in New Zealand or internationally. All academics LockerRoom spoke to say it would be difficult to actually find any figures. 

Including first-hand voices and experiences 

Hansen-Vaeau says her experiences in sport have been mixed. “I think it’s like anything, when you're different. I’ve had amazing experiences participating and coaching, and then I’ve had some not so good ones, where people are just misinformed and uneducated,” says Hansen-Vaeau, who coached the New Zealand Men against the Silver Ferns in 2019. 

“And it goes back to discrimination, especially when it comes to coaching, because there’s no so-called physical advantage when I’m a coach.”

After experiencing a complaint from the opposition in a tournament about her involvement in a netball game, Hansen-Vaeau joined the board of the New Zealand Men’s and Mixed Netball Association.

“I joined to make some changes, to make sure that sport was inclusive of everyone wanting to play, and see what they were offering to the community,” Hansen-Vaeau says. “I’m a strong advocate for everyone’s rights to play netball, not just transgender individuals.”

Sarah Michelle Hansen-Vaeau (second row, far left) with the NZ Men's netball team and the Silver Ferns. Photo: supplied. 

World Netball, the sport’s global governing body doesn't have a policy around transgender athletes yet, but Hansen-Vaeau says Netball New Zealand have “done an amazing job at looking past surgical [requirements] and understanding identity and choice.”

“And a lot of the local competitions have also done that, where you don’t have to have reassignment [to play], which we know is costly and also really dangerous, especially for those of us who have been on hormones for a really long time,” says Hansen-Vaeau.

The side effects of being on hormone medication - to alter estrogen and testosterone levels - is a burden, Hansen-Vaeau says.  “I think the biggest thing is the physical, so once you’re on hormone therapy, you gain weight and your ability to train at the max capacity is majorly affected,” she says. 

“Long term, trans women suffer liver and kidney issues, just because of the way hormones work, but it’s a risk you run if that’s the choice you make.” 

Unfortunately there are not a lot of other options if you want to participate. “If you don’t take hormones people kind of judge you. It’s not only cisgendered people - the trans community can also be hurtful towards people who they don’t feel are on hormones,” says Hansen-Vaeau.

When it comes to transgender rights, Hansen-Vaeau knows all too well a lot of people are “bigoted and hateful.” 

“It’s really sad to see that they can't just treat people as people. But I do find it comical when people come at me, because they don’t understand,” says Hansen-Vaeau, who completed research on the decolonisation of transgender women in the Pacific. 

“I'm like 'You'll never play in front of a stadium where you're called the ‘f’ [f*ggot] word from the sideline', or have a whole group of men calling you down an alleyway after prizegiving because you're trans. So they’ll never understand the struggle.” 

Getting her through difficult situations have been her allies and “sisterhood.” 

“I’m so blessed and fortunate that having coached high performance sport, I have a lot of friends and family who are in the Silver Ferns or play in the ANZ Premiership who are real champions of trans being able to just participate and play netball. So I draw on a lot of them for support," Hansen-Vaeau says. 

“But it also comes down to being stubborn. I’m so stubborn that I’m not going to let anyone get to me. Or stop me from doing what I love and what I enjoy.” 

When support makes a difference

Hansen-Vaeau’s experiences reflect the findings of the 2018 ‘Counting Ourselves’ research project - a survey of 1,178 participants in New Zealand relating to the health and wellbeing of transgender and non-binary people.  

Jack Byrne, a senior research officer in the Trans Health Research Lab at the University of Waikato, was one of the survey leads. As dismal as some of the results were, Byrne says they also wanted to capture the participant’s positive experiences. 

“The things that make a difference are when people have support from others,” he says. “Whether that’s support from family or support from trans community members. But that positive support from people who care about you really makes a difference.”

Especially when the main findings show levels of discrimination, violence and harassment are much higher for transgender and non-binary people when compared to the overall population in New Zealand - whether that be at school, in the workplace or in public spaces. 

When people experience discrimination, it negatively impacts their mental health and wellbeing. “In our research, trans and non-binary people were nine times more likely to have high levels of psychological distress and much more likely to have thought about suicide or had attempted suicide,” says Byrne. 

People often think about elite sport in these discussions, Byrne says, but most of the impact happens at a much lower level. “We know that trans people stop playing [sport] really early on and they stop doing things like going to the gym because they’re worried about discrimination.”

Just over 60 percent of those who participated in the survey were worried about how they would be treated as a transgender or non-binary person in competitive sport, 58 percent avoided going to the gym and 50 percent avoided playing in sports teams for similar reasons. 

“Most of us hope the young people in our lives will play some sort of sport or recreation," Byrne says. "But there are so many barriers where it's easier for trans people to opt out of playing sport and that has huge implications on that sense of connection."

"I think we need to be very careful about the language we are using because there's a lot of damage that can be done to transgender people in our communities," - sports sociologist Holly Thorpe. 

The discussions around Hubbard and the Olympics are interesting, says Byrne, because it’s at one end of the sports spectrum, but it’s impacting on people’s views about other types of sport. 

For example, the Sport New Zealand guidelines currently being developed around transgender inclusion are for community-based sport. “It's about someone being able to play in their school team in the local non-competitive sport of any sort," he says. "And yet people are basing their opinions about that on whether or not it's fair for a trans person to be performing at the Olympics. A lot of things are being conflated in those discussions.”

The University of Waikato survey included questions around schools having sport policies for transgender and non-binary people, but it didn’t specifically look at how sporting organisations can create safer environments and policies. 

However, Byrne says there are some good examples of policies being developed overseas. “In Australia, a whole lot of sporting codes came together and came up with a trans inclusive policy. And they were the big names over there, like rugby, netball and cricket.” 

Whatever sporting organisations do to be better at inclusivity in general, Byrne says they should extend to trans athletes. 

“It's about principles; how can we just apply our current policy in ways that realise ‘Oh this could be a problem for trans people as well’," he says.

"Because if you say ‘Oh we’ll have to do this for trans people’, it's like people resent it, and see it as the trans person being the problem instead of collectively, of course, everyone caring about the same things. And it's normalising that as much as possible.”

Examples include privacy of personal details, appropriate uniforms and the set-up of facilities. 

Testosterone - performance advantage?

The existing research is heavily weighted towards testosterone providing physiological advantages to athletes. But some experts say that's only one part of a much more complex picture in transgender athletic performance.   

Alison Heather is a professor at the University of Otago and her research area of expertise is around sex hormones - primarily how they affect cardiovascular and respiratory physiology. 

Heather has researched how testosterone can provide performance advantages. “All you have to do is look at the world records to know that a male physiology outperforms a female physiology and that’s across any sport,” says Heather, who recently developed a test to spot designer estrogens and androgens used as doping agents in sport.

“If you look at strength sport, there's anything up to a 30 percent difference [between men and women] in the world records, and then in endurance sports, we're looking at like 10 to 12 percent. I’m talking averages here, I’m not talking an individual athlete versus an individual athlete.”

In 2004, Danish golfer Mianne Bagger became the first trans woman to play in a professional golf tournament, at the Australian Women's Open. Photo: Getty Images. 

She says it begins in utero, when an embryo first starts to become male and is exposed to high levels of testosterone. 

“There are three surges in utero that basically set up long-term bone structure, cardiovascular size of the heart, lung structure, size of the lung, and how the brain network forms,” she says. All factors that can potentially add to having a physical advantage. This stays relatively the same until puberty, when testes in males start to produce testosterone. 

The current International Olympic Committee guidelines allow any transgender athlete to compete as a woman providing her testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before their first competition. 

Heather says this needs to be considered further, as “drawing a line in the sand” around nanomoles does not take into account testosterone that has been in someone’s body before transitioning. 

There needs to be much more discussion around this whole area and a lot of factors should be considered, she says. 

“I think they are taking one physiological parameter, here and now, and it should really be put into the context of all the other physiology that can enhance a performance,” says Heather. “Like height, lever length, body mass index, what is your oxygen carrying capacity - there are so many different physical parameters that could be looked at.”

And then there are the non-physiological components. Everyone who provided comments for this article agrees that testosterone is not the only factor affecting performance. 

“You talk to any sport psychologist and there is such a mental part to most sports,” Heather says. “But if we’re talking about all of those things being equal, say the socio-economic being equal, competitiveness being equal, mental game being equal, we still have to have a fair playing field from the get-go. 

“And if someone is ultimately stronger, has a body mass index or muscle mass distribution that’s more male-like than female, then for some sport, it's always going to be an advantage.”

Heather has been one of a group of academics in New Zealand who have published in this area, primarily on her expertise of sex differences between male and female. But she hasn't been involved in research specifically with transgender female athletes. Very few have globally. 

Holly Thorpe, a sports sociologist from the University of Waikato, says the science around transgender athletes is “unsettled” - not united or conclusive. 

“A lot of the research from the scientific physiology side has focused on testosterone and the advantage of testosterone in someone's body during childhood and adolescence and how that may make someone have those natural kinds of advantages even after they’ve transitioned,” she says.

“But that really kind of looks at one part of a very much more complicated, complex picture in terms of performance and achievement in sport. 

“Things like our training environment, the kinds of support and resourcing that we have access to, personality factors, there are so many other considerations in terms of performance so to get really focused on nanomoles of testosterone, it oversimplifies a much more complex picture of performance."

University of Waikato sports sociologist Holly Thorpe. Photo: supplied. 

There doesn't seem to be research that examines a range of factors affecting athletic performance with transgender athletes. The limited available studies focus on specific areas, such as testosterone, in isolation, and note as part of their research limitations that more cross-disciplinary research is needed with transgender athletes and should be sport specific. 

Another area to be mindful of is XX or XY chromosomes are not the only sex combinations. “We’re talking less than one percent of the population, like very small numbers, that can have cross over in their XY chromosomes," says Heather. "It’s a very very small number...nobody knows what causes that or if there is a cause as such.” 

But transgender females and males are different scenarios to DSD [different sex development] athletes, says Heather, and should not be discussed in the same debate. 

“A lot of people confuse the two and they try to talk about DSD female or DSD athletes in the same breath as a trans athlete, and I don’t think that’s right," she says. "I think it’s a different discussion and two different debates for the likes of the IOC or the International Weightlifting Federation.” 

Something Heather also recommends should be done following Hubbard’s inclusion. “Although this is all being debated, she has qualified under the rules as they currently are,” she says.

“I don’t like the debate that’s happening in New Zealand, targeting particular athletes, because they’ve done nothing wrong.

“So rather than slamming that kind of thing, it has to go back to the IOC. If people think it's not fair, then it's on the IOC to look at what are safe and fair regulations.”

Shaping views and society

Thorpe is also concerned about how Hubbard’s achievement is being discussed. The type of language and framing in the media has the potential to shape societal views around transgender athletes and people.  

Thorpe recognises how controversial this topic is, and the multiple perspectives being shared. “I can hear in a lot of people's comments, some of the ways that people are talking, are underpinned by fear. Fear of the unknown, a fear of sport - something that they love, something that’s grounding for them - changing.” 

Fear is not a great place to come at this topic from, says Thorpe. “And even when people come at it from science, I think sometimes science is being selectively used to speak over top of fear.”

Laurel Hubbard with medals from the 2017 IWF world champs. Photo: Getty Images. 

In her area of expertise, Thorpe understands the long history of sport, how it’s been structured and the role it’s played historically in reinforcing certain ideas including gender binaries. 

“We can go back in time and look at various groups who have been excluded from sport, racially, based on sexuality, different ethnicities, and genders, women too, were excluded from sport with whole rationales behind that,” Thorpe says.

“Very logical rationales seemingly at the time, by really well-respected people in societies, like doctors, who made these petitions why women shouldn’t do sport. It’s not dissimilar to what we’re hearing today on why transgender women shouldn’t participate in sport.”

There are assumptions that transgender women in sport are almost monstrous, says Thorpe. “People who are trying to cheat, or people who are dressing up as women, to prey on young girls in bathrooms. I mean some of that stuff is quite transphobic language and ideas," she says.

“And I think we need to be very careful about the language we are using because there's a lot of damage that can be done to transgender people in our communities - to transgender athletes, and to children who may be struggling.

“They're hearing this language in the news, they're hearing their parents speaking about this and so the ways we talk about it really matter.” 

Thorpe is in the process of undertaking research around media representations of Hubbard. “I think the media have the potential to lead the way here. I think the media plays a really important role on how the general public comes to land on this.”

The research team will look at media coverage of Hubbard before, during and after the Tokyo Olympics.  

“We’re anticipating that’s going to tell us quite a lot about society's response to this important moment in time, and it’s going to be a significant teachable moment," she says, "but we don’t know what the key lessons are going to be.” 

This will be an ongoing conversation that certainly won't be finished after Tokyo, says Thorpe. 

“I think this is going to be a part of a longer process of social change through sport," she says. "We’re seeing in society more broadly, schools trying to do so much work around supporting transgender children, or children who are struggling through gender issues, we’re talking about bathrooms, and we’re trying to make spaces more inclusive.” 

For Thorpe, the issue always comes back to what is sport and what is the role of sport in society.

“Yes, sport at the Olympics is about performance and achievement, but more broadly the role of sport, the real power of sport in society, the Olympic movement more broadly is much more than 'higher, faster, stronger',” she says.

“It's about trying to build towards a society of peace, of understanding, of empathy and of values.” 

Olympic Bonds: Kiwi Tri’s sister and brother act

In the latest in our Olympic Bonds series, Kiwi triathlete Ainsley Thorpe will have the brother who's always been her inspiration there cheering her on when she competes in her first Olympics in Tokyo.

Ever since she could toddle, Ainsley Thorpe has followed in the footsteps - and the slipstream - of her big brother, Trent.

It’s become a legend in the Thorpe family that Ainsley won her first running race in nappies at the age of two.

“And I ran my first school cross country with my arm in a cast,” she says.

“I remember that,” says Trent, who’s two years older. “She had a broken arm and she still won.”  It would be the first in a long line of bad breaks Ainsley would bounce back from.

For as long as she can remember, she played every sport her brother would: “Except for soccer, because I thought it was a guy’s sport”. They’d be known throughout east Auckland as the siblings who won every school sports cup up for grabs.

Then when her brother first tried triathlon at the age of 17 – at the prompting of their grandmother – Ainsley followed six months later. After a crash course in cycling, they began to represent New Zealand together.

Now both siblings now on their way to next week’s Tokyo Olympics – Ainsley competing in the women’s triathlon and mixed relay event, while Trent is a team reserve.

The tables have turned, Trent says, and now he’s the one following his sister, as she leaps onto podiums at World Cup events and has a world title to her name. 

“I guess I’ve been a guiding hand since when she was little through to where she is now. I led the way and she followed me,” Trent, 25, says. “But now it’s flipped around - Ainsley is representing New Zealand on the world’s highest stage, so this time round, I’m learning from her.”

Kiwi triathletes Ainsley and Trent Thorpe take a break from training in Puente de Besalú, Spain. Photo: supplied. 

But Ainsley – one of the few athletes at these unusual Olympic Games who can say she'll have family there watching her compete - can never forget the influence of her brother.

“I’ve pretty much followed him my entire life to get where I am,” she says.

Although there's always the chance Trent could be called on to compete in Tokyo if one of the Kiwi men becomes injured, it’s the Thorpes' more realistic goal to compete side-by-side at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. “To medal in the same event would be a dream come true,” Ainsley says.

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When Trent isn’t living and training in Brisbane, he shares a house with Ainsley in Cambridge. It’s not far from the Avantidrome where she trains.

“I’d say I’m the better cook, but Ainsley is more organised than me,” Trent admits. They’ll train together – “on easy days, rather than hard, as I can’t keep up,” laughs Ainsley.

But on the world triathlon circuit, it’s Trent who’s trying to keep pace with his little sister.

She first stepped onto the World Cup podium in 2019, the third elite woman home in Antwerp, and that same year was part of the New Zealand team who won the world triathlon series in Edmonton and then the U23 world championship title in the mixed team relay in Lausanne.

The Oceania sprint champion in 2020, Ainsley is in strong form going into Tokyo after making the podium in three Oceania events in Australia last month.

Trent had no doubt his sister would make the New Zealand team for these Olympics, one of two women along with Nicky van der Kaay. But his selection as the men’s reserve came as a shock.  

“It was a happy feeling - I wasn’t expecting this at all,” he says. “I knew I hadn’t achieved the results in the last two years to get a spot [to compete] because I’d had a few accidents and a few injury niggles.  But I knew that they knew I have the potential to do well and I can perform when I’m fit and well.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity. I know other people might deserve it over me, but at the end of the day I’ve stepped up and made a decision to help the team. And I wanted to come and support my sister.”

Trent Thorpe's triathlon career is on the up after being plagued by niggling injuries. Photo: World Triathlon.  

Ainsley was thrilled when Trent was named as well: “I was like ‘Oh my God you’re actually going to come to the Olympics and watch!’” she says.  “Well, I hope you get to watch; I hope you don’t have to sit in your hotel room and see it on TV.”

“Fingers crossed,” he says. “We don’t really know the rules yet. Maybe I can be the water bottle boy out on the road?”

If he can get out on the course around Tokyo’s Odaiba Park (with its replica Statue of Liberty), Ainsley will certainly hear him. “I’m definitely the biggest screamer for Ainsley,” he says.

“Mum’s pretty loud too,” Ainsley adds. “But when you’re competing overseas, and Mum and Dad can’t be there, Trent is usually always there cheering me on. It’s so cool.”

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Two of Team Thorpe’s biggest fans are their grandparents, Tony and Maureen Barbarich. They have homes in Half Moon Bay and Cambridge, so catch up with their grandkids often.

“I don’t know what I’d do without Nana and Grandad,” Ainsley says. “They support us so much. We wouldn’t be able to afford to do this if it wasn’t for their help. It’s an expensive sport, which is the hard thing about it.”

The Thorpes pride themselves on being a tight-knit family who all gather around the dining table for a meal, at least when they’re all in the same city.

The eldest of John and Julie Thorpe’s children, son Marcel, is also a sportsman – he runs the Cockle Bay Tennis Club in east Auckland.

Both Trent and Ainsley have always looked up to their big brother. “Now he’s married with two kids, a wife and a house, which is quite a contrast to us,” says Trent. “I can’t see myself in his shoes in five years’ time though.”

It was Marcel’s interest in athletics that first drew his siblings into sport (and why Ainsley won that first race in nappies).

While they made their mark in cross country running, the Thorpes were also strong in swimming, Trent in particular.

“I was a swimmer growing up too, but I never medalled at nationals like Trent did,” Ainsley says.

Ainsley and Trent Thorpe won most cross country titles while they were at school in east Auckland. Photo: supplied. 

Although he was good, Trent was never at the level he needed to be to “make something of myself as a swimmer”. It was their Nana Maureen who came up with a solution that changed both teenagers’ direction.

“Nana showed me an article in the newspaper saying Triathlon New Zealand were scouting for swimmers and runners,” Trent says. “So I told them my times in swimming and gave a rough estimate of my running ability, and I got called up straight away.

“I went to my first camp and I hadn’t even started cycling. They put me in the programme, gave me some helpful pointers, and pointed me in the right direction of coaches. And the rest is history.”

Ainsley was six months behind him, picked in a national talent squad after a camp at the Millennium in Auckland.  

“We both got picked. And no one knew us at all,” she says.

It was tough, Ainsley remembers, but not in a physical way. Small for her age (“I’m still pretty short,” she laughs), she was also very shy.

“We went to camps every holidays but it took me a while to warm up to everyone,” she remembers. “I didn’t know how to ride a bike either and they all had the flashest bikes. Mum and Dad had bought me this $800 bike.”

“It was a steel bike. It was heavier than a mountain bike,” Trent recalls.

“Yeah, everyone else had carbon bikes,” Ainsley says. “And I was like ‘Mum this is embarrassing’. It was terrible; I didn’t want to go. But then I realised it was actually good to train on a heavy bike. So when I got on a lighter bike, I was fast.”

Olympian Ainsley Thorpe had to learn to race a bike when she started her triathlon career. Photo: World Triathlon. 

Ainsley was teamed up with local coach Bruce Hunter – who’s still her coach today (and now the national programme coach at Triathlon NZ).

While Ainsley's career took off, it was frequently interrupted by injuries. She broke her shoulder two weeks before the 2016 junior worlds in Florida, and the following year broke her leg, tripping over her bike, on the eve of the 2016 world champs in Mexico.

She’s had a string of stress fractures too. “I’m in bubble wrap now,” she says.

It’s her resilience and determination that inspires her brother. “Even with her accidents, Ainsley’s been the one to stick it out and keep improving,” Trent says.  

“I just remember watching her sprint to win in Devonport in 2020 [the Oceania sprint championships], and thinking ‘Wow Ainsley’s come a long way in just two years’.”

Ainsley reckons she's been a hard trainer ever since she was young. “If you ask my old coaches or people I used to swim with, I was the one who always turned up, did the session properly, and felt guilty if I missed two laps of the pool," she says.

“Trent’s very determined and competitive too. He’s a really hard trainer, and sometimes he probably pushes himself to the extreme. But he’s helped me more through my career than I’ve helped him.

“Even though I’m younger, it’s probably been easier for me to get where I am. There aren’t as many girls as there are guys in triathlon, so they have way more competition. Trent is as talented, if not more talented, than me.”

Ainsley is already inspiring the next generation of Thorpe athletes. Her three-year-old niece, Scarlett, loves running after watching her aunty compete last summer.  

New Zealand track cyclist and Olympic silver medallist, Ethan Mitchell, who will be competing in Tokyo, is also Scarlett's uncle.  “So Scarlett has an aunty and an uncle to watch at these Olympics,” Ainsley says.

And another uncle cheering loudly - from somewhere in Tokyo.  

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