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Rising basketballer and future Tall Fern Ashlee Strawbridge is adjusting to a new life in the United States after taking up a scholarship with the College of Southern Idaho.
Strawbridge is one of over 50 Kiwi women on basketball scholarships in the US right now. She’s set to take to the court alongside fellow Kiwis Kaitlin Burgess and Kyra Paniora for the CSI Southern Eagles in the Scenic West Athletic Conference.
A long way from her hometown of Ashburton, the 18-year-old Strawbridge had little hesitation choosing Southern Idaho and she's settling well in her new surroundings
“The coach [Randy Rogers] and the culture here are excellent, and with other international students on the team I knew it would be a good environment for me," she says.
“It has been amazing in these first weeks just getting to know new people. I’m working towards a business degree and school is really fun here. It was nice to finally get into a routine and get back into school after a year off.”
Despite the start of the college basketball season being delayed, team training is in full swing - but with a difference.
“We are training every day and doing weights as well. Everything is made just a little more difficult as we have to wear masks,” Strawbridge says.
Her 2020 season in the US follows a hugely successful 2019 for the young forward. It’s not often a player wins a medal at a FIBA international tournament in both 3x3 and 5v5 in the same year, but she did just that.
In June last year she travelled to Mongolia with Charlisse Leger-Walker, Tayla Dalton and Sharne Pupuke-Robati, where the team excelled at the FIBA Under 18 3x3 World Cup.
The New Zealanders went all the way to the final, beating Poland, Russia, Hungary, Japan and China along the way. The Kiwis lost 21-15 to US in the final, but it was a remarkable performance by the Kiwi quartet who had taken the scalp of several women’s basketball powerhouses.
Two months later, Strawbridge played on the New Zealand team who won silver at the FIBA U17 Oceania championships in New Caledonia. She averaged nine points along with 3.8 rebounds per game and was comfortably the best three-point shooter on the team making five from seven at 71 percent.
While she enjoys both formats of the game, Strawbridge believes the shortened format suits her strengths.
“I personally prefer the style of 3x3 as it is a quicker game and the pace is more suited for my style of basketball," she says. “The experience in Mongolia at the U19 World Cup and winning a silver medal are the highlights of my basketball career so far.”
Strawbridge was named in the 2020 Junior Tall Ferns for a tour of China but, unfortunately due to the Covid-19 pandemic, that tour was postponed.
Junior Tall Ferns head coach, Hernando Planells, speaks highly of the Cantabrian.
“Ashlee is tough, strong and plays relentlessly in every part of the game. She is a tremendous rebounder, can shoot the three and has really showed tremendous leadership at her position,” he says.
Compensation for her came when she was named in the 24-player squad for a Tall Ferns camp in July and played in the televised showcase between Team Davidson and Team Beck.
Basketball New Zealand talent manager and long-time coach Mel Downer, who was at that camp, says she has been mightily impressed with the way the youngster’s game has developed.
“Ashlee is a versatile athlete with the ability to play on the wing or in the post. She is a strong finisher in traffic, utilising her strength to her advantage," Downer says.
“She is an extremely hard worker at both ends of the floor, constantly putting her body on the line to take chest blows, chase down rebounds, win dead ball situations and force deflections.
“Ashlee is also fantastic person off the court – happy, bubbly, kind and funny – and is an absolute pleasure to coach and be around.”
Strawbridge thoroughly enjoyed her week-long involvement with the Tall Ferns.
“It was such an amazing learning experience and an honour to get the opportunity to play with and learn from women I’ve been looking up to since I started basketball," she says. "It was a good week in preparation to start my college experience.”
The success she’s had hasn’t come about by chance. She has been dedicated to improving her game, evidenced by her desire to attend early morning training sessions with Mainland Eagles on top of her other commitments to school and representative teams over the past five years.
Strawbridge began playing basketball in Year 7 at school and almost immediately began attending Canterbury Basketball Association skill sessions, such was her enthusiasm for the game.
Her talents soon became evident and further highlighted when she was named to the tournament team after Canterbury Country beat North Harbour to claim the 2014 U13 National title.
After initially attending Ashburton College, she moved to Rangi Ruru Girls’ School for her final two years of high school.
Her presence in the senior team had a hugely positive effect, with the team finishing runners-up in the Canterbury Secondary Schools Whelan Trophy competition in her first year before claiming the trophy 12 months later.
In the exciting grand final, Rangi Ruru defeated Christchurch Girls’ High School, 64-61, with Strawbridge named MVP after amassing 28 points and 12 rebounds.
Strawbridge says numerous people have influenced her basketball journey and she's grateful to them all for helping her achieve her goals.
“There are way too many people to mention, but mostly just the coaches and people behind the scenes who pushed me when times got tough and made trainings fun to show up to. Lori McDaniel, Mark Douglas and Kat Wills are three people I’d like to mention but there are many others,” she says.
She isn’t looking too far ahead but says playing for the Tall Ferns is a major ambition. “That's a major goal and even further on from that, become a coach and give back.”
Strawbridge and her new group of team-mates have been forced to wait for a season-opener date amidst the pandemic, but will use the time up their sleeve to get themselves ready for whatever awaits.
After making her White Ferns debut as a schoolgirl in 2010, Natalie Dodd is now deputy principal of a little country school, and starting her international career afresh - learning more skills behind the wickets.
It’s funny how Natalie Dodd's career has come full circle in a decade. Well, at least she can finally laugh about it now.
Ten years ago, Dodd made her debut for the White Ferns as a 17-year-old naïve schoolgirl from Waikato Diocesan.
It is, understandably, a debut she’d like to forget. In the third test of the Rose Bowl series against Australia in Melbourne, an awestruck Dodd was out on the first ball of the New Zealand innings – trapped leg before by the Aussies’ star all-rounder Elyse Perry.
A golden duck in your first international is hard to take. And Dodd is just getting over it.
“I always thought surely there will be one day when I can look back on that day and laugh. And I think I’m at that point now,” she says. “But it’s a good story to share.
“I got so caught up in the moment, in something that was my dream, and I just didn’t focus on what I was supposed to be doing.”
Ten years on, and after a few sporadic appearances in the national side, Dodd is back in the White Ferns, who are about to play three T20 games and three one-day matches against Australia again.
This time rather than student, Dodd is now teacher – known to her pupils at the tiny Korakonui School, just south of Te Awamutu, as 'Mrs Burrows' (her married name). She’s deputy principal of the little country school, roll 160, as well as teacher of all of Korakonui’s Year 7 and 8 pupils.
Those 31 kids have come on this journey with her. While in quarantine with the rest of the White Ferns in a high-rise Brisbane hotel, Dodd has been dealing with their schoolwork.
“There’s quite a bit of downtime here, so the kids have been sending me through work and I’ve been giving them feedback,” she says.
They’ve also been sending her video challenges to complete. “And I think I’ve been doing okay,” she says.
“I’ve had to come up with an isolation tips video, and a fitness in quarantine video. Now I have to do a Graeme Norton-style interview teaching someone who doesn’t know anything about cricket.”
The kids of Korakonui know all about the rollercoaster Mrs Burrows has been riding in her cricket career this far.
From the Year 12 student who wasn’t really ready for the international stage; to the prolific run scorer in the domestic game who just couldn’t seal a regular spot in the White Ferns side. And now to the 27-year-old opening batswoman and wicketkeeper who’s just been awarded her first central contract with New Zealand Cricket.
“I’ve always seen my cricket career as being a huge benefit to my school, and to my class. Just to share with them all the adventures, the ups and the downs – mostly downs at times,” Dodd laughs.
“I think it’s really important for them to know about all the hard times, and the hard work that goes in.
“Before I came over here, our class were focused on courage in the face of adversity and resilience. The kids had to write an article about someone in their life who’s shown resilience. It’s quite interesting some of them chose me.”
For the last two summers, Dodd has been outstanding with the bat, and the gloves, for the Central Districts Hinds.
After 10 years with the Northern Spirit, Dodd switched to the Hinds to refresh her career. It was a good decision – ending the 2018-19 season as the top batswoman in the Hallyburton Shield, scoring 652 runs – over 100 more than her closest rival. At the NZ Cricket awards, she won the women’s domestic player of the year and the Ruth Martin Cup for batting.
In December, Dodd and her Hinds team-mate Jess Watkin blasted the highest opening partnership in New Zealand one-day women’s cricket, of 216 runs.
But still the NZ Cricket contract came as a surprise to Dodd.
“I guess it means it’s partly a job, that I’m juggling with my fulltime teaching job as well," she says. "Now I have more of a support network with cricket - coaches checking in with you, strength and conditioning stuff - and a little more accountability to other people rather than just myself.”
In many ways, Dodd is still the student.
She’s been doing online courses during quarantine to upskill her teaching of maths and writing. She admits she struggled with maths when she was at school, but loved writing - and wants to get more boys hooked on it.
And he’s also still learning more about cricket - expressly wicketkeeping. And learning from one of the best – White Ferns team-mate Katey Martin.
The pair spent as much time as possible working together during their daily two hours out of the hotel, and can do even more now they’re out of quarantine.
"Sometimes as keepers you’re left to your own devices, so working with Marty is already improving my keeping,” Dodd says.
Dodd is returning to wicketkeeping, having first picked up the skill in her early 20s with Northern Districts, but then dropped it.
“It was always my intention to keep going. But at ND, I took up the captaincy – and doing that, keeping and opening the batting was going to be a bit too much,” she says. “Then an opportunity came at CD when their keeper retired. It was really good timing for me – a fresh start somewhere.
“I still see myself as inexperienced, especially internationally, as a keeper."
The keeping role no doubt boosted Dodd’s chances of making this White Ferns side. The last time she played a one-day match for New Zealand was 2016; her last T20 was against the West Indies in 2018.
The Level 4 lockdown may have helped too. After taking a break, Dodd went to work in her shed, creating a makeshift gym with her husband, former New Zealand swimmer Cameron Burrows.
“He took pieces from his gym, and we each took turns coming up with a workout each day. Fitness-wise it was a great opportunity,” she says.
When Dodd looks at how much she's grown as a player in the last 10 years, she finds it hard to believe she made her White Ferns debut at 17.
“I know when I first made the team, I didn’t feel ready - it was massive jump. I know how much I’ve improved now and I still have a way to go,” she says.
“A lot has changed since I first came on the scene. Back then, Aussie and New Zealand were always the top couple of teams, but in the last few years you’ve got other teams up there too. There’s a lot more professionalism now with contracts, expectations are higher, the training intensity is definitely higher and everyone puts in a lot more work.
“For quite a number of the girls, this is their fulltime job now. Ten years ago they all had part-time gigs here and there, working as a PA or in a gym, to pay the bills.”
So, would Dodd consider leaving school and playing cricket all year round?
“Ask me that at 17 and I would have loved to just play cricket for a living,” she laughs. “But being out of the White Ferns frame for a little bit has given me more perspective on things, and I find it really healthy having that balance, having that other career and passion. I find it hard to think of this as a job.
“I’m really passionate about teaching. If cricket isn’t going so well, I can turn up at school on Monday and the kids don’t care how I went on the weekend.”
But if she does go well, and the White Ferns finally wrest the Rose Bowl off Australia for the first time in 20 years, the kids of Korakonui will definitely care about their resilient teacher.
* All of the White Ferns games in Australia will be shown live on Sky Sport 2, starting with the first T20 on Saturday, 3.50pm NZ time, and the second on Sunday, 4.45pm NZ time.
We hear her name every weekend in the country's top women's rugby competition. But former Black Ferns captain Dr Farah Palmer would rather toil quietly behind the scenes, making major strides for women and Māori in rugby.
Mana. It’s a well-known word and yet it's true meaning carries so much significance and weight beyond this world.
Its supernatural force is said to be inherited from gods. And those who are gifted mana are able to lead, care and make decisions for their people.
It goes without saying Dr Farah Palmer’s mana is felt in all the arenas she stands in. And there are a few. But mana is also a word the former Black Ferns captain uses to describe her time on both the New Zealand and Māori rugby boards.
“How do I help with enhancing mana? Through what I do on the Māori Rugby Board for Māori rugby, and with NZ Rugby for all people involved in the sport. For me, that’s the driver,” says Palmer, who became the first female on the NZR board in 2016 and is now chair of the Māori Rugby Board, where she's served for nearly 15 years.
In her day job, Palmer is associate dean - Māori - at Massey University’s business school in Palmerston North, where she and her family live.
An Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to women's rugby and sport, she was also appointed to the Sport New Zealand board in 2018.
You get the feeling that working at a level where looking towards a vision and being analytical is her superpower.
“I’ve always been a big picture person,” says Palmer. “I loved playing rugby, but if I can help people see other opportunities to build confidence, feel good about themselves and then go and do other things, that's what I see as the greater benefit of sport.”
By the end of her NZR term - it’s not planned anytime soon - she’s hoping to leave “structural and constitutional changes.”
“I’m also hoping to continue reinforcing the value of women’s rugby and women's sport in general,” Palmer says.
She’s already making metres in those areas. Bridging a connection between the NZR and Māori rugby is one strategic move for the World Rugby Hall of Famer.
Among the achievements on her watch, the Māori rugby board presented their strategic plan and vision to NZR for the first time, and the regional Māori boards are now part of the forum for provincial CEOs and chairs.
“I’m trying to embed it into the system now so that it’s normal,” says Palmer.
And in the Massey University environment, she has a similar purpose. Palmer’s role is trying to help the business school with applying Tiriti-led principles in everything they do.
“If I disappear or that role no longer exists, it's built into the strategy and policies,” she says.
Perhaps her strategic mindset was the reason she stayed on top of a rugby career for just over 10 years, only losing one test out of her 35 in her time in the international game. Thirty of those test she captained the Black Ferns, and lifted the Rugby World Cup three times while at the helm.
Palmer did take some losses after her retirement from playing in 2006, when she tested other roles before finding her calling in academia and governance.
“I wanted to give back to the sport that had given me so many opportunities, but I didn’t quite know how to do it,” says Palmer. “I tried my hand at coaching, but I was not very good at that.”
She even tried her hand at television presenting, on Māori TV’s sports show, Code, but “I was terrible at it,” she laughs.
“I'm not really good at thinking on my feet and being the funny front person. I find it quite exhausting because I'm more introverted. So for me being in front of the camera was hard and being a coach was the same.”
Even though Palmer realised those roles were not areas that “filled her cup”, they were still good for her.
“I love watching people coaching but it wasn’t the area I felt I could contribute to, so that’s when I figured I was better behind the scenes,” she says.
“I'm better at having time to think about something and then presenting my argument. Put me on a rugby field and I can think on my feet - but not anywhere else.”
As she found her way off the rugby field, Palmer enjoyed being a player development manager for the Manawatū Turbos men’s team. And she also had her two children – Cody in 2009, and Paige in 2012.
She’s always been inclined to influence areas to make a difference. In her high school days at Piopio College, Palmer was up-in-arms over the school not having a girls’ cricket team, so she wrote a letter to the school administrators. She then became the student representative on the school's board of trustees - gaining valuable governance experience towards her transition from player to board member later in her career.
Governance, Palmer says, is like teamwork on a rugby field. “Everybody has their different strengths but together that’s where the magic happens.”
It’s scary to think her ground-breaking path may not have happened. She only picked up rugby after leaving her family farm in Piopio – having received a scholarship to attend the University of Otago in 1991.
Palmer took up one of four scholarships that were part of an initiative to get more Māori as secondary school physical education teachers. She wouldn't have been able to attend university without it.
Once her foot was in the door, she went all the way to PhD level and focused on Māori women and girls in school sports for her doctorate research topic. She looked at the impact sport and physical education had on their identity, their opportunities and well-being.
“I'm a bit of an opportunist. I don’t think I ever had a clear idea of where I was going to end up; I just liked to do my best at whatever I was doing at that point in time,” says Palmer, who was the first in her family to attend university.
Next year she will experience the first World Cup in the Southern Hemisphere for the women’s format, when the 12 teams arrive in New Zealand for the pinnacle event on the 15s game calendar.
“I am fizzing, I'm absolutely excited. I have my fingers, toes and eyes crossed hoping that everything works out well. There aren’t many moments where I feel giddy and when I won the World Cup as a player, I felt giddy,” says Palmer.
“Then when I went to World Rugby in Ireland to try to win the [World Cup hosting] bid and we got it, I felt that giddiness again. I’m just so happy and excited that we can share with the rest of the world our love for rugby and women’s rugby in particular.”
Palmer is on the RWC 2021 committee and the best-case scenario for the tournament would be full stadiums in Auckland and Northland.
Another significant moment in Palmer’s career was being named the first woman on the NZR board - breaking a 124-year drought.
“It didn’t hit home until I had a mihi whakatau to welcome me. And I thought ‘shit this is big’,” she says.
This year she was joined by two more female board members - Jennifer Kerr and aspiring director Nicola O’Rourke.
“It’s lovely having more females on the board. They're both amazing wāhine,” Palmer says. “It's also great to have more diversity in terms of ethnicity with Sir Michael Jones and Bailey Mackey now.”
When she’s not engulfed in rugby, Palmer likes to spend time walking the dog with her family – Paige, Cody and husband Wesley Clarke, who’s the Black Ferns assistant coach.
“I also try to find time for myself. I like going to the gym and doing high intensity interval training and I play netball too,” says Palmer.
Kia Toa was her rugby club when she played in Manawatū, and she’s now shifted to the netball.
“They put me at centre. I've never played centre in my life but because I was fit, they put me there. And now my body is starting to break down and complain,” laughs Palmer. “But I just love it. I love playing in a team. I missed that.”
Her down-to-earth attitude is reflected in both her choice of wedding venue, and the way she feels about hearing her name every time the national women's competition is mentioned: the Farah Palmer Cup.
“It just feels so weird but I am getting used to it. I'm not flinching every time I hear it on television now,” Palmer says.
She met her husband at a coaching course at the Sport Rugby Institute in Palmerston North towards the end of her playing career.
“But it wasn’t until a couple of years later we got together. We were dithering about where to get married and I just said ‘Let’s get married at the Sport Rugby Institute, it's where we met, we're both rugby heads’. So yeah, we got married there which is quite funny,” Palmer says.
Their home is steeped in rugby and Palmer says if her husband had his way, they would live and breathe rugby all the time. “But I kind of need a break from it so we balance each other out,” she says.
Fair enough, considering the mountains this mana wahine is moving.
But give her half the chance and she’ll play the ‘wins’ down. She much prefers working quietly in the background for ‘game-on-the-line’ meaningful change.
One distressing knee injury after another would be enough to crush most young athletes, but not Ainsleyana Puleiata. The rising netball and sevens star tells Suzanne McFadden how she twice overcame the mental and physical torment - and now the black dress beckons.
Twelve minutes. It’s a timeframe Ainsleyana Puleiata can never wipe from her memory.
Just 12 minutes was all it took to send the promising sports star into a downward spiral. A career-challenging moment the now 20-year-old breaks into tears recalling.
A thrilling young talent from Porirua, excelling in both netball and rugby, Puleiata had just pushed herself through a nine-month comeback from knee surgery, and this was her first real netball game back.
It was early last year, a pre-season match in Auckland with her champion Central Manawa side. A game of little importance.
“I remember thinking, ‘Okay I’m the starting wing attack, I’ve worked really hard to get here’,” Puleiata says.
On court she forgot about her left knee - no painful twinges; no hesitancy.
Twelve uneventful minutes into the game, Puleiata took a ball in the air and landed in the left-hand pocket of the court. As she put a perfectly weighted lob into her shooter, her rebuilt knee “just caved in”.
Crumpled on the ground, her only thought was: “Please don’t let it be the ACL”.
An MRI scan revealed her worst fear: Puleiata had damaged the same knee twice.
Facing another season off the court and the rugby field, the Samoan teenager hit “rock bottom”. She doubted she had the strength to do it all over again.
But with a supportive team around her – including her parents, former Silver Fern now physio Sharon Gold, and victorious Central Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie – Puleiata did another 12 months of intense rehabilitation.
An athlete described as unbelievably gifted, with incredible power and strength, that team only wanted to see the best for her.
And this week, Puleiata joins the New Zealand U21 squad, in camp working towards playing the Silver Ferns in the Cadbury Series in a month's time.
“Honestly I didn’t expect to make it,” Puleiata says. “Especially after being off the court for two years. But after hearing the news I was like ‘Oh my god, I need to get myself together!’ This is a big step for me.”
A huge step, considering she had to learn how to walk again – twice.
The year 2017 was, mostly, an outstanding one for 17-year-old Puleiata.
She went to Japan and came home a world champion. The Year 12 student at St Mary’s College in Wellington – a hothouse for young female athletes – was part of the school’s sevens rugby side who won the world youth tournament. (Also in that team were Monica Tagoai, who became a Black Fern, sisters Lyric and Dhys Faleafaga, who later played for the Black Ferns Sevens, and Renee Savi’inaea, who this season played netball for the Pulse.)
Puleiata's side also won the national first XV school title, and she was named in the New Zealand sevens training squad for the 2018 Youth Olympics.
In netball, Puleiata had signed her first contract as a training partner with the Central Pulse, and starred for Central Manawa as they won the inaugural Beko League – netball’s second-tier championship.
At the 2017 national secondary schools netball champs, St Mary's captain Puleiata was named NZ schools player of the year – recognised for her speed, agility, vision and leadership, and her respect for those around her.
Puleiata, who has three younger brothers, was shocked by her sudden rise. “I’d never expected to get this far in sport,” she says. “For primary, I went to Windley School [in eastern Porirua] where sport wasn’t that big.”
Her sport of choice there was basketball. “I wasn’t really good at it, but I just liked that I could shoot,” she says. That shows how modest she is - Puleiata made the New Zealand U14 basketball team.
Around 11, she began taking netball seriously. After arriving at St Mary’s in Year 9, she was pulled up into the school’s senior A side, coached by Pelesa Semu, now Pulse assistant coach.
One of Puleiata’s strengths is mastering all three midcourt positions. “Midcourt is hard on the lungs,” she laughs. “But I just love how creative we can be.”
She’s always looked up to Silver Ferns Whitney Souness and Laura Langman, and Australian sisters Kelsey and Madi Browne.
At high school, Puleiata decided to give rugby a try. “The more I got exposed to it, the more I thought I could balance the two.”
A speedy wing, she was preparing to defend their Condors Sevens national title late in 2017 with her St Mary’s team, coached by Tuga Mativa and his All Black mate, Ardie Savea. The Rongotai College old boys arranged a training game against the Rongotai sevens on their school field.
During the game, Puleiata went to sidestep, but her foot got stuck in a pothole. “As I started to turn, my upper body went but my leg stayed,” she recalls.
She felt a weird click in her left knee. Off the field, she jogged and did lunges, and was convinced it was okay. She ran back on, but her left leg gave way.
Puleiata refused to let her team-mates carry her off. Hobbling to the sideline, she just wanted to go home.
An MRI scan revealed she’d torn her anterior cruciate ligament and needed surgery. “I was in tears, thinking ‘why is this happening to me?’,” she says.
In February 2018, some of her hamstring was used to rebuild the knee. The rehab with her personal trainer Malcolm Toeaiga at Centurion Athletic Performance in Porirua was demanding, but she was driven.
“A couple of weeks in my rehab stages I hated being labelled an ‘injured player’,” Puleiata wrote on Instagram. “I felt like an outsider among the athletes, and boy did that fire up my adrenaline. For the next 9 months, I would always wake up [in the] early hours to do my knee stretches and muscle activation, I would go to the gym every day to build myself up, I would meditate every night and I would do a lot of video analysis for 273 days straight.”
The hardest part, she says, was learning to walk, run and bend her knee again.
In November 2018, Puleiata was cleared to return to netball. She was named captain of the Central Manawa team for the 2019 Beko season and was again a training partner for the Pulse. “I’d made it back to where I wanted to be,” she says.
Puleiata got a little court-time at a Pathway to Podium camp, building up players towards New Zealand’s defence of the 2021 World Youth Cup. Then she headed to Auckland with the Manawa team – and that fateful training game that almost broke her after just 12 minutes.
“I don’t know how this one movement was different; I’d done it so many times before,” she says.
This time, she explains, her hamstring graft had torn. With her second surgery, they added a tissue graft to the side of the knee to give it more stability.
Puleiata is not alone - around 400 New Zealand netballers have ACL reconstruction surgery each year.
Research from ACC data shows there’s been a 120 percent increase in the number of teenage girls in New Zealand having ACL surgery over the last decade. The game has become faster and more physical, and there are more girls playing.
Netball NZ have been proactive, developing an injury prevention programme, NetballSmart, to change how players warm up.
Understandably, Puleiata struggled to come to terms with another long stint off the court.
“My mindset changed. I doubted myself. Could I do this again, take another year off?” she says. “I went downhill.”
But with the support of her parents, Diana and Fa’auliuli, her trainer Toeaiga, and her new physiotherapist, Sharon Gold, Puleiata headed back to the Centurion Athletic Performance gym.
“I had their voices in my head when I couldn’t be the voice myself,” she says.
She decided to step away from the side-lines for a while. Even on crutches, she was going to team trainings and games, but it was torturing her mentally.
“There was this imbalance between my mind and my body. Mentally I was like ‘Yo, I could do that’ when physically I couldn’t,” she says.
“So I thought I should distract myself.” She became a full-time student at Victoria University, studying health.
The second rehab was slower and more painful. But Gold knew it was worth nurturing Puleiata towards a netball future. Gold, nee Burridge, played 19 tests for the Silver Ferns between 1988 and 1995, and could see the abundant talent the young woman had.
“We all knew we were dealing with someone special. Not just physically, but mentally with all she’d been through. Everyone wanted to do something extra for her,” Gold says.
“She’s one of the coolest kids I’ve ever dealt with. She was just so determined and disciplined, and she wasn’t going to let this stop her.”
Having an ACL tear, then tear again after reconstruction, isn’t rare, Gold explains. But in Puleiata’s case, she was just “so powerful”.
“She generates so much power and force, it put a lot of pressure on that graft,” she says. “We told her ‘we can’t treat you like other people because you’re different’.
“Her strength and power was outrageous. We were taking her to levels we don’t take other people because she was just pushing all the time.
“As well as the most amazing mental attitude, she’s unbelievably gifted. And she wasn’t just going to come back, she was going to come back better. That’s an amazing attitude to have.”
Gold would regularly liaise with the Pulse physio, Nikki Lynch, who would keep Pulse and NZ U21 coach Yvette McCausland-Durie updated on Puleiata’s progress. “Everyone was working together for the same cause,” Gold says.
Puleiata also had support from another former Silver Fern, Belinda Colling – her mentor through a three-year Tania Dalton Foundation scholarship. She was one of the original inductees into the foundation in 2018.
“Belinda’s been so good to me - always checking in to see if I’m doing okay, if I need help with uni,” Puleiata says. “It’s really good to talk to someone who’s been in the high performance environment, and get some tips on how I can get there too.”
The biggest lesson Puleiata learned from two ACL comebacks was patience.
“I wanted to go for the 12 months recovery the second time round. I kept thinking: ‘I’m still young; there will be more opportunities. You’ve got to be patient’,” she says.
In March, Puleiata was ready to return. For her third year running, she was contracted as a Pulse training partner, and she planned to rebuild her skills playing club netball for SMOG (St Mary’s Old Girls).
Then Level 4 lockdown tested her patience again. “It seemed to be such bad timing, but it was actually really good,” she says. “My expectations and my hopes to play were suddenly taken away – so I had to prep myself to adapt again and not get lazy.”
Her first club game was “horrible”, she says, but it wasn’t her knee. “After 12 months of rehab I only got to play one quarter!”
Her game preparation is different now - doing a full warm-up while listening to podcasts. Gold and Toeaiga have helped her build strength in her hamstrings and glutes.
Her plan, she says, is to ‘survive’ this week’s U21 camp in Wellington, and hopefully play in the Cadbury Series against the Silver Ferns, the NZ Men and a New Zealand A line-up in Palmerston North next month. Then there’s the World Youth Cup in December 2021. And then she might return to rugby.
McCausland-Durie is glad she’s kept a close eye on Puleiata’s lengthy comeback.
“She’s worked so hard and been very committed to getting back to this level. We’ve seen her resilience,” she says.
And McCausland-Durie knows she’s an amazing player. “There aren’t many specialist wing attacks around who have continued to be wing attacks. It’s really important to help her grow in that area,” she says.
“She plays low to the ground and can quickly change direction. She has beautiful feeding skills that come from having vision and being able to read the game. She uses a good change of pace to get where she needs to be, but makes it look easy, like she has time. That’s the mark of a great player.”
Even though Puleiata’s netball career is beginning all over again, she’s already looking beyond it.
Ironically as a kid she wanted to be a physiotherapist, but now she’s interested in the health and wellbeing of the Pasifika community.
“If I can make a change not only in netball but in my career, it would have to be something that relates to Pasifika,” she says. “And if I could change their health status, and give everyone equal health treatment, that would be great.
“I need to have something to fall back on when my netball career is over. Luckily, I’m still young!”
Kanyon Paul will wear the Warriors jersey in next month's NRL women's championship with the blessing of her late grandfather - who helped her make the decision to cross the Tasman to play.
Kanyon Paul wasn’t meant to play for the Warriors women’s team this season.
But her league-loving grandfather will be beaming in heaven, knowing the 22-year-old is lacing up her boots in the 13-women code for the NRLW competition in Australia.
A month ago, George Tahatuku King, a life member of the Hamilton City Tigers league club, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He passed away on August 31.
Paul was meant to turn out for the Waikato rugby side in the Farah Palmer Cup this year. But a life-changing event shifted her line of play.
A week before her grandfather’s passing, Paul tried to show him some of her pre-season rugby games on Facebook.
“He was like ‘Oh, never mind about that, turn it off’,” she laughs. “But the day before [he passed] I talked about playing league in Australia and he was like ‘You go, don’t worry about me, just go’.”
“But I was really cut up because I couldn’t leave him. And then the next day he passed and that was the decider for me to come,” says Paul, over the phone from quarantine on Milson Island, near Sydney.
Last year was a decisive one for the young hooker, who switched from rugby to league just three years ago. She made the Warriors NRLW team and debuted for the Kiwi Ferns shortly after. She was also a member of the historical win over the Jillaroos for the inaugural World Cup Nines title.
With Covid-19 and the uncertainty around whether the Warriors would play at all this year, Paul committed to playing rugby in the FPC.
But once the Warriors season was confirmed, only two weeks ago, she made the decision to switch and had to let Waikato know the personal reasons behind her call.
Paul was able to stay on with whānau for her grandfather’s tangihanga and took him back to his final resting place in Taharoa on the West Coast.
And by the end of that week she was on a flight to Sydney with four other teammates and support staff to begin the 10-week journey to playing in the NRLW, kicking off on the first weekend of October.
“All of my family were really supportive of that decision and now here I am,” Paul says. “I’ve had a lot of discussions about it. It still hurts a little bit, but I'm ok. I’ve got good support and it's great having Aunty Carms here. All the girls are real easy to talk to and get along with so we’re pretty much a big family over here.”
Aunty Carms is Carmen Taplin, a well-known pillar in rugby league communities who helps athletes along their career pathways. The Warriors and Kiwi Fern Amber Hall, who is playing for the Brisbane Broncos, finished their two weeks in quarantine over the weekend and Paul says she can’t complain about the bubble experience.
“I’ve actually really enjoyed it. We have so much freedom on the island, it doesn’t even feel like we’re in lockdown,” she says.
No-one could blame Paul for saying that. The sport and recreation facility on Milson Island has a training field, indoor gym, basketball court, tennis courts and a swimming pool. All of their meals are provided too.
“The meals are great. I’m just grateful they even cook for us,” says Paul. “I did ask them about cleaning up, because you know back at home, we’re just so used to taking care of ourselves - doing our own dishes, wiping our own tables. But they said we can’t do that.”
When the five isolated Warriors women join the rest of the Australian-based team members at their hotel in Sydney, it will be the beginning of something most thought was not possible this season.
The last couple of months have been “really difficult” not knowing what was going to happen, says Paul.
“I was playing rugby union every weekend and then when we got our [Warriors] contracts, I guess I just had that feeling,” she says.
“I told all my friends and the [Waikato] team that I felt like this is probably what's best for me. I wanted to accept the contract, come over and take up this opportunity.”
Although Covid-19 restrictions have disrupted this year's season, Paul says she’s excited about this rare opportunity and meeting new people. They may not have met in person when we spoke, but the team have been communicating and welcoming new players in a Whatsapp group ahead of their camp this week.
The rest of the Warriors squad were pulled together from players based in Australia. New Warriors coach, Brad Donald, who is also the Australian women’s head coach, has a mix of Jillaroos players and rugby sevens superstars, including Ellia Green, to call upon.
“I’m thrilled about the talent we’ve been able to secure to build around our five core Warriors players, who have made such huge sacrifices to be involved in this year,” says Donald.
“It has been hectic pulling the squad together in such limited time, but we have a strong group we can build here to do the Warriors proud.”
Donald stressed that the New Zealand-based contingent of Madison Bartlett, Georgia Hale, Hilda Peters, Crystal Tamarua and Paul were critical to the culture he would be striving to create for the camp.
Getting back onto the field and playing is what Paul is most looking forward to, and by the end of their time together, building a solid team culture she says would be a sign of success.
“I think the culture and the foundation the five of us have started over here [is success]. We’ve been starting to do karakia every morning and then finishing off with a waiata,” says Paul, who did kapa haka growing up.
“I brought my guitar over so we’re learning some new Māori songs that we can sing and bring our culture from New Zealand here to introduce to the new players.”
Paul grew up and lives in Hamilton with her family. Her mum is from Taharoa and her dad is from Te Teko and Motiti on the East Coast.
“I love going diving with my dad on Motiti Island and hunting with my cousin Sam in Taharoa – that means a lot to me,” Paul says, who is of Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Maniapoto descent.
She played rugby right through her years at Hamilton Girls’ High School, but she also excelled at softball - representing New Zealand with the Junior White Sox.
“Once I started playing league, it opened a whole new world for me,” she says. “Even though my family has been immersed in league for a while, I only started playing for the Hamilton City Tigers last year when they had their first-ever women's team,” says Paul. She played alongside cross-code legend Honey Hireme-Smiler.
Paul will celebrate her 23rd birthday in Sydney next month, only the second time she’s been away from home for the occasion.
The first birthday spent overseas was in 2017 when she was living in Japan for eight months.
“My first year out of high school, I played rugby sevens in Hokkaido. We were located in Sapporo and I loved it and the food. I miss it quite often and think about this ramen shop I used to go to all the time,” Paul says.
She’s now in her third year of study at the University of Waikato for a bachelor's degree of health, sport and human performance.
My question: “Who is the most annoying person in isolation?” was met with laughter. “Myself,” was her response. “Everyone has their own uniqueness and I love the girls.”
How would they describe you?
“They’ve given me a nickname - I’m Bubba. I guess because I'm younger than all of them,” says Paul.
She may be the youngest, but the elusive pocket-rocket will have her grandfather to guide her through this season and whatever path she chooses to run down.
Fresh-faced and 14, our new national surfing champion initially struggled under the weight of the title. But with a new mindset, Ava Henderson is looking forward to claiming more crowns, she tells Anna Willcox.
In the months after being crowned the New Zealand women’s surf champion, Ava Henderson didn’t like it.
The 14-year-old from Sumner Beach didn’t enjoy the pressure that came with the title when she lined up in smaller surfing competitions. Sometimes the weight of a title can hang over you – and you don’t want to lose the Canterbury champs when you’re the national champ.
But Henderson has since changed her mindset, detaching herself from that pressure and knowing that her best effort is all she can give on the day.
“I’m not going to let the title define the surfer I am,” the Year 10 student at Avonside Girls' High says.
Eight months on from winning the women’s open division of the 2020 national champs, Henderson is just getting used to the fact she’s the second-youngest champ in history - a title she never expected so early in her career. And at an event she’d had to beg her mum to let her enter.
It’s time now to tune the ukulele and take you back to where it all began…
Henderson’s childhood sounds a lot like something out of a vintage Hawaiian surf film, but instead of coconut trees and the pumping waves of Oahu, it’s Sumner Beach in Christchurch.
She grew up with a tribe of siblings - three stepsisters and two brothers - who all join Henderson nearly every day in the waves that crash on the beach down the road.
Joining her on the hunt for daily ocean shakas is Henderson’s dad, mum and step-dad - who are also keen surfers.
Henderson’s mum, Donna, is a competitive surfer to this day. She took her own national title in the over 40s division alongside Ava this year.
(I told you those ukulele tunes were needed for this story.)
At the age of seven, there was only one thing on Henderson’s Christmas list, and it definitely wasn’t a Barbie doll. Henderson got her first surfboard and began her journey to becoming one of the best surfers in New Zealand. It’s a humble journey that includes plenty of sunblock, stocked chilly bins and never quite dry wetsuits.
“In the summer holidays we would just go down to the beach in the mornings, we’d take down the BBQ and everyone would surf all day,” she says.
And by the sounds of it, it wasn’t just her family who had this ritual.
“All my mates that live in Sumner surf too; there's quite a tight surfing community,” Henderson says. Her mum also runs a surf school at the beach.
Just a year after picking up a surfboard Henderson got her first taste of competing through her local surf club, North Wai. For a salty fizzed-up eight-year-old, entering the competition was a no-brainer.
“There was a club comp on and we entered it, because you know...why not?” she laughs.
That carefree spirit combined with Henderson’s talent won her that first competition, and then she had a taste for winning. Understanding how to compete from such a young age has made Henderson the competitor she is today.
Her foundations of surfing under a time clock, alongside another competitor and utilising the often less-than-perfect waves that roll through during a heat have given Henderson a competitive edge that’s proven hard to beat.
“Once I was on top, I just wanted to stay there and go bigger and better,” she says.
Henderson set the bar high for herself from the get-go, which wasn’t hard since many of the competitions she entered didn’t have enough girls for their own division so she was forced to compete against the boys. She strived to be the best, no matter the gender of the surfer out the back with her.
To this day it’s clear Henderson still has that mentality, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by Surfing New Zealand’s general manager of events, Ben Kennings.
“I love watching her surf, and most people do. Purely because she goes for broke, she doesn’t have that upper ceiling boundary,” he says.
Henderson competed at her first national championships in the North Island when she was 11 years old, and it was then and there she felt a shift inside making her want to give everything she had to the sport she loved.
As a preteen what this decision truly meant was: “saying no to a lot of things for surfing.”
Though passing up on birthday parties and sleepovers wasn’t a hard call for Henderson, she had the belief that she could win the national title, though she hadn’t expected it to happen so soon.
As the waves rolled in at St Clairs Beach in Dunedin in January, Henderson gathered herself for the unprecedented challenge of competing in three different divisions, against the advice of a few sponsors, past coaches and her mum. They wanted Henderson to focus her energy on her two age categories instead of over-committing and adding the ppen division to her plate.
Though I bet it’s hard to say no to a 14-year-old with a cheeky smile and unshakeable belief. “I want to do all three,” she told them, “and I know I can do it.”
The day began with Henderson claiming third place in the U16s, a result she was obviously unhappy with.
”It got me fired up for my next event,” she admits. “I was so mad, I told myself I need to do better in the next one”.
A few hours later, Henderson did just that - claiming her first title of the day by becoming New Zealand’s U18 champion. There was no time to pop the grape juice, as she took the momentum through to the open women’s event.
Sitting in front in her final against Piha’s Gabrielle Paul, an exhausted Henderson willed the clock to tick down faster - eventually timing out and leaving her pinching herself out the back of St Clairs.
Even as she paddled in, the win simply wasn’t sinking in. “It was the strangest feeling, I was so excited but then at the same time I kept asking myself is this real?” she says.
“I looked at the beach and my mum was in absolute disbelief, with a look on her face like ‘Did that just happen?’”
When you delve a little deeper into the surfer that Henderson is, you realise how far from a fluke this accolade was.
Perfect rolling 2-3ft off-shore waves rarely come to the party on competition day in surfing, a huge part of competing in a sport dictated by the elements is frankly playing the cards (or waves in this matter) you’re dealt.
So what are Henderson’s ideal surfing conditions?
“Honestly growing up in Christchurch, it’s onshore the whole time,” she laughs. “You get grateful when you've got waves; you can go a couple of weeks where it’s completely flat. So as soon as there’s a swell, you're out there making the most of it.”
Being able to maximise a crumbly onshore wave is what sets Henderson apart at competition, here and overseas. “You go to comps and suddenly everyone is always complaining about the waves,” she says.
Henderson’s mentality is simple, just make the most of what you’re given.
“If you’re used to riding perfect waves and then suddenly you’re in a comp with small crappy waves you won’t know what to do,” she says.
There’s no question that Henderson knows exactly what to do, and with seven years of competitive experience already under her belt - along with a carefree, yet determined, attitude, there’s no telling how far Henderson will take her surfing.
Now that it’s an Olympic sport - making its debut in Tokyo next year - Henderson could be a strong contender for the New Zealand team in Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028. It's definitely something she'd love to do.
For the time being though, with international competitions on hold thanks to Covid-19, you’ll find her with her tribe of fellow frothers out back in the waves at Sumner Beach, catching whatever comes her way.
You can finish strumming your ukulele now.
On this week's Extra Time, White Ferns cricketer Suzie Bates reckons the trials and tribulations of quarantine in Brisbane ahead of matches against Australia are all worth it.
It may take them an hour a day to get the team up and down the service lift in their hotel, they're only allowed a couple of hours outside to train each day and they've endured four Covid-19 tests so far.
But after six months off cricket, Bates says the White Ferns are fizzing to play in the T20 matches, starting next weekend, followed by the Rose Bowl one-day series.
But there are perks in quarantine too - the coffee is great, straight from the hands of barista team-mate Katey Martin.
And the All Blacks will play test match rugby this year after all. Two Bledisloe Cup tests against Wallabies have been confirmed for Wellington and Auckland and the side will then head to Australia for the rugby championship...although that seems to be up in the air with doubts over whether South Africa and Argentina will play.
There are doubts, too, over whether some key All Blacks will make the trip, and suggestions some may opt out of the tour. The ramifications are discussed by this week's panellists - New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief Rob Nichol, RNZ rugby reporter Joe Porter and commentator Hamish Bidwell.
* Extra Time is brought to you by RNZ, LockerRoom and Stuff
Cristo Tofa is already making a difference in the lives of many young people, but she knows she can inspire them even more by playing at next year's Rugby World Cup.
On this day in exactly a year's time, Auckland Storm front rower Cristo Tofa could be lining up on Eden Park in a Black Ferns jersey for the opening game of the Rugby World Cup. And there will be many familiar young voices cheering her on.
The idea of being a part of such an historical event brings a silent pause and then a quiver to Tofa’s voice as we speak over the phone.
“Oh man, I'm getting a little emotional,” says the 32-year-old, who only took up rugby six years ago and made her Black Ferns debut in 2018.
“I guess for me being in that black jersey and being at home is an opportunity to say thank you to my partner, Jason, who has been so supportive and awesome, and to our son.
“They’ve made so many sacrifices for me to play. Just being able to thank them and my family is what that moment would mean.”
Once she’s regathered herself from explaining the magnitude of that moment, Tofa quickly thinks of another group of people this could mean a lot to - the children she works with in her day job as a youth worker, and those she coaches and manages in a couple of rugby league teams.
“For the kids to see that, they might think ‘Oh, if our coach can do it, then we can too’,” says Tofa.
Working with communities and young children is a way of life for Tofa, her partner Jason Taufua, who is also a youth worker, and their 12-year-old son, Penita.
“This is probably going to sound cheesy but my interests outside of rugby are serving. God has put so many blessings in my life and being able to do the stuff I do, I really love it,” she says.
“I love that after work, I have to rush off to their league trainings because I feel like being with those kids and seeing their little wins and growth is what I live for.”
A couple of years ago, Tofa and Taufua set up an academy to help young children transition into intermediate school. The academy works with children aged between eight to 14.
“We both understand the struggles a lot of our kids are dealing with at the moment,” Tofa says. “If we really help push the same messages their parents are sharing, then hopefully they will be comfortable with who they are and confident to do what they want, especially our young Maori and Pacific boys.
“Our 1:9 Academy, which is from Joshua 1:9, is about being bold and courageous.”
Being brave and teaching skills by being honest and keeping the children accountable is important to the couple.
“If they can pick up these habits from a young age then we hope they’ll be able to take them into school, and apply them in their learning. Or at home when they’re doing feaus [chores], or in whatever sports they play,” she says. Some of the academy kids have gone on to get scholarships with high-profile secondary schools.
“We’re really thankful to play a small part in some of these boys' journeys when they’ve picked up scholarships at Kings, St Kents or St Peters,” says Tofa.
The same skills are emphasised in the U12 Mount Albert and Toa Samoa rugby league teams the couple coach and manage. Of course, son Penita is a member of both.
“With our kids we try to build a culture around them understanding the importance of brotherhood and the reasons why you play,” Tofa says.
The young league teams have fundraised and travelled to Australia, and more recently Christchurch, to compete in tournaments. On both occasions, they’ve walked away with the main prize.
“It's cool for them to win but I think the big picture stuff for me and my partner is really driving the importance of who they are. And making sure they always have a purpose behind everything,” says Tofa.
She’s been in youth work for over a decade and just like the academy and coaching commitments, the end goal is trying to prepare children with necessary skills.
“Our main goal is to try and get them back into the community, teach them life skills, as well as help them and their families into some sort of employment or education,” Tofa says.
“Touching base with some past students and seeing what they’re doing now reminds me why I love the job that I do and why I do it.”
Playing rugby came later in life for Tofa. She took up the sport only six years ago, and it was more of an attempt to get fit and healthy. Some sound advice from her father-in-law meant she needed to reconsider the reasons why she wanted to play sport.
Similar to the ethos she carries in all of her activities, her father-in-law questioned what she wanted out of playing rugby.
“He basically said if there is no end goal out of all of the time I’m going to sacrifice away from my son and family, then it’s not worth it,” says Tofa, who grew up playing netball and basketball.
The decision to stick with the game paid off when Tofa made her debut for the Black Ferns in 2018 against Australia.
Her rugby career had been bumpy with setbacks, so the debut was massive for Tofa and her family.
After trying to make the Auckland team for a while, she made the decision to move over to North Harbour in 2017 for the Farah Palmer Cup season. The week after her first club outing with East Coast Bays she was in a Black Ferns camp - selectors noticing her versatile skills.
The last couple of seasons have been tough with injuries tormenting Tofa.
“Last year, I was really lucky to have picked up a contract [with the Black Ferns] which I thought would never happen. And then injuries came into play for me. I got injured very early in the year which took me out of camps and the first part of the club season with a broken finger,” says Tofa.
And then again at the end of the year, in the FPC semifinal against Wellington, Tofa broke her thumb but carried on to play in the final against Canterbury before going under the knife.
“Just those little injuries set me back so this year I wasn’t included in the contracts, which is cool,” she says. “I guess for me, it's getting myself ready for each stage. Winning with Ponsonby was a big tick, and now with Auckland I’m focused on just doing my role, learning and really working on some areas.”
Covid-19 has set back the Black Ferns' plans for 2020. This season they were slated to play eight tests at home as a build-up to the World Cup, but border closures mean the test schedule has been replaced with a Possibles v Probables match in November, with a Black Ferns side chosen to play two games against a New Zealand Barbarians side.
In the meantime, Tofa will concentrate on the Storm. She says the Auckland side have prepared well for the FPC season.
“What’s really cool is they’re pushing more around working on ourselves. As long as we are well prepared and are doing what we are meant to be doing then hopefully that will reflect in our game,” she says.
The first two rounds have shown the limited lead-in time teams have had together - and the games against Taranaki and Northland truly tested Auckland, but they came out on top.
This weekend, the Storm take on the Counties Manukau Heat at Eden Park for the 'Te Toki Mareikura' taonga – which loosely translate as ‘champion noble female’. Auckland secured the trophy last year in the inaugural match-up, but Tofa says it’s going to be a tough game.
“I’m so excited to play Counties. They're such a talented group and you can see them carving up,” she says. “But Auckland is definitely ready for the challenge.”
This time next year, Tofa and her family could be blessed with another challenge at Eden Park when the 2021 Rugby World Cup kicks off.
In spite of the unprecedented challenges Mel Aitken faces taking care of New Zealand's police, the Kiwi ultra star keeps running every day - and at record pace.
She’s one of New Zealand’s top cops, and one of the fastest ultrarunners in the country too.
But sometimes Mel Aitken is guilty of not taking care of herself as meticulously as she looks after the well-being of her police colleagues.
Take her latest race – a six-hour global solidarity event she ran in Wellington a fortnight ago. Aitken was one of a team of eight Kiwi women and men who competed in the virtual race – running wherever they live in New Zealand, against 400 other runners doing the same thing around the world.
The event was organised by the International Association of Ultrarunners to bring solidarity to the running community in the face of the global pandemic that has scratched almost every international event this year.
The 43-year-old Aitken - whose day job sees her responsible for the wellness and safety of the 14,000 people in the New Zealand Police – was the quickest of the New Zealand runners.
And her distance covered over the six hours – 73.2km – was an unofficial New Zealand record.
As “stoked” as Aitken was to run as far and as fast as she did, she also admits on the Dirt Church Radio podcast she didn’t exactly look after her own well-being.
During the entire six hours running non-stop, she barely ate a thing.
“One of my biggest downfalls in all my running - and I'm quite open about it - is my poor nutrition when I'm racing,” Aitken says. “So, I know I need to put fuel in, but I can't bring myself to do it.”
During the race she ate one-and-a-half little packets of energy gel, smaller than your hand.
“I have this like mental block where I know I should take stuff in and then I think ‘I'll just keep going a bit further, and a bit further’. And then I sort of hit the wall of ‘I really should have taken something’ but then I just can't face consuming anything,” Aitken says.
“So, I suffered. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s something I just need to work on and make myself take stuff in.
Even her husband, Steve, could convince her. “[He] was going along beside me, but he knew not to say ‘Mel, eat something.’ He was looking at me like ‘No, you really need to’. But he knew better to just keep the trap shut,” she laughs.
But still she ran further than anyone on her team, including fellow top ultra-women Dawn Tuffery, Emma Bassett, Emily Solsberg and Fiona Hayvice. The next fastest runner on Kiwi soil was Aucklander Andrew McDowall.
“There was no pressure; I wasn't trying to beat anybody,” Aitken says. “I was just going out and running for fun and I sort of surprised myself.
“It was just a really cool, different way of still feeling united globally. We can't get across the ditch or we can't travel to other countries to do our races. Cheering the different teams that were racing across the globe, and then seeing the results afterwards was just cool because you still felt like you were part of that whole sort of team and race feel. But in the virtual world.”
Running on her own, on a course she’d mapped out around the capital, Aitken almost bungled her race plan early when she took a wrong turn and ended up down a dirt track leading nowhere – on the wrong side of the Hutt River.
“I hit this whole fear of ‘If there’s a bogeyman in these bushes then I'm buggered because no one's going to find me’, so that made me turn around and run pretty quickly back to the start and get back on the road again,” she says.
Aitken’s impressive distance would have been a New Zealand record, but it can’t be counted because of the unusual nature of a virtual race. She’s not perturbed, though – she’s going to try to better the six-hour record again in November in the Sri Chinmoy races at Auckland’s AUT Millennium Stadium.
It’s been a very quiet year racing trails for Aitken, whose 2019 was action-packed with victories in the Tarawera Ultra 50km race, the 85km Old Ghost Road Ultra, second overall – man or woman - in the national 100km championships, and a bronze medal at the Xterra trail running world championships in Hawaii.
But on the other hand, it’s been an eventful year in her day job. Aitken was the police area commander on the West Coast before taking on a role in at the NZ Police headquarters in Wellington as national manager for the Safer People initiative.
“It's basically overseeing wellness, health and safety, physical education, medical and return to work for all our people within the police. So, yeah, it's pretty awesome and a real change in role within the police for me,” she says.
“Where up until this role, my whole job has been external facing, looking after the community, this is now about looking after the wellness of our own employees.”
Aitken, who’s been in the police force for 21 years, says healthier police should translate into a healthier interaction with the public.
“Our staff see some pretty horrific things and for a long time we've had good support mechanisms and initiatives in place. But what's been amazing in the time I've been here is the appetite for a real prevention focus,” she says.
“So keeping our people fit and well, rather than wait until we have to respond to, you know, adverse things or people falling over, whether it's physical or mental injury. We're really driving breaking down the stigma around mental health.
“It's a really great time to be able to be in a position where I can hopefully influence and help our people do what they do and remain well.”
During her almost two years in the role, she’s helped to take care of police involved in the Christchurch terror attacks and the White Island eruption, and now looking after their health and safety in the Covid-19 pandemic.
This latest situation has meant preparing the police with PPE gear, and drawing up procedures to avoid possible exposure to the virus.
“For me it's a bit of a dream job, in that I live and breathe wellness. I'm passionate about my running, passionate about my diet - other than when I’m out racing and then I forget about it,” she quips.
“But I genuinely love wellbeing and everything that contributes to it. It’s a demanding job, a big job. But I’m doing something that I can actually speak from the heart and be really authentic about and, you know, walk the talk.”
As an essential worker, she was able to run to and from work every day during Level 4 lockdown. And coronavirus also led the highly-competitive Aitken to discover she loves the journey leading up to a race, as much as the race itself.
Her calendar is filling up with events again, now. Next weekend she has the Rotorua Marathon, then the Crater Rim Ultra on Christchurch’s Port Hills two weeks later, and a fortnight after that the Auckland Marathon before her Sri Chinmoy challenge.
Aitken had a few big overseas races planned this year that didn’t happen. But she’s pragmatic about it.
“Hey, I'm in the same boat as everyone else. And the really cool thing is that we can still run. It’s not like you haven't got competition, so you can't do sport,” she says. “You can still go out and do it.”
* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com
The "aunty" of New Zealand rugby league, Carmen Taplin, is used to working in the background, but Covid-19 has put her role managing players' well-being under a spotlight.
Carmen Taplin has a history of being someone athletes turn to.
She has welcomed young players into her family home and toured for long periods with professional players offering guidance.
However, the NZRL well-being manager has a new challenge with the Warriors women players based in Australia for the duration of the NRLW.
That a well-being manager is even part of the small team from New Zealand who've made the journey is a sign of the emphasis on athlete welfare during a turbulent time.
"It's been hard over the years, footy has always taken precedence over well-being managers as they were not really seen as a priority back in the day," Taplin says.
But Covid-19 has helped change the sport's focus during 2020 NRL and NRLW seasons that nearly did not happen.
"I feel that definitely there has been a shift and I hope it stays that way going forward. I just think it is so important that we nurture all aspects, not just the physical," she says.
"We refer to it in our campaign now Te Whare Tapa Whā - around supporting the physical, the spiritual, mental and emotional in our whānau of relationships."
In 2010 Taplin was brought into the Kiwis management team to help with logistics, but her role quickly expanded over the four years she was with the men's national team.
"[I was there to] bring the female element to a footy staff and to add that 'aunty' kind of feel to the squad," she says.
Her caretaker position was a natural fit and she took it even further. Eight seasons ago, Taplin and her husband moved to Sydney with a plan to support young players.
Taplin says a couple of youth suicides in the under-20s in Australia motivated the pair to put their hands up to be house parents - an arrangement that the Sydney Roosters NRL club welcomed.
They ended up with a house full of 10 boys, including Australian representative Latrell Mitchell, who now plays for the Rabbitohs, and Kiwis and Roosters player Joseph Manu during the year they spent across the Tasman.
It was the time in Sydney that cemented Taplin's decision to pursue a career path associated with well-being on her return to New Zealand.
NZRL's links with the Warriors' women's programme means she was called on as a support person for this unprecedented season, which will see the players spend a 10-week period away from home with quarantine periods in Australia and New Zealand on either side of the five-week competition.
The Warriors' captain Georgia Hale, with Hilda Mariu, Madison Bartlett, Crystal Tamarua and Kanyon Paul, have all committed to the temporary move to Australia to take part in the four-team competition.
"Women are so different, which I love. We're very much in tune with our emotional self and I think they really appreciate that nurturing," Taplin says.
"I don't do anything magic, I'm just that ear, that someone that they trust and respect and they're comfortable to come to if little things are getting them down.
"I'll sit down and have breakfast with someone without the intention of having a catch-up or a well-being chat. But it always eventually turns into that and I am really blessed that I am able to have that with these girls."
Taplin spent eight weeks on tour with the Kiwis in the United Kingdom earlier in her career so says she was prepared for what a long stint working away from home would be like, but she's in awe of what the women were prepared to do to be able to play this season.
"The NRL men, their work is rugby league, so that was probably never an issue. But these girls have had to consciously say 'Well can I actually get the time, 10 weeks away from home, from my work? Are my kids going to be okay?' And the crazy thing is they made that decision on not a lot of information," Taplin says.
"We still didn't have exact details, so these five girls have made the ultimate sacrifice. For a while they weren't sure who their coach would be; they were unsure who their teammates would even be."
Australian Jillaroos coach Brad Donald has since been confirmed as their coach for this season. But the players are still waiting to meet the other women who will make up the majority of the squad.
The New Zealand-based players who couldn't make the sacrifice are not far from the players' thoughts, Taplin says.
"They are very conscious of the girls who wanted to be here just as much and couldn't, so they are a big part of our journey as well," she says.
Taplin admits what she has left behind is on her mind, too.
She has a 17-year-old daughter living at home and a four-year-old, and she is still a house parent for one of the Warriors players.
"The real mamae, or hurt, comes when we start to miss our families and I feel it. It was my son's 22nd birthday on Thursday and it's the first time I have really been away from him, so I felt that. But the girls, they know and they support me just as much as I support them in that well-being space."
But Taplin did not think twice before committing to the campaign. "I was always going simply because I knew how tough it would be for these girls to be away."
The Warriors women and two support staff - plus fellow New Zealander Amber Hall, from the Brisbane Broncos - are based on Milson Island, an hour north of Sydney, while they wait out their quarantine period.
Taplin says they are becoming a tight-knit group given the unusual circumstances.
Each morning the group karakia by the water, share what they are grateful for and sing before the physical work starts.
"In high performance sport what I've found is probably 80 percent or more is based on performance and physical," Taplin says. "But I don't think we spend enough time on those other areas, and as Te Whare Tapa Whā goes if all walls of the house are not strong, you're at the risk of the house falling down."
There is plenty to be grateful for while they are in "paradise", Taplin says, but she's also happy that the eight of them staying on the island are able to bring some relief to an area that has been hit hard by the fallout from the restrictions around Covid-19.
"Because of Covid they've had no one on this island for six months and it's a school sport and recreation camp and it's paradise," she says.
"So the girls are getting VIP treatment because the staff haven't had anyone here. So they're pulling out all stops and there is nothing that they won't do for us and I think that put into context for us.
"We've made this sacrifice but we see these beautiful businesses and how it is such an amazing space and they've had no one."
* This article was originally published on RNZ Sport, and is republished with permission.
Since her retirement, the word GOAT [Greatest Of All Time] has been consistently linked to Laura Langman.
But understandably, it’s an acronym that sits uncomfortably with the former Silver Ferns captain. The question remains though - is she?
Is the team’s most capped player in fact their greatest? Or would she even make the face of the Mt Rushmore of Silver Ferns?
Alex Chapman spoke to some of the country’s sharpest netball minds to discuss GOATs in black dresses.
Jenny Woods: the voice of netball, commentator for Sky Sport.
Rikki Swannell: netball commentator and journalist.
Dana Johannsen: former netball reporter, now Stuff’s national correspondent in sport.
Suzanne McFadden: longtime sports journalist and editor of LockerRoom.
(Both Swannell and Johannsen emphasised they hadn’t seen as many play as their two colleagues).
Here are their four picks each for the greatest Silver Ferns of all time:
IRENE VAN DYK - four votes
JW: She was a match-winner and had longevity. I can’t remember her ever being injured or recall there being a time where she left the court or wasn’t available through injuries. Time and time again, when people were saying things like ‘Oh Australia have worked her out’ she’d evolve, she’d change her game, she’d do things differently. She was a smart player and avoided becoming predictable.
RS: She excelled across eras. When she first came onto the scene with South Africa in ’95, and to then go on to 2003 [when NZ won the World Cup], that’s a different generation. And then to continue on as she did until she was 40, there’s plenty of longevity. She also changed what a tall, strong, holding shooter can be, and while she may not have been the most athletic person in the world, as a package, she had everything.
DJ: She continuously added strings to her bow and became this unflappable rock. Players like [Australian defender] Liz Ellis would come in and get in her face and try to rattle her and she’d just position herself under the goal and get them in. Also, who shoots at 90 percent for that length of a career?
SM: It’s not just about the way she played for me, always reinventing herself, but the way she became the face of netball. Even when she was born in a different country and in 1995 denied us a place in the World Cup final… but the way this country took her into their hearts as well, I mean, she was voted one of the most trustworthy New Zealanders for a few years in a row. And I loved that she smiled and clapped every time she scored. She loved the game.
CASEY KOPUA (NEE WILLIAMS) - three votes
JW: Whenever I think of Casey, I think of two tests - the Commonwealth Games gold medal match in Delhi in 2010 where she was just enormous, and the 2019 World Cup final where she just won ball. What I really admire about Casey is she epitomises that humble, no-nonsense New Zealand attitude. She’s not flash, she’s not shiny, but just such a solid individual.
RS: Casey played to her absolute limit every single match I ever saw her play, and every one I didn’t. Even when absolutely broken, on one leg, she’d find a way to pull out something incredible. She made everyone around her better, and it’s no coincidence that last year Jane Watson played her best netball with Kopua. She pushed herself to the nth degree and looked absolutely exhausted and became a great leader too, purely through her actions.
SM: Physically she was incredible. She pulled off some of the best leaps and intercepts I’ve seen, most notably in last year’s World Cup final, which really cemented that victory. She was a natural leader who didn’t really love the limelight – you don’t see Casey selling cornflakes. And she was very loyal, she played for the Magic her whole career and when Noeline [coach Dame Noeline Taurua] called to ask to come back to the Silver Ferns, she answered. She was just a beautiful netballer.
SANDRA EDGE - three votes
JW: Sandy would always be there for me, although, it probably helps that I played with her! [Woods proceeds to talk about how they were part of a Hamilton Old Girls team in the 1980’s.] In the black dress she was about flair and speed. She could turn a game and do things in the air that I still haven’t seen many others do, just the way she’d leap and turn and pass… she must’ve been a dream to be fed into the circle by.
RS: Anyone my age, for rugby in that era, there was Michael Jones, Sean Fitzpatrick and John Kirwan. The same era for netball was Sandy and Wai Taumaunu. Edge was my first real sporting hero so there’s probably some nostalgia there. But I also know I can appreciate her years later with how good and revolutionary she was. She was brilliant on attack and defence, won a World Cup, and when you look at the teams she’s coached, you can tell she has a real netball brain.
SM: The greatest midcourter ever. She had amazing vision, presence, she never kept still and was one of those people who could read the game a couple of phases ahead. She had the ability to get the ball in the air, twist, pass and then land. She was humble too, she always saw herself as just that kid from Tokomaru Bay.
LAURA LANGMAN - two votes
RS: I’ve been lucky to see as much of Laura’s career as I did. Laura really set high standards and you wouldn’t have wanted to let her down, and she herself rarely had a bad game. There may have been games where we didn’t notice her as much, or she was quieter, but she didn’t have a shocker. And just the stamina and way she looked after herself is shown by her playing those 141 consecutive tests, at times multiple days in a row at World Cups and Commonwealth Games.
DJ: 141 tests on the trot is proof of her consistent excellence. Apart from when she was blocked from selection [due to playing in Australia], she was one of the first names written down. I remember [former Silver Ferns coach] Ruth Aitken saying that she wished she could clone Laura because she was so good at wing defence and centre. She’s such a strong, tracking defender, which is also why she fitted in so well across the Tasman, as they play a different style over there… she’s criticised for taking every second pass, but people don’t understand how hard you actually have to work to do that.
JOAN HARNETT - one vote
JW: Joan got netball up and out of being a ‘game for gals’ and into being a national sport… I’ve put her in because I’ve talked to some people and her name just kept coming up and I think it’s a nod to the players before the television era. Without players like that, there wouldn’t be the television era because they put out results to get the coverage.
WAIMARAMA TAUMAUNU - one vote
SM: Wai was such a formidable force. I’m still in awe of her because of the mana and presence she has about her… she doesn’t suffer fools. Wai wasn’t extremely tall, but that intimidation factor she had made her 10 feet tall. And along with Tracey Fear and Leigh Gibbs they formed one of the greatest-ever Silver Ferns defensive ends, who won the 1987 World Cup. And she went on to be a respected Ferns coach too.
TEMEPARA BAILEY (NEE GEORGE) - one vote
DJ: She was just the most amazing player to watch. Incredibly strong, incredibly dynamic and amazing vision. You’d watch her bomb it halfway down the court and just wonder ‘what is she doing?’ and it would just land with pinpoint perfection. That 2003 World Cup when she was sent off, and then to come back onto the court and nail the intercept to help win the final, is credit to her. Also, testament to her that she came back to play as a grandmother in the ANZ and was talked about as a potential Silver Fern.
BERNICE MENE - one vote
DJ: She was the player I idolised growing up, and I wasn’t even a defender! She was a Silver Fern at 17, and was the archetype of the New Zealand defensive style of play; she always stayed off the body of her opponents and came through for the spectacular clean, aerial intercepts we all love. It really was a shame she retired so young.
Notable mentions: Maria Folau, Ria Fatialofa, Margaret Forsyth and Leana du Bruin.
After her cycling season was put on hold, Mikayla Harvey is making up for lost time in Europe. The Kiwi sensation is rising through the ranks and her rivals are taking notice.
Mikayla Harvey can't hide in the peloton anymore. The white jersey of her Équipe Paule Ka team doesn't blend in, even when it's covered in dust.
She used to get a few stray nudges and elbows in the bunch. Now she's getting the same treatment from the TV commentators, who mention her name as the 22-year-old shifts through the gears.
The self-proclaimed rural rider from Wanaka, who arrived in Europe "pretty clueless", is quickly solving the cycling mystery.
"I really feel like people are starting to notice me which is nice," she says from Switzerland. "You do get a bit more respect as well, and it makes it a lot easier moving around and positioning yourself in the race."
That respect has been hard earned. Harvey flourished on the dusty gravel roads of the prestigious Strade-Bianche last month, guiding team-mate Leah Thomas to a podium spot, and finishing a stunning 12th overall, winning the Under 23 classification in the process.
"I've never had a result like that before and I wasn't expecting it. Getting that result has really made me a lot more confident in my racing and I'm just so excited that I'm able to race up there now with the top girls."
And now Harvey has produced a brilliant start to the multi-stage Giro Rosa, which got underway on Friday.
During Stage 2 of the pinnacle event, she aced the gravel sections and finished an incredible seventh, earning the white jersey as the best young rider in the race. She’s also moved up to fifth overall in the general classification, a position she’s maintained after Stage 4 too.
Like many of New Zealand's greatest cyclists, Harvey is always willing to sacrifice herself for the good of the team. While that often means chasing down moves and protecting her leader, her strong form means she's now being given the chance to go for personal results as well.
"It's been a bit of a change for me. Having the girls ride for me is quite different and it's a bit of pressure but I really love the opportunity," she says.
Well-known cycling journalist Orla Chennaoui recently named Harvey as her rider to watch, while English team-mate Lizzie Banks singled her out for her hard work during the Grand Prix de Plouay in France.
So it came as no surprise when Équipe Paule Ka offered her a two-year contract extension following her stunning Strade-Bianche performance.
"I'm able to focus on myself and my training now knowing I've got this amazing team backing me and I'm so grateful for them. I really got taken under the wings of them, and I've developed so much," Harvey says.
The journey she’s been on this year makes her form even more remarkable.
She wasn't even sure if she'd be able to get back on a bike again this season, after fleeing Europe for the South Island during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Once she arrived back in Aotearoa, she had a fortnight in isolation to contemplate a calendar decimated by Covid-19, as well as dealing with the state of her team, who lost their two main sponsors.
A crowd-funding campaign was launched to try and salvage some of the season, and, thankfully, French clothing company Paule Ka came on board with a four-year deal. When the sport's governing body, the UCI, drew up a new schedule, her hopes of returning to racing were back on.
After returning to Europe, she's been living out of a suitcase, waking up every day feeling like she's in a new country. The sport is as normal as it can be in 2020, with riders getting tested for coronavirus twice before every race and donning face masks all the time.
Although it may be different to what she's used to, Harvey's just grateful to have any racing at all.
"You don't want to take it for granted because you don't know when the next race is going to be,” she says. “It might be cancelled, so you have to give it 100 percent because it's so special... when it's taken away from you, you realise how much you really love it."
In a turbulent year, Harvey faced another frightening moment last month, when the team were forced to pull out on the eve of the Giro dell'Emilia in Bologna.
"We woke up at our hotel the day before the race, we went down for breakfast, and we could tell something was off. We ended up hearing that all our race bikes had been stolen,” she says. “I was super upset, and so was the rest of the team."
Harvey's bike was one of those missing, and they still haven't been found. Unfortunately, it's relatively common in Europe, with the same thing happening a week earlier to the Trek-Segafredo team at Strade-Bianche.
Harvey was back on her new machine in time for La Course at the end of last month, which is the one-day race run by the Tour de France
The event was held before the first stage of the men's race, offering the women rare and much-needed live TV coverage around the world. The racing didn't disappoint either, with British world road champion Lizzie Deignan edging out Dutch legend Marianne Vos in a thrilling sprint finish.
The New Zealander was in the thick of the action alongside fellow Kiwi Niamh Fisher-Black. While they couldn't make the decisive split on the final climb, Harvey was thrust right into the mix at the end of the race.
"I've never been in a full bunch sprint and had my team-mates lead me out before. We were trying to get me some points for the Under 23 jersey, and I definitely learnt a lot, and I still managed to come 12th."
The superb showcase of women's cycling has led to calls for a fully-fledged women's Tour de France to be launched. Organisers ASO have responded saying a multi-day race will be in place in 2022.
"I don't see a reason why we can't have one,” Harvey says. “All the procedures are already set up there for the men. We just hope over the next few years it keeps developing, instead of moving a step backwards. We want to keep moving forward with women's cycling."
Preparing for the pinnacle race in women’s cycling, the multi-stage Giro Rosa, a host of the team’s best riders went head-to-head during the training camp in Switzerland, vying for six spots in the Italian event.
Harvey made the final cut, and has already proven herself a vital addition in the team time-trial, and on the gravel she loves. While she’s riding in support of her team leader, she will also want to hold on to her lead as the best young rider, a classification she finished fifth in last year.
While you can’t always tell with the mask on her face, it’s obvious Harvey is loving every second of life at Équipe Paule Ka.
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