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Mystics coach leaving for the sake of women's sport

The Mystics’ loss will be a big gain for women’s coaches across all sports, as successful head coach Helene Wilson leaves the netball champions to work in high performance sport.

The woman setting a new course for 'battered' NZ cycling

After crisis upon crisis in your sport, who are you going to call?  Sports administrator Kereyn Smith, that's who. In her first interview, she tells Suzanne McFadden how she'll help re-set NZ cycling.

Cycling review highlights need to put athletes before medals

A new report on how our top cyclists are managed highlights favouritism, failings at the sport's HQ in Cambridge and an over emphasis on medals over athlete welfare.

Paddling newbie still in awe of crewmate Dame Lisa

Tara Vaughan will race at her first canoe racing World Cup this week - and the teen is still getting her head around sitting in the same boat as Dame Lisa Carrington, Angela Walker writes.

Changing how we talk about young women's bodies

The physical and social changes teenage girls go through can often push them away from sport. So we need to change the way we talk about puberty and periods, says women's health in sport working group, WHISPA.

With so much attention last week to Lydia Ko’s casual mention of the menstrual cycle, it's a good time to ask how we're talking about the body with our young women in sport.

The playing field is a place where a young woman’s body is on display, where her performance, capabilities, appearance and physiological changes are regularly judged and commented on by others.

Yet the teenage years are a time when a young female athlete will be experiencing a lot of physical and social changes, and how we talk about the changing body (like puberty and menstruation) matters.

International and New Zealand-based research has consistently shown that young women are dropping out of sport and physical activity at much higher rates than young men. Recent research by Sport New Zealand shows that by the age of 17, young women are spending 28 percent less time being physically active than their male counterparts.

But why are young women turning away from sport at such high numbers? What's going on in their lives to turn them away from sport and physical activity at such high rates?

In answering these questions, we must avoid blaming young women themselves. Research has shown the high levels of pressure on young women in male-dominated and defined elite sport environments are a major ‘push’ factor, prompting many to turn away from the sports they once loved.

While we recognise the importance of changes to the sporting environment towards more gender inclusive and supportive spaces for young women, our focus here is the complex hormonal, physical and social changes affecting girls during this critical time in their lives. 

When considered alongside changes to the sporting culture, such knowledge can better support young women through their teenage years and help them continue to build positive relationships with their changing bodies through sport and fitness.

Hormones, periods and more

The teenage years are a time of constant change for young women’s bodies both hormonally and physically. For example, breast budding is the first sign of true puberty and while this typically occurs around nine to 11 years old, there's wide variation of timing.

 Ongoing stigma and taboo about menstruation can also lead to negative feelings about sporting participation for young women. Photo: Mr Lee/Unsplash

This start of puberty signifies the growth spurt is starting, and girls' growing bodies need appropriate calories and nutrient availability during this time. Acne can also appear, which can lead to embarrassment and discomfort with sweating potentially making acne worse.

Further change that can influence girls' feelings about sport is menstruation. The average age for the first period is 12 years old, but again, there's wide variation.  If a woman hasn't had her first period by the age of 15, a medical assessment should be sought. This can be a sign of insufficient nutrition for a growing and physically active young woman.

As a young woman starts to have regular periods, they can be at first quite unpredictable - with rate of flow, timing, and discomfort all having implications for embarrassment in sporting participation. Periods that are particularly painful and/or heavy can again be discouraging.

We encourage girls and parents to record periods (such as using a menstrual tracking app) because regularity of periods is an important sign of a healthy body.

It's also important young women know where to go to get support and trustworthy information about their menstrual cycle and menstruation in sport, as o. For young women of different cultural and religious backgrounds, it's important that culturally-specific information and support is available.

Self-consciousness of the changing body - breast and hip development, weight change, menstruation - can be heightened in sporting contexts where the body is on display (like gymnastics leotards, lycra outfits, swimming togs, short skirts, wearing white or light-coloured uniforms). Girls frequently report feeling uncomfortable in sporting uniforms that reveal their bodies.

Sports organisations who listen and respond to such concerns tend to see an increase in participation.

Fuelling the teenage body

Adequate nutrition is needed through adolescence to not only fuel the active muscles, but to also support the development of bone, the reproductive system and other important systems within the body.

Without making the required fuelling adjustments for the active teenager, or if restricted eating patterns occur, this can impair development in a process known as low energy availability (LEA). One key symptom of LEA is delayed or disrupted periods, but fatigue, mood changes, recurrent illness and injury rates and recovery can also be signs. This condition can have long lasting impacts, including bone and menstrual health. Adequate nutrition — properly fuelling exercise and day-to-day energy expenditure — is the best way to avoid LEA.

Olympic weightlifter Megan Signal is open about her battle with LEA. Photo: Bailey Lovett

Nutrition can also impact girls' energy levels and overall feelings of health. For example, iron deficiency anemia (low iron levels or low blood count) has been shown to be more common in adolescent girls compared with boys of the same age. This can be easily diagnosed and treated if parents are aware of this possibility, but if it goes undetected, it may leave young women feeling lethargic, unmotivated and/or exhausted from sporting participation.

Physical changes and injury risks

Physical changes during puberty mean there can be changes in athletic ability with coordination, balance and speed. Such physical changes include a change in the center of gravity and knee stability affecting training and performance.

If young women and their families are not aware of the reason for these changes, they can feel like they are “no longer good at” their chosen sports and give up. Yet, with understanding, patience and support, young women can learn to love the power in their developing bodies.

While adolescent males’ strength and control typically increases post-puberty, adolescent female strength lags behind and motor control reduces for a period of time. Not only can young women feel gangly and uncoordinated for their chosen sport, this lack of strength and control increases the risk of injury in this population.

At this stage in development, we see the injury type and incidence in our young women varies from young men. Significant injuries such as ligament rupture of the knee increase to four to six times the rate of males. This is a serious injury that often requires surgery to return to sport, takes a prolonged period of time (up to 12 months post-surgery), dedicated rehab and comes at a significant cost to families and the health system in the short and long term.

Research is being done in NZ into how menstrual cycles can be used to help women recover from knee injuries. Photo: Eagle Media/Unsplash

Yet 50-70 percent of these injuries are preventable with the application of basic injury prevention programmes as part of sport warm-ups. Access to prevention programmes are available for our primary sports where this injury is common (particularly football, rugby and netball). But such programmes are not common practice across all sports.

In addition to serious injuries such as knee ligament rupture, less severe but more chronic injuries that commonly occur in this teenage population are anterior knee pain and shin pain. Ongoing pain, reduction in their ability to complete training without limitations and subsequent reduction in performance, unfortunately commonly result in sport drop-out.

Changing Relationships and Social Pressures

The teenage years are an important time for renegotiating social relationships and forging an identity as a young adult. For many, this means a shift from the parents to the peer group as the most important social influence in their lives.

While some negotiate this transition well, for others it can be a time of much disruption to relationships and sense of identity and belonging. For many young women, the social pressures, expectations and judgements to ‘look’ a particular way can feel overwhelming, as if coming from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously.

Medical studies show two-fold higher rates of depression and anxiety in adolescent girls compared with boys. International research is also showing the pandemic is making mental health issues among young women worse.

As boys move through the pubertal journey, their self-esteem and body satisfaction tend to improve, whereas these scores worsen for adolescent girls. Early maturing girls can be more vulnerable to these concerns, again further complicated in sporting contexts where the body is on display, being judged and commented on by others.

Given such sensitivities, parents and providers should always take utmost care at the language used when commenting on young women’s changing bodies. Such comments can be easily misinterpreted, and can contribute to body image issues and disordered eating practices.

Many young women play sport simply to have fun with friends. Photo: Vince Fleming/Unsplash

These changing social dynamics and growing social pressures can influence young women’s participation in sport. As identified in the new Sport New Zealand campaign focused on young women, #ItsMyMove, the primary motives for girls and young women's participation in sport and physical activity are fun, friendship and fitness, and the pressures of competitive sport (to achieve, to perform, to win) can feel too much as their motives shift and change.

They are also trying to balance school, family and new social roles and responsibilities, so competitive sport can feel like it's adding to the stressors of life as a teenager, rather than helping them through this tumultuous time. Of course, for others, the relationships, identity and sense of confidence gained through sporting achievements help them carve a path through the teenage years.

Social media and body image

Teenage girls are highly digitally savvy. They use social media on a daily basis for a range of purposes - to communicate with friends and peers, to forge new relationships, and to communicate aspects of their everyday lives and identities. However, research is also demonstrating the increasingly powerful role that social media plays in impacting young women’s relationships with their bodies.

Social media can increase social comparisons and exacerbate social anxieties, including social physique anxiety. Comparing oneself to others can prompt young women to feel that their own lives are inadequate, somehow ‘lesser than’ those they follow. This can lead to negative feelings about their bodies, as well as other aspects of their social lives, including their sport and fitness participation.

A recent study done by the WHISPA (Healthy Women in Sport: A Performance Advantage) group in the elite female athlete population highlighted social media as a primary source of pressure to look a certain way and it's very likely this is more influential in this teenage age group.

For parents, opening conversations with daughters about their social media usage and how it makes them feel about themselves can be helpful. Sports and fitness providers would also do well to consider how they are using social media and digital technologies to connect, support and inspire young women.

Supporting healthy young women in sport

The reasons for young women’s high levels of disengagement from sport and physical activity are complex. In many cases, the sporting context (ie too serious, feelings of judgement, lack of fun) may prompt their withdrawal.

However, this is also a time of significant personal changes for young women. The teenage years are a critical time for young women in building habits, routines and relationships with their bodies that will continue into adulthood.

It's also important to acknowledge that teenage girls are a diverse group, and the rates and reasons for participation will vary depending on socio-economic and cultural reasons. With better understanding of these changes and differences, however, we can find new strategies to support girls and young women during and through this important chapter of their lives.

The WHISPA working group. Photo: supplied. 

As part of the High Performance Sport New Zealand WHISPA working group, we recognise the importance of these issues. Educating young women, parents and providers is a key focus of the work we've been doing over recent years. We've offered multiple national conferences, a series of online educational resources, and regularly visit high schools.

Our website also offers a range of resources for athletes, parents and coaches to better understand the menstrual cycle and a range of other important factors influencing women’s performances and wellbeing (ie ACL, body image, social media).

Other organisations are doing important mahi in this area too. For example, Education Outdoors New Zealand recently launched an amazing resource ‘Going with the Flow: Menstruation and rainbow inclusive practices in the outdoors’, providing a range of resources for outdoor education teachers to better support young people who menstruate in the participation in outdoor activities (like hiking and kayaking).

Sometimes these topics can be uncomfortable at first, but we believe that open, safe and supportive conversations with young women about their bodies are important for building lifelong relationships with body image, nutrition, sport and physical activity.

Sport and physical activity providers and parents have key roles to play in supporting and enabling young women’s current and lifelong sport participation. We need to provide space for the voices of young women, to listen to their concerns, and support them, even if their motivations are changing.

Sports organisations listening to and responding to young women’s concerns and suggestions are seeing a positive upswing in ongoing participation. Better yet, we can work together towards co-designing sport and fitness programmes that meet young women where they are at.

Wheels turning quickly for young Kiwi cyclist

Just a year after taking up road cycling, Kim Cadzow is already a national champion and now targeting more success in Europe, Henry Rounce writes. 

Before Kim Cadzow met her coach Patrick Harvey, she didn’t even know there was such a thing as being a professional cyclist.

She had now idea you could head overseas to try to become one, and she certainly didn’t know she’d be doing just that 12 months later.

That’s exactly where the 20-year-old finds herself though, after moving to London last month to ride for Team Torelli-Cayman Islands-Scimitar. The British development team has been a training ground for multiple cyclists in the past, including New Zealand’s Niamh Fisher-Black, now one of the best young riders on the World Tour.

Cadzow’s startling ascent through the cycling ranks begins with her sporting past, which is defined by her eagerness to give everything a go.   

Growing up in Tauranga, she spent several years as a competitive swimmer. She was then dragged into mountain-biking by her bike-mechanic brother, but she soon realised she didn’t have the “craziness for the downhill."

Cadzow moved to Wanaka, where she met her partner, Brad. He was involved in triathlon and encouraged her to train up to do a race with him. Cadzow went on to compete in events such as Challenge Wanaka, but was forced to stop after a run of stress fractures.

Of the three disciplines, swimming was her favourite having done it for so many years as a teenager. Running certainly wasn’t, especially for someone who “used to sit in the bushes at cross country at school” so she wouldn’t have to compete.  

Kiwi Kim Cadzow (third from left) with her Team Torelli professional cycling team. Photo: Patrice Fouques

That left cycling, which she'd started to fall in love with. At the age group nationals in April last year, she was spotted by Harvey, a renowned coached who’s propelled some of the country’s finest overseas, including his daughter Mikayla, now riding for World Tour team Canyon-SRAM.

Harvey suggested a permanent switch to road cycling, which she mulled over throughout the event. It wasn’t until she got back home she realised it wasn’t such a bad idea.

She took up the offer to be coached by Harvey, and the first few weeks as she threw herself into her latest sporting pursuit were challenging.

“I had to develop a lot of skills quite quickly. With the triathlon, I was doing half-ironman events, so I spent most of the time just riding by myself on my time trial bike. Moving over to doing actual road cycling and trying to jump in the bunch and handle it with a group of girls or men around me was a bit foreign,” she says.

Cadzow spent hours going up and down The Remarkables, working on her cornering and handling skills. Things like holding the wheel – riding closely behind another cyclist to reduce drag – were scary at first, but soon became second nature.

Kim Cadzow (right) riding at the 2022 national road cycling championships. Photo: Sharkey Snaps.

It helped having a couple of experienced training partners on hand, too, with Mikayla Harvey and Michaela Drummond joining her for rides at the end of last year in their off-season. Drummond is also coached by Mikayla’s dad, and regularly rides on the World Tour for Italian team BePink.

“They took me under their wing and told me what I was doing right, and what I was doing wrong. Having them to look up to has just been amazing, and being so welcomed by them at training was a really cool feeling,” Cadzow says.

After putting her head down and working hard throughout the summer, she entered the road cycling nationals in Cambridge in February. She surprised many by winning the U23 time trial title, with a time that also would have placed her third in the elite category.

She enjoyed more success against the clock at the Oceania championships in April, finishing second in the U23 time trial despite stifling conditions in Brisbane. Dealing with 30 degree heat and high humidity, Cadzow pushed herself so hard that she blacked out for a little while at the finish line.

Anna Cadzow (left) stoked to be on the podium at the Oceania U23 time trial in Brisbane.

She’s used to putting herself through the wringer from her days in triathlon, which has helped prepare her for the gruelling discipline of the time trial.

“It’s grit your teeth, put your head down and see how long you can push for before you explode,” she says.

While there are undoubtedly more milestones to come in her career, competing in Australia was a special moment for Cadzow.

“I always said as a kid I wanted to compete internationally, so it was quite cool to achieve that dream. Even just heading into the start line, I knew that I’d accomplished one of my goals from when I was really young,” she says.

From there, she's linked up with Team Torelli. She’s already competed in her first European race in Belgium, riding on the corrosive cobblestones for the first time, and lining up against 160 athletes, instead of the usual 50 or so from back home.

Cadzow is planning to stay with the team for most of the season, which ramps up this month with a series of races throughout the UK and Europe. She’s hoping to secure a top 10 finish at one of the events, with the eventual goal of joining Fisher-Black and Harvey on the World Tour in the next couple of years.

As someone who enjoys being busy, she’s also studying a Bachelor of Sports Management through Massey University. It helps fill in some of her downtime, although trying to study in a different time zone is proving tricky. Her exams start in New Zealand time, meaning she sometimes has to pick up the laptop at 9pm in London, and try not to fall asleep before the 1am finish.

Her cycling education is now the priority, though, and after already achieving top marks in such a short space of time, she seems destined for higher honours as her career progresses.

Harrison helps hoist Temu into Stars spotlight

Elle Temu is having a standout season in the ANZ Premiership, the in-circle defender one of the ones to watch. And she couldn't have asked for a better defensive partner than Anna Harrison. 

One of the toughest defensive duos to get past in New Zealand netball, Elle Temu and Anna Harrison make a perfect pair. Even if there are 16 years between them.  

Originally from Auckland, 23-year-old Temu returned to play for the Stars in the ANZ Premiership last year, after three seasons honing her craft in Wellington. Her signing with the Stars coincided with 88-capped Silver Fern Anna Harrison coming out of retirement.  

And it’s resulted in a potent partnership on court, and a strong friendship off it.  

Temu is full of praise for Harrison, who made her Silver Ferns debut as a 19-year-old in 2002, and just played her 150th national league match last weekend at the age of 39.  

“I have just good things to say about Scar [Harrison], I really enjoy my time with her. It’s been cool,” Temu says. 

“She’s such an awesome person and she’s always willing to help out and share her knowledge. And off-court she’s just a lovely person, she loves to put people first.”  

Harrison echoes the sentiment for Temu.  

“I don’t think there’s anyone who could say anything bad about Elle - she’s an absolute beautiful person inside and out,” she says.  

The Stars have had a mixed bag this season, but are sitting third on the ladder, with five wins from their nine games. And win or lose, their defensive end has been a constant threat to their opponents.  

Renowned for her innovative tricks on the netball court, Harrison can often be seen being hoisted by Temu. It’s almost 10 years ago to the exact day Harrison introduced the netball world to “the Harrison Hoist”. (The first netballer to lift Harrison? Stars team mate Kayla Johnson, when they were both playing for the Mystics in the ANZ Championship). 

Harrison suggests maybe she and Temu will pull a few more tricks out of the bag in the final weeks of the competition.  

Flashback to 2012, the first time the Harrison hoist was used in competition. Photo: Getty Images

Harrison’s long limbs and Temu’s strength are the perfect combination. Temu says Harrison is always willing to share all the tips in her netball brain.  

“She also reminds me I need to play to my strengths - so play to what I can see and I think that’s what works really well for both of us,” she says. 

Temu was originally a shooter until midway through high school at Mt Albert Grammar, and jokes that while she loved the attacking plays as a shooter, the pressure of the final shot was too much.  

“Oh my goodness, I was terrible at it. I probably had the most rebounds because I couldn’t shoot properly,” she laughs.  

Despite saying she’s struggling with rebounding at the moment, Temu sits in sixth place this season for rebounds in the premiership, with nine. She’s third for deflections, and second for intercepts, with 22.  

“I just love playing and going out for intercepts and trying to disrupt the play and not worry about having to finish the goal,” she says.  

Harrison sits just behind Temu on all three defensive leaderboards, the two often swapping positions out on court.  

“You can see she’s played attacker because her attacking game is really nice so it’s always great for a player to experience a bit of both ends of the court,” Harrison says, noting how much they’ve grown over their nearly two seasons together.  

“It’s great we can interchange in the two positions, she’s up for great conversations, she reads the play brilliantly, what’s ahead and her trademark is coming through for those beautiful intercepts.”  

The great conversations continue off-court as well - Temu looking after Harrison’s three kids a few times to allow Harrison and husband, Craig, to go out for date nights.  

A young Elle Temu (left) meeting Harrison, a netball idol. Photo: supplied

While Silver Ferns selection is on her radar, Temu’s primary goal this year is to simply get good minutes, play consistent netball and push herself at training.  

“The ultimate goal for the majority of us young and up-and-coming athletes in ANZ is that Silver Ferns dress, so obviously I’d love to do that soon,” she says.  

“But I’m just really enjoying playing some consistent netball and just putting my best foot forward.”  

With sport a big part of her life growing up, Temu dabbled in a few different sports, playing volleyball in the summer, but she was always going to follow wherever netball took her.  

Sport is in Temu’s blood - her dad, Jason Temu, was a rugby league player who represented the Cook Islands and spent one season with the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL.  

Elle Temu’s partner, Isaiah Papali’i, has also made a name for himself in the NRL - after four seasons with the Warriors, he’s spent the past two with the Parramatta Eels, meaning most of his time is spent in Australia.  

“It’s super hard but it’s definitely what we both want to do, and we both really want to do well in our sports,” says Temu on their time apart.  

“I can’t wait until the seasons are finished and we can spend some time together. Long distance is not an easy feat, but I know it’ll be worth it when we’re finally together, as cliche as that sounds.”  

Over summer, Temu spent three months in Australia with Papali’i, and trained with the Giants, who represent New South Wales in Australia’s Suncorp Super Netball.  

“I was quite nervous going into it, but it was the best thing for me because training by yourself is always a drag and a bore,” Temu says.  

“It was so nice having different people around me and getting good quality training in. I really benefitted from it and I just really enjoyed it as well.” 

Enjoying her netball is key this year for Temu, who balances a hectic training schedule with studying a bachelor of business, hoping to combine her love of sport and her major of marketing when she graduates.  

Solidifying her role as the starting goal defence for the Stars, Temu has grown in confidence with increased game time this season.  

“Starting out when you’re new and on the bench, you get a few minutes here and there, you always really treasure it. But getting full games and getting the starts has definitely given me more confidence in myself,” she says.  

“I’ve just learnt so much and I now know how far I can go, how far I can push my body to get ball or how far I can pass to Maia [Wilson]. It’s given me confidence in myself and my game and I’ve just enjoyed it so much more, getting game time.” 

Temu played alongside Wilson at Mt Albert Grammar (MAGS), and when she moved to defence, paired up in the defensive circle with Holly Fowler, another current Stars player.  

The trio (captained by Fowler) won the New Zealand secondary schools champs with MAGS in 2015, beating Saint Kentigern College in the final, 43-32.  

Temu was awarded the player of the match award for her efforts at goal keep - marking another Stars player, Amorangi Malesala.  

Graduating in 2016, Temu spent two years in the National Netball League (formerly the Beko League), making the move to Wellington and captaining the Central team to victory in 2018.  

The ANZ Premiership came calling, and Temu made the step up from a training partner for the Pulse to a fully contracted player in 2019. Winning back-to-back titles with the Pulse, Temu’s court time was limited, so 2021 saw the defender return home to Auckland.  

Harrison and Temu have developed into the Stars' preferred defensive duo, their on-court communication key to picking up ball. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

The move has paid off for Temu, playing all but 37 minutes of the Stars’ total games so far this season. Harrison has also spent a lot of time in the circle, missing just one game, but otherwise playing all but one quarter of her eight appearances on court.  

With 20 years of elite netball under her belt, who better to spot a future star than Anna Harrison, who predicts young Temu will go far.  

“I think she’s a really exciting player, she’s getting all these beautiful intercepts and I think she’s got a good future ahead of her. So it’ll be exciting to see where she goes,” says Harrison.  

“I’m honoured to be a part of her journey.” 

The woman changing the face of adventure racing

Jodie Fa'avae pursued adventure sport before such a term even existed. Now she's at the helm of a movement that’s changed the way Kiwi women view adventure – and themselves.

Jodie Fa’avae vividly remembers the moment when she first saw a bike "that could go off-track."

As a student at Nelson’s Nayland College, Fa'avae biked from Nelson to Kaiteriteri with a group of friends on some of New Zealand’s first basic model mountain bikes to celebrate school finishing - an adventure in itself.

Soon after, Fa'avae had entered - and won - her first mountain bike race in 1992.

"I crashed once [in that first race] but carried on - to be national champion for seven years. Mountain biking was a big part of my life,” Fa’avae says.

But the victories weren't enough. Following a season of snowboarding and a course in outdoor leadership, Fa’avae found herself working on the water as a sea kayak guide in the Abel Tasman National Park.

“During that time, I realised what I really wanted to do - to share with others my love and passion for the outdoors,” she says.

Fa’avae met her future husband, Nathan, at Nayland College when he changed school for his last year. They’ve been together ever since and now have three teenage children.

Nathan Fa’avae has won six world adventure racing championships and captains the New Zealand adventure team. In March, he led Team Avaya, undisputedly the world’s best adventure racing team, to win another GODZone Adventure race.  The couple have competed in adventure races together.

But now Jodie and Nathan Fa’avae organise the world’s largest adventure race, geared purely for women.

Jodie Fa'avae is a seven-time national downhill mountain bike champion. Photo: supplied.

Since the Spring Challenge started in 2007, over 10,000 wāhine have formed teams of three to race in some of New Zealand’s most beautiful locations.

The Spring Challenge has evolved from a single experimental event into a way of life.

"It's really amazing how you can create a community of all these women. They don’t need to be super fit, just keen on a great adventure,” Jodie Fa’avae says.

"With lockdowns and uncertainty, it's a pretty challenging time right now. Mental health is so important. We need to connect to nature - we need to get back to the basics. Just being outside is such a huge help to people."

It was a Fa’avae family conversation back in 2007 which led to their decision to set up an events company.

Jodie remembers her positive reaction when her world adventure racing champion husband proposed an event challenge that should cater just for women who had no experience in adventure sport.

Designed for beginners, the new challenge would create that first experience in a safe, supportive environment. In a new South Island location each year, the event would see teams take on a top-secret course combining three disciplines with orienteering, announced only the night before.

The point of difference? Each three-woman team of novices would hike, bike and paddle the course - and cross the finish line together.

"We called it the Spring Challenge,” Jodie Fa’avae says.

Jodie Fa'avae (left) welcomes home a team of competitors in the Spring Challenge. Photo: supplied. 

With two young daughters and one son, Fa'avae had always wondered what opportunities would look like for wāhine with interests in sport and recreation - what would New Zealanders embrace?

"I wondered how many women would be keen. I knew I was keen,” she says.

At the inaugural event in September 2007, the youngest Fa'avae, Tide, had just turned one. Her grandparents were on duty while her mum and dad delivered the first Spring Challenge at Hanmer Springs with 300 participants.

Ten years on, in Geraldine, 600 teams – 1800 women in total - turned up at the start. In that moment, New Zealand's Spring Challenge became the biggest adventure race in the entire world.

"It started to get too big," Fa'avae reflects, so in 2018 they pulled the entry cap back to 480 teams. At the same time, their North Island sister event, the Spring Challenge North, was gaining traction.

Within minutes of the 2019 Spring Challenge entries being released, 1440 women snapped them up. For five years straight, all 480 team entries sold out.

As with all events around the world - there has been an impact through Covid - this continues to be a winning formula.

Fa’avae says 1488 women of all ages have entered this year’s event at the end of September.

This year’s venue is Te Anau. “The course, the terrain and epic location, will make this event reach the highest levels of grandeur,” the Spring Challenge Facebook page says.

The even went ahead in Greymouth last October, and in spite of the pandemic, the event had only 100 fewer participants than in an average year – proving its resilience.

The inaugural Summer Challenge 2020 was to be held in Nelson however was delayed and held in March 2021 instead. The Spring Challenge North Island event scheduled for October 2021 for Napier was delayed for a year.

From an event organiser's point of view in this time of pandemic, the suspense and shuffling are incredibly stressful. But the sense of community, and responsibility, fuels the Fa'avaes’ determination.

"It's so important that people are able to keep doing things, to keep looking after themselves. We've tried to make sure there's something to look forward to,” Jodie Fa’avae says.

Jodie Fa'avae is proud of the ripple effect the Spring Challenge has on women's fitness and wellbeing. Photo: supplied. 

The success of the now iconic Spring and Summer Challenge events, however, pales in comparison to the momentum.

Across the South Island, significant growth in participation amongst women running, cycling and paddling represents the "ripple effect" of the series, now 15 years running.

Fa'avae agrees the impact is more than they can measure on the day. It’s a movement - sustainable and undeniably linked to better health outcomes over time.

"It doesn't matter how fit you are. It's about being with like-minded people and sharing our beautiful outdoors. I love the ripple effect it has,” she says.

Over the same time the Spring Challenge has grown, so has traffic on tracks and trails and waterways, with women often travelling in twos and threes.

New Zealand adventure racing legend Sophie Hart, who races with Nathan Fa’avae in Team Avaya, agrees.

"If you go back 15 years ago, it would have been so strange to see three women out and about,” Hart says. "Now you go to rogaines, and most participants are women. That's because of the Spring Challenge - there's no other reason for it."

Forty-eight-year-old Fa'avae laughs.

"You can always hear the girls before you see them. They're not going so fast they can't talk. The positive energy of those women - it's everywhere,” she says.

"There are mums doing it, and now their daughters have got into it."

This ethos of self-care, where keeping active equals keeping healthy, is close to Fa'avae's heart and home life.

Early this summer she kept her commitment to head away with friends for the ultimate girls' getaway.

"I like to walk the talk, so I set myself the challenge of a mountain biking mission in November. I planned my own little Spring Challenge with three other girls – we rode the Paparoa, the Old Ghost and Heaphy tracks,” she says.

Fa'avae and daughter Tide (now 15) along with two of Tide’s friends, biked the Heaphy together over the spring school holidays last year. When it comes to intergenerational outings, she says it's about normalising a sense of adventure.

"They can achieve so much more than we think,” she says.

It's important for Jodie Fa'avae to keep 'walking the talk' and reconnecting with the outdoors. Photo: supplied.

Fa'avae has always been committed to "walking the talk." She recognises the impact of outdoor adventures on the lives of her friends.

"The challenges you face together create a deeper connection and bond,” she says. “Connection and friendships really help you get through tough times."

She says the power of participating - having a go and having fun - is New Zealand's best medicine.

"We've got some pretty big challenges we're facing. That's what life's really about. To get through moments that are hard - supporting each other."

Since 2003, the Fa'avaes have raised a family on adventure. Since 2007, they have taken New Zealand along for the ride.

Last year, the Fa'avae family hiked the trails of Stewart Island.  Their sense of connection to the outdoors means that every run, paddle or bike is not a training exercise. It's a way of life.

Jodie Fa’avae has loved watching New Zealand wāhine walking the talk too.  

"Right from the beginning, it was what people wanted or needed. I have so many stories of women who connected by taking on a challenge together,” she says.

"In the past, my friends and I had nice social outings where we'd go and share a meal. However, to share an adventure and a journey - where you share an adventure memory - is really special."

Kiwi Ironwoman finds new direction in eSport

Kiwi triathlete, coach and mum Anna Russell has taken a fascinating new route, racing and commentating in the world of eSport, and explains to Merryn Anderson what the platform has done to help women.

A pandemic, lockdowns and two pregnancies haven't stopped Anna Russell from jumping on her bike almost every day for the past three years. 

Rising at 5.30am, Russell manages to hop on her bike downstairs, race for 40 minutes with an online community and get back upstairs by the time her three kids wake up. 

Fitting in a chat with LockerRoom the same morning, the competitive triathlete and Ironwoman expertly juggles explaining the world of eSport racing while managing her recently woken seven month old daughter, Aria.

Russell was racing up until the day before Aria was born. With the approval of her obstetrician, she was back on the bike within a week of giving birth.

Online racing has been an ideal way for the 39-year-old to stay fit, train for "real life" races (she's qualified for next year's half Ironman world champs) and continue living a healthy lifestyle. All from home and fitting around her schedule as a triathlete coach as well. 

Russell competes on Zwift, an app cyclists and runners can use to race people around the world - all virtually. When Russell was pregnant with her second son in 2019, she started using the app for running, but quickly signed up for cycling as well. 

“It just fitted my lifestyle perfectly,” she says. “I could Zwift while the kids were asleep, it was really good to keep fit while pregnant in a safe way.”

The basic set-up includes a bike, stationary trainer and the Zwift app which connects via Bluetooth. 

Russell and her family live in Auckland, and she admits the traffic is one of the factors that keeps her riding indoors. The risk of injury while cycling on the busy Auckland roads is too high - when a stationary bike in her house is pretty failsafe. 

“There’s just no concern with that, unless you go really hard and fall off your trainer,” she laughs. “The chance of having an accident is nil, so that’s been really nice as well.”

Ironwoman Anna Russell never stopped training, cycling and running indoors all through her pregnancy. Photo: supplied

The emergence of eSports has been a gamechanger for Russell and other mums, and not just during lockdowns or through the pandemic. 

“I know there are a lot of parents on there [Zwift] because you can jump on at any time,” Russell says. “It’s very low-impact on a family as opposed to heading away for a whole weekend to go do a race.”

Russell was a competitive triathlete before having kids, racing on the world stage in triathlons and Ironman competitions.

“Training for Ironman is quite a different beast, a lot of hours in a week I just don’t have anymore, but it was an awesome, awesome experience at the time,” she says. 

During the first lockdown in March 2020, Russell noticed a demand from New Zealanders stuck in their homes, and decided she would create an online series for Kiwis, which she could commentate from her laptop. 

Around 800 people were racing, with viewership consistently over 7000 weekly, which inspired a partnership with Zwift, who were looking for a commentator. It's something Russell now loves. 

Russell’s background is in the corporate world - supply chain and change management. For five years she worked for Triathlon NZ as their director of community development, getting more people into the sport. 

Now with the help of YouTube tutorials, she’s also grown into an eSport producer, helping to produce the Australian elite eSports series and the Asia Pacific league. It’s similar to producing traditional sports coverage, but all from a home set-up. 

“You’re getting the right camera angles and pulling in all the data and sending it out and having other commentators come in,” Russell explains. 

“I love it, it’s so fun and really easy to just do from my house.” 

Completing her post-grad studies in sports psychology after having her first child, Russell found her study complementing her holistic approach to coaching - one of her biggest passions. 

“I found when you come to race day, as long as you’ve done the training, 80 percent of it comes down to your mentality,” she says. 

She was coaching around 18 athletes during lockdown, even encouraging them to have a basic Zwift set-up at home to keep them moving. 

While other methods of staying fit during lockdown could be isolating, the eSports community is very social and gives a chance for worldwide connection. Russell has a twice-weekly ride with six other women across the globe.

“Especially in the last two years, where we’ve all faced a bit of a lack of that social element, this has just been so nice,” says Russell. 

“I get to talk to a whole bunch of people from around the world and get to know them better, and a lot of them have become friends now. I say the holistic element in that regard is a huge part of the platform.” 

Russell manages to fit eSports around her busy family life, pictured here with her husband and three kids. 

eSports are also very accommodating and welcoming to women, Russell says, praising the acceptance of the online community.

“Cycling is more male-dominated in the real world, whereas on Zwift, yesterday I was racing with 200 women - you’d be very, very hard pressed to find that in the real world," she says. 

Russell admits it can be intimidating to attend a cycling race in person for the first time, especially for women. 

“Whereas with this, you’re in your house, no one sees you, you can kind of live vicariously through your little avatar,” she says. 

“It just gives a lot of women a lot more confidence to get involved and actually get on there and race and have the support of their teammates.

“The platform has done huge things for women in sport in particular, just with reducing those barriers to entry.” 

While Russell says she’ll “always keep doing eSport”, there are some real world challenges that might draw her back. 

She’s qualified for the Ironman 70.3 world championships next year - commonly known as a half Ironman - which consists of a 1.9km swim, a 90km bike ride and a 21.1km run. 

Being able to train for the run and the cycle legs from the safety of her own home, at any time that suits her, has been the perfect way for Russell to keep race-fit in her time away from in-person competitions. 

“I don’t think I would have kept this fit through my pregnancies without Zwift,” she says. “It means if there is an event coming up in the real world, I can just go and do it cause I’m already fit. 

“Then I can just go and enter the events when I want to and when they work with our family schedule.

“With kids, you’ve got to be fit, and just in general, you want to be healthy right? So the more you can make it fun, the easier it is." 

Ekenasio: Nothing prepared me for two kids

Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio has been doing it tough in her return to netball this season - living in two cities, with two small children in tow, during a pandemic. She tells Sarah Cowley Ross why she took on the almost superhuman challenge.

When a māmā-athlete returns to sport, you don’t usually witness the hoops they’ve jumped through to get back on the field, track or court. Even the simplest things can be a challenge, like packing the right shoes on game day.

You don’t see the deep thoughts of ‘Why am I doing this?’ The struggle of returning to baseline fitness levels. The rush to pump breast milk so your baby has enough nutrients while you’re separated from them during training.

The mother’s guilt of wanting to be an example to her children and the time away from them that requires. And the village it takes to help raise a baby and support a mum-athlete.

It’s like Instagram versus reality.

The reality for former Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio is that it’s been immensely challenging to return to netball following the birth of her gorgeous daughter Luna, now six months old.

“I honestly don’t know if anything could have really prepared me for having two kids and coming back to play,” says the formidable shooter, who’s switched to the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic this season, which means travelling between Wellington and Mt Maunganui.

“There are so many hard things – the juggle of two kids in my life; my husband has a full-on job and is trying to support me. I could go on, but nothing could have prepared me to go from one to two kids.”

Ekenasio describes herself as constantly treading water, living between two cities combined with travel for matches in a Covid-affected season.

“You’re constantly thinking ‘I’ve just got to make it through this week or a few days’. But that never comes," the 31-year-old says. "At the moment its neverending for us, but we signed up to it.”

Ameliaranne Ekenasio at a Magic photoshoot with baby daughter, Luna. 

She makes it clear that she likes a challenge, which is part of the reason she’s come back to the ANZ Premiership following the birth of Luna.

“A lot of people thought I couldn’t do it with two kids and to be honest who knows if I will be able to get back to international level?” she says.

A key member of the 2019 World Cup-winning Silver Ferns and with an ANZ Premiership title to her name (with her former Pulse side), Ekenasio points out she has yet to be part of a gold medal Commonwealth Games side. Something that could be on the cards in Birmingham in July.

While being a part of a winning team is nice, her drive to come back to netball is actually her children.

“My son [Ocean] is four – I want him to see that you can do things that are really hard, when you really want to do it. That’s my why,” she says.

Ekenasio returned to the court yesterday after a three week absence, on the comeback from Covid. She played at goal attack, alongside Bailey Mes at goal shoot, for the second half in the Magic’s narrow loss to the Tactix, 51-48. 

When LockerRoom spoke to a pregnant Ekenasio last year, while she was in her third trimester with Luna, she felt the support and processes around netballers returning to play had hugely evolved in the four years since having Ocean. She reflected on how obsessed she’d been to return to the court not necessarily allowing herself to heal before returning to play in the Fast5 series only four months after Ocean was born.

“I’d wake up and feed Ocean at 3am, and then I’d go out for a run in the dark," she said at the time. "Because I knew my husband had to go to work in the morning, so I was like ‘Okay I have to get it done and come back, then hopefully get an hour’s sleep’. But sometimes I’d come back and feed again, then we would be up for the day. That was ridiculous.”

Second time round, Ekenasio has been much kinder to herself.

But she admits it’s been harder to meet her own high fitness standards and work towards the rigorous national standards under coach Dame Noeline Taurua (who was in the crowd at Pulman Arena watching Ekenasio yesterday). There were no fitness targets when she returned to play after Ocean’s birth.

In the Magic dress this season after seven seasons with the Pulse, Ekenasio says the whānau culture of the Magic has been “unreal”.

“Without the support of the Magic, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing,” she admits.

Navigating life alongside her supportive husband, Damien, the Ekenasios are living between two cities – her family home in Wellington and Mount Maunganui.  To be close to the Magic team base, Ekenasio moves in with Magic general manager Gary Dawson and wife Sheryl Dawson (the former president of World Netball and Magic CEO).

“I feel I can be a mum at the same time. It’s not like I have to leave my baby at home and pretend like I’m doing everything I do without a baby,” says Ekenasio, who sometimes travels with both children.

Ameliaranne Ekenasio evades Tactix defender Charlotte Elley during the Magic's 3-goal loss. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

Ekenasio’s best advice for mum-athletes is to plan, expect change and be okay with that change.

“With kids you’ve got to roll with the punches. Shit just hits the fan sometimes and we just work through it,” she laughs.

She’s aware that as an athlete wanting to have children, you may be at the peak of your sporting career while your fertility clock ticks away. There comes a time when you must choose.

“There’s a lot more to life than just being an athlete – that’s from someone who has a high identity in being an athlete,” Ekenasio says.

“Nothing is more special than being able to have having a family – not everyone is able to.”

The lens is shifting for mum-athletes with the increased awareness for women to continue to play elite netball as mothers. In January, Silver Ferns mums Phoenix Karaka and Kayla Johnson took their toddler daughters (Pāma and Millah) to England while they played in the Northern Quad Series.

Paying to tribute to those who’ve paved the way, Ekenasio says the more we talk about how mums can return to sport, the better we can understand what support needs to be wrapped around the players.

Ekenasio has been able to exclusively breastfeed Luna for the first six months of her life - again this is not without a high level of logistics.

“Before training I try and feed her as much as I can. Firstly, to keep her happy and secondly to empty myself before I run out there,” she laughs some more.

When Luna isn’t physically with Ekenasio, the netballer has to express - at times she feels “like a cow” but it’s something she really wanted to be able to do.

Ameliaranne Ekenasio with son, Ocean, embraced the Silver Ferns' new way of thinking towards mums. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

For now, though, Ekenasio is paving the way – day-by-day getting through the mahi as a netball player and as a mum.

“I knew it was going to be tough but I really knew I wanted to come and play," she says.

Although the Magic have struggled again this season, with only one win so far, captain Sam Winders says having Ekenasio in the side has been invaluable - and will be crucial from now on. 

“The youth in the team bring excitement and unpredictability and fun energy. But Meels brings stability and predictability and experience," Winders says. "At this level you need a good combination of both."

Ekenasio has played one full game so far this season, against the Pulse,  before she was struck low by Covid. “She’s not back up to full game level yet, but she’s now ticked off pregnancy and her return to play, and ticked off Covid and her return to play. So now we have her for the road ahead,” Winders says.

”That’s really encouraging for her, and for us. We need her impact, someone who’s been around before. We’ve got the second half of the season to turn things around now.”

***

Meanwhile in the ANZ Premiership:

The first game of Round Nine on Saturday saw the Mystics record a convincing 19-goal win over the Tactix, 70-51. Ten consecutive goals in the third quarter from the Stars led to their 47-39 home court victory over the Magic later that afternoon.

Sunday's double-header was much closer - the Tactix just holding off a spirited Magic side with a final quarter surge resulting in a 51-48 win (the Magic's eighth loss of the season). The Mystics remain at the top of the table after dispatching the Stars in another tight battle, 54-51, with the Mystic's supershooter Grace Nweke slotting 49 goals.

Monday sees the Steel take on the Pulse to close out the round.

Creating Merry-Hull to lead the Black Sticks

It’s the start of a new era for the Black Sticks – new faces, a new coach and two new captains. Suzanne McFadden speaks to Olivia Merry and Megan Hull about leading the team back into a critical year of international hockey.  

Megan Hull and Olivia Merry are like chalk and cheese. “Like good cop, bad cop”, Merry reckons.

Together the two experienced Black Sticks, who are also close mates, have been charged with leading a new generation of the team into international hockey after almost a year’s absence.

But their differences may well be what makes them successful in their joint role as Black Sticks co-captains.

Away from the hockey field, they’ve had diverse upbringings.

Hull grew up on her family farm, around 1000 acres in Pongaroa, in the Tararua district. She still gets back there to help out when she can.

Merry, on the other hand, was raised in Christchurch. “I’m definitely a city slicker,” she laughs. “But I did go to Lincoln University, so I have a pair of Red Bands… somewhere.”

Hull has invited Merry and her partner, Warren, to come and help out on the farm: “With her long limbs, she’ll be great at drenching.”

At 30, Merry is the all-time leading goal scorer for the Black Sticks (with 115 goals) and was top scorer in the world Pro League in 2019 - the last time the Black Sticks played a full season - with her incredible ball striking power up front.

Hull, 25, is an unshakeable defender, renowned for her repertoire of strong passing skills and, like Merry, penalty corner strikes.

“Our paths never crossed until we were in the Black Sticks,” Merry says. “Megs is a little younger than me, and coming from different islands, we didn’t really see each other.”

Megan Hull (left) congratulated by teammates including Olivia Merry (second left) after NZ's first goal v China at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

But they became friends “from the get-go” when Hull joined the Black Sticks for a second stint in late 2018 (she'd played four tests in 2016). And over the past few years, the pair have become great mates off the field.  

“We’ve been through some pretty interesting experiences. Like in the heat chamber last year, lying in a pool of sweat,” says Hull, remembering the Black Sticks' efforts to acclimatise to the heat at the Tokyo Olympics.

“We wanted to hold hands, but I told Megan we could only hold fingers. So we had a little finger hold,” Merry laughs. “There were definitely some dark times in that heat chamber.”

And they’re closer allies on the turf now, as they each fill a shoe of long-time Black Sticks captain, Stacey Michelsen, who’s retired after 12 years at the top of the game.

“It’s a big honour,” says Merry, assuming the mantle in her 10th year with the Black Sticks, after 244 tests.

“A massive privilege,” adds Hull, who has 43 caps, but whose leadership skills were recognised early in her career.

“The co-captaincy is something that’s so under-utilised,” says Merry. “With the way we work, it’s perfect for our team. And it takes a bit of the pressure off.”

Hull: “I could never do this without Liv. She’s an amazing leader.”

Merry: “You actually couldn’t have picked two more different people for this job, but with the same views and values of what we want from this team. That’s why it’ll work so well.”

***

The pair chat to LockerRoom after a mid-week afternoon training at the National Hockey Stadium in Auckland and a morning at their day jobs. Yes, they both have to work fulltime and train with the national team. (“It’s the reality of being a hockey player,” Hull says.)

Next week, they’ll test their captaincy skills in a four-test home series against Australia. It’s a lead-in to the World Cup in Spain and the Netherlands at the start of July, and the Commonwealth Games at the end of that month.

An elated Olivia Merry after scoring for the Black Sticks in their 2018 Commonwealth Games final victory. Photo: Getty Images. 

I’ve asked them to describe their leadership traits.

“We bring very different things to the field,” Merry says. “I can be the one that barks and says 'This isn’t good enough'. And Megan comes in at the end and says: ‘We need to reflect on why this isn’t good enough’. That’s how I see us working.”

Merry likes to lead by example up front: “I’m more a tough, dogged person – you have to really earn my trust.

“It’s one of my key values as a person to work really hard, and if I’m out there showing that, then I feel like I’m leading in a way that’s best for the team.”

Hull, who'll call the shots from the back of the field, is more of a listener.

“I would hope my area of strength lies around inclusion and making sure players have a real voice – we’re both very passionate about this. And connection – making sure as a team we’re on the same page and trying to build a really special environment and a good connection between the players and the management,” she says.

“I love people, and I love listening to people’s stories. Everyone brings value to this team.”

Merry chuckles when comparing her more blunt approach with Hull’s convivial nature.

“Whether someone’s been in the team for five minutes or 10 years, Megan is always like ‘Hi, how’s your day?’” she says.

“I’m a bit more ruthless. We’re like good cop, bad cop. Megan will say ‘Liv, we just need to go and thank this person.’ And I’m like ‘Megan we’ll be here all day, mate. We’ve got to wrap it up’.

“We laugh about that. But I think that’s why we work so well. If you put two people in this position who are exactly the same, that's what you get - same-same.”

Megan Hull in defensive mode during the North v South series last month. Photo: Simon Watts/BW Media.

“Because we’re such good friends, too, we’re kind of natural in the way we operate,” Hull adds.

“I know I can speak my mind with Liv and she’ll take it on board. And because we have that bond, we’re okay to agree or disagree, and we'll come up with a pretty good conclusion together.”

“It’s so good to have another ear to listen.” Merry says. "Whether that’s home, work or hockey. And it works both ways."

***

Both women moved to Auckland to be part of the Black Sticks hub, and had to find fulltime jobs. 

Merry has started a new role an account executive with Twin Agencies, a sales and merchandising company with New Zealand food and beverage brands.

“It’s probably a year too early in terms of my dream job pathway,” she says. “But I’m pretty fortunate they hired me in a very busy hockey year – I think I’ve taken three or four years’ worth of leave in my first six months.”

Hull works in child-care for Educare in Warkworth, half an hour north of the city. “It’s a wee hike to get up there, but I actually enjoy that bit of ‘me-time’. After hockey training it’s like a reset," she says.

“They love hockey and they’re really supportive of me. We’re both so lucky to have employers who are really understanding.”

The Black Sticks either train early in the morning or afternoons around 4pm.

"They can be tough 12-hour days,” Merry says. “When I leave home in the morning, I’m like a bag lady – I have my hockey bag, my change of clothes bag, my lunch bag, my work bag.”

“It’s a tough balance,” adds Hull. “We’d love to be fulltime professional athletes, but at the same time we have mortgages and rent. It’s cool to have that balance though. You’re at hockey but you have something else to focus on. It can be good to take a step back sometimes.”

Hull recently got in engaged to her partner, Geoff Gibson, who’s working on his family farm before the couple spend time living in Belgium later in the year.

Olivia Merry (centre) shares a laugh with her Southern team-mates in the North v South series. Photo: Dom Thomas.

For the past month, the Black Sticks have been training without a head coach, after Irishman Graham Shaw suddenly resigned after a three-year stint with the team, saying he wanted to take his family home.

On Monday, former Black Sticks men's coach Darren Smith was named interim head coach to take the team through to the Commonwealth Games.

Merry was excited by the prospect of working with a new head coach.

“I had the same coach for 90 percent of the tests I’ve played [Australian Mark Hager], then we had an interim, then Graham came on board, and we’re in an interim period again,” she says. “It’s exciting because you never know what the next person can bring.

“At the moment we have fantastic people around us – not only in our team, but within our management – so I feel like it will be quite seamless.”

Earlier this year, three assistant coaches were assigned to the Black Sticks women. One of them, former Junior Black Sticks player Verity Sharland, has taken on the role of helping rebuild the team's culture – the Black Sticks have had their fair share of culture issues in recent years.

“Verity has done a fantastic job with the culture. Our team is in a totally different place than what it was 12 months ago,” Merry says.

Four-time Olympian and former Black Sticks men’s captain, Shea McAleese, and Hockey New Zealand’s athletes pathway manager, Bryce Collins, are the other two assistants.

“They all complement each other well,” Hull says. “Shea is happy to give the direct line, and Bryce is positive, optimistic and organised.”

With the retirements you'd expect after and Olympics, injuries and other players taking time out from the game, the Black Sticks have lost over 1700 international caps since Tokyo (where New Zealand were knocked out in the quarterfinals).

“We’re definitely aware as we head into these tournaments that our caps numbers are relatively low, and game play is so essential,” Hull says. “So we’re really homing in on just giving it a good crack.

“We know we have a special team, and we need to play with confidence. So these games against Aussie are invaluable to us.”

So does the expectation of defending a Commonwealth Games title – won so spectacularly on the Gold Coast four years ago – weigh heavily on this relatively young team?

“Yes, we are reigning champions, but we’re such a different team now, so it doesn’t weigh on our minds,” says Merry, who scored one of the goals in New Zealand’s 4-1 final win over Australia.

“We’ve still talked a lot about what it takes to be a gold medallist again. The key message Megs and I are driving home is consistency. Having the World Cup before the Commonwealth Games is such an opportunity for us to play consistently through to the Games.”

* The Black Sticks play four tests against Australia at the National Hockey Stadium in Albany next week: Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm (on Sky Sport 1) and Saturday and Sunday at 3.30pm (Sky Sport 3).

The ton Toeava thought she'd never reach

One of the most ingenious players in netball, Peta Toeava was almost lost to the game early in her career. But supported by her Mystics whānau, she's about to notch up a century of appearances in the blue dress.

Peta Toeava never saw this day coming.

She’s renowned for her ability to see into the future on a netball court, read the play, pass the ball into spaces only she can see.

But 100 games in national league netball? It’s caught the Mystics midcourt maestro a little off-guard.

What few people know about Toeava is that she came extremely close to giving up on netball seven years ago.

“Halfway through my netball career, I lost my passion for netball. And I really didn’t think I’d ever come back,” says the 26-year-old.

Toeava was still at McAuley High School in Otahuhu when she was first picked to play for the Northern Mystics franchise, offered a contract by Raewyn Henry. She’d been part of the New Zealand Secondary Schools team who beat Australia in 2012, coached by Helene Wilson; among her team-mates were Holly Fowler, Sam Winders and Fa’amu Ioane.

She made her debut in the 2013 ANZ Championship season – showing a glimpse of her remarkable flair and intuition when the Mystics went through a string of injuries. But then she disappeared from the netball scene for two years.

“I went through a lot of stuff off the court that was holding me back, and I didn’t really want to come back to netball,” she says through tears.

“But it was just talking with the right people, coming back into Beko [the second-tier league] and slowly working my way back up, that I started to find that passion again.

“I really didn’t think I would be here. So I’m very, very grateful to have netball in my life again.”

A teenage Peta Toeava playing for the Mystics in the 2013 ANZ Championship. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Toeava returned to the Mystics as a fill-in player in 2016, but was back in the side fulltime the following year. She’s been a constant in the team ever since; named MVP in last year’s ANZ Premiership grand final when the Mystics took out the title for the first time.

Numbers don’t usually mean a lot to Toeava. She had no idea she was close to a ton of appearances in the blue dress until Wilson (now the Mystics' head coach) told her at training this week - a milestone she should reach on Sunday against neighbouring rivals, the Stars, at Papakura's Pulman Arena.

In fact, she appears more excited that her team-mates Grace Nweke and Tayla Earle will both play their 50th matches on Saturday against the Tactix.

But the following day, Toeava will honour the Mystics players who helped to mould the phenomenal netballer she’s become.

Players like Cat Tuivaiti and Maria Folau, the foundation shooters of the Mystics in Toeava’s early years. Players who she still takes inspiration from in evolving her clever court craft.

“I always go back to players like Cat and Ria who had that kind of skillset. Learning off them but putting my own twist on it,” Toeava says.

And she promises she still has a few tricks up her sleeve she wants to reveal.

“There are parts of my skillset that are untapped, that I want to showcase in the next few years before I retire,” she says. “It’s just knowing when it’s the right time to put them out on court.

“I try to practise them in training, but I always get the eyeball from Rob [assistant coach Rob Wright] who asks ‘Are you really going to do that in a game?’ And I’m like ‘Yeah, when we’re up by 20 goals’.”

Peta Toeava releases a trademark lob to Mystics team-mate Grace Nweke during their winning 2021 season. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

Australian Wright, in his second season with the Mystics, has been working with the attacking end of the court and helping Toeava to round out her game.

“He’s worked with me on nailing the basics on court which is what I needed. I use my basics, like hitting the circle edge, but also adding in a bit of flair here and there,” she says. “I’m pretty lucky to have him.”

Wright is constantly blown away by Toeava’s creativity and her ability to read the game, space and defenders. But he’s trying to drum into her how she needs to do "all the little things to be able to use that genius”.

“When she gets carried away – like all good players can do because they’re a bit different – she knows the passes I don’t like, and she really self regulates now,” he says.

“We’re still seeing her creativity and brilliance, but with much more discipline. It’s a fine balance but I never want to take that individual brilliance away.”

Wright rates Toeava as one of the best ball handlers he’s seen in the game, up there with former Australian Diamond Kim Green. “They’re quite similar in their ability to throw and deliver some amazing ball,” he says. “Coming up with stuff that makes you wonder ‘how did that happen?’

“Pet is always thinking ‘what could I add or do differently?’ It’s a very special skillset she has.”

Toeava is indebted to all the coaches she’s had at the Mystics – from former Silver Ferns coach Ruth Aitken, to current Silver Ferns assistant coach Debbie Fuller (“she’s the funniest coach; she’s really out there”) and Wilson, who first spotted Toeava as a shy 17-year-old with a burgeoning talent.

“They’ve all had an influence on me. As the game has evolved I’ve learned something new off every coach I’ve worked with,” she says.

It was a dream come true for Peta Toeava (right) to play alongside her idol, Maria Folau (centre). Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Three Mystics captains have made a distinct impact on her, too: Folau, Temepara Bailey and the woman leading her now, Sulu Fitzpatrick.

“When I was growing up, Ria and Bubby [Bailey] were definitely role models for me,” Toeava says. “Getting that time to play with Ria was my dream come true. Working with someone who’s so good and really knows their stuff on court.

“Sulu is a very different leader, always thinking about others before herself and wanting the best for the team.

“It’s been cool to grow up with these women – leaders who are from the same culture as me.  It’s quite empowering. I just like seeing my people succeeding.”

Toeava was born in Samoa, but raised in Auckland by her grandparents.

She’s not sure how many of her family will be at Sunday’s game – of her nine siblings, five live in Auckland, two are studying in Dunedin and another two are in the United Kingdom.

“I’m not a person who likes to make a big fuss of these things, but regardless of whether they’re there or not, I’m so very grateful for them,” she says.

Toeava has been planning to return to Samoa with her sister in the UK.

“I’d love to go back to where I was born and see the country. I went back when I was 16 and that was about it,” she says. “Me and my sister want to go back home and experience the culture. I feel like I drifted away from my culture.

“I want to visit my mum there as well.”

Over seven seasons playing national league netball Toeava has seen the game transform. “The physicality of the game has gone up another level. And the skillset has evolved over time,” she says.

“I’m physically strong, but when I get into that physical battle, I tend to lose my skills. The physicality takes away from my strengths – working off the body, using my speed, pass and cut. I like working with space and using my speed.”

Peta Toeava holds the ANZ Premiership trophy surrounded by her 2021 Mystics team-mates. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

While to most it may look like Toeava is schooling the young Nweke, with her pinpoint accurate high lobs or no-look bullet passes to the tall shooter. But she says Nweke is teaching her a lot of things about herself.

“Like how I’m playing and the placement of the ball. It’s quite cool how she’s telling me what she wants from me,” Toeava says.

“I love her. And sometimes I scream at her. But with our relationship, we’re so comfortable, whatever we say to each other is performance talk that stays on court.

“She’s growing a lot and I can’t wait to see how far she goes with netball.”

Toeava has been nursing a thigh issue this season. Unlike her team-mates, she had Covid last November: “I was lucky – I was asymptomatic. But I could feel it in the lungs later on.”

“I guess we’re quite lucky because the majority of our team have had Covid now. Us Aucklanders are so used to living with it. But we’re just taking our season day by day.”

The Mystics are at the top of the table going into round nine this weekend, with six wins and two losses. But the table is, of course, distorted by Covid postponements.

Does Toeava think the Mystics can repeat their premiership victory this season?

“It’s definitely there. But it’s really if we want it,” she says. “How we'll do it is through consistency in what we do on court, and how we push each other in training.

“That’s where the real test is: how hard we push each other at training. I feel sometimes we just go through the motions, but we feel that, so the next training we’re coming out harder." 

Three times Toeava has worn the black dress on court – with a stint in the New Zealand side in 2018 and again in 2021. Is making the Silver Ferns still an ambition?

“I’m not going to lie. Yes it is,” she says. She's taken time away from her work in childcare to focus on netball. “It’s a goal of mine to make the Commonwealth Games but at the same time, I’m focusing on the now. To get there I have to play good netball with the Mystics, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

* It's a marathon weekend of netball at the Stars' home of Pulman Arena in Papakura, with double headers on back-to-back days. On Saturday, Mystics play Tactix at 2pm (on Sky Sport 1), and Stars meet Magic, 4pm (Sky Sport 2); on Sunday, Magic vs Tactix at 2pm, and Stars vs Mystics, 4pm (both Sky Sport 2).

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