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Hero for active girls runs solo ultramarathon

A Kiwi trailblazer in getting girls active, Fran McEwen is running a solo 220km ultra through the forests of the lower North Island to help more young women. 

Covid tests a way of life for squash queen Joelle King

LISTEN: Kiwi squash star Joelle King has become a "professional at Covid-19 testing" while living in the UK hoping to get time on court.

Nathan-Wong reinvigorated for next big sevens goal

Tyla Nathan-Wong continues to set new benchmarks with the Black Ferns Sevens, but returning to the grassroots - and discovering a new sport - has refreshed her for the next goal: Olympic gold. 

Young Violette has her pick of ivy league schools

Promising Kiwi thrower and water polo player Violette Perry is bound for one of the world's most famous universities, to further her sporting pursuits and her passion for engineering. 

From Here to Maternity: The sports Mumback

In the fourth and final part of our From Here to Maternity series, Kiwi athletes talk about how motherhood has made them stronger, smarter and experts at time management.

When Kayla Whitelock discovered a "big hole" where her abs should have been while working out with the Black Sticks before the Rio Olympics, it was just one in a series of curveballs that came hurtling at her after childbirth.

Of course, Whitelock knew returning to international hockey after the arrival of her daughter, Addison, was never going to be easy. It’s just that some of the challenges were not what she’d expected.

Like lasting just 30 seconds running on the treadmill for the first time, six weeks post-baby. “My fitness was horrific,” she says.

Or tripping over her own feet on her first few trainings back on the turf. “I was so clumsy, it was a real eye opener.”

Then on her first tour back with the New Zealand side, her mettle was truly tested travelling with 10-month-old Addison, who was violently ill all the way to Argentina.

And yet, Whitelock survived it all, both as a mum and an athlete. Just over a year after the greatest change in her life, she captained the Black Sticks to reach the semifinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Now as a mum of two, she’s training for Tokyo 2021 and her fifth Olympics – equalling another famous Kiwi mum athlete, boardsailor Barbara Kendall, in Games appearances.

We applaud the swelling number of female athletes now returning to the top of their game – winning world titles and Olympic medals, breaking records - after starting a family. But how smooth is the transition known as ‘The Mumback’?

And is there growing proof that motherhood makes women stronger – if not physically, then certainly mentally?

Whitelock had no intention of returning to elite sport after starting a family with her husband, former All Black George Whitelock, in 2015. That was until coach Mark Hager came to visit her at home in Palmerston North to convince her to make a comeback for Rio.

She realises now it was a “pretty hectic” turnaround, that she would have planned differently. Like seeing a physio before she restarted her fitness regime.

Captain Kayla Whitelock celebrates a Black Sticks goal during their game against Spain at the 2016 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

It wasn’t until she was back in a full training session with the New Zealand team doing crunches, that Whitelock “felt this big hole in my tummy”. She asked her physio what was going on with her post-partum body.

“I had ab separation. I had no idea what it was,” she says.

Ab separation – or diastasis recti – occurs in pregnancy when the growing baby pushes apart the abdominal muscles which form the ‘six-pack’. A recent study in Norway found one third of mothers end up with the condition.

Whitelock hadn’t seen a sports physio during her first pregnancy, not really expecting to play at the pinnacle of hockey again. But she knew second time around - after the birth of her son, Maxwell, in June 2018 – that she needed to see a physio first to help close her ab gap quickly.

Again, Whitelock had no plans to return to the Black Sticks – until new NZ coach Graham Shaw approached her last year. A final crack at an elusive Olympic medal was the carrot Whitelock couldn’t refuse.

 
 

The 255-test cap veteran has certainly come back wiser as a mum athlete – but she reckons she’s actually fitter, better prepared and mentally stronger than before.

Her story goes some way to help verify the claim that mothers return to sport as better athletes.

While there’s little concrete evidence that childbirth makes women physically faster or stronger, some athletes – in particular long-distance runners and endurance athletes - may be proving it’s not a myth. Nine months after giving birth, Paula Radcliffe won the New York Marathon.

Another Brit, powerhouse Jessica Ennis Hill, won a world title and Olympic silver medal in the heptathlon after having her first child.

But probably even more obvious is the change that takes place inside the heads of mum athletes.

Shotput legend Dame Valerie Adams, who won Commonwealth Games silver six months after giving birth to daughter Kimoana, says she’s more resilient and now works smarter after having her two children in her thirties.

Silver Ferns defender Sulu Fitzpatrick with her twins Tavita and Theresa. Photo: Lawrence Smith/Stuff

And Sulu Fitzpatrick, a mother of six-year-old twins in her second stint as a Silver Fern, says having children has helped her netball game “100 percent” – mostly because they’ve brought her perspective.  

“They remind you they’re the most important thing, which is really good. If you have a loss or a bad performance, you still have your kids to take care of, to feed and keep healthy,” she says. “It also helps you to look after other players - both young and old. I’m very mindful now of making sure everyone is taken care of.”

The risk of rushing 

There’s scientific evidence that the surge in hormones and cardiovascular changes to a woman’s body during pregnancy - like increased blood flow and more oxygen-carrying haemoglobin – can continue benefiting women after childbirth.

Many of those physiological effects on a woman’s body can last up to a year after pregnancy and can naturally enhance a female athlete’s performance. (Rumours abound that some Eastern European athletes were ‘abortion doping’ for that reason in the 1970s and 1980s).

“Usually there’s an aerobic improvement with pregnancy, and you often see women coming back stronger,” says sports and exercise physician Dr Sarah Beable.

“Apart from some labour complications and medical complications during pregnancy, there's absolutely no reason why women can't come back to really top-level competition and be even better – if they get things right like energy balance and have the right support team around them.

“I absolutely love seeing women come back. But I don't like seeing it if it feels like it's been rushed or it doesn't look safe. But when I see when the right teams wrapped around them, it can be done beautifully. With athletes like Val [Adams], we have fantastic role models in New Zealand showing us that it's not easy, but it’s rewarding.”

There are dangers in returning to high intensity exercise too early – straining pelvic floor muscles and suffering stress fractures.

Beable says there is no definitive timeline for when women can return to training or competing after having a baby, because every athlete’s pregnancy and delivery is different.

“You hear of women who after 10 days are running for an hour and a half,” she says. “But what’s most important is taking time - that's when you have better outcomes. We usually say the first six weeks are all about getting used to your new life changes, then ticking off milestones so it’s safe to exercise again.”

Elite athletes are encouraged to work with a team of specialists - including physios, nutritionists and physiologists - at High Performance Sport NZ to draw up an individualised plan for their comeback.

Bay of Plenty Volcanix captain Les Elder with baby Mihiterena. Photo: Shannon Gray. 

Former Black Ferns captain Les Elder has worked with experts at Bay of Plenty Rugby for her return to the rugby field six months after the birth of her first child, Mihiterena. But she admits she’s struggled to get her body back to her ‘normal’.

“People would say ‘You’re looking so good’, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘But I’m in so much pain’. I’ve had some pretty big injuries, but this is full body pain,” says Elder, who captained the Bay of Plenty Volcanix in the Farah Palmer Cup. “I have a newfound respect for mum athletes.

“I returned to training four weeks post-baby. But now I think to myself was that too early? Did I need to give my body a bit more time? My body has changed so much, but me being me, I’m chasing what I used to be able to do quite quickly. Where I really need to say: ‘Look you’ve just gone through this, take your time and ease back into it’.

“With breastfeeding there’s a lot more laxity in your ligaments, so you’re a bit more prone to injury. So not only am I trying to build my strength and my base fitness again, I’m rehabbing all my ligaments and joints to avoid injury.”

Returning to the full contact of rugby wasn’t an issue for Elder – “I’ve been hit hard and it hasn’t hurt”. But what had suffered was her technique. “My timing was a little bit out, not wrapping completely in a tackle. It’s all those micro-skills I need to build back up again.”

The Covid-19 lockdown was a “blessing in disguise” in White Fern Amy Satterthwaite’s recovery after the birth of her daughter, Grace, in January.

The former New Zealand cricket captain started her rehab with 30 second jogs and bodyweight exercises “trying to slowly ease my body back in”, she says. “I was running at about two-and-a-half months and then we hit lockdown. Being stuck at home without much gym equipment and stuff meant I was able to take my time to build back up.” 

She successfully returned to the White Ferns for their Australian tour in September – taking baby Grace with her, as part of New Zealand Cricket’s maternity policy.

White Ferns Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu with their daughter, Grace, on tour in Australia. Photo: James Bennett/NZC

Not all mum athletes try to get back to where they were. Some look for new challenges – like former off-road triathlon and Xterra world champion, Sarah Backler. She’s been running up and down Mt Maunganui with her 10-month-old son, Otto, in a backpack, in training for next year’s Coast to Coast – her first time attempting the gruelling multisport event.

After taking it easy for the first six months, Backler is back on her bike building up to some big mileage. Last month, she did the 3D Rotorua 50km multisport race and was happy to be the second woman home.

She’s been able to do it, she says, with a supportive husband (Matt is also a multisport athlete) and a change in mindset.

“My husband and I had come to an agreement that I’d give my body up for a year with pregnancy, then I’d get a year afterwards to focus on getting back to sport,” says Backler, who's also put her career as a ceramicist on hold. “I’ve been fortunate he goes to work later in the morning so I can get a training session in.

“I have new priorities with my time - if I do a bike session, I want to be pretty tired by the time I get off. Being sleep deprived, I’m balancing life fatigue issues with training fatigue.

“It’s a different mindset now. I went into having a baby at a point where I was pretty happy with what I’d been able to do competitively, because I’m almost 40. But now I’m not focused on where I once would have liked to have been. I can just so go out and have a good race, and if I do well, it’s an added bonus.”

Finding a balance

That’s another reason some female athletes come back better, Sarah Beable believes – with more balance in their lives.

“They've got other things in their life that are prioritised, so they often go really well when the pressure comes off,” she says. “You see women have the courage to say ‘You know what? I wanted to be a mum, rather than an athlete, but it doesn't mean you can't have both’.”

Samantha Norton's crew (and shore crew) who won the NZ women's match racing champs this year. Photo Andrew Delves/RNZYS

When sailor Samantha Norton won the national women’s match racing championships this year, she and most of her crew were mums (including Olympic gold and silver medallist Polly Powrie).

“It was actually just the most magical thing to be out there again and doing what we love,” she said after the victory. “The final was hard work, and we were all comparing it to labour at one point, but it was fun, and we were all smiling and laughing the whole time.”

During her time as the Silver Ferns doctor, Beable saw Netball New Zealand were ahead of their time in embracing family. “Babies would come to the team hotel and the mums would have time just with their family, and then return to being a top-level female athlete. It was an amazing environment to be part of,” she says.

Victorious Central Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie knows all about coming back to elite netball – she’s had mum players like Sulu Fitzpatrick and Ameliaranne Ekenasio in her side, and she did it herself 20 years ago, returning to the court after having her own children.

“When you’re a coach it’s about trying to keep the holistic perspective around the player as a person and their bubba,” McCausland-Durie says. “It’s finding a balance – you don’t want it to be a daycare, because you’re coming to do your job. But how do we help you at times when babysitting doesn’t quite work out? You should feel comfortable that your family is part of our family.”

With Ekenasio, it meant taking her son, Ocean, with the team if they were away from Wellington for more than one night.

“You find a way to make sure that the person is comfortable and you eliminate the challenges. Because if they’re comfortable, their performance will be at its best,” McCausland-Durie says.

She also believes Ekenasio, now the Silver Ferns captain, is stronger and better organised for having Ocean.

“Ameliaranne is hugely present at training because she knows how precious that time is, and that other people have made a commitment that’s allowed her to do that,” she says. “So you work a lot harder to do the best you can.

“We know how incredibly frustrated she was in her first season back, when she sat on the bench behind Tiana [Metuarau] and didn’t get a lot of court time. But I kept telling her ‘You’re not ready yet; you’re going to get fitter’. And now she’s the fittest she’s been in her life.

Ocean Ekenasio was eight months old when his mum, Ameliaranne, was named in the Silver Ferns for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Photo: Getty Images. 

“One of the big things for our mums is making sure they don’t beat themselves up for not being there all the time with their children. There’s no such thing as a perfect mother.

“But being a mum gives perspective, a layer of appreciation, and realising it’s not just about you anymore. It’s a really empowering value mums bring to a team.”

Support crew

All mum athletes will admit they couldn’t play sport again with a support crew around them.  Some sports now have maternity policies allowing a support person to accompany the player and her baby on tour during the child’s first year.

Whitelock’s mum, Jan Sharland, travelled with her to Argentina (when baby Addison had a stomach bug on the long-distance flight).

Sharland also took leave from her job as a dental assistant to move to Auckland with Whitelock and her two children while she was part of the Black Sticks’ centralised programme training toward Tokyo (that was pre-Covid).

“When you’re not based in your hometown, it’s hard. I couldn’t have left two kids at home and gone to Auckland. But Mum offered to come with us, so I was pretty lucky,” Whitelock says.

When Satterthwaite goes on tour, her wife Lea Tahuhu, is right beside her – but as a crucial member of the White Ferns bowling attack. So when it came to weighing up whether to have children, the two cricketers knew they were going to need help from their families.

“We went into it with our eyes wide open,” Tahuhu says. “We had a lot of conversations with our families and we knew we were going to need a lot of support, obviously both playing cricket for a living and travelling means one of us can't just be following and watching Grace.”

On their recent stint in Australia, they felt they couldn’t ask a family member to spend a month in managed isolation on top of being on tour, so they hired nannies in Brisbane and Melbourne. The family will no doubt get their turn babysitting this summer.

“To have their support is huge,” Tahuhu says. “It really gave us the confidence that Amy would be able to come back and continue playing for as long as she wants to.”

Glynn's switch from Black Sticks to Olympic champs

In her first interview since leaving the Black Sticks, Katie Glynn tells Sarah Cowley Ross why she couldn't turn down the chance to help Great Britain defend their Olympic hockey title in Tokyo next year. 

When Black Stick legend Katie Glynn was playing under Mark Hager, he often joked that when she retired, she'd steal his job.

Four years into her retirement, Glynn and Hager have reunited on the coaching team of the Olympic women's hockey champions, Great Britain.

It may not be where the 31-year-old Glynn expected to be a year ago, when she was the Black Sticks assistant coach working towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But she's come a long way in her hockey journey from the young girl who watched her mother and brother on the turf, taking in all she could - learning to read the game and be the best hockey player she could be.

And she was one of our best – 134 international caps and 77 goals to her name representing New Zealand at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Following her retirement due to injury, Glynn turned to coaching, while continuing in her job in the sports department at Diocesan School in Auckland - a role she’d held through most of her playing career.  

“I started coaching as a way to stay connected to the game I love and I’ve come into coaching much earlier than I expected,” she says.

Glynn quickly moved through the ranks – assisting junior national teams and in 2019 took on the role of assistant coach of the Black Sticks women.  

With the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics, Glynn called time on her role with the national side. The Great Britain opportunity, she says, was too good to turn down.

“Not a lot of opportunities like this come around and if I want to pursue coaching long-term, I realised it would be a great chance to get out of my comfort zone and experience something different,” she says.

Mark Hager and Katie Glynn are reunited as coach and assistant coach for the Great Britain women's hockey side. Photo: supplied. 

Glynn says a number of friends told her about the role. 

“It was a long shot for me to throw my name in the hat and I was just shocked to get a second interview, let alone the job.”

It gave her the chance to work with Hager again, who she loved playing under in the Black Sticks side. “He has an exceptional hockey mind and I feel really lucky to learn from him,” she says.

In September she arrived in the Covid-19-stricken United Kingdom and set up camp in the Great British programme, alongside experienced David Ralph as assistants to Hager.

The centralised programme is based at Bisham Abbey (45 minutes out of London) where the contracted players live and breathe hockey.

“It’s refreshing to come into a positive environment – the girls very professional and know the systems in place,” says Glynn.

“I’ll get a number of messages every week asking for extra sessions following training because they all want to be better.”

There’s a dedicated turf for the men’s and women’s teams and they’ve received an elite exception from the government to continue training while in the current lockdown conditions.

While the level of investment in the women’s side is reflective of their gold medal status, Glynn says the GB programme, in terms of support staff on the ground, is similar to New Zealand.

“The staff are all exceptionally driven, thorough in their roles and there’s a great trust model that everyone does their roles,” she says.

At her first training, Glynn admits it was a weird feeling putting on the GB kit and assisting a team which cruelly robbed New Zealand of some key moments in the last two Olympic Games.

Katie Glynn scrambles with Great Britain keeper Maddie Hinds in the 2014 Commonwealth Games semifinal - won by GB. Photo: Getty Images. 

“Singing the anthem at our recent tour was obviously really different and fortunately the team analyst sent me the words to learn,” she laughs.

Glynn’s new team have just completed a European tour in early November with strict Covid-19 protocols in place and were able to play against the Dutch and Belgium national sides.

The team required their bus drivers join their bubble before the tour started. “We had two team buses, multiple Covid tests throughout the tour, single rooms and all sat by ourselves at dinner,” Glynn says.

While the international matches were excellent for the team, Glynn admits the focus right now is on maintaining the training environment to a high standard.

“We don’t know when the next international match will be – we’re creating a competitive environment amongst the squad,” she says.

Being together and getting to tour definitely helped the players’ stress levels and wellbeing Glynn says, but she knows from experience it’s the three or four months leading into the Olympics that brings ‘selection stress’.

“The delay of a year has been positive for our team, obviously with new staff coming on and some players returning from major injuries. The mood is in the camp is great,” she says.

Glynn is contracted to Great Britain and England Hockey until the Tokyo Games, and says she’s not in a hurry to progress to a head coaching role.

“I haven’t set my sights on being a head coach in New Zealand – at the moment I’m focused on being here and making the most of this opportunity,” she says.

On the potential of coming up against New Zealand in Tokyo, Glynn is pragmatic: “I’m a passionate Kiwi and I have close friends in the group, so I will always want New Zealand teams to do well.”

The sides are not in the same pool at the Olympics, so if they were to meet, it would be in the knockout stages of the tournament.

“I probably didn’t see myself being here now, I saw myself being at the Tokyo Olympics with New Zealand,” she says.

“At the end of the day this is how sport works – people move around, you get on with it, and I’m really excited to be working with this group”

For Glynn being away from her family - particularly fiancée Sophie Elwood - is the hardest part of this career opportunity.

“High performance sport is not easy – it’s an emotional roller coaster,” she says. “but the highs are worth all the lows you go through.”

The 81-year-old swimmer with a new lease on life

After going under the surgeon's knife, octogenarian Pat Owens is returning to the waves for another crack at the national ocean swim series.

Pat Owens started as a competitive swimmer at the youthful age of 58.

At 70, she switched from the pool to the sea. And now at 81, Owens is a star of the New Zealand ocean swimming scene.

She will almost certainly be the oldest woman lining up in the upcoming Swim the Shore event, the opening leg of the Banana Boat New Zealand Ocean Swim Series – where she’ll be seven decades more senior than the youngest swimmers in the field. But Owens has a youthful outlook on life - and a new hip.

Once in the world’s top 10 in her age group in the pool, Owens now swears she has saltwater coursing through her veins.

Living in McLeod Bay, on the northern edge of the Whangārei Harbour, she has the perfect place to train each day.  She’s rarely deterred by waves or swell on her 3km daily dips.

For years Owens lived on the opposite side of the island - at Whakapirau on the Kaipara Harbour - farming with her husband. But when he died suddenly 26 years ago, she continued to run the 200ha farm for another two years.

“But working seven days a week was not the way I wanted to live,” Owens says. So she sold up and moved to Whangārei Heads, where she has a home right on the waterfront.

Owens has always been able to swim. She was born in Auckland and grew up next to the Panmure Basin. “It was our playground. We had seven kids in our family, and no money for going to swimming clubs, so we just swam in the Basin,” she says.

It was when she was running the farm on her own that Owens started to swim in the indoor pools in Whangarei – making a two-and-a-half-hour round trip to dive in with the Whangarei Masters Swimmers.

Pat Owens after swimming in the Legend of the Lake, in Rotorua's Blue Lake. Photo: Simon Watts/BW Media

“As soon as I started, everyone said I should swim in competitions,” she says. At her first meet, she won a bronze medal, which began a torrent of medals. At her second national championships, she collected three gold and two silvers. At the Pan Pacific Games in Perth in 1999, she had five top 10 placings.

“I’ve travelled all over the world to Masters championships in Sweden, Vanuatu, Fiji and Australia.” At the 2010 world champs in Gothenburg she collected her first world top 10 medal.

It was if, she says, she’d been given a second lease on life.

Then her swimming buddy, Lyn Milligan, convinced her to join her competing in the ocean.

“I was 70. And I loved it from the start. I decided I didn’t want to go back to swimming in pools, and chlorine, anymore,” she says.  It was easier on her arthritic hips too, not having to push off the pool walls.

“My body was used to swimming in the sea – I’d come out on the weekends and swim at one of the beaches.”

She quickly learned how to handle choppy seas: “You turn your head a little more towards the back when you breathe,” she says.

Owens doesn’t always swim alone; she’s recently discovered a group of likeminded swimmers who stroke across a different bay at Whangarei Heads every Thursday.

For a decade, Owens competed in the New Zealand Ocean Swim Series without missing a year. And in the summer of 2018-19 she made history as the first octogenarian woman in New Zealand to swim in the series.

But last summer, Owens was forced to stay on the beach. She wasn’t able to train with a painful hip and was on the waiting list for surgery. The coronavirus pandemic delayed it further.

“I finally had my hip operation on May 15, as soon as New Zealand came out of lockdown. I was No.1 on the list,” she says.

Swimming was the best exercise she could do in her recovery “because it’s not weight-bearing”, she says. And now her hip is as good as new.

Swimmers round the first buoy in the annual ocean swim event off Takapuna Beach. Photo: Mark Tantrum

Owens dove back into swimming in McLeod Bay in September. The water temperature has been unseasonably warm, so she just trains in her bathing suit. But she always dons a short wetsuit for the series events.

The first is an Ironman distance 3.8km swim along the coastline from Narrow Neck to Takapuna on December 12.

She has traditionally travelled the country taking part in the series, and plans to do so again this summer, competing in the Swim the Lighthouse event at Freyberg Beach in Wellington at the end of January, and the Mount Swim at Mt Maunganui in April. She also wanted to do the Legend of the Lake in Rotorua, but it’s the weekend her grandson gets married.

So what keeps bringing her back? “The competitive side of it, as well as a wonderful group of people involved in ocean swimming. Everyone supports each other,” she says.

“And I love the challenge. You never know what the weather will bring, or how many people will be lining up.”

She can’t foresee a time when she'll retire her ocean marathons: “I guess I’ll just keep going.”

Try-scoring injury knocks cricketer Suzie Bates for six

LISTEN: On this week's Extra Time, cricketer Suzie Bates talks about the 'try-scoring' injury forcing the longest break in her career.

White Ferns batting maestro Suzie Bates is one who's happy that the women's cricket World Cup has been delayed a year, as she prepares for a long break out of the sport.

The former New Zealand captain is in managed isolation, nursing a shoulder injury she suffered diving in the field in the Women's Big Bash League, and waiting for surgery in mid December. 

A guest on this week's Extra Time panel, Bates talks about being out of the game for up to nine months, but having the World Cup at home next summer as her motivation to return to the game. 

Also this week, some All Blacks fans and punters might be baying for Ian Foster's blood but would getting rid of the All Blacks coach be a short-sighted knee jerk reaction?

We're also talking the Black Caps, as their international summer gets underway with a three-match T20 series against the West Indies. It's been 260 days since the New Zealanders last played - so what can we expect?

Also joining Bridget Tunnicliffe are veteran cricket commentator Bryan Waddle and RNZ sports reporters Joe Porter and Barry Guy.

*Extra Time is brought to you by RNZ, LockerRoom and Stuff. 

One netball misstep hobbles Morey's AFLW dream

Already a double international in her teens, Killarney Morey was on the verge of breaking into the big time of the AFLW, but a cruel knee injury has slowed her down

Last year, Killarney Morey came one step away from her dream of playing professional Aussie Rules across the Tasman.  

The New Zealand women’s AFL captain was the first New Zealand-based player to be selected in a combined states team, Eastern Allies, for an U18 national tournament - from which players are often drafted into the pinnacle AFLW competition. 

But her chance to take that next step in her AFL career was cruelly ripped away when she put one foot wrong, and ruptured her ACL early this year - playing netball. 

“It was in the first minute of the first trial for this year's team," says Morey, who was trying out for the South team in the Beko League. "I just heard the pop. I ruptured my ACL and did both meniscuses as well.”

Morey grew up playing netball - and has represented New Zealand at secondary schools level - and only picked up AFL in her first year at high school. Although the AFLW grand final attracts crowds of over 50,000, it's still a small sport in New Zealand. But the women's game here is growing - to the point where New Zealand could have its own franchise team playing in the AFLW in the next five years.

The 19-year-old thrived on her taste of the game in Australia last year. After each match with the Eastern Allies, the players were called in for one-on-one video analysis sessions to break down their game. 

“It was just a bit more of a professional environment - seeing what that next level could look like, which was really interesting,” Morey says. "And some of my teammates from that side are now playing in the AFLW.

“Seeing them go to the next level was pretty cool and inspired me to want to do the same. I would love to try to go to the top level.” 

Killarney Morey was introduced to AFL by a keen PE teacher at Epsom Girls' Grammar. Photo: supplied. 

But the young sport fanatic will have to wait a little longer to play either sporting code, after initially waiting four months to go under the knife. 

Morey was unable to book in for surgery straight after her knee gave way, as New Zealand went into Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown. She now has about four months of recovery to go. 

“It’s been a bit different, but at least with Covid I haven’t felt as though I'm missing out too much with everything else happening. I guess it’s not the worst year to do it,” says Morey.

But she admits the first couple of months were really tough. “It took a while for me to even just accept that I was going to be out for so long, because I’ve been playing sport my whole life,” Morey says. “And then to just have it taken away like that, it took me a long time to get a hold of it.

“But once I did, I just wanted to give everything to the rehab, so that I could use this time to get stronger and fitter than I was before and come back in the best possible shape. 

“It's also been good for me mentally - I feel like I’m stronger than I was before. Having to train on my own a lot and relying on myself to just push through things has been good; I've learnt a lot from it.” 

Killarney Morey played age-group netball for Auckland before her serious knee injury. Photo: supplied. 

Morey grew up in Kaitāia but moved to Auckland’s Epsom Girls Grammar for her secondary school years. The young boarder then made the move further south to Dunedin last year to study physiotherapy fulltime. 

One positive from this disrupted year has been the amount of free time Morey has had to focus on her degree. Last year the sport-study juggling act meant  returning home from playing AFL in Australia to face end of year exams three days later. 

“This year I've been able to go hard with my studies and it’s paid off,” says the Te Rarawa descendent, who won the junior female sportsperson of the year at the Māori  Sports Awards in 2018. 

Her physiotherapy degree is also coming in handy with her own rehabilitation process and she jokes it’s helping her career too. 

“There are so many ACLs that come through, so the fact that I'm going through all of this, I’ll always know how to treat the ACL really well,” she laughs. 

“Even seeing my MRI and the surgeon explaining the process, I understood all the terms they were using and what was going on. And if I’m stuck or want to find something out, I know what to research to see what could be good for it or when to do certain exercises. All that kind of stuff helps out a little bit.”

Succeeding in netball is still on the radar for the Auckland age-grade captain, too. “Playing high performance netball in the New Zealand Secondary Schools team in my last year at high school is probably the highlight of my career so far because I’ve always wanted to push for higher levels in that as well,” she says.

Morey got into netball through her mum, who also played. But it was one of her PE teachers who introduced AFL into her life after her first athletics day at Epsom Girls. 

“She just said 'There's this opportunity that you could probably play AFL for New Zealand if you wanted to',” says Morey. “And me and my friend were like that would be so cool to play for New Zealand. We didn't even know what it was at the time so I went home, looked up AFL and showed up to training on Sunday.

“We learnt how to kick, and some of the rules - obviously it's quite complicated to get it straight away - but we just found it really fun. We both really enjoyed it and I just kind of stuck with it. The more I understood the game, the more confident I got with it.”

Killarney Morey and her Eastern Allies team-mate, Tasmanian Mia King, who was drafted into North Melbourne in this year's AFLW. Photo: supplied

AFL NZ national community and communications manager, Tom O’Keeffe, has seen the growth in the sport in New Zealand over the last 10 years and would like to push even further in the women’s space. 

“Within five years, we’re gunning for an AFL women’s franchise in New Zealand. We’re backed by the board and the CEO - they want it to happen. And it can, there's a lot of opportunity there,” he says. The AFLW is entering its fifth season in Australia, with crowds and interest growing each year. 

Locally, a women’s premiership competition has been organised and this weekend will be their final game of the year. There are only two teams, but O’Keefe knows they need to start building a pathway from grassroots to senior level if they want to achieve their AFLW goals.

Morey, he says, has probably been their best example of someone to keep an eye on as the sport continues to grow on this side of the Tasman. 

“She's still very young. Being selected for the Eastern Allies at the U18 AFLW national champs last year was sort of the next step up, before AFLW. It’s the first time we've had someone selected into the Eastern Allies team.”

With Morey’s accolades in both sports she might not have to cross the ditch to reach her dreams. 

Where is she now? Julie Seymour

Former Silver Ferns captain Julie Seymour was denied a World Cup title three times, but she's found new reward as a coach, teacher and mum. 

The hardest knocks gave Julie Seymour the biggest opportunities of her career.

Sitting down to a cup of tea on a promising Canterbury spring morning, the former Silver Ferns captain is reflective and philosophical about her 16-year national netball career.

Over her 92 tests, the workaholic midcourter wasn’t side-lined for injury in 14 years, had three of her four children during her playing career, and was nanoseconds from pushing her middle-distance running career to Commonwealth Games level.

Today, she’s the assistant coach for the Tactix in the ANZ Premiership and the 49-year-old – married to former New Zealand Sevens star Dallas Seymour – says she has an almost “ideal” job as a physical education teacher at St Margaret’s College, the secondary school she attended in Christchurch.

And there’s a good reason why she’ll never play masters netball.

Finishing runner-up to Australia too many times remains irritating for Seymour. And it’s perhaps ironic the sport that saved her netball career – athletics – has always been the runner-up to her first-choice sport.

Blessed with a heart as big as Phar Lap, a humble attitude and a vision for the game which habitually put her in the right place at the right time, Seymour was first chosen to represent her country in netball in 1994.

Three years later, just as she was getting comfortable in that Silver Fern uniform, the incoming coach Yvonne Willering dropped her. She was 27.

“That was devastating, but in hindsight, it was the best thing for me,” Seymour says. “I thought I was a fit netballer, but I’d become unconsciously complacent. And, I was playing average, very average.

Silver Ferns centre Julie Seymour fiercely guards the ball from Australian Natalie von Bertouch. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

“When that happened, I decided that I could either keep doing the same thing and keep getting the same results, or I could do something different. So, I went back to my old athletics coach.

“He was living in Christchurch and I was living in Wellington. He sent me a programme and I used to go down to Newtown Stadium athletics track and do these sessions on my own. And, I was way off in the times. It was a bit depressing.

“I realised then that I might be a fit netballer, but I was a bloody unfit middle-distance runner.”

She also teamed up with New Zealand Olympic runner Anne Hare at that time, who became her running coach.

Challenge accepted

While the Silver Ferns toured England that year, Seymour stayed home and worked hard.

So hard, that within four months she decided to run the 800m at the national track and field championships.

“Athletics was really out of my comfort zone at that time. And, while I wasn’t known in athletics, I’d been a Silver Fern for three years, so it was a bit scary for me when I decided to compete and I had to rock up at the start of a 400m track,” Seymour says.

She finished second.

“I was by that stage leaner, faster, and mentally stronger because it is so tough running the 800m. When I started the next netball season, I just knew I was playing better. I was probably 6 to 8kgs lighter, I was more agile, and mentally so much stronger.

“I really wanted to get back into the Ferns, but I thought if I don’t, I’m going to try and qualify for the Commonwealth Games as a middle-distance runner. For the first time I had a plan B. And I guess a part of me wonders if I would have been able to get there with athletics if things had turned out differently.”

Willering, however, had other plans for the young centre. She reselected her.

“That selection felt better than the first time I was chosen for the Silver Ferns,” Seymour says. “I played for another 10 years and I was always in control after that.”

She would continue to compete in athletics until 2000, notably finishing second to Toni Hodgkinson, who qualified for the Sydney Olympics that year.

Athletics gave Seymour the tipping point for her physical conditioning which would sustain her, and arguably save her from serious injury in a sport now littered with broken bodies.

Children called time

Seymour had always wanted four children and somehow with the support of her husband and her mother, Dorothy, she had juggled elite sport and family through her first three pregnancies (with the exception of the 2004 season).

The Seymour clan. Photo: supplied. 

Harrison is now 19, Hannah 17, Josie 15 and Thomas 10. Seymour says it was the arrival of Thomas which helped her transition from player to coach, aged 38 - in addition to a partial Achilles tear sustained during training. Her first truly worrying injury.

“I’d got to three kids, and then all these exciting events were happening that I wanted to be involved in. But I couldn’t get it out of my head that I wanted four kids and the gap between No.3 and No. 4 was getting bigger. Josie was nearly five when Thomas was born,” she says.

“I think if I hadn’t have got pregnant, I don’t know when I would have stopped playing netball. I don’t think I would have been able to make the call myself. Thomas gave me a reason to finish.”

Leaving the playing persona behind is a loss that every national athlete has to face at some time.

Seymour, who was made a Member of the New Zealand Order Of Merit in 2003, acknowledges that many of her sporting colleagues have struggled with the transition. She found it easier because she was coaching, had four children and life after sport with her husband to focus on.

Dallas Seymour remains one of New Zealand’s longest-serving and most successful sevens players over a 16-year career, in addition to his All Black and provincial duties. He now works for Ngāi Tahu.

“It’s not that any of us seek attention or anything, but I do think so much of your identity is tied up in the sport. You almost grieve for it,” Seymour says.

“I missed playing, and for the first few years I just wanted to jump on the court and do it myself. That was definitely hard.”

Coaching knock-down

Co-coaching the Tactix was the next logical step, and Seymour took it.

After five years as the assistant coach she applied for the head coaching role in 2015. Canterbury instead chose Australian Sue Hawkins. Seymour, by her own admission, was “gutted”.

However, for the second time the universe offered her some lemonade out of that lemon.

“My old fitness trainer, Greg Thompson, asked me to come and help with some fitness work at St Margaret’s College, and not long after that a teaching position became available there,” she says.

“It was amazing timing, and it opened the door back to what I was trained to do - teaching. And I love it. Once again being turned down [for the Tactix job] was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Seymour loves being “part of my daughters’ world” – with both girls attending school there. She also takes fitness classes and runs a sports accelerator programme.

“It also opened up other coaching experiences, and gave me the chance to be the head coach for the New Zealand Secondary School team, and assistant coach for the New Zealand team at the World Youth Cup.”

It was coaching New Zealand U21s to gold in Botswana three years ago that lifted the monkey off Seymour’s back that had dogged her through three world championships and two Commonwealth Games in her playing days.

“All my time in the Ferns, we won either silver or bronze. So when we went to the World Youth Cup, I was thinking, ‘If we lose this, I’m the jinx’,” she says.

“But we won. Even though I wasn’t playing, it was still very cool…and a relief.”

Tactix assistant coach Julie Seymour during the 2019 ANZ Premiership season. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

Two-and-a-half years after Hawkins was appointed, she was dramatically sacked mid-season. Marianne Delaney-Hoshek stepped in for Canterbury, and she asked Seymour to join her back in her old assistant coaching role.

“I had moved on by that time. But Marianne came back to me a couple of times, and I ended up sitting on the bench and helping out for the end of the season,” says Seymour. “Over summer she came back to me again, and leading into 2018, I eventually said ‘ok’. But I still wanted to work at school, and it had to fit in. Three years later, I’m still there.

“We’ve got a good team for next year and it’s exciting to be involved, but I have to be careful to balance my world. I can’t be at everything.”

In short, Seymour has found her fit.

“I didn’t love coaching for ages. Now I do. I get as much satisfaction being part of other people’s journeys, as I did mine,” she says.

“I love the competitiveness, and I love trying to win. And it’s now so long since I played, you almost forget what it’s like. It’s 10 years, but it may as well be 30.”

The pressure on progeny

Not every child has parents with the Seymours’ incredible sporting pedigree, and their mum acknowledges it came with some pressure for their children at different times.

Julie Seymour celebrates her last game for the Tactix with daughters Hannah and Josie. Photo: Getty Images. 

Seymour still remembers one mother rolling her eyes and commenting when Harrison competed in the cross country, aged five, “Oh, I wonder who’s going to win this?”

“In fact, Harrison was the kid at the back walking and talking with his friends and he wasn’t remotely interested in the race,” Seymour smiles. Harrison went on to play football - after giving rugby a go for two years, he decided to return to the round ball.  

The determined Hannah shied away from netball and plays badminton: “Now she really likes fitness and doing her own workouts,” Seymour says.  

“But Josie and I have our thing at netball. She’s always loved it - she came to Tactix training and she loved hanging out - and now she loves playing.”

Josie is in the St Margaret’s A team, and at 1.75m, the goal defence is taller than her mother, who coaches the team.

“Because Thomas is so much younger, he wasn’t around when we were still playing… We’re old has-beens to him now. He does loves rugby though, and Dallas coaches him,” Seymour says.

Seymour is adamant there will be no comebacks for her at masters level.

“No, I’d just be frustrated, and I’d always want to do what I used to do,” she says. “I still love fitness and exercise, and I’m very happy just doing my own thing.

“Now, if it’s a beautiful day I can run. If it’s cold, I go to the gym. I’m in a good place.”

From Here to Maternity: Who loves ya, baby?

When athletes fall pregnant while they're still at the height of their careers, who helps take care of them? Are sports looking after their mum athletes - or are they doing it solo? Suzanne McFadden finds out in part three of our series From Here to Maternity. 

In the past few months, Grace Marie Satterthwaite has stolen the attention of the cricket world – a trailblazer before she’s even a year old.

The daughter of White Fern stars Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu has been on tour in Australia since September, winning hearts wherever her parents play.

“She comes to a few trainings, which is good to have her outside,” Tahuhu tells LockerRoom after the trio spent a fortnight of isolation in Brisbane before the White Ferns’ six-match series with Australia. “She rolls around and plays with the toys, and crawls all over the place. And gets a lot of cuddles from the girls.

“She’s added a whole other dimension to the team and the girls love getting back from training and being able to get a smile from Grace. You turn up to breakfast, and everyone walks past and says hello to her. She brings a lot of joy to everyone.”

Baby Grace has had no shortage of love from 140 of the world’s best cricketers, all living in the Sydney Olympic hub during the Women’s Big Bash League. She had a male nanny take care of her while her parents were out in the middle. 

 
 

She was no doubt a welcome distraction, too, after Satterthwaite and Tahuhu’s team, the Melbourne Renegades, were relegated from the competition last weekend. The family are now bound for home, and another two weeks in hotel isolation somewhere in New Zealand.

No stranger to striking firsts during her stellar career, Satterthwaite became the first White Ferns player to take advantage of New Zealand Cricket’s pregnancy leave policy when she announced she was expecting in August 2019.

It meant the then White Ferns captain was entitled to full pay – without the obligation of training or playing – during her pregnancy and her recovery afterwards.

The pregnancy provisions in NZ Cricket’s new collective agreement mean professional players can continue with their careers and have a family at the same time.

Netball and rugby in New Zealand have done the same for their top tier of female athletes. And high performance athletes in other sports are now receiving help from sports medicine professionals so they can safely stay in shape during their pregnancy and prepare to return to sport.

It’s a monumental step forward from not that long ago, when top athletes were instructed to go away and have their child, their contracts ceased, and told to let their sport know if and when they were ready to play again.

Very little research has been done globally into what intensity of exercise elite female athletes can do while they’re carrying a child and afterwards.  

But New Zealand athletes are helping draw up guidelines that will assist the growing number of women, here and around the world, who want to have families but keep competing at a high level.

Entering new territory

It was always Satterthwaite’s intention to come back to the international game after Grace was born in January, but she didn’t take it for granted that it would happen. With support from her employers, NZ Cricket, the prolific batswoman realised she’d have a better chance of a comeback – which she did successfully in Australia in September, after 18 months off.  

“NZ Cricket have been really supportive, and being able to have a contract throughout the process was amazing,” 34-year-old Satterthwaite says.

“Everyone thinks about the contract side of it. But it's what comes with that - the resources and the support - that's probably the most underrated aspect.

“It allowed me to focus on having a baby and also try to keep myself in as good a physical shape as I could, to then be able to come back and make that process as smooth as it could be.”

At home in Christchurch, Satterthwaite called on a sports doctor and physiotherapist before and after giving birth to Grace, to figure out what she could and couldn’t do with exercise.

“It was all new territory for everyone in a way,” she says. “So there’s been a bit of working it out as we go along, but certainly having that support and those options to see those kinds of people are really helpful. 

“It's a pretty big thing that your body goes through, giving birth. There's always a big recovery, so you’re trying to ease your way back into it, and find out how far you can push yourself. It was a really new kind of challenge to work through; you have your ups and downs, but yeah, it's been pretty good.”

What athletes like Satterthwaite are discovering is that there isn’t a manual, or a simple guide to preparing your body for childbirth and recovery. Sparse research has been done on the effects of pregnancy on a female athlete’s body, or the safest and quickest way to return to top-level sport.

Alysia Montaño was five months pregnant when she ran the 800m at the US track and field champs in 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

Dr Bruce Hamilton, the medical lead for High Performance Sport NZ, says it’s an area that’s under-researched “like a lot of women’s sport issues are”.

“It’s a really difficult area to research because no one is going to risk anything with pregnant women. As a rule, we will always take a very cautious approach to ensure mum and baby’s health is prioritised,” he says.

“And every single pregnant athlete will have a different scenario and different risk factors – and a different childbirth experience. And those have to be taken into each athlete’s different sporting context.”

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee recognised more female athletes were competing well into their thirties, and wanting to have children and return to competition, so they brought together a committee of 16 international medical experts to review existing research and exercise guidelines.

The review revealed “a significant lack of high-quality evidence” about pregnant athletes, the impact of exercising while they’re pregnant and their ability to return to their competitive peak after childbirth.

So it recommended the IOC set up an international registry of athletes planning to become, or who are already, pregnant to collect information about the consequences of extreme levels of exercise by these athletes. The IOC could then use that data to guide athletes and sports bodies about maternal health.

“Since I had my baby, I’ve had athletes contact me and ask ‘Have you documented what you did? When it’s my time I’d love to talk to you and find out what you did',” - Black Fern mum Les Elder.

Worldwide, the attitude towards encouraging women to stay active and healthy during pregnancy and then return to sport has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, reckons Hamilton, who's also founder of New Zealand women's health in sport group, WHISPA .

“There’s been an evolution in thought about exercise in pregnancy. Sports physicians in the 1950s and ‘60s were anti anyone pregnant doing anything. Where they once would have said ‘don’t start new exercise in pregnancy’, now, as long as it’s controlled and appropriate exercise, then starting a programme may be a good thing,” he says.

Dame Valerie Adams is a prime example of how athletes can continue to train during their pregnancies. In fact, she was still working out the day before her second child, Kepaleli, was born - despite criticism on social media. “My body was used to doing it, and everything was very modified and very light,” she told LockerRoom in part one of From Here to Maternity.

Dr Stacy Sims can also vouch for elite athletes needing to stay active in pregnancy. The University of Waikato environmental exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist had just come to the end of a professional cycling career when she became pregnant with her daughter. An obstetrician advised her to follow the general exercise guidelines for all pregnant women.  

“It was like, if I pay attention to the general recommendations, I'm going to become fat and I'm going to get preeclampsia and diabetes,” she says. “It's just such a low-level of activity. They were like ‘We have to take care of the baby’.

"And I was like, ‘Well, I'm pretty sure my body inherently knows, so I'm just going to listen to it’.”

Elder writes her guidebook

Netball introduced a maternity policy to players in the ANZ Premiership three years ago. “To be perfectly honest with you,” says Steph Bond, executive manager of the NZ Netball Players Association, “we were following Australia because they had really great policies around pregnancy in both rugby and netball. It’s probably the one issue we followed them on.”

Traditionally, Netball Australia didn’t have a great track record with pregnant players – 20 years ago they banned them from playing, for fears of legal action over injuries to mothers or unborn babies.

Then Adelaide Ravens netballer Trudy Gardner successfully sued Netball Australia for being excluded from playing at 15 weeks pregnant. And Australia’s Federal Government introduced guidelines clearing the way for pregnant women to play sport.

Sportswomen in other countries have had to fight for that right too. Last year, Spain’s female footballers at all 16 professional clubs around the country went on strike for better contract conditions – including a maternity clause. Up until then players were at risk of having their contracts terminated immediately, without compensation, if they fell pregnant. A new agreement gives them the opportunity to renew their contract for another season.

Netball NZ’s maternity policy allows pregnant players to be paid for the length of their premiership contract, and teams can continue to offer support services until the player returns to the court. Bond wants to take it further and create a “competitive work environment”, encouraging players to have children and come back.

“One concept is to have specialists write you [exercise] programmes when you’re pregnant and when you’re returning to sport. After you’ve had your baby, what can your body do?” she says. “That's one area we don't have right in sport yet; there's just not enough knowledge about it.”

Bay of Plenty Volcanix captain Les Elder cuddles her baby, Mihiterena, after a Farah Palmer Cup match. Photo: Shannon Gray.

The Black Ferns 15s and Sevens squads have a ‘parental inclusion policy’ in their contracts. So when Black Ferns captain Les Elder was pregnant with daughter Mihiterena earlier this year, she offered to become a guinea pig for NZ Rugby.

“My thinking was I’m not going to be the last New Zealand rugby player to fall pregnant and come back into rugby. By returning, other women are going to see that it can be done at that level, and how it can be done. But with Covid hitting, priorities shifted,” she says.

But she wasn’t left high and dry. “Bay of Plenty Rugby were my biggest support. If it wasn’t for their high performance women’s programme staff, I would have been lost,” she says.

She was given free access to a physio, a strength and conditioning coach and a women’s health advisor. In a collaborated approach, driven by Elder, they drew up a nine-month programme for her.  

It was rugby-specific training without contact, but included things particular to pregnancy. “I didn’t know about ab separation and how that could be impacted by certain movements in the gym, or some exercises you could do to help with your labour,” she says.

“We got there in the end. But if there was a process – like, okay, we find an athlete is pregnant, step one is get a medical certificate and touch base with a nutritionist – it would make it so much better.

“It needs to be talking point in rugby, and in all sports. There needs to be a collaboration with other sports and see what they’ve done, and come up with a pretty good plan that can be adapted for each sport.”

Elder drew up a log of everything she did during her pregnancy and after, to get her back on the field in time to lead the BOP Volcanix in this year’s Farah Palmer Cup.

“Since I had my baby, I’ve had athletes contact me and ask ‘Have you documented what you did? When it’s my time I’d love to talk to you and find out what you did',” she says.

“I’ve even had a professional rugby player in England contact me on behalf of a friend who plays rugby and has just fallen pregnant. Obviously, there’s a demand out there amongst our athletes for this information.

“Let’s give it to them.”

Don't be scared to be pregnant

Right now, if you’re a carded high performance athlete in New Zealand and you’re pregnant, you can tap into a team of medical support at HPSNZ.

“We won’t manage the pregnancy - that’s the responsibility of an obstetrician or a GP,” Bruce Hamilton says. “What our team is really good at is talking with athletes in a language they understand about the risks and benefits of exercise. What’s healthy, what’s dangerous; what physiological, anatomical and hormonal changes are going on.

“Our physios can help the athletes to understand those changes and give them exercises. One of the advantages our elite athletes have is more time with our sports doctors.”

Some athletes thinking of starting families while they’re still playing are afraid they will be dropped from a team when they tell their coaches. But Dr Sarah Beable, a sports and exercise physician who’s worked with many of the country’s top sporting teams, has some sound advice.

“The first thing I always say is disclose that you're pregnant to the right people and don't be scared to. The sooner we know, the sooner we can help get the right support wrapped around you,” she says.

The physical activity guidelines for most pregnant women, before and after the birth, are around at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity a week. For elite athletes, it’s not that simple, Beable says.

“But there’s education around the symptoms to watch out for, and if you have none of these, and you’re feeling great, go for it,” she says.

“Obviously avoid high-risk and falling sports – downhill ski racing or horse riding may not be ideal. But for the most part, moving as much as you can is advised – for so many reasons.”

Next week: Do mum athletes return to sport stronger and smarter?

Holly Stewart passes tennis racquet to a new generation

Young tennis star Holly Stewart's first year at a US college was cut short by the global pandemic, but she's making the most of her time back home in NZ, giving back to young women with less opportunity. 

Holly Stewart knows how much a hand up can help change the course of someone’s life. She was given a tennis racquet by her uncle at the age of three and it set her on a journey around the world. 

And now, the 10-time New Zealand age-group champion is in a position to help lift another young girl up so she can chase her dreams too. 

The 19-year-old, back home from a scholarship at Boise State University in Idaho, has been helping out in communities across the country as part of the Tania Dalton Foundation’s ‘Boost’ initiative - which introduces intermediate-aged girls to a variety of sports to encourage them to keep active.

One girl, in particular, touched Stewart's heart.

“One of the little girls [in Whangarei] fell in love with tennis, and with the help of the Tania Dalton Foundation, I was able to give her some of my gear,” she says. “And then they were able to link her up to one of the coaches in Whangarei and she's started getting lessons. We were able to give her something to help follow her dreams, which is pretty cool.” 

The cost and accessibility barriers in sport mean not everyone is afforded the same opportunities, but programmes like those coming out of the foundation are helping to level the playing field. 

As one of the original TDF scholarship recipients, Stewart has had the opportunity to work with a number of people and organisations over the last three years to develop her own skills, as well as giving back through sport. 

That was something that really stood out to Boise State's women's tennis head coach, Beck Roghaar, during the recruiting process - how Stewart and her family spoke more about what she could bring to the programme, as opposed to what the programme could bring to her. "In an individual sport that now becomes a team sport in college, Holly's mentality is special," Roghaar says.

No doubt some of that mentality was forged during her time with the Tania Dalton Foundation, set up in remembrance of late Silver Fern. Stewart is a strong proponent of its purpose - to empower young girls and women to push their potential. 

Holly Stewart (centre) with Year 7 & 8 girls in the Boost holiday programme in Whangarei. Photo: supplied.

Stewart has also been part of the foundation’s ‘Pass it Forward' campaign, delivering sports balls to schools and clubs who have limited sports equipment. For every ball purchased in Rebel Sport stores, another one is donated to the cause.

She recently visited Glen Taylor School in east Auckland where they were able to donate 88 rugby, netball and soccer balls. "Seeing the children’s faces light up was so cool,” says Stewart, who grew up in the nearby suburb of Meadowbank, and went to Selwyn College.

Grabbing all of the opportunities available to her landed Stewart a scholarship to play tennis and study marketing at Boise State earlier this year. She moved  to the United States in January, but once the Covid-19 global pandemic took hold, she made the early return to home in March. She's planning to go back in January next year. 

True to form, Stewart managed to jam-pack her short-lived US experience with a number of achievements. 

She received All-Mountain West honours with her doubles partner Lilian Poling, and won 10 of her 11 singles games and nine of her 11 doubles matches. 

The doubles pairing led Boise State University’s Broncos team with the most wins, and her solo efforts put Stewart first equal in the team’s singles wins. She finished the season on an eight-match winning streak. 

Her New Zealand record suggested she was going to do well in the US - even when the move initially brought mixed feelings. 

“The thought of moving to the other side of the world is a bit daunting but once I got there, the people at Boise, my coaches, trainers, and professors, they're all such nice people that it made my move really easy,” Stewart says. “I was sad I had to come back but I'm looking forward to going back for sure.”

Her New Zealand career includes over 10 national titles and three international titles. At least five of the national awards came while she was still at high school, and includes New Zealand U18 doubles back-to-back championships. She was ranked No.2 in NZ U18s singles when she left for Boise. 

In Year 9 at Selwyn College, she represented New Zealand at the World Junior Teams Finals in the Czech Republic. She was later awarded the Chris Lewis Honours award as the highest ranked Auckland junior in the ITF rankings. 

Making the most of her time while back in New Zealand means Stewart has taken up coaching. "I love it. It's cool looking at tennis in a different perspective and teaching young ones how the game works,” she says.  She coaches at the Parnell Tennis Club, Royal Oak Racquets and some families at their own homes.

Her own long-term goals aren't concrete yet, but for now her sights are firmly set on what she can achieve with her team at Boise State.

“The main focus is just building a strong foundation for our team, hoping we get ranked in Division 1, and going to the NCAA Championships,” Stewart says. “Beyond that, maybe going pro but I'm not too sure yet. Coaching maybe an option as well.”  

Getting into tennis was inevitable. Her uncle, Troy Turnbull, who also held national titles, is a tennis coach and ran a programme every school holiday break.

“My mum was a single mum with two kids, who worked fulltime, so my uncle being a tennis coach, in the holidays we would get sent off to the programme with him. We kind of had no choice really,” she laughs. “But we loved it. All our time was spent there. One of the girls that I grew up with at those holiday camps is one of my best friends now." 

The Tania Dalton Foundation scholarship 'Class of 2018' - Holly Stewart is fifth from left in the back row. Photo: TDF

Knowing there were scholarship opportunities overseas has always been on Stewart’s mind - her uncle also took up a tennis scholarship in the mid-80s to Chapman University in Orange, California. 

“So I always knew about it. And then as I got older, a lot of my friends had gone over, not only for tennis, but for other sports like volleyball, soccer, all those kinds of things,” she says. “And they all loved it so it was really a no-brainer. To get a good education as well is something that really stood out for me.” 

Being inspired by her family has helped her along the way and keeps her in good stead. 

“My family is very sporty and loves anything to do with sport. My older brother, Cooper, plays water polo and has represented New Zealand at all age groups. My cousin plays and is a keen golfer,” Stewart says. 

Working with her TDF mentor, former Silver Ferns captain Adine Wilson, and meeting other young women with a similar passion for sport has been “super inspirational”, says Stewart. 

“Some of them are incredible athletes, amazing athletes. It's pretty cool to see and watch them develop over the three years as well as myself,” she says.

Making the most of every opportunity, big or small, is what Stewart would say to those wanting to follow a similar path.

“Don’t take anything for granted especially with Covid happening," she says. "I would say surround yourself with like-minded people who have a positive influence on you and push each other together. That’s a pretty big one.” 

 

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