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Devine's hope to inspire new era of cricket-mad girls

The 10-year-old girl from Tawa who cherished a cricket bat signed by her 2000 World Cup heroes, now wants to spur a new crop of cricketers through her own swashbuckling deeds.

In a recent column looking ahead to the T20 World Cup starting in Australia this week, Sophie Devine wrote that she “hoped to inspire a generation of cricketers coming through”.

It’s a simple enough statement, but one which has particular resonance for the White Ferns captain.

Get her talking about being inspired, and she can be as hard to stop as when she’s in full cry with the bat, as she has been this summer.

Her recollections of the White Ferns’ one and only International Cricket Council trophy success – beating Australia by just four runs with five balls to spare in the 2000 World Cup final at Lincoln – remain vivid 20 years on.

Next season New Zealand will host the World Cup of 50-over cricket again, the first time since that thrilling afternoon in Canterbury.

“As soon as I learnt we were going to be at home for the World Cup it was almost quite emotional,” she says.

“It brings back flashbacks of 2000. That was one of the first times I ever saw female cricketers playing.

“I remember being glued to the TV. Rebecca Rolls took the last catch off Clare Nicholson. It’s those little things. You don’t know who’s going to inspire you or influence whoever's watching.”

A few weeks later, the then 10-year-old from Tawa was in Christchurch for a school holiday. There was an age group tournament taking place.

“We must have known someone who was a manager of a team at the time, and I managed to get a bat signed by all the 2000 winning team and thinking ‘My God, I’m never going to let this out of my sight’,” she says.

“The power you can have on someone is pretty big. That influence is powerful stuff.”

Which brings us to this week and the start of the White Ferns’ quest to win a first world T20 tournament at their seventh attempt.

Unquestionably, the New Zealanders need their big players to perform – including former captain Suzie Bates, fast bowler Lea Tahuhu, gifted leg-spinner Amelia Kerr and, top of the heap, new skipper Devine.

* Watch Devine's record-smashing T20 innings against South Africa *

She’s taking stunning form into the tournament, and is arguably the most destructive batter in the game. Consider some numbers:

- In this season’s Australian women’s Big Bash, Devine belted a chart-topping 769 runs for the Adelaide Strikers at 76.9, with nine half-centuries.

- Add in 29 sixes - again top of the list - to demonstrate her hitting power, then throw in 19 wickets at 20 runs apiece, the fourth-best overall.

- In one game, she clouted five sixes off the last five balls of an innings against the Melbourne Stars.

- Devine is averaging 30.84 from her 87 T20 internationals.

- Possessor of the record for the fastest T20 50 in only 18 balls? Sophie Frances Monique Devine, against India five years ago.

- On February 10, she struck her first T20 century for New Zealand against South Africa on the Basin Reserve – no better place to do it than her home ground – to go with five ODI hundreds. That capped a run of successive scores in the format of 32, 51, 62, 19, 72, 54 not out, 61, 77 and 105 not out going back to November 2018 (The only other player to have made a T20 century for the White Ferns is Bates).

Enough of the numbers. Suffice to say, if Devine stumbles in the World T20 – which starts for the White Ferns against Sri Lanka at the WACA ground in Perth early on Sunday morning – the Ferns’ hopes will significantly dip.

No pressure, then.

“It’s been really pleasing,” she says of her own run of form. “I guess cricket is such a fickle game. Form can come and go.

“I’ve trained how I want to train, prepared for what’s to come and I’ve found if I’ve done the work beforehand, certainly you have confidence. But I might get a peach of a ball first ball. That’s cricket sometimes.”

As for being captain, to absolutely no surprise, she reckons she’s about actions, not words.

“I’m not one for lots of words. I’ve been thinking about how I want to do it, thinking about the experiences I’ve had and I’ve been very fortunate with my cricket journey,” she says.

“I feel very privileged but there’s a life outside cricket and you’ve got to put a perspective on that.

“There’s going to be days when not everything goes your way. You can feel a million bucks and get out for a golden duck.

“But at the end of the day, as long as you can look each other in the eye and say ‘I prepared as well as I could, I did everything I wanted to do and I didn’t come out on the right side’, then that’s all you can ask for.”

Devine also wants to be an agent for development in the New Zealand women’s game. And she’s not simply talking about more pay for women. There’s a little bit of that, but primarily she’s thinking about beefing up the resources for the women.

“You invest in players, allow them to focus 100 percent on cricket and of course you’re going to hope to see results. On the flipside, you can have athletes but if you don’t have the support staff, then what’s the point?”

She cites as examples: “Can we go on camps, can we go on more tours, can we go to India and have a spin bowling camp? Things like that are really important for development.”

Devine gets more specific. “You’ve got to think outside the square. It might be, okay our spinners are going to go to Sri Lanka and work with a spin bowling coach; our batters are going to learn how to play the sweep; or get the squad together for more intra-squad matches in Australia.

“It should be whatever helps the team get ahead. Australia’s got 10 times the money and people and resources. That’s cool, we’re never going to be like that.

“But we are blessed because we are a small country and can easily get around so what’s going to work best for us.”

Get Devine going on a favourite theme and she’s off and running.

It’s simple, and lazy logic, to group Australia, England, India and New Zealand in a top four pecking order. But South Africa’s ODI beating of the White Ferns was an eye opener. The West Indies have some classy players, too.

Devine is adamant. Australia are number one right now, and by some distance.

“A giant three steps ahead of everyone,” she says. “They’ve got great structures in place, their national side is well-funded and resourced, but more importantly is the structure they’ve got underneath.

“They have close to 100 full-time pros at state level. In New Zealand we’ve got 17.”

Sophie Devine says she's no closer to figuring out what she will do once her playing days are over. Photo: Getty Images. 

Pick out two things the White Ferns simply must do in Australia, and Devine settles on fielding and self-belief.

“Fielding is going to play a massive part. If you’re saving 10-15 runs in the field, that’s 10-15 you don’t have to chase, which can make a big difference.

“If you have girls sacrificing themselves out on the boundary and in the ring taking half chances, the lift that can give them is huge – and fielding is the only thing you do as a team.

“Players have been picked because they can do a job and they have to back themselves. If you execute your job and perform to your ability, I think we’re a seriously dangerous side."

Recently, Devine and her squad watched the behind-the-scenes ‘This is Pure’ documentary on the Silver Ferns’ world championship success. White Ferns manager Belinda Muller is a former Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic netball team manager.

“The great thing is people probably took different things out of it. Certainly part of my leadership will be to try and bring together female athletes and share experiences, no matter the code,” Devine says.

“I certainly gained inspiration from seeing it. It was so motivating because you know from your own experiences the work that goes in. That was pretty cool to see.”

Sport has been a substantial part of Devine’s life. She played 36 hockey internationals for the Black Sticks from 2009-12, just missing out on a trip to the Olympics in London, and she appeals as someone with an aptitude for most sporting activities.

“I always wanted to play sport for New Zealand. I remember at 10 saying ‘When I grow up I want to be an All Black’,” she laughs.

Her White Ferns debut was inauspicious – run out without facing a ball against Australia in Brisbane in a T20 in October 2006. But she’s made up for that.

And she knows it’s important to have an eye on what’s happening, and what possibilities are out there once the cricket carousel stops.

“As I’m getting a bit older and towards the end of my career, I do think what might be coming next – and I’m no closer to figuring that out,” she laughs.

For now though, it’s eyes front and taking on the world once again.

In the last World T20 in 2018, New Zealand lost to both India and Australia in group play and that was that. They have the same two opponents in their pool this time, along with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

This is one occasion they don’t need history to repeat.

* All of the White Ferns games at the T20 World Cup will be live on Sky Sport, starting with the NZ v Sri Lanka game at midnight on Saturday, on Sky Sport 2.

Back in the hot seat, Twigg's never rowed better

Closing in on her fourth shot at an elusive Olympic medal, rower Emma Twigg says she's stronger than ever - even after an accident tested her fortitude. 

Seventeen years and four Olympic campaigns into her elite rowing career, Emma Twigg says she’s never felt so good.

Physically she's in peak condition. Eighteen months after coming out of retirement, she’s rowed her way back to the top of the sport, and is almost a sure thing to line up in her single scull on the start-line of the Tokyo Olympics - chasing the elusive medal she’s been brutally denied in her previous attempts.

A few weeks ago, Twigg recorded the fastest 2km erg score in Rowing New Zealand testing since double Olympic gold medallists the Evers-Swindell twins, during their heyday in the 2000s.

When 32-year-old Twigg returned to rowing, her personal best time on the erg was six minutes 34 seconds; she’s since shaved off five seconds and believes she can go faster.

And mentally she’s stronger too.

On the morning of the North Island rowing club championship regatta last month, Twigg’s fortitude was truly put to the test. She woke to a phone call, breaking the news that her coach, Mike Rodger, had been in a serious car accident.

“Mike’s accident definitely wasn’t on my ‘what if’ list heading into the regatta. It was a hugely emotional weekend for me,” Twigg admits.

“He's been a massive part of me getting to where I am, and in my opinion, he’s turned me into a world-class sculler.”

Rodger is slowly rehabilitating from his injuries, but he’s stayed in daily contact with Twigg as they continue to find ways to increase her boat speed towards Tokyo.

Emma Twigg with her rowing coach Mike Rodger. Photo: Rowing NZ.

A former New Zealand rower, Rodgers won silver at the 1994 world championships in the lightweight men’s double sculls with Rob Hamill. He also rowed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the same boat.

The coach-athlete relationship is a special one, says Twigg, seeing each other every day and sharing the same goal. And despite the emotional upheaval, Twigg managed to retain her North Island title.

The road to her fourth Olympics became clearer when she was recently selected as the women’s single sculler in the elite New Zealand rowing squad - requiring no trial following the national championships.

“It’s a huge relief to have the single scull boat secured. It means we can just focus on the job to prepare for Tokyo,” says Twigg.

“When I think back to this point leading into Rio, I still didn’t have the boat qualified, so a lot of my focus was on performing at the ‘last chance’ regatta.”

After a devastating fourth at both the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Games, Twigg retired from the sport and moved to Switzerland to work at the International Olympic Committee.

The desk life, says Twigg, was totally overrated compared to the privilege of being an elite athlete - being able to do what you love on a daily basis and testing your physical limits.

After being immersed in the Olympic Games environment again, working at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Twigg decided to make a comeback for Tokyo - feeling she hadn’t fulfilled her potential at an Olympic Games.

To assist with her return to rowing, Twigg assembled what she describes as her ‘team of experts’ - including Rodger, physiologist Caroline McManus, strength and conditioning coach Angus Ross, sports psychologist John Quinn and biomechanist/analyst Justin Evans. Twigg says her team has helped her improve physically and sharpened her mental armoury.

“I feel they’re going to make the difference leading into the games, particularly in that eight-week period we’re home in winter,” she says.

The elite Rowing NZ team will head to Europe for a five-week block of racing in May - competing at two World Cups in Varese, Italy, and Lucerne, Switzerland - before completing their preparations at their headquarters at Lake Karapiro.

Twigg says being at home surrounded by her support team - which includes her wife, Charlotte, who she married in Hawkes Bay in January - is a massive advantage despite being in the midst of a New Zealand winter.

“Normally we’d be in Europe which is going to be warm, but it’s not going to be like the Tokyo conditions – 40 degrees Celcius and 70 percent humidity,” she says.

Heat chambers will be used to mimic the conditions in Tokyo - predicted to be one of the hottest Olympic Games in history.

Right now, though, Twigg admits she needs to keep grinding away, with the renowned Rowing NZ workload and her own strength work.

She says the depth of the women's squad has really progressed in the past four years which has made her daily training environment highly competitive.

“I can go out in a double with four or five other doubles next door to us, and be pacing really hard - it’s awesome,” she says.

“The success of the women's squad means if you’re getting a seat in a boat, you’ve essentially got a shot at an Olympic medal.”

Following her silver medal at last year’s world championships in Austria (hauled in by Ireland's Sanita Puspure), Twigg feels she's moved on technically and physiologically in the last year, increasing her strength levels with her off-the-water physical preparation.

So does she have Puspure locked in her sights?

“It’s not just about saying I want to beat Sanita. She was outstanding last year but I think there are another two or three girls who if they’re on their game, it’s all on,” she says.

There was a real pressure on Twigg at the Rio Olympics to beat Australian rival Kim Brennan. Now she says: “They actually need to beat me”.

Twigg is not content to hang up the oars post-Tokyo. If the passion for rowing is still there, she’s interested in doing another year, at least.

“Now it’s become more and more about seeing what my body can do,” she says. “It amazes me at 32, I’m still pushing the boat out.”

The trick to recreating a shooting star

Maia Wilson is being tipped as the next Maria Folau in the Silver Ferns shooting circle. But the 22-year-old has plans to stamp her own unique footprint on netball history.

When the phone rang, Maia Wilson was sure the caller had the wrong number.

Dame Noeline Taurua was on the other end of the line, but that wasn’t the bombshell - Wilson had been a regular in the Silver Ferns environment for a few years. 

Taurua immediately asked Wilson: “Are you sitting down?” Then the New Zealand coach of the year told the talented young shooter: “You’re going to be playing goal attack”.

“I absolutely freaked,” Wilson says. “I’m like ‘You know you’re talking to the wrong person, right?’”

For as long as she’s played netball – first making the Silver Ferns as a precocious 18-year-old – Wilson has played at goal shoot. In fact, she’s become one of the most accurate shooters in the country.

But there’s a big difference between the two shooting roles, and to master both is kind of an art.

Although she had been in or around the Silver Ferns since 2016, Wilson’s ability to play just one position was beginning to become a barrier. She missed out on selection for the triumphant World Cup side to players more versatile.

Taurua wanted Wilson to learn to play goal attack, so last June, she put her there in the All Stars team she’d created to play against the Ferns, Fiji and the New Zealand Men in the final build-up to the World Cup.

“Noels said to me ‘You’ve got the fitness to do it, you just need to back yourself’,” Wilson recalls. “But at that point I was very apprehensive. I didn’t want to be out there.”

Nevertheless, Wilson took the opportunity and shone in that series. She got the chance to grow in the new position for the New Zealand A side, and was then rewarded with re-selection in the Silver Ferns for the Australian leg of the Constellation Cup last October.

Maia Wilson playing out of her comfort zone at goal attack for the All Stars, versus Fiji. Photo: Getty Images

“I actually realised it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Wilson admits of the GA role. “I know I’m fit enough, and it’s just being smart about how I use my body, being efficient and knowing that I can do it.”

That adaptability - teamed with the dogged work she put in on both her fitness and mental strength - rocketed Wilson into the starting line-up of the new-look Silver Ferns side who won last month’s Nations Cup in England.

For the first time in her career, Wilson started in every test – mostly playing at goal shoot alongside World Cup star Ameliaranne Ekenasio and finishing the tournament with an exceptional 91 percent shooting success rate. She was crowned MVP of the final, and was clearly the revelation of the series.

Wilson puts a lot of that down to that scary phone call from Taurua last May.

“I’m learning how to be a better goal shoot by playing goal attack. And that excites me,” the 22-year-old says.

“Right now, on the New Zealand netball scene, we’ve got some really young tall goal shoots coming through.” Shooters like Ellie Bird, Jen O’Connell, Aliyah Dunn and Grace Nweke. “So having the ability to play both [positions] is definitely a newfound strength for me.”

It also means we could see Wilson in the GA bib for the Northern Stars in this season’s ANZ Premiership, which starts in a month.  

Stars coach Kiri Wills says Wilson gives her a “really interesting” option in the Star’s fresh shooting circle.

This year, Wilson is joined by Jamie Hume, who’s crossed town from the Mystics, and Julianna Naoupu, who’s making a long overdue return to elite netball. Since Naoupu, a former Silver Ferns squad member, played for Samoa at the 2015 World Cup, she’s been unable to play as a New Zealand eligible player until this year.

All three combinations are so different, Wills says: “And I’m one of those coaches who like to play those games.” Wilson at goal attack will be a handful for the opposition, she predicts.

“I also think with that freedom and space at goal attack, she’s not getting hit all the time, so she’s enjoying that freedom,” says Wills.

“Because she’s fitter now, she’s able to change her positioning if the defenders change on her. If an option gets taken away, she can very quickly offer something else. That’s been massive for her.”

While Wills would like to claim some of the credit in Wilson’s growth in the past year, she says it’s all come down to the young shooter’s personal work.

“Noels put in the standards, and Maia’s been determined to meet them. She’s always been big and strong and able to hold good angles. But now she’s able to change it up more often and be available,” Wills says.

“That was the big thing for the Ferns in England. When Maia was on court, the shooting volume went up.”

Taurua was happy too, telling Stuff during the series that Wilson had done the hard graft and was "physically a beast out there".

Maia Wilson shot an outstanding 44 from 47 in the Nations Cup final against Jamaica. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

A founding member of the new Northern Stars in 2017, Wilson is now part of the team’s senior leadership group.

“It’s weird because there are girls coming through now and they’re 20, and I’m only 22,” she says. “But it makes me smile, knowing that I have been around and I’ve put in the work.

“I don’t have an older head at goal attack with me anymore, so that also gives me the opportunity to lead.”

Wilson has always had a maturity beyond her years - something instilled in her at high school, playing for Mt Albert Grammar School during their four-year domination of national secondary school netball (2012-15), under the guidance of former Silver Ferns shooter Te Aroha Keenan.

“My time at MAGS was a great foundation for a young netballer,” she says. “We learned what we thought were the basics, but they were beyond basics at that age group. It meant I was then able to play with older girls and women.” In her first year out of college she went straight to the Central Pulse – the double international turning down a lucrative basketball scholarship at the University of Idaho.

“I know I don’t have to open my mouth to be a leader. I know I have a voice, and I can use it, but one thing I’m going to do now is to sit back, watch a bit more and let everyone else find their voice.”

Wilson’s outstanding performance at the Nations Cup - shooting 137 from 151 against England, South Africa and Jamaica – had fans wondering if she was the answer to the question mark left by the recent retirement of Ferns shooting legend Maria Folau.

“Maria is amazing, she always was, and she’s paved a great pathway for someone like me,” says Wilson.

“But I’m not trying to fill her footsteps – I’m trying to do something different with my own. I do things different to Maria – and to Ameliaranne, Bailey [Mes] and Te Paea [Selby-Rickit].

“I’m just really grateful for the opportunity [in England], but I know that just because it happened, it doesn’t guarantee I will still be there. I’m very mindful of that.

“There wasn’t that much pressure on me, but if I keep thinking about it, it will build, and there’s no need to do that. I’m just trying to enjoy where I’m at in my netball.”

Wilson - who's studying for a degree in communications off the court - thrived on the relaxed culture in the Silver Ferns. With veterans Laura Langman and Katrina Rore taking a sabbatical, Wilson was also thrilled to see fellow young players Whitney Souness and Kimiora Poi "finally get solid minutes” in the black dress.  

But there was probably no one as excited about her time in the limelight than her mum, Karena, who travelled to England with Maia’s brother, Kahikatea, and her step-dad.

“Mum is still buzzing,” Wilson laughs. “She’d never been in the crowd when I’d got on for the Silver Ferns for a decent amount of time. Mum is one of the Stars’ No.1 supporters - she gets the crowd going.”

Wilson also felt the presence of her late dad, Joe, who passed away suddenly from a brain tumour in 2016.

“I was very close to my dad, so losing him was really hard. I was 18, and living away from home with the Pulse,” she says.

“But knowing that I get to carry his name is massive for me; I still get to wave his flag wherever I go.”

As she’s training at the Stars’ home at Pulman Arena on a sweltering summer’s afternoon, she’s reminded of him too.

“Being here in South Auckland, I know he would have been here at all our games, watching me play. I think it’s special to remember that no matter where I go in netball, he’s still with me. And that’s a motivation and inspiration to play for him.”

* The ANZ Premiership starts on March 15. All games will be live on Sky Sport 3.

Rugby codes unite to boost Warriors nines

An influx of cross-code talent has bolstered the Warriors women ahead of this weekend’s NRLW nines, while a familiar face joins their coaching ranks*Watch the video above*

A new-look Warriors squad – packed with rugby and sevens players - will have to adapt to the short, sharp form of rugby league in Perth this weekend.

Four women will debut for the New Zealand side at the inaugural NRLW nines, a tournament featuring the Warriors, St George Illawarra Dragons, Brisbane Broncos and Sydney City Roosters.

While the Warriors will come up against many familiar faces from the NRLW competition, they will have some player in their own ranks who haven’t played league before.

Warriors coach Justin Morgan has taken a new approach to selections this year, with 50 percent of the players coming from rugby union or sevens backgrounds. He says he was looking for players keen to represent the Warriors brand.

"We’re going over there with an attitude that we want to bring the trophy back; we are going over there in serious mode,” he says.

Warriors captain Georgia Hale believes the mix will make for a perfect storm.

“We have some size and some physicality which will hopefully be our strength leading into the tournament, just knowing some of the players from the other teams,” says Hale.

“We’ve all come from different backgrounds, different codes and the combination of us all coming together, hopefully we’ll be a strong team over the weekend.”

League legend Honey Hireme hoisting the world nines trophy last year. Photo: Getty Images. 

While this first for the NRL opens opportunities for women in rugby league, it has opened other doors as well.

Kiwi Ferns captain Honey Hireme-Smiler has taken on the assistant coaching role while continuing to rehab from shoulder surgery.

“She’s really excited about standing on the sideline, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep her in check, because you know what ex-players are like on the sidelines in the coach’s box,” Morgan quips.

While the playing future of Hireme-Smiler remains uncertain, the expectation of the side to do well at the NRL nines is high, after she led the Kiwi Ferns to a world nines title last year.

For other veterans though, it's about a whole lot more than bragging rights.

“It’s the beginning of something really awesome… and for us as a team we need to be reminded of that legacy and the path we are trying to forge here,” says Kiwi Ferns second rower Kathleen Wharton-Keremete.

“Coming together and doing a really good job this weekend is essential to that legacy being able to carry on.”

The Warriors take on the Roosters in their first pool play match on Friday.

Sports A-Gender: Kiwi women line up world titles

*Watch Kate King and Ravinder Hunia wrap up a week of women's sport in New Zealand in the video above* 

In a week where our sportswomen reigned supreme at the Halberg Awards - taking home nine of the 11 awards - more Kiwi women were preparing for their shot at world titles.

It was announced that Geovana Perez will defend her WBO world light heavyweight boxing title in England in April, up against British challenger Savannah Marshall. 

Five-time world indoor champion Jo Edwards was named in the Blackjacks bowls team to play at the world championships on the Gold Coast, trying to win the singles world title title that has eluded her throughout a glittering career.

In the lead-up to next week's T20 World Cup in Australia, Black Caps captain Sophie Devine set a world record during the T20 series against South Africa - as the first player, man or woman, to hit five consecutive 50s in T20 cricket.

A new-look Warriors women's side will contest the inaugural NRLW Nines in Perth this weekend. 

And skier Jess Hotter Ohakune pulled off a stunning victory in her second start on the Freeride World Tour at Kicking Horse, British Columbia, to sit second overall in her debut year.

* Just in case you missed the Halberg Awards news: In a virtually unprecedented domination of events, the victorious Silver Ferns collected six awards – including the overall supreme honour; Lisa Carrington was the country’s top sportswoman for a fourth consecutive year; Sophie Pascoe the para athlete of the year for a seventh time; and up and coming skier Alice Robinson won the Sky Sport emerging talent award.

NZ Golf's gender bending air shot

Inviting a woman to play in the perennially all-men's NZ Golf Open field is for novelty value, not to embrace change, writes Steve Deane. 

'You can’t be half pregnant in sports promotion' is possibly not the best analogy when considering the NZ Golf Open’s decision to welcome its first female participant.

Then again, maybe it is. And maybe you can.

Certainly the NZ Open’s revelation that it is including a female player in its field for the first time in its largely inglorious history appears to be exactly that.

The ‘initiative’ that tournament director Michael Glading reportedly described as a bit of fun and novelty certainly appears an attempt to retain possession of one’s gateau despite having smothered it in whipped cream and smashed it down at morning tea.

Mid-level Swedish LPGA pro Pernilla Lindberg’s inclusion in the NZ Open field – as well as partnering with Beauden Barrett in the pro-am – is a blatant attempt to garner publicity and interest for an event that traditionally struggles to earn a reasonable share of either.

With the NZ Herald and Stuff picking up the reportable thread, it’s a case of ‘well played and job done’ in that regard.


Glading’s carefully scripted comment: “We live in an age that is now more open than ever to new ideas and innovation", might be true, but it rather ignores that this is a card that has been played no fewer than six times, the first of which was in 1935.

That year’s LA Open remains the first and only time a woman has made the cut at a PGA tour event, with two-time Olympic track and field champion Babe Didrikson Zaharias going to toe-to-toe with the best male players of the era.

Still considered one of the greatest female athletes of all time, Didrikson Zaharias - the 1932 80m hurdles and javelin champ - entered the LA Open after being denied amateur status in golf.

She finished in the top half of the field, and would go on to win 41 professional titles in women’s golf, rounding out a sporting CV that included competing on the vaudeville circuit for the bearded House of David (commune) basketball team and dominating the US pocket billiards (aka pool) scene.

Didrikson Zaharias clearly wasn’t averse to a sports marketing shenanigan or two.

If there’s a common thread linking golf’s pioneering woman to those who have followed in her attempt to cross the gender bar - Annika Sörenstam, Suzy Whaley, Michelle Wie and Brittany Lincicome - it’s that they are all also, well, babes.

It seems unlikely that is an accident.

While clearly substantially more than just a pretty face, former teen sensation Michelle Wie’s sponsor’s exemption invite to the 2004 Hawaii Open didn’t have a huge amount to do with her golfing prowess; the much-hyped Wie has won just five LPGA titles in a 15-year career, and didn’t claim her first and only major until a decade after someone decided it was a worthwhile sporting exercise to put a pretty child up against the best male players on the planet.

Glading, of course, is correct in his observation that we live in more enlightened times. Mixed gender sports are coming into vogue. The next Olympic Games will feature mixed teams triathlon. The one after that will crown the first mixed team kiteboarding Olympic champions.

Change is upon us, no doubt.

Likewise, there is no doubt that including a female golfer in a male event for novelty value is the precise opposite of change.

The half-hearted recruitment of Lindberg as Beaudy Barrett’s dance partner feels like a missed opportunity

The NZ Golf Open is a curious beast. Our nation’s best golf courses rank among the most picturesque on the planet. These sublime-looking alpine-ringed beasts virtually demand that we muster at least one annual tournament befitting of their comeliness.

Sadly, the economics of golf are utterly prohibitive. New Zealand’s economy simply cannot muster enough wealth to redistribute via prize money to make it worthwhile for the planet’s best players to ignore the tyranny of time and distance required to play here.

So the Open, largely funded by governmental largesse, has largely pitched itself as a hub for business networking, with a particular focus on Asian titans.

The all-star pro-am is a major drawcard.

The result has been a field of lower-level aspiring pro golfers and Kiwi hacks rubbing shoulders with former international cricketers and business executives.

No doubt it would be a great crack to be a part of, but from the outside, it’s all a bit odd.

For an event that perennially struggles to define its identity, the half-hearted recruitment of Lindberg as Beaudy Barrett’s dance partner feels like a missed opportunity.

Why not go all-in – and position the event as the world’s premier mixed gender golf tournament?

If it’s really about embracing change and showcasing equality, then why not go a step further, fully committing to the formula of a brilliant female pro propping up a comparatively useless male?

Lydia Ko battling to win the NZ Open while saddled with a 36-handicapper from the Wainuiomata Golf Club would make tremendous viewing.

But that will never happen, obviously.

Because this “very special addition to the tournament” isn’t about embracing change at all. It isn’t new, isn’t unique, isn’t, in fact, much more than a desperate gimmick.  

Fielder lets her shoes do the talking

Her unique hand-painted shoes may have been the talk of the Tour de France, but now Kiwi Caitlin Fielder is fast making her mark on the world trail running scene.

It’s highly unlikely that when Caitlin Fielder crossed the finish-line to win the Tarawera Ultramarathon 50km race, anyone took notice of her dusty blue shoes.

“I’m like the plumber with the worst plumbing in his house,” the Rotorua-born athlete laughs.

Why? As quickly as Fielder is becoming known as a world-class trail runner – in just her third year of serious running – she’s also making her mark as an artist, decorating the footwear of international sporting stars.

But she admits she’s a very poor marketer of her craft – she doesn’t customise her own shoes, even though they've taken her into the top 10 at international races and up onto the podium at prestigious local events. 

Fielder’s business began soon after she drew intricate designs on the cycling shoes of her partner, outstanding New Zealand road cyclist George Bennett, for his ride in the 2017 Tour de France.

Bennett joked that his shoes, with their distinctly Kiwi motifs, drew more attention than his riding skills in the world’s most famous bike race.

But it also led to some interesting commissions for the young artist – who’d quit her job in aquaculture science in Nelson to live with Bennett in Spain and pursue her passion for painting.

Now the 28-year-old says she has the ideal life balance – running in the mountains of Girona or Andorra in the morning, then painting shoes as her ‘recovery’ afterwards. “It’s as perfect as it could be,” Fielder says.

Caitlin Fielder and her partner, George Bennett, who remains the No.1 customer of her shoe artwork. Photo: supplied. 

Some of her artwork can take up to 30 hours to complete.

“It can be a little bit fiddly. But I get a massive kick out of people receiving the shoes. How awesome to have some art that you love and use so much,” she says.

She has perfected her craft since her Tour de France debut when, by the first rest day, much of the design on Bennett's shoes had disappeared. “It was very a sweaty scenario - it came straight off. Now I use leather paints and prepare the leather properly,” she says.

She’s now working with Shimano, the world-leading manufacturer of cycling components, to hand-paint shoes for individual athletes.

She’s just completed a pair for Dutch cyclocross megastar Mathieu van der Poel. And she’s put her custom artwork on the shoes of four-time Ironman winner Laura Siddall, Scottish cyclist Hannah Barnes and Kiwi professional mountain bikers Brooke MacDonald and Wyn Masters. Not to mention a few of Bennett's Tour de France rivals.

And now Fielder will finally get to paint running shoes – in a relationship with international shoe company Hoke One One, for Ironman.

One day, she might race in her own work of art, but for now she’s simply happy running, no matter what her feet look like.

Some of the designs from Caitlin Fielder Fine Art. Photos: supplied.

Fielder wasn’t a runner as a kid. Sure, she ran on some of Rotorua’s famous trails in training for her team sports, but the actual sport of running never really appealed to her.

When she moved to Tauranga to study for a bachelor’s degree in science, majoring in biological sciences, she took up boxing.

“It was super random. But I wanted to do something while I was studying that was a really intense workout,” she says.

After taking up her first job as an aquaculture technician at the Cawthron Institute in Nelson, Fielder had her first – and only – amateur boxing fight.

She fought on Anzac Day 2015, inspired by her grandfather, Les Munro - a World War II hero - who was then the last surviving pilot from the 1943 Dambusters Raid.

Fielder lost by a split decision to an opponent who had five fights under her belt. “But it was awesome, and I was 100 percent committed. For that moment, I was Rocky in the corner,” she laughs.

Then a friend suggested they do an ultramarathon together, and Fielder started training for the 85km Old Ghost Road Ultra on the West Coast. From then on, she was hooked on trail running.

She met Bennett when he came home to Nelson between professional cycling seasons. Three years ago, she decided to move to Europe with him - a move that would benefit her in more ways than one.

It meant she could get serious about running, pouring more time into her training in a perfect trail running environment. Their home, in the principality of Andorra, is at altitude.

“Wow, you really notice it running up there. It’s quite a bit harder than I expected, but it’s stunning,” she says. “And the running is either up or down. Not great for the morale, but great for training."

Fielder had no trouble finding people to run with. “In Europe, you could do a race every weekend,” she says. “But there are some soul-breaking climbs!

“I love the simplicity of running. It’s just so easy. You can take your running shoes wherever you go. To be out on the trails and look somewhere and say ‘How cool it would be to run up there’ and then do it – that’s the best thing.”

She also mixes up her training with cycling, often alongside Bennett. “I use it as a tool to help with endurance racing. I came off a few weeks ago on the gravel”, she says, pointing to an almost-healed graze on her arm, “so this is why I stick to running”.  

Fielder had one of the best results of her “fresh” running career last year, when she was invited to run in the OCC (Orsières-Champex–Chamonix) race in Switzerland. It’s one of the races in the week-long festival of Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) - the biggest mountain trail running event in the world.  

Up against three trail world champions in the strongest field she’d ever faced, Fielder knew it would show her exactly where she stood on the trail running scene.

“I thought if I was in the top 20 that would be great,” she says. “For the majority of the race I was sitting in 13th, and then I ran quite consistently, to finish sixth - which was amazing.” The 55km race was won by another New Zealander, Ruth Croft.

“In timing, I’m not quite there yet - there’s still a significant time difference between me and Ruth Croft. She’s had a shower and some food by the time I cross the line,” Fielder laughs.

“But I’m comfortable with the fact that I haven’t been running that long, and it will be more training and more years to get there. I’m okay with that.”

Fielder was also second in the water-logged 58km Kepler Challenge back home in New Zealand in December (despite falling into a ditch with water up to her chest), and notched up a clear victory in the Tarawera Ultra 50km in her hometown of Rotorua last weekend.

She’s now set aside time to have surgery on a hip injury, from a cycling crash, which will take her off the trails for three months.

“It will be an interesting psychological test for me. But I can still ride and swim – and paint,” she says. After another three months training, she will target the OCC again, and then the Ultra Pirineu in Barcelona.

George Bennett riding in the 2017 Tour de France with his original Caitlin Fielder customised shoes. Photo: Getty Images.

Her partner is already on the road to recovery. Late last year, Bennett had surgery on his ribs to try to cure the side stitch which has plagued him for a decade.

He finished eighth in Australia’s Tour Down Under last month, and is riding in the New Zealand road cycling championships in Cambridge this week, to secure a spot in the two-man Kiwi road race team at the Tokyo Olympics.

While Bennett will re-join his professional Jumbo-Visma team in Europe next month, he has decided to forgo this year’s Tour de France to compete at his second Olympics. Fielder would love to go to Tokyo to watch him race, and “they have some great trail running there too”.

Fielder says she has no expectations from her career – be it running or painting.

“Ideally, I’d like to get some major podiums down the track, but I’m realistic that it could be in three or four years. We plan on being in Europe for a while, so as long as I keep enjoying running, I’ll see where it takes me.”

Benny won't let coronavirus crisis floor her Olympic hopes

Having made boxing history once, Tasmyn Benny wants to repeat it in the Olympic ring - and she won't let a deviation in her journey catch her off-guard. 

Tasmyn Benny’s road to Tokyo has been forced to make a detour - swerving to avoid the coronavirus. Yet a change in her course has not deterred the Commonwealth Games boxing bronze medallist, who's focused on making it to her first Olympic Games.

The Olympic qualifying event for Asia-Oceania was scheduled to take place this week in Wuhan, China – the epicentre of the new virus crisis, which has now claimed more than 900 lives.

The organisers decided to cancel the tournament, not willing to risk the health of competitors, after there were nine fatalities.

Benny, 21, was “peaking” for the tournament with a group of nine New Zealand boxers hoping to qualify for the July Olympics. They were at a two-week training camp in Thailand, just days from travelling to Wuhan, when they learned of the cancellation.

Now an alternative venue and date have been determined for the qualifier - in Amman, Jordan, early next month.

“We’ll have to start our training programme again, but there’s not much else I can do about the cancellation,” Benny says.

“The extra time is probably good though, because a few of us got sick for a couple of days in Thailand. So it’s given my body time to recover.”

Boxing New Zealand’s high performance director, Mark Keddell, says nothing has changed in terms of Benny’s chances to qualify.

“In the meantime, she keeps training and it’s our role to deal with the background administrative work,” he says.

“Tasmyn is a solid, consistent worker. She is one of those people who takes everything in their stride, so this setback won’t unsettle her.”

Benny will need to finish in the top six to satisfy International Olympic Committee requirements and put her in a good position to show the New Zealand Olympic Committee she deserves a spot on the team for Tokyo.

To help kick-start her tournament training again, Benny will now head to Europe for a training camp alongside Kiwi boxing team-mates, including fellow female Commonwealth bronze medallist Troy Garton.

Keddell has organised a week of sparring with the Italian boxing team, en route to Amman.

“Italy will be another good opportunity for Tasmyn and the team to prepare. It’s critical they acclimatise to different time zones and environments so we can give our boxers the best possible chance to be successful,” he says.

“Tasmyn fights hard, moves well and she’s young, so she has time on her side to develop even more with every opportunity.”

Tasmyn Benny in her 48kg semifinal bout against Northern Ireland's Kristina O'Hara at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Photo: Getty Images.

As boxing is not a top three tier sporting code for High Performance Sport New Zealand funding, preparations and training camps are organised by Boxing NZ.

“We all do this for the love of the sport - volunteering and putting in time and energy means we win when the boxers can give their best,” says Keddell.

With so many other self-funded codes and athletes vying for a place in New Zealand’s Olympic team, Keddell says Boxing NZ needs to be innovative.

“The reality is we need to do things differently for our fighters to keep them being competitive, because we have bigger nations with more resources coming up against us.”

“Ingenuity is in our DNA. We need to use that to our advantage and ‘out-Kiwi’ everyone else in the ring.”

Benny’s creative flair and consistent work ethic has given her a steady flow of competition throughout her five-year career.

Last year, the flyweight came home with a silver medal, losing a tight contest in her final at the Boxam Valenciana tournament in Spain.

Benny and David Nyika, one of New Zealand’s most decorated amateur boxers, also finished champions in their weight division at the Trans-Tasman Super Eight in Auckland.

“Tasmyn drew the world-ranked number one in the first round of the 2018 world champs, which is always difficult,” Keddell says. “But she knows if she wants the experience, it’s the best place to test her skills and it will help with understanding benchmarks.”

It’s a pretty impressive resume for the Thames schoolgirl netballer who started boxing in a garage with her dad at the age of 16.

From that first training session, Benny fell in love with the sport. Her efforts have landed her in the history books as the first woman to win a boxing medal for New Zealand at a Commonwealth Games.

She managed this feat as a teenager in her first Games, on the Gold Coast in 2018, when she brought home the bronze medal in the 48kg division. But the southpaw fighter wants more.

She wants to stand a couple levels higher on the podium at the next Commonwealth Games, and the Olympics.

"There’s not much difference getting hit by someone at 51kg, so I’ll be fine" - Tasmyn Benny

“I definitely want to improve on my last medal result at the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and my big goal is the Olympics,” says Benny, who’s of Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi, Waikato and European heritage.

“I’m getting stronger and gaining experience by fighting and sparring some great fighters and I’m just taking everything in as I go.”

Fortunately for Benny, fighters from Uzbekistan - considered one of the best nations in amateur boxing - were also training in Thailand in the lead-up to the Asia-Oceania qualifier.

“These are all good opportunities for our boxers to be among the best in the business and to learn from those situations because at the end of the day everything helps them improve,” says Keddell.

In her quest to make the Olympics, Benny has gone up a weight class to 51kg.

She’s comfortable fighting at that weight, having previously experienced wins in that division – including the 2017 Australian Golden Gloves, where she finished second.

“I don’t feel like there’s much of a difference between the weight classes because I spar with heavier people most of the time. There’s not much difference getting hit by someone at 51kg, so I’ll be fine,” says Benny.

Despite the bumpy road to Tokyo, Benny has not rested since returning home from the Thailand training camp.

She travels to Auckland from Thames three times a week to train with her coach, Cameron Todd, at the Wreck Room. Todd coached his wife, Alexis Pritchard, to become the first woman to win a bout at an Olympic Games, in London 2012.

“I usually train six days a week doing different types of movement, like sprint training, fitness, sparring, bag work and pads and stuff,” says Benny. “When I’m not travelling to Auckland, I work out of Never Surrender Gym in Thames.”

When she won her bronze medal on the Gold Coast, Benny was an ordinary medic in the Royal New Zealand Navy. Now, when she's not fighting or training, she's working for her dad, blending oils for cars and machinery.  

Boxing, Keddell says, is all about strategy. Anyone can punch, and be fit, but boxers need to learn to play chess with their hands and feet to get on top.

At last year’s national championships, where Benny won the 51kg division, she also took home the Bobby Johnson Cup, awarded to the most scientific women’s boxer.

Come early June, she will know if her strategic moves will be rewarded with an opportunity to make history again, this time in Tokyo at her first Olympic Games.

RED-S syndrome knocked Kiwi cyclist off-track

Commonwealth Games cycling silver medallist Georgia Williams is on the comeback road, after taking time out to let her body recover from RED-S syndrome. * WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE *

At the prime of her road cycling career, Georgia Williams was burned out – she wasn’t getting enough fuel for her body, and her bones were becoming more and more brittle.

The outstanding Kiwi road cyclist had no idea why, and was completely unaware of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), the syndrome affecting athletes all over the world.

“It’s a crazy thing. You don’t think that not eating enough during training can shut down the hormone production and the bone production. I just totally did not think that was even possible,” the Commonwealth Games silver medallist says.

The RED-S syndrome had built up over the last few years for Auckland-born Williams, who’d been riding for Australian professional team Mitchelton-Scott. Her low hormone levels led to a scary discovery.

“Without having the oestrogen to help strengthen the bones, your bone density can decrease, and unfortunately mine has,” the 26-year-old says. “My lower spine’s quite bad; it’s like osteoporosis density.”

After being diagnosed with RED-S, Williams took a break from the sport at the start of last season. She knew she had to get better before re-entering the risky world of cycling.

“My team was really good, they were super supportive and they believed in me and backed me. They told me, ‘No Georgia, take your rest and recover, and then we can rethink the rest of the season’,” she says.

A change in plans for the year was matched by a change in Williams’ approach to nutrition.

“I was just totally unaware of how little I was eating, and how much you do need to eat when you’re doing four to five hour rides,” says Williams, who noticed an immediate difference after working with the team’s nutritionist.

“The most important thing is carbs before, during and after training. I’ve found myself with so much more energy, and I recover better now.”

Her blood levels have improved as well, and she’s feeling stronger.

“I’m on the mend now and hopefully my bones are starting to get better, and the situation is monitorable,” last year’s national time trial champion says.

At first “hesitant” to share her story, finding it hard to discuss, Williams – who won road race silver in the 2018 Commonwealth Games - is now happy to open up about RED-S.

“It’s actually more common than people think and it’s being talked about a lot more now which is really good,” she says.

After speaking to other female cyclists, Williams realised there were many others in a similar situation. 

“I’m happy to talk to other girls and I’ve had lots contact me. It makes me happy if I can help them a little bit because I would hate for them to be in the situation I’ve been in the last year,” she says.

Georgia Williams hopes to win back the national road race jersey this week. Photo: Getty Images

Williams’ time off the bike was exacerbated by an uncertain future with Mitchelton-Scott. She was in the final year of her contract and had reduced opportunities to impress.

“I was a bit stressed about it…obviously stress is not good for recovery. They were like ‘No Georgia, don’t worry about it, we believe in you and we know what you can do’.”

She was offered a one-year extension, and is already making her mark for the Australian World Tour team. Williams rode the Tour Down Under earlier this month, fulfilling her usual role as an influential and dependable support rider, while also coming close to a podium spot on the final stage.

It’s the top step she’s targeting at the elite road cycling nationals in Cambridge this week. She’s back in New Zealand earlier than expected, after hitting her head hard in a big crash at the recent Cadel Evans Great Ocean Race across the Tasman.

While it’s far from the ideal build-up, with Williams crossing her fingers she’ll have fully recovered in time, the change in date has helped. Nationals used to be held in early January before being shifted to mid-February this year, meaning she’s had an extra month-and-a half of training under her belt. 

“I had the national champs jersey in 2018, but not last year, so I’d really like it back for this year,” she laughs.

The Giro Rosa in Italy is also a big goal. One of the biggest races of the international season, Williams has missed the last two through a crash and her illness.

“The Giro’s always a huge goal for the team and it’s always super hard and fun. I’m really looking forward to that and I want to play a key role there,” she says.

Unfortunately, the Tokyo Olympics in July don’t feature on her wall planner. While women’s road cycling is on the rise, it’s hard for the country to gain crucial qualifying points. Williams’ truncated season didn’t help the cause, and New Zealand couldn’t do enough to get anyone on the start line in either the time trial or the road race.

“Yeah it’s really frustrating. Obviously, it’s been a goal for years so it’s quite hard to have that shut down,” she says.  “It is what it is I guess…there’s plenty more races to come, maybe another Olympics in four years, we’ll see.”

Reinvigorated and wiser, Williams is hoping her experience with RED-S can help others in the sport and fuel her own cycling ambitions. Known for supporting her own team-mates, she’s now looking out for the rest of the peloton as well.

A letter to Gigi

Gianna Bryant - or Gigi - was the second eldest daughter of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, who dreamed of playing college basketball and going to the WNBA.

Tragically those dreams were taken away when 13-year-old Gigi, her father and two of her team-mates were among the nine who lost their lives in a helicopter crash on their way to a basketball tournament.  The tragedy has reminded 18-year-old Shontelle Matano that other young women, like herself, should seize their dreams.

Dear Gigi,

As I write this, I imagine you up in the heavens laughing with your dad, Kobe; maybe talking plays and tendencies, and just being the passionate girl you seemed to be.

On the outside looking in, it was beautiful to witness the precious relationship you had with your father. I am also the proud daughter of a #GirlDad, who is the reason I love sports today. So to see you and your father together at games was amazing. Thank you for helping to show us that basketball means family.

Thank you for your undeniable love for the game and tenacious competitive spirit, as well as your desire to outwork anyone at just 13 years old.

Not many people have the same fire that you had. Not many people can be so committed to fulfilling their dreams like you were, way before finishing school. I definitely know that at your age, I didn't have anywhere near the same will as you to grind.

You were a basketball prodigy who’d already mastered the fadeaway, who was without a doubt on track to the WNBA. With your impressive skills and boldness, there was no surprise why. You lived and breathed the sport and trained like a professional athlete. You were fixated on a screen every night watching NBA games.

The WNBA has promised to honour you and your team-mates Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli at their draft in April.

A jersey with Gianna Bryant's No.2 is draped on an empty seat of the UConn Huskies' bench at a game against the US women's team. Photo: Getty Images.

I appreciate that you never let anyone pigeonhole you because you were a girl. But instead you confidently showed everyone what it truly means to be a girl - as someone who is not suppressed by limitations. You were quick to point out that girls can do anything, affirming that with: “I got this, you don’t need a boy for that.”

Thank you for your drive, as the future of women’s basketball who had a passion and never wanted to stop pursuing it. You were an incredible reflection of what many young people around the world dare to achieve.

‘Mambacita’ is what your father called you, derived from his Mamba mentality to be the best you can be. It showed that you don’t have to be classed as just one thing - because you played basketball, made tik tok videos like any teenager, loved being with your friends and family. And above all, you were just you.

I also want you to know that you have inspired a girl all the way on the other side of the globe and will continue to motivate girls everywhere to grasp every opportunity we get in life.

Here in New Zealand, women’s basketball has seen a surge with many girls choosing to take up the sport. There are currently 21 New Zealand female players in American colleges and our ‘Girls Got Game’ programme is also a sign of more great things to come for the sport here.

The coverage of all our national women’s league games this year on Sky Sport is just another example of the growth of basketball. It’s becoming more visible to a broader audience.

Shontelle Matano. Photo: supplied. 

When girls can actually have role models to watch on TV, they believe that it is possible for them to live out the same aspirations.

You were working towards being that role model with your dad, who worked tirelessly to promote the female game.

With that, it’s a reminder for us to be more and do more. We have to continue telling the story of women’s basketball and women’s sport. Whether that’s by advocating for it in the community, organising events, watching and supporting female athletes and doing anything in our power to lift up women and girls in all aspects of life.

You have influenced us to courageously go after our dreams, to persist, unlock our talents and work harder - even when we think we can’t - because you would do anything to have had this chance.

Your lovely Italian name Gianna means the “Lord is gracious”. You were a blessing and as we grieve and ponder all that you had to look forward to, we know you’re in a place of peace with your daddy forever.

Rest easy sweet angel,

Love, Shontelle Matano.

Kiwi water polo women driving towards history

New Zealand has never had a waterpolo team at an Olympic Games, but the national women's side have their best chance yet to make it, for Tokyo. *WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE

Water polo is often seen as an affluent sport.

And standing on the side of the Diocesan School for Girls’ sustainably-designed, two-metre deep pool - with its eight lanes and acoustic panelling - it’s hard to argue against it.

But those in the pool want to ensure it's not just for the wealthy.

As the New Zealand women’s water polo team look to qualify for this year’s Tokyo Olympics, they’re also hoping to pave the way for more people to play the sport.

“User pays is definitely a hindrance for us,” says goalkeeper and captain Jess Milicich.

“I’ve been super fortunate that my parents are so supportive of me and as I’ve gotten older that’s been helpful. But I think we are at a stage now where if we continue to perform, it will get easier for us to get funding.”

Women’s water polo was only added to the Olympics in 2000 - although men’s water polo made its debut at the Paris Games, 100 years earlier (among the first team sports added to the Olympics).

Neither a New Zealand men’s nor women’s side has ever qualified for the Games, but this year could be their best opportunity.

The women's competition has been expanded from eight to 10 teams, and while powerhouses like Italy, Hungary and the Netherlands will be gunning for the final two spots for Tokyo, the Kiwis have the added drive of trying to make history.

“Growing up, New Zealand wasn't on the scene for the Olympics,” says Katie McKenty, a driver who creates scoring opportunities. “But then in this last four or five years, it's become a reality.”

McKenty and Milicich are both part of the 13-strong team who will pay their own way to get to the qualifiers in Trieste, Italy, next month.

New Zealand’s head coach, Angie Winstanley-Smith, says all the of girls have made huge sacrifices – personal and financial – to make the trip.

"So we will be 100 percent behind each other. I am pretty excited," she says.

“We made the decision at some point in the last 18 months that we were just going to get our heads down and train. Establishing a solid programme without funding to start with is what we’ve successfully done. And I guess now we are at the stage where we’re looking to fine tune everything so we can reach out to potential sponsors.”

Emmerson Houghton (right) is part of the NZ team to play at the Olympic qualifying tournament next month: Photo: Getty Images

All the team are on board with the plan and the tough training schedule that comes with it.

At 5.45am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you can find the team in the pool before they head off to their full-time jobs or study. They’ll be back in the water another three times during the week to train with their own clubs and they must also fit in three gym sessions.

Then there are games every other weekend.

“If we qualify, hopefully we can pick up some funding along the way,” McKenty says. “If we go to the Olympics that’s just getting us on the world stage and if we can continue to get on the world stage, that means more games."

Which means more visibility.

“I think it’s one of those conversations that every sport will have, and any business, to be honest. We need results to get the money and we need money to get the results,” says Winstanley-Smith.

New Zealand Water Polo says the sport is developing nicely, with 93 percent of participation at a junior level and the majority women.

That’s largely thanks to Flipper Ball, an entry-level game played in the shallow end of a pool.

“Sunday's here are crazy. You come down and there are kids playing this sport and loving it and parents are engaged,” Winstanley-Smith says.

But as the children progress to water polo, the facilities become fewer and far between. Rules dictate that you can't touch the bottom of the pool, which means they need to be at least 2m deep, severely limiting training options.

"I feel for the girls that have to fly up [to Auckland] for all our training camps,” McKenty says. “But there’s been growth in the other cities and I know they are working on it in Wellington. Christchurch use to have a really good facility, but not anymore after the earthquakes. They are starting to rebuild and regrow though.”

Milicich, who led the team to seventh at a World Cup and 12th at last year’s FINA world championships, admits the team have their monetary challenges.

"I was always torn between netball and water polo, and obviously from a financial perspective it's always a lot harder [playing water polo]. But I think we have a really good programme, especially for the women now moving forward and I think we definitely have opportunities,” she says.

Gabby Milicich has come from the NZ junior women's team to make a bid for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

Winstanley-Smith’s programme is now so ingrained, that even with nine of her senior team based overseas on scholarships, they still know the style the team will play when they get the opportunity to all come together.

"Essentially anyone in the whole women's programme, from 15 to senior, can fit into our team - our structures, our mould and what we are trying to establish together," she says.

McKenty spent four years in the American college system at Hartwick College in New York and says the experience was invaluable. Not only was she able to train every day in state-of-the-art facilities, but she walked away with an undergraduate degree in geology and physics, leading her to a career as a geo-tech engineer back in Auckland.

Milicich, 24, also has plans to take her water polo talents offshore.

"We have a few people on professional contracts, which is the way to go forward,” she says. “If we can keep outsourcing and all come together and play for New Zealand, we are just going to continue to improve.”

She’s just completed her degree in sports and recreation, exercise science and sports management, and is working as a finance executive in Auckland.  “The long-term goal for me was to finish my degree and go over, but I am looking at playing in the next European season after this New Zealand cycle."

For now, her sights are set firmly on Tokyo and pushing her team to be the best they can - including younger sister Gabby.

"Gabby came to world league with me last year, but to be named in this team alongside her is just the best bonus,” Jess Milicich says. “She's been working really hard and, I think for my parents especially, we were really, really hoping that we would both make it."

It's the sort of mentoring Winstanley-Smith wants to install in her team. As the only female head coach at last year's world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, she's keen to make sure young girls know that sport can be both a lifestyle choice and a career.

"We are passionate about water polo at the top end, but at the same time we are incredibly passionate about getting kids in the water. There are all types of benefits around water safety, and getting young women to put themselves out there in togs on a poolside is so vital,” she says.

“All of those elements are in our programme and I think it’s really important to continue to drive that and be really positive in that environment.”

Having been part of the first-ever British water polo team to make it to the Olympics back in 2012, Winstanley-Smith knows exactly how it feels to make a splash.

"I think as society changes, we are going to see a lot more women moving around in the coaching ranks. We see a lot more women in leadership positions in other forms of life, so I think sport will follow suit and I know New Zealand have some fantastic initiatives for women in sport.”

Gifford lifts herself out of a vicious cycle

Olympic weightlifting hopeful Megan Gifford has had to revise her weight, and her health, in her bid for Tokyo - and she's stronger and happier than ever, she tells Ashley Stanley. 

Megan Gifford had been doing all she could to lift at this year's Tokyo Olympics.

So much so, that her body stopped producing a menstrual cycle a couple of years ago.

Pushing her body’s boundaries to perform at an elite level was part of the 29-year-old weightlifter's plan to achieve her goals. But it came at a cost. One she did not realise the  magnitude of, or the consequences it could have on her personally and professionally in the long term. 

“Because I train a lot for my sport, I was stuck in the mindset that the loss of my period was normal,” Gifford says.  “I used to voice that opinion to people and looking back now I feel bad thinking and saying that.”

With an intensive training schedule six days a week, Gifford’s body was always under extreme pressure.

She was constantly trying to cut her weight to compete in the 64kg weight class, where she was New Zealand’s No.1 lifter.

“Weight cuts are not fun and they’re not easy especially as you get older,” says Gifford, who's lifted New Zealand records of 116kg in the clean and jerk and 93kg in the snatch.

“I was mentally starting to resent the cuts because I was always hungry; my body was telling me to eat but you’re really restricted in what you can eat.

“It’s a cycle - when you’re cutting, you’re energy deficient, which means you can’t train as well. Which is frustrating because your body doesn’t do what you want it to.”

Gifford also had to combat the hormonal imbalances that can come with cutting weight.

“Because your hormones are low, that can create all sorts of issues with moods. All of these things limit your ability to perform at your best, so you’re drained physically and mentally all the time and you’re not developing your potential,” she says.

Watched by her husband, Callum, Megan Gifford lifts in training.  Photo:

Travelling with the New Zealand weightlifting team to Japan in 2018, Gifford was part of conversation with other female lifters about what health in sport should look like. She heard others discuss the loss of their period and what they were doing to correct it. 

“I didn’t say anything at the time, but I started thinking ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ Because of those conversations I started taking small steps to try and understand my situation better,” Gifford says.

The experiences and symptoms Gifford refer to lean towards RED-S syndrome.

RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, is when an athlete’s food intake is not sufficient to refuel their body after exercise. Symptoms can include low energy, loss of a menstrual cycle and a decrease in bone density, causing injuries or broken bones.

“Even though I don’t personally think I sit in the RED-S category, there were definitely red flags saying I could be heading in that direction if I kept doing what I was doing,” says Gifford.

Taking time to learn more, talking to other athletes and arranging appointments to see specialists in between travel, training and competitions, meant Gifford was able to get a better handle on her overall health and well-being.

Now she’s competing in the 76kg category - a big jump up from her original 64kg weight class, but a welcome one.

“I’m just so much better after the switch – mentally and physically,” she says.

To her relief, Gifford managed to have a period for the first time in a “really long time” two weeks ago. “It was incredibly exciting,” she tells LockerRoom.

Simon Kent, Gifford’s coach, says with a laugh that it was one of the more unique texts he had received from her.

Having been involved in sport through strength and conditioning and, more recently, in leadership and performance coaching, Kent was just as interested in finding out more about what was happening with Gifford. And he had the right connections to help her.

“I went through something similar with another athlete at the Commonwealth Games, so it heightened my awareness. Because in the past, we’ve just trained girls like they’re boys,” admits Kent.

Working with expert endocrinologist Dr Megan Ogilvie has been one of the beneficial steps towards Gifford understanding her health fully.

Blood tests indicated she was energy deficient, but her bone density scans showed it wasn’t for a long period of time. If it had been, the results could’ve been more damaging, including a common outcome of infertility.

Gifford and Kent have been tapping into the work being done by High Performance Sport NZ’s WHISPA group (Healthy Women in Sport: A Performance Advantage) to ensure the best clinical advice reaches coaches and elite female athletes.

“Simon and I have been following the research closely and want to help raise awareness,” Gifford says.

Kent says they have girls as young as 13 coming to their Papatoetoe Weightlifting Club, so if they can help educate them now that will, hopefully, put them on a better pathway.

“The earlier we share experiences and findings with gym-goers, athletes, coaches and their families, the faster they can get a handle on how RED-S may affect their health and well-being in the long term and ultimately their performance. So it’s important work,” says Kent.

As part of reassessing Gifford’s plan for the Tokyo Olympics, she decided to make the leap up to the 76kg class. (She normally would have gone up to 71kg, but the number of weight categories for the 2020 Olympics has been slashed from 10 to seven).

The change in weight class was influenced by health reasons - making sure Gifford was happy and healthy and able to perform at her best – but also based on the points system.

Being able to carry over points from one weight class to another meant Gifford’s achievements in the 64kg class (where she holds a swag of records) would not be wasted.

Although she’s loving her new weight class, the switch initially presented new challenges.

“It was weird at first. I haven’t been this heavy since I started exercise, so it’s a little bit strange when you start putting on weight. There are a few things you have to go through mentally,” Gifford explains.

“One of those things I needed to unpack was my relationship with food. I’m part Filipino and we love our food. We’re used to eating everything on the plate, not necessarily because we’re hungry, but because we don’t want to waste food and refusing it is considered rude, especially if it’s been prepared for us.

“Over time, I’ve had to understand the habits I have with food and consciously create new ones, as my health is the most important thing.”

The combination of not having to cut weight and understanding the need to eat whole foods to supplement her performance and health has made it easier for Gifford to stick with new habits, especially over the trickier times of Christmas and celebrations.

Megan Gifford prepares to lift, encouraged by her coach, Simon Kent. Photo: Warren Davie, Photofitt

Kent says discipline and preparation are just some of the values Gifford brings to her goals.

“With Megan, there is a real understanding of what being a high-performance athlete looks like. Being able to turn up every single day, and repeating the boring little things sets her apart,” he says.  

“That’s the difference between someone who can perform consistently at an elite level to someone who might have what we call talent, but who isn’t prepared to put in the mundane work daily.”

With a new wave of young women coming into the Papatoetoe Weightlifting Club, they can see firsthand what work ethic, drive, dedication and continuous hunger to  improve looks like as they watch Gifford train towards Tokyo.

For someone who didn’t enjoy sport and exercise growing up, Gifford says she could’ve easily passed through life not picking up weightlifting. But she’s grateful she attended a crossfit class seven years ago at the encouragement of her future husband, Callum Gifford.

“I started to take my health seriously in 2012, joined a crossfit gym, competed in my first small competition in 2013, and that’s how I got into weightlifting,” shares Gifford.

Her first international competition came in 2017 and was actually helped her qualify for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, but Gifford snapped her ACL and meniscus shortly after, ruling her out of the Games just two weeks before the event. 

“It’s been a long tough journey with injuries. A lot of people ask if I’m on track for Tokyo or if I’ve even made it?” says Gifford.

“It’s just one of those questions that I genuinely don’t know the answer to. It’s a long process and requires the whole year-and-a-half of qualifiers, so we won’t know if I’ve made it until the last one in April in Nauru.”

There are six Olympic qualifiers that Gifford and other weightlifters need to compete in to reach Tokyo. From there, every competitor’s top four event scores are combined, and a ranking list is created.

To qualify for the Olympics in July, Gifford needs to be No.1 on the list in the 76kg weight class to go through as the Oceania representative. 

Either way, she wants to keep working on fine-tuning her artform, pushing towards her goals, and raising awareness around the issues female athletes can experience in sport.

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