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LockerRoom is New Zealand’s only news source dedicated solely to highlighting the achievements of New Zealand women in sport. These are powerful stories – inspirational, compelling and important. It is LockerRoom’s mission to shine a light on women in sport, with female journalists at the helm, including award-winning writer and editor, Suzanne McFadden and full-time writer Ashley Stanley, along with various contributors and influencers including Sarah Cowley Ross, Rebecca Dubber, Shontelle Matano, Ravinda Hunia, Steve Deane, Zoe George, David Leggat and Jim Kayes.

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The privilege of playing netball for NZ again

As the Silver Ferns this week become the first international netball team to play a series in nine months, it’s a confident step forward on wobbly ground. 

The four-day series against the NZ Men, NZ U21s and NZ A side, is a much-needed warm-up for the Ferns, who meet England's Roses in three tests next week. 

For the NZ U21s, it’s a chance to push for a spot to defend the World Youth Cup next year. And for the NZ Men, it’s a golden opportunity to beat the world champions and further showcase their game.

LockerRoom editor Suzanne McFadden talks to Junior Levi, Karin Burger and Tiana Metuarau about what it means to play for NZ again. 

Junior Levi

It’s impossible to forget Junior Levi - the seven-foot shooter who stood out in the historic clashes between the Silver Ferns and the NZ Men’s side leading into last year’s World Cup. And yet, he feels he still has something to prove.

For Levi, playing in this series starting on Wednesday means freedom – from Melbourne’s stringent lockdown and a fortnight of quarantine in Christchurch. And it's a chance to prove he’s more than a one-shot wonder, and to take a leap forward for gender neutrality in sport.

“The opportunity to play in this series is massive,” 30-year-old Levi says. “There’s a lot of talk that the men being included is something we deserve, and I want to move away from that, because it diminishes what it means for the progression of gender-neutral sport.

“I think people forget Netball New Zealand are paving the way for sport internationally by giving us a foot in the door. It definitely means a lot to be a part of this.”

The NZ Men extended the Silver Ferns in last year’s Cadbury Series and finished unbeaten. But to Levi, it meant much more than taking the trophy home. He still gets “really emotional” watching the This is Pure documentary on the Silver Ferns’ triumph in Liverpool.

“Being an intimate part of their journey, actually giving them the practice and match play that really helped, made us feel part of the victory,” he says.

Jane Watson gets air time trying to defend Junior Levi in last year's Cadbury Series. Photo: Getty Images

“I think we underestimate just how much the World Cup win has changed the complexion of netball here in New Zealand. All of a sudden, we have midcourters coming out of the woodwork, when five years ago we were saying ‘Who’s going to replace Laura Langman when she retires?’ 

“When we see the girls coming through, I know we can win the World Cup for years to come.”

Men’s netball has thrived from that success too, Levi says, with a swarm of newcomers playing their way into this week’s side.

“What could also come out of this for us is the ability to pump money into the men’s game,” he says. “That’s what’s inhibiting us from taking things to the next level systematically – having grassroots systems around the country to help boys become men in netball. A cultural shift will happen, where people will take men’s netball seriously.”

Personally, Levi’s goal is to prove height isn’t the only reason he’s in the side.

“Last year I showed I could actually play netball, not just stand under the post,” the former Australian shooter says. “This year I want to show a lot more variety – mid-to-long range shots, with good footwork where I can lose a defender on the ground, not only in the air. I’m really excited to add another dimension and keep everyone on their toes.”

Covid-19 has made it a challenging road to Palmerston North. “Up until we booked flights, there was pessimism that [the four] of us in Australia would be able to come over. Especially those of us in Melbourne; it’s been a pretty shoddy year for us. To get out of our city was incredible,” Levi says.

“I’ve been working from home and I’ve come to realise it’s quite depressing. The last time I actually played a game was February, when I flew up to Brisbane to play the Firebirds for a pre-season game.

“We were lucky the three of us from Melbourne got together every day to train. Now all of us are really itching to play again.”

Karin Burger deftly keeps the ball in play during the Silver Ferns' Nations Cup win in England in January. Photo: Getty Images

Karin Burger

“There are so many feelings of gratitude right now,” says Silver Fern defender Karin Burger, almost in disbelief the next fortnight of netball is going ahead. “It’s been a really hard year.”

Burger played an integral role the last time the Silver Ferns played – back in January when a younger Ferns side won the Nations Cup in England.

For the next nine rocky months, the Pulse star continued to train as though she’s been about to pull on the black dress again. Even when it looked like there wouldn’t be a chance in 2020.

“We’ve worked this entire year, constantly training, because you have to be ready to go at any moment. It’s been mentally and physically demanding, but when you look at the other side of it, and what we’ve been able to do this year compared to other nations, it’s definitely been worth it,” Burger says.

Of course, she never expected Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua to ease off the training regime – reiterated at last week’s mass training camp in Wellington, which also included the Silver Ferns development side and the NZ U21s.

“With the Under 21s being in the same environment, we wanted to set the standard that’s expected at this level,” Burger says.

“That’s been the message from Noels from the very start: the World Cup win is our new baseline. We can’t go down from that; it’s where we start from and we have to build on top of that.

“It’s been really physically demanding which is what we expected. But once you get past all that, it’s actually quite a lot of fun.”

Feeling fortunate to have back-to-back series, while most of the netball world is still on pause, Burger says there’s a new purpose behind her play.

“We’re one of the very few sports who’ve been able do it, so you feel even more fortunate knowing all the hard work that’s gone on in the background,” she says.

“So apart from wanting to represent New Zealand and your family, you also want to give back to those people who have put all the effort in; who had to do the business stuff to make it happen.  

“And then there are the people who are seeking sport to watch. They want excitement. And if we do it well, we’ll hopefully get more people on board, watching and even playing netball.”

Having made her international debut against the English Roses two years ago, Burger wants to use this time to grow as a netballer off the court.  

“Personally, I set quite high expectations of myself and I don’t just want to be a good player on court, I want to do good stuff off-court as well. Being a team person and contributing,” the 19-test player says.

The Ferns are relishing the chance to get physical with the men’s side again. “The guys always bring it. Honestly they don’t step back at all,” Burger says. “It really makes us use our skill sets, but also our smarts, because they play such an unorthodox kind of a game.

“There’s always physicality involved, so if we can stand up against them, we can stand up to all the other netball women in the world.”

Tiana Metuarau shooting for the Pulse against Jane Watson's Tactix in the ANZ Premiership. Photo: Getty Images. 

Tiana Metuarau

The past week has been a comeback of sorts for teenager Tiana Metuarau.  

On the radar of netball fans since she was a 16-year-old rookie shooter in the Pulse, the daughter of Silver Ferns legend Wai Taumaunu had a quiet 2020 ANZ Premiership season for the champion side, spending most of it on the bench, and has since been nursing an injury.  

“I’ve been out with an Achilles issue - nothing too serious, just a prevention and precautionary thing. At the Pulse we train a ton, and after a really long season, it’s finally catching up with me,” she says.

“I’m good now, I’m just slowly getting back into things. It’s kind of been like a blessing in disguise – the break was enough time to refresh after a very exhausting, but rewarding season.”

Metuarau is in the rare position of possibly defending a World Youth Cup, having played for New Zealand at the 2017 tournament in Botswana. Yet she still sees it as a privilege to be back in a squad brimming with young talent, who trained with the Silver Ferns in Wellington last week. 

“I’m really grateful to be coming back into a space I feel comfortable in. And I’m really happy to be playing with some of my best mates,” she says.

As well as bringing her international netball knowledge, Metuarau has been instrumental in embedding Māori culture and Te Reo in the squad.

“We have Pākehā girls, Samoan and Tongan girls, who are getting amongst the culture and embracing it like it’s their own, which has brought down a lot of barriers,” says Metuarau, who is Ngāti Porou and Cook Island Māori.

“It makes the environment feel like there’s no judgment. That’s been something really key to establishing a healthy space for us.

“We have two incredible people helping us out - Tipi Wehipeihana and Kara Peita – who’ve taught us the haka. We took it with two hands and made it our own, and we do pepeha. I think it’s so important we start implementing these things now for the future of netball in New Zealand.”

While the seasoned youngster is used to playing with and against Silver Ferns, she says there are a number of U21s who haven’t had the experience. “It’s a very cool opportunity, and I have no doubt we’ll be able to give them a really good run,” she says.  

Metuarau has made the tough decision to leave her hometown of Wellington to start afresh in Dunedin with the Steel next season, in the hope of more regular court-time.

“I tend to keep my goals fairly realistic and short-term, so I’m focusing on [this] week and then my move down south,” she says. “I’m pretty relaxed and happy where I’m at, at the moment. I love this team.”

* Sky Sport will show all eight games of the Cadbury Series live on Sky Sport 3, with two games a night - 6pm and 7.50pm - from Wednesday through to the final on Saturday.  

Fisher-Black tipped as future cycling superstar

Having everything thrown at her in her first year as a pro cyclist, Niamh Fisher-Black's fighting spirit has seen her establish herself as one of the world’s most promising riders.

Near the end of the famous Fleche-Wallonne race this month, Niamh Fisher-Black started elbowing world champion Anna van der Breggen. The Dutch great was trying to win the one-day Classic for the sixth time in a row, but the young Kiwi wasn't letting her get into position easily.

Van der Breggen eventually produced a masterful climb to leave everyone behind, and while Fisher-Black finished back in 12th, her precocious talent was clear to see.

Just a year ago she was watching some of the riders in the peloton in absolute awe. Now her team-mates are constantly reminding the 20-year-old she’s not far behind.

"I'm starting each race getting a bit more used to it, and I think I'm at the level now where I have to accept them as competition, rather than my idols,” she says over the phone from Belgium.

 
 

In her first year as a professional for Equipe Paule Ka, Fisher-Black has rapidly become a regular in the World Tour team. She's thrived in some of the biggest races, including the Giro Rosa, La Course and the world championships.

The Nelsonian has formed a dynamic combination in the team with her Kiwi compatriot Mikayla Harvey, with the pair supporting each other and crafting some eye-catching performances. One of their sports directors, Steven Sergeant, thinks it's just the beginning.

"Let her learn for another two years and we're talking about a superstar", he says. "I've been in female cycling for eight years now, and I haven't seen a lot of riders that have that much potential. Especially with Mikayla as well, we're looking at riders that can definitely win the Giro Rosa."

Niamh Fisher-Black was in Europe just three weeks when Covid-19 sent her back home to Nelson. Photo: Velofocus/Sean Robinson

Fisher-Black's year started off perfectly, after winning the national road race title in Cambridge. With the white New Zealand jersey in her suitcase, she headed to Europe full of confidence, only to return three weeks later as the coronavirus pandemic struck.

"I struggled quite a lot during the lockdown in New Zealand, because I knew I wanted to be over in Europe. I felt a bit detached from the cycling scene the whole time and I just wanted to get back," she says.

After biding her time back at home, she took "every loophole" she could to get back to Italy. Even as she arrived, her ordeal wasn't over. Her flight landed in a completely different place because of storms in Milan, and the apartment she shares with Harvey was flooded when she walked through the door. It seemed like everything was against her.

The stresses of cycling in 2020 quickly washed away though, because most importantly, she was back racing. She was thrown into the deep end of the hectic restarted season, going on to compete in nearly every World Tour race - something she never expected as a first-year pro.

While Fisher-Black made mistakes along the way, she made sure she learnt from them.    

"I remember the first World Tour race that I did, Strade-Bianche. It was up to 40 degrees and I didn't drink properly just because I didn't know, and I got completely dehydrated,” she recalls.

Sergeant has been impressed with how quickly she's adapted.

"We're very happy with the work she does, and in the team, she's always communicating,” he says.  “She's someone who says I don't understand this, how does this work...she's very talkative and it's important in a young team."

Fisher-Black's crowning moment of the season was the Giro Rosa. The pinnacle event on the women's calendar involved nine tough stages and was easily the biggest race she's ever done.

"I remember we had a training camp the week before and our team manager presented the stages to us and I was actually scared. I thought it was going to be crazy," she says.

Initially selected as a reserve, one of her team-mates suffered an injury, and at the last minute she was called into action a day before the race.

"I can't really explain what I felt then - there was excitement, nerves, everything. I had no idea whether I was going to get through the nine days and how I was going to get through, but I surprised myself every day on that tour,” she says.

Niamh Fisher-Black finished an outstanding 15th in her first world road championships in Italy. Photo: Velofocus/Sean Robinson. 

After playing a crucial role supporting Harvey's quest to win the best young rider classification, Fisher-Black had her own moment in the sun on the final stage, finishing second. While her performance was slightly overshadowed by Harvey's success, she was more than happy to sacrifice herself for her team-mate.

"I think it takes a lot to work really hard for a team and a team-mate and you have to really have a lot of trust in them,” Fisher-Black says. “Knowing Mikayla is really nice because I have that trust in her and we're friends so I'm really happy to work with her."

Fisher-Black deservedly earned a spot at the world road championships in Italy, where she finished an impressive 15th. It was a family occasion with younger brother Finn also wearing the silver fern in the men's races.

With Harvey, Fisher-Black and Ella Harris, the future of women's cycling in New Zealand looks incredibly strong.

"It's really cool to see the Kiwi flag being represented so well, and everyone's noticing it. I've had so many comments from really big riders saying Kiwis are taking over the world," Fisher-Black laughs.

She’s under contract with Equipe Paule Ka until the end of 2021, although the team is reportedly struggling financially for the second time this year. While they could be facing an uncertain future again, Fisher-Black has done her best to leave a lasting impression in her first season.

"Obviously, my sports director sees something in me given that I've done so many races. I can already begin to see he's got a lot more confidence in my strengths and giving me more opportunities in races and it's really cool. I think they're definitely happy with how I'm going."

It won’t be long before Fisher-Black is raising her elbows in victory across the finish line, rather than using them to battle with her rivals further back.

What happens next for women in sport?

New Zealand may be making historic strides ahead for women and girls in sport, but the momentum can't stop now if equality is to be achieved, says the outgoing head of Sport NZ. 

On the eve of standing down as the most powerful figure in New Zealand sport, Peter Miskimmin has a confession to make.

Twelve years ago, when he started out as Sport New Zealand’s CEO, he would have been taken aback to think women and girls in New Zealand sport would become a priority.

“I would have been surprised back then. But this is the right thing to do now, absolutely,” the two-time Olympic hockey player says. “The seeds we are sowing now will bear enormous fruit in the future. It’s really heartening to see the change – but it’s no time for chest beating; it still has a long way to go.

“There are people who’ll say it’s too late and it’s not enough. But hopefully the majority will say it’s good that progress is being made.”

That progress in bringing gender equality to sport, having more girls participating in sport or active recreation, and more women leaders in sport, has been gradual over Miskimmin’s tenure.

 
 

He’s witnessed an attitude change and a lot more conversations inclusive of women. There’s been a better focus on needs and wants for women, and more financial investment in an effort to get closer to equity for women and girls.

But most of that has come in the last two years, when the women’s sport movement was given a substantial shove forward by the government’s Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation strategy. Launched in October 2018, it came with a commitment from Sport NZ to dish out $12.7m over three years.

Now exactly two years in, not all of the 24 commitments drawn up in the strategy have been actioned. The “vast majority” have had some investment, Miskimmin says, but some have been delayed by the ramifications of Covid-19.

Just 15 percent of editorial sports media mentioned women... 20 percent of sports stories were written by women

Regardless of who’s governing the country after this weekend’s election, that financial commitment won’t change. The funding has come out of Sport NZ’s coffers. But the direction, of course, could alter.

“With any change of government, things can change. But I’d like to think the momentum will not be stopped,” Miskimmin says. “We’re a better community and a better sector for what we’re doing around diversity and inclusion.”

Labour has said it will continue to deliver its strategy for women and girls in sport, as well as “inspire active, healthy and creative children and young people” by rolling out the Healthy Active Learning programme.

National’s spokesperson for sport and recreation, Mark Mitchell, says a National government would “absolutely” support women in sport.

“There will be a huge focus on making sure that women’s sport is supported, and that there’s a continued rise in participation,” says Mitchell, who outlined a voucher system that will give financial assistance to parents to keep their kids in sport.

Sparking new conversations

Some of the actions from the Women and Girls strategy have provoked new, healthier conversations, Miskimmin says. Actions like the mandate for all national sports organisations who receive funding from Sport NZ to have 40 percent gender diversity on their boards by December 2021.

“It’s one of the really good things we did. It created a social conversation that had teeth,” Miskimmin says.

“Now people are making change because it’s the right thing to do – it brings diversity to the table and includes everyone – rather than doing it because they have to. When you start to see that, you know you’re making real change.”

All sports have “shown commitment to it,” he says. He won’t single out sports, but New Zealand Rugby have recently made an improvement – now with two women of nine members on their board. And the female-heavy Netball NZ board has two men of seven.

But as you might expect, there has been some resistance. “There have been people saying ‘Why do we need to do this? Is this right?’ Right down to ‘I don’t think we can find any women’,” Miskimmin says.  

“Still, I think those conversations have been good to have. And we’ve seen some really strong male champions of change too.”

The first two women on a NZ Rugby board: Farah Palmer and Jennifer Kerr. Photo: Getty Images, supplied. 

Another area of change Miskimmin has been heartened by has come out of the carnage of Covid. When the government granted $4.6m to rescue professional sports franchises back in June, Miskimmin says the requests from sports surprised him.

“The really exciting thing was that the conversations I had with each of the national sporting bodies wasn’t ‘This is what we want for the men, and by the way, can we have some for the women?’ It was ‘We have men and women, and this is what we want to do’,” he says.

“This was a very different conversation than we would have had two or three years ago. I think our sports leaders aren’t seeing sportswomen as an add-on now.”

In the headlines

The media monitor promised in the ‘value and visibility’ pillar of the strategy reported its first results at last week's Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit. 

Just 15 percent of editorial sports media mentioned women, according to the study carried out over the past 12 months to August this year (skipping March-June because there was no sport played). While that statistic is still poor, it’s around 5 percent up on previous studies in New Zealand.

A 2018 Unesco report found globally only 4 percent of sports coverage in the media is devoted to women.

In other interesting findings in the Sport NZ study, 20 percent of sports stories were written by women; 69 percent of women’s sports coverage was driven by results; and 43 percent of media commentary praises the performance of female athletes (compared to 32 percent for men).

And in a reversal since a media study after the 2016 Olympics, 21 percent of women commented on their own performance – rather than a male coach or partner speaking on their behalf - compared to 15 percent of men.

“The media monitor will provide great intelligence on how women and girls are portrayed in the media, and what their share of voice is,” Miskimmin says.

Sports will now take part in a diversity and inclusion survey: “looking at whether people feel included or not, do they have a voice, and what are the barriers they face.”

The world's best female footballers will descend on New Zealand and Australia in 2023 for the Fifa World Cup. Photo: Getty Images

The three women’s World Cup events to be held in New Zealand over the next three years – in cricket, rugby and football - and the International Working Group on Women & Sport conference in Auckland in 2022, will be a huge fillip for the visibility of women in sport here.

“They will put women and women’s sport at the forefront of social and political conversations. They are such wonderful opportunities to leverage off,” says Miskimmin.

A culture shock

Things, of course, are not all rosy in women’s sport in New Zealand. A growing number of sports organisations - from hockey and gymnastics, to cycling and football - have come under investigation for the treatment of their female athletes over the last few years.

Surely, it must worry Miskimmin how many sports have been put under the spotlight around issues concerning the welfare of sportswomen?

“Absolutely. What I think we’re seeing is a shift in social expectation about what is acceptable and what’s not,” he says.

“I grew up in a world where you got barked at a lot, and you accepted it. Today, quite rightly, our athletes - especially young women - don’t accept that anymore and nor should they.

“I think we’re taking a while to adjust to that, ensuring we have good culture, good practices, good reporting. And that our athletes have the confidence to put their hand up without fear of retribution and say: ‘What we’re experiencing is not right’. I don’t think we’re there yet.

“But this is all about transitioning to a new way of operating, and that can’t happen overnight.”

'No' to the status quo

Nearly $100m of the $265m sports recovery package the Minister of Sport, Grant Robertson, delivered back in May has been spent so far.

Understanding the barriers for teenage girls in sport will help address the rapid drop-out rate. Photo: Getty Images

Some of it has been in immediate relief to help sports clubs survive; some has been poured into new programmes, like Tū Manawa Active Aotearoa, which funds projects delivering active recreation and sport to young people.

“It has particular emphasis on those missing out, our young rangatahi, our teenage girls,” Miskimmin says. “Everything we do now is through those lenses.”

Championing gender equality through the recovery and rebuild phase of the funding hand-out has also been a priority. Sports have been told there won’t be any investment in the “status quo” – they must come up with changes towards a more diverse and sustainable future, Miskimmin says.

Into the future

A new CEO to replace Miskimmin, who finishes in two months, has yet to be made – but there’s no reason why it can’t be a woman.

There’s been speculation it could be Raelene Castle, the former Netball NZ and Canterbury Bulldogs CEO who stepped down from heading Rugby Australia back in April. She’s been helping Sport NZ as an independent advisor to the ‘strengthen and adapt’ phase of the Covid relief package.

“Anyone with the right skillset could do this job. If that was a woman, it would be wonderful,” Miskimmin says. “What I know is we have a board who are absolutely passionate about diversity and inclusion.” (Sport NZ’s board, incidentally, has more women than men).

As he leaves Sport NZ’s Wellington offices for the last time on December 11 – in what direction he’s unsure of - Miskimmin wants to see the momentum for women and girls in sport carry on.

“All of the seeds that we’ve sown, all the changes we are promoting and trying to influence, they’re going to take time. This needs to continue to play out,” he says.

“We want our girls in New Zealand to participate, stay participating, dream of being part of sport; to be strong leaders and advocates and be able to realise their desires and ambitions without the barriers that past generations have had.”

Silver Fern Jodi Brown's war on drugs in sport

After years of sitting through "dull" anti-doping talks, netballer Jodi Brown has joined a world-first team of former athletes educating other athletes to create a culture of clean sport. 

After Jodi Brown retired from netball, sooner than she wanted to, she struggled to find her place in the world.

The 61-test Silver Ferns shooter was ready to play her swansong season in the final year of the ANZ Championship back in 2016, when she ruptured the ACL in her right knee just before the league began. With one snap, a stellar 18-year elite playing career was done and dusted.

Brown's kept herself busy with daughters Kiana and Aria (now 11 and nine), and son, Jimmy, coming along three years ago. And of course, she loves being a mum.

But she found it difficult post-netball to find another career she could be equally passionate about.

“To be honest it’s an area I’ve been really struggling to talk about. But I’ve been working with the Netball Players Association on it," Brown says.

 
 

“Since retiring, it’s been a really hard slog, really challenging mentally, because for 18 years my life had been netball. It was so structured – go to training, come home, do the housework, study, go to training again."

A full-time job just wouldn't fit into the equation now. “There are the parameters of having three kids and trying to be there for them. I have a lot of family values – I’ve got great memories of my mum picking us up after school and taking us to sport – and I want to do that for my kids.

“It’s been a good couple of years trying really hard to find my place, and what it looks like.”

But now Brown, 39, has found a new direction – in a role she never imagined herself doing.

She’s now an anti-doping educator for Drug Free Sports NZ - the first anti-doping agency in the world to have a team of former athletes educating other athletes to stay clean. 

Jodi Brown shooting for the Silver Ferns against England at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo: Michael Bradley.

Brown laughs when she explains how she came about the role, after replying to a job advert on Trade Me

The advertised role at Drug Free Sport NZ was in Christchurch, but Brown and her whānau live in Dunedin. “But they said they were working on another idea to have retired athletes come into the education team and was I interested?” she recalls.

“And I said yes, because I’d sat through a lot of those drug talks – one a year while I played netball. So I know what it’s like being an athlete sitting there, and no disrespect, but it would be a random person who had no association with sport standing there telling you about drugs, year in, year out.

“And I’d have my phone under the table, answering emails. Maybe it was my ignorance, but I thought I’d heard it all before.”

For the part-time role, Brown did her training alongside former Super Rugby hooker Ged Robinson - learning how to engage athletes (so they wouldn’t be texting instead) while educating them on New Zealand’s 10 anti-doping rules.

She admits she was nervous – not about the public speaking side of it; her role as a Sky netball presenter and commentator prepared her for that. “It was more about sharing the knowledge – that if an athlete asked me a question, I could confidently answer it. I had my fingers crossed no one would ask a tricky question,” she says.

And there has been the odd curly one.

“There’s been a few ‘can I take this drug, when I can’t take this drug?’ And I have to remind them I’m not a pharmacist and I refer them to the Drug Free Sport NZ website,” Brown says.

But the most common question she’s been asked this year has been around cannabis use. “If it is legalised in New Zealand, can they take it as athletes?” Brown explains. “I guarantee you every workshop I’ve done this year, at least one person will ask me that question.

“And the answer is no, because we are bound by WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] rules, and it’s still a banned drug on their list. The look of disappointment on their faces is hilarious.

“I’m really enjoying this role. It’s an opportunity for me to give back to sport, and in a different way that’s not directly involved with netball. Some of the sportspeople I’m working with, I never dreamt I’d talk to.”

Like her recent workshop with elite snow sports athletes in Wanaka – all young athletes who brought their parents along.   

“It reminded me of the passion kids have when they’re growing up. They’d just come down off the mountain, and still had all their ski gear on. And the parents reminded me of my parents – the taxi drivers and coaches,” Brown says.

“The kids asked cool questions – a lot of it was very new to them. As opposed to workshops I might do with the Highlanders and the Steel, where they know exactly what I’m talking about. So it was so cool to be part of that education.”

Jodi Brown and husband Markham with their children (from left) Jimmy, Kiana and Aria. Photo: supplied

Brown is one of nine educators anti-doping educators around the country, including Olympic weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs and Kate McIlroy, a Commonwealth Games athlete in three different sports.

“It’s a great initiative,” says Brown. “We’ve come from sporting backgrounds, we’re all passionate about sports, but we’re also passionate about educating athletes and making sure the education isn’t a drag, like the talks we had to sit through.”

The athletes are now encouraged to get out their phones during workshops – the “fresh and interactive” programme includes a sports quiz to make sure everyone’s paying attention.

While Brown deals with high performance athletes in Otago and Southland, she also spends time educating players at club level. “I think they are our most vulnerable,” she says.

Assembling a team of former sportspeople to educate athletes was a “no brainer”, Drug Free Sport NZ chief executive, Nick Paterson, says.

“But we are genuinely world-leading in this - the first anti-doping organisation to have a full suite of former athletes doing our education. We have other countries asking us ‘how do you do it?’ Well, we’re small enough to do it, which helps,” he says.

“We need high performance athletes speaking to high performance athletes because they understand each other - the pressures and the motivations. They can also talk to schools and the kids look up to them.”

Paterson says the organisation’s strategy has changed over the last five years – from testing and catching athletes, to educating them and preventing them from either making mistakes or blatantly cheating.

“It means our organisation has to be built on strong engagement with athletes and NSOs. Education is the cornerstone of what we’re doing," he says.

“I believe we have a strong integrity culture in New Zealand, and specifically in sport. The number of dopers in New Zealand is low, so we don’t do our work to detect – we do it to deter, educate and support.”

Drug Free Sport NZ collects 1350 blood and urine samples from athletes each year, with between 6-10 positive results. Around half of those are usually accidental doping.

Jodi Brown teaching netball skills to kids in Fiji through the NetGO programme. Photo: supplied. 

Brown continues her roles as a mum and a netball commentator. She’s also involved with Netball New Zealand’s Pacific Sporting Partnership (PSP) programme, working in Pacific nations to get more children playing sports and being healthier.

She’s taken the NetGO programme, specifically promoting netball, to Fiji and the Cook Islands. “I’m of Cook Islands descent, so it really appeals to me to help grow the sport over there,” she says.

“I’ve done a lot with junior netball in the Cooks, and when I watch them play, I've been hugely impressed. I compare them to my daughters’ teams, who would have no chance against the Cook Islands kids. So why are we not seeing more of these girls come through to the top level? It’s a question I still haven’t got to the bottom of.”

But there’s one conundrum she has been able to solve – what to do next.

“It’s been a good couple of years struggling to find my place,” she says. “But now I’m coming out the other side.”

Canterbury rugby stars guiding girls to the field

Some of Canterbury's champion rugby players are giving back to the game early - coaching teams on top of their work and playing commitments, so young girls have the chance to play.

Nothing was going to stop the Royal Angels - a group of enthusiastic teenage girls - from playing rugby.

Not the lack of numbers at their own rugby clubs, nor the geographical distance that lay between them across Christchurch. Or that a 20-year-old southerner from Riverton – with no previous coaching experience - would be leading them.

That woman was Canterbury prop Amy Rule, who decided to make her foray into coaching this season with the U16 Prebbleton rugby side. Rule, who moved north from Southland after making the Black Ferns development side late last year, wanted to get into the driver’s seat to help her own game.

But she didn’t imagine how much she would gain from the young girls, who turned a rocky start to their season into her most enjoyable moment of coaching yet.

On the eve of a season already disrupted by Covid-19, the Prebbleton U16s didn’t have enough girls to make a full side. They turned up for a tournament and combined with a group of girls from the Suburbs club, who were in the same predicament.  

 
 

“Us coaches were on the sideline saying ‘Oh we could form a team, this is the perfect way to get numbers’,” recalls Rule.

“We hadn’t even discussed it with the girls, but at half time, without even talking to us, they turned their jerseys inside out and they became the team themselves.

“That was such a cool experience because these girls at a young age have built this really cool sisterhood. They’ve come from two different parts of town. It's cool that the friendships they’ve made were over something that wasn’t planned. It was just spontaneous.

“We call ourselves the Royal Angels; we’re our own club now.”

It’s moments like this that make you think defending champions Canterbury may carry on their dominance in the national women’s competition for years to come – and not just on the field.

On their way to defending the Farah Palmer Cup title they've won three years in succession, some of Canterbury’s star players are giving back to the game by coaching the next generation of players, through local secondary schools and club sides.

Players like Rule, Black Fern lock Chelsea Bremner and impact player Angie Sisifa.

Canterbury lock Chelsea Bremner was the 2019 FPC Player of the Year. Photo: Ken Baker Photography. 

Bremner is teaching intermediate students at Hornby High in western Christchurch, but her school’s rugby team joined with two others - Hillmorton and Riccarton - to make up the Southern side. She’s coaching alongside her Canterbury teammate Cassie Siataga.

And Sisifa is helping out with the development team at Christchurch Girls’ High, who also had to combine teams with Linwood College this season.

With Bremner and Sisifa both teachers by trade, the idea of coaching school teams was a natural crossover when they started their classroom careers.

With four years of coaching experience under her belt, Black Fern Bremner says she enjoys watching young players develop and having fun playing rugby.

“It’s awesome trying to help them be the best that they can be. I also just love being out there on the rugby field and in the environment,” the 25-year-old says.

“The team bring a lot of energy - they’re really nuggety and hard-working. I know for a lot of them, they're just there for the enjoyment and the social side and that’s cool. They just love doing it. And that’s what makes them play really well.”

Bremner knows the feeling. The athletic lock was a netballer growing up and only started playing rugby four years ago for Lincoln University. She stayed because of the social aspect.

And yet, last year she won the Fiao’o Fa’amausili Medal for FPC player of the year and was rewarded with a Black Ferns contract.

Fitting in their own FPC training sessions, careers and coaching makes for a busy schedule for the Canterbury players, but it’s all worth it, Bremner says.

“It’s cool for girls to have females coaching as well. Just so they can see a pathway,” she says. “It’s great having males, but for me, being able to show them I put lots of hours into my rugby and that I’m a teacher and I’m coaching them, they can kind of see that it's definitely achievable to fit rugby in.”

Chelsea Bremner with the Southern side she coaches. Photo: supplied. 

During the school rugby season, Bremner was taking the students in the high school van to Riccarton for training once a week. She understands if players have fun then their performance will pick up on-field.

Although she didn’t play rugby at secondary school, she can remember her sister Alana’s joy during that period. Alana Bremner captains her Canterbury and Lincoln team.

“I guess for me knowing that was a highlight of my sister’s rugby growing up, then maybe if I help these girls out, hopefully we’ll get some wanting to take their rugby further,” says Chelsea. “It’ll be really good next year, if we can keep the same bunch of girls and get a few more involved as well.”

Being able to share what she’s learning at a provincial and national level is reassuring for her own growth and development.

“It gives me confidence with my coaching, knowing that I can translate what I’ve learnt at a really high level to the girls or adapt new skills when I need to,” says Bremner.

“This year, we bought a game plan in and it's really helped the girls have a bit of structure, and just breaking it down with tackle technique. Obviously with Canterbury and Black Ferns, we've got amazing coaches, so some really good quality drills to keep it interesting for the girls has helped as well.”

Loose forward Angie Sisifa has had some special moments coaching at Christchurch Girls' High. Photo: Ken Baker Photography.

Being on the other side has also given the Canterbury players a new-found appreciation for their own coaches.

Sisifa – a former Black Fern who’s spent most of her rugby career with Otago, including a fair stint as captain – realises how much of a commitment it is to coach.

“I’m definitely appreciating what coaches are doing behind the scenes, the set-up, or even just bringing an ice pack,” the 30-year-old laughs.

The best part of coaching, Sisifa says, are the opportunities it gives her students. While her development side were sharing food and watching Christchurch Girls’ in the final, Sisifa witnessed a special moment.

“One of the kids was just like ‘man, thanks Miss’. It was something she never would’ve tried if the opportunity didn’t present itself. And it was just because one teacher said ‘Yeah I'll take a couple of girls’,” she says.

“It only took that one time for her to commit to rugby, and now she wants to play U16s next year and take rugby seriously. It’s about finding those moments.”

Another memory was when a Muslim girl joined Sisifa’s team. Even though she didn't know any rules or how to play, she picked it up along the way with the support of her team.

“It’s just seeing people grow. And learning what offside is. And which team is theirs. It’s the little things,” Sisifa says.

In the long run, playing and coaching is about making a difference in people’s lives.

“You always kind of think about legacy as a player and as a coach,” says Sisifa. “The marks you leave behind and the imprint you leave on somebody that you’ve had an interaction with - you always want to leave a positive one.

“You always want to leave them wanting to grow in some way or form. Whether it's in the sport or as a person in the things that they do. Ultimately in life that’s what I want to try and do.”

Rule – who has “fallen in love” with coaching in her first season – says she relishes giving girls an opportunity that wasn’t there when she was a teenager.

“I also love how rewarding it is and how much I've learnt. And it’s definitely helped my game,” says Rule, who’s studying sport management at Lincoln University.

“Women's rugby is indescribable - it's just different, it is everything. You learn such good life lessons, so I think if we can do as much as we can to help out the women's game, and the more it grows, the more girls get opportunities to be a part of this culture that New Zealand Rugby has, then it’s really cool. Even the smallest things can make the biggest difference.”

Where is she now? Emily Drumm

One of New Zealand's greatest cricketers, Emily Drumm says leading the White Ferns to their only World Cup triumph 20 years ago was her Everest. 

Let’s face it: there are only so many re-runs of old sports events that we were able to put up with through the shut down of live sport during the worst of the pandemic lockdown.

But for New Zealand’s most celebrated women’s cricket team, there was one repeat which gave them a real buzz and brought back a flood of memories.

In May, Sky Sport showed a full replay of the 2000 Women's Cricket World Cup final in Christchurch.

The White Ferns, having been dismissed by Australia for a meagre 184, bowled and fielded out of their skins. When New Zealand bowler Clare Nicholson had Charmaine Mason caught by wicketkeeper Rebecca Rolls with the first ball of the final over, the White Ferns whooped and hollered in the middle of the ground. They had won by a bare four runs.  

"We have our own WhatsApp group," says Emily Drumm, a member of that victorious White Ferns team, as she reflected on that day. "We all tuned in to watch and you can imagine the comments being flung far and wide.

"We have a very good connection among the players, some of who are overseas. The flashbacks are still there, but 20 years later your life gets in the way. But it was a brilliant day."

 
 

Aucklander Drumm - "a diehard Blues tragic," she laughs - was the White Ferns captain that day, and with names like Devine, Bates, Kerr, Satterthwaite and Tahuhu the most recognisable names in the current White Ferns game, it’s easy to forget what an outstanding player Drumm was.

She made her international debut at  the age of 17. In 101 one day internationals, she averaged 35.11, twice making centuries. In five tests – rarely played now – Drumm averaged a monster 144.33, with two centuries against England and Australia (161 not out, her highest score in Christchurch).

White Ferns captain Emily Drumm scored 21 off 29 balls in the 2000 World Cup final. Photo: Getty Images. 

Drumm’s time as captain had highs and lows. She admits now she might not have been ready when she was asked to take charge several months before the World Cup.

"In January 2000, we got thrashed 3-0 by the Aussies and I remember sitting in the dressing room and thinking ‘this is not good, I don’t know what I’m doing'," she says. 

"I was still relatively young from a maturity point of view. I’d played a lot of cricket but being captain is not just playing the game; it’s being able to communicate, talk to players and make proper decisions."

She felt in cricket playing terms she was ready, but mentally mature enough? "Probably not, but when you’re asked to captain your country you don’t want to turn it down."

She vividly recalls sitting in the changing room with Lesley Murdoch, who was then the chair of selectors and a double international, after the last game of that Australian series.

"I was pretty tearful. Lesley had asked me to be captain. She said ‘pick yourself up, you’ve got a good team and we have a home tournament’."

So she did, and a successful winter preparation set the White Ferns up for the ultimate triumph at Lincoln. 

A couple of lean seasons followed, with young players finding their feet in the side. New Zealand Cricket carried out a review at the end of the 2002-03 season, and Drumm and Murdoch were dumped as captain and selector.

Drumm is not one for regrets but she admits it took her time to get over that.

"I would have liked the opportunity to fix the issues at hand. I was never given the chance. That was the only disappointment for me."

She was available to return for the White Ferns, but they didn’t want her. At this distance it still seems bizarre.

She was missing for over a year but played again in early 2006 and finished appropriately on a stellar note against India at home - scoring 274 runs in five ODIs at a cracking average of 91.

After that, no thanks – and she never actually retired. She was not one for making a big noise.

She went to Britain for a spot of OE, and stayed seven years, playing and coaching with Kent.   

Drumm retains her links with the game as a national selector, has done some coaching at provincial level and still holds ambitions to do more work in that area, perhaps even around the White Ferns or the women’s Big Bash League.

She’s also been a TV commentator on the game. But coaching can wait until she gets herself up to speed with the demands, and skill sets, of the modern game. "I’d hate to walk into a role I wasn’t ready for." 

Emily Drumm with children Theo (left) and Devan. Photo: supplied.

And most importantly, not until it fits in with life away from cricket. She has two children, 10-year-old Devan and Theo, aged nine.

"They take up a lot of my time. I’m working fulltime [as a manager for her older brother Dominic’s commercial cleaning company, Westferry Property Services], there’s the children’s cricket and soccer, selecting and trying to run a household," she says.

"I’ve tried to stay in the game without compromising being a Mum. I do live a pretty full and busy life.

"Coaching is something I am really passionate about, but it’s all about timing. Opportunities have presented themselves but I can’t take them up. I need to get a bit more skin in the game."

Her timing was unfortunate work-wise too. She started working for her brother in February, right before Covid-19 struck. Superyacht cleaning is one of their strings. But she’s only been onboard four since March.

So how has the game of cricket changed since Drumm was in her prime?

"Players are definitely hitting the ball harder now, and further," she says. "But I don’t think the bowlers bowl that much faster. The bats are better and give a bit more bang for your buck when you get one out of the middle.

"Players are also better athletes. Could some players be fitter than they are? Absolutely, but you have to be fit, athletic and cannot be weak in any part of the game.

"What has become more obvious is the TV coverage. Players have been exposed if they are poor at certain aspects."

Back to December 23, 2000. What stands out in Drumm’s mind about that wonderful day at Lincoln?

"From being a kid growing up and falling in love with cricket, and having had a disaster in the World Cup final at Lord’s in 1993 when we got thrashed [by England] and I had a terrible game [out for a duck], to come back seven years later and lead the side in such a close match and win, it doesn’t get any better than that.

"I’ve got two kids and love them to bits. But winning that World Cup was my Everest, my Olympic gold medal." 

Why a frustrated Caitlin Bassett is coming to NZ

In this week's Extra Time podcast, Australia netball captain Caitlin Bassett explains why she's crossing the ditch to join the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic next year.

Australian Diamonds captain Caitlin Bassett admits it will be surreal playing netball in New Zealand next year, as she seeks the court time she struggled to get in her own country.

The 100-test veteran has signed with the Magic for next year's ANZ Premiership, after she spent much of this Super Netball season on the bench for her Giants club, when the Australians introduced a controversial two-point super shot to the competition.

Bassett admits its been a tough 12 months but she can't wait to hear Kiwis cheering her on for once. 

Also, New Zealand Rugby has fallen out with its Southern Hemisphere partners, again turned its back on its Pacific neighbours and damaged its relationship with its players. And it's all being played out in public.

Has NZR been arrogant in how it's handled itself in 2020 and can its relationships be repaired?

Brenton Vannisselroy is joined by Aayden Clarke, head of Pacific Rugby Players, former New Zealand and Wales rugby boss David Moffett, Christy Doran of rugby.com.au and RNZ rugby reporter Joe Porter as they discuss the events of the past few weeks.

* The Extra Time podcast is brought to you by RNZ Sport, LockerRoom and Stuff

The sailor boxing the Pitbull for a world title shot

They're both mums who run gyms, and now Karena Te Ruki-Pasene and Baby 'The Pitbull' Nansen are facing off in the ring - to lead the way for other women boxers. 

When Karena Te Ruki-Pasene wanted to lose her "baby weight" before returning to the Navy, she pulled on a pair of boxing gloves. Running just wasn't her thing.

Now the 30-year-old mum of two is getting ready to open her own boxing gym next week. But before she throws any punches there, she'll be fighting for a South Pacific boxing belt tomorrow night.

She will take on Baby ‘The Pitbull’ Nansen for the PBC South Pacific lightweight title at Vodafone Event Centre in Manukau – a fight that’s already been knocked back a couple of times by Covid-19.

Te Ruki-Pasene has come a long way from the kid who left Tangaroa College in south Auckland in 2009, and went straight into the Navy. She only recently left after almost 12 years of service.

“I started as a steward and sailed for a good seven years in and out of New Zealand, and all around the world,” Te Ruki-Pasene says. “But then I wanted to settle down and stay home to be close to the kids." 

She took on another role in the Navy, helping young people. “We served alongside the Air Force and Army working with youth from the ages of 14 to 25 all over New Zealand, just helping out our own people and giving back to them,” she says. 

Six years ago, one of her fellow sailors, Albie Roebeck, was taking boxing classes and Te Ruki-Pasene joined him to help regain her fitness after having her two sons, who are now aged eight and nine.

 
 

“I started boxing just to lose the baby weight because with the military, we have to keep our fitness up to standard. I didn’t like running, so I just wanted to stand there and throw my hands and that was fun for me,” Te Ruki-Pasene says.

The sessions were addictive and Roebeck soon signed her up for a fight under his Discipline and Allegiance team at Boxing Alley.  He’s been her coach ever since.

Te Ruki-Pasene then made the decision to turn professional in 2018 and has a two-win, one-loss record. One of her professional victories was for the NZ Professional Boxing Commission female superlight title earlier this year, before Covid kicked in.

Her title fight with Nansen this weekend has been rescheduled twice already, with Covid throwing punches throughout the planning. The impacts have been felt by both fighters and the promoter, Bruce Glozier, of Glozier Boxing.

Karena Te Ruki-Pasene (right) fighting Tania Reid. Photo: Calden Jamieson Photography. 

Glozier says he wondered whether the event would go ahead this year and at times felt like “pulling the plug on it.”

“But it's hard for anyone at this time,” he says. “There's so much uncertainty and you take a huge risk and gamble when you put these events on. But I guess you just have to be positive and stay focused. Just stick to the plan and keep going.”

Glozier was responsible for holding Geovana Peres’ triumphant WBO world light-heavyweight title fight with Canadian Claire Hafner in Auckland last year and has been supporting opportunities for female boxers. He hopes others will get on board and encourage the momentum.

“I just want to get more of a drive from people to push the women's scene. I think we've got some really good talent in New Zealand across all sports. But I would really love to get more support around women's boxing,” says Glozier.

Baby Nansen is well known for her kickboxing career, which saw her get a handful of muay thai and kickboxing titles under her belt over 40 bouts across codes in 10 years.

She had her first professional boxing fight in 2014, and two years ago became the first New Zealand female boxer to fight at New York’s Madison Square Garden. She lost to American Mikaela Mayer on points, and in the same year was defeated in her first WBO title attempt against Deahna Hobbs. 

These latest setbacks have played on both fighters’ minds - both having to work around children, family life and work commitments in the staggered lead-up. Trying to manage weight and preparation routines was also difficult but they were able to get through the challenges with support.

Te Ruki-Pasene says the cancellations were to be expected, and her coach has kept her focused on the main goal.

“I just keep reminding myself why I box. Why I do the things that I love and look at the whole purpose. I’m always reminding myself, ‘don’t give up’. And don’t be weak-minded. There are other people out there that are suffering way worse,” she says.

A shot at a world title is where both women are heading. The 10-round fight sets up both boxers for an attempt at a WBO world title at a later stage. It’s a world title fight requirement to have fought a 10-round match.

Baby ‘The Pitbull’ Nansen.  Photo: Carmen Bird. 

Nansen, who has eight-year-old twin girls, says her training camp was in isolation at home for the most part.

“It’s been crazy to be honest,” she says. “Luckily my partner, Sam Hill, is also a professional fighter so I’ve had him hold my pads and do my conditioning programmes [with me] from my trainers.

“But as crazy as it was, it actually worked out really well because I was working around the kids, and the gym wasn’t open, so I was able to actually focus solely on my fight prep.”

Nansen was working with a programme from Doug Viney, one of the masterminds behind City Kickboxing - the Auckland gym boasting a number of professional combat fighters including UFC middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya.

City Kickboxing is “something special”, says Nansen, and she’s thankful to be part of their team.

“I'm always grateful to be there and to be cornered by Doug and Eugene [Bareman]. Their knowledge is power. They have some beautiful technical, intelligent, striking stuff they share with their fighters, so I'm really honoured to be there,” she says.

Nansen also has her own business she manages, SMAC Gym in Manurewa.

Coincidentally, Te Ruki-Pasene was doing almost the same in lockdown. If changing careers and preparing for a professional boxing fight during a global pandemic wasn’t enough to add to the uncertainty pile, then starting a business would top it off.

Through the chaos, she has also been working towards opening her new gym, K-ORA boxing, in Warkworth, north of Auckland.

“‘K’ is from my name, ‘ORA’ is coming from hauora - wellbeing. That’s the heart of the branch,” she says.

She’s all come up with the slogan: ‘It's all about you’. “When you box, it's not a selfish thing, it's levelling up and knowing what you want to improve,” she says.

“Whether that be weight control, fitness, making goals for yourself where you want to be jabbing faster than the last fight, or moving a lot quicker than the last fight. You are always improving every fight camp. And you're always going to be competitive with yourself. That’s my whole reason behind ‘It's all about you’.

“Don’t get it confused. People might think it's selfish but if you can't love or take care of yourself, you can't do that for anyone else.”

Family support helps the Māori-Niuean fighter juggle the kids and day-to-day life, but habits ingrained from her first career play a part, too.

“They're quite independent at this stage,” says Te Ruki-Pasene. “With a military background, routine is always on lock. My kids are quite independent so they can feed themselves, make their lunch; they just need that adult supervision at the end of the day.

“And just making it work. If you want something that bad, you'll do anything to make it work.”

Nansen is a fighter Te Ruki-Pasene has looked up to, and studied when she decided to take the sport more seriously.

“I really respect her. When I saw her post about the fight at Madison Square Garden with Mikaela Mayer, I instantly screenshotted it and sent that to my trainer and was like, ‘that’s us, we are doing that one day’,” Te Ruki-Pasene says.

She always knew she would have to come up against Nansen on her journey, but says it came sooner than she thought.

“Covid pushed us together. All respect aside, we just got to do what we got to do. But then females create that bond as soon as the fight is done. It just makes us stronger,” she says.

Nansen is feeling “really good” about the fight.

“I’m excited to have this opportunity and fight for the PBC South Pacific title. I also give credit to my opponent, Karen - she's a really credible athlete herself so I'm quite excited to get in there with her and showcase female combat sport,” she says.

Originally they were fighting for the WBO Women’s Asia Pacific lightweight title but with a second Covid-19 lockdown in Auckland and loss of sponsors, what was on offer had to be adjusted.

Even with the change in titles, the goals remain the same for both Nansen and Te Ruki-Pasene. And Glozier. He’s still hoping to have a WBO match sometime next year.

“I’m expecting it to be a really good fight and it’s going to be close,” he says. “So I’m hoping we can get a rematch early next year and this time it will be for a significant title like the WBO.”

“It’s a bit of a building stage for all of us. And it’s good to get more people behind women in sport.”

There are more female boxers coming up in the New Zealand scene, so Glozier is hoping there might be an all-women's pro-fight card not too far away. “That’s kind of what I’m hanging on for some time next year,” he says. “I would love to do that. It would be awesome.”

The battle to balance gender at the Paralympics

In the final of three Q & As from keynote speakers at the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit, Craig Spence explains the push to get more women's Paralympic medallists and why, in a Covid-ravaged world, we need the Games more than ever.

Crossing fingers that they go ahead, the Tokyo Paralympics will have more women competitors than ever before, say Craig Spence from the International Paralympic Committee's headquarters in the German city of Bonn.

Spence, the IPC’s chief marketing and communications officer, was previously at the UK’s Rugby Football League, and admits he knew very little about the Paralympics when he joined them a decade ago. But he was excited by the chance to work in sport and make a difference to the world - and that's never been more important, he says. 

While he doesn’t like the word ‘confident’, Spence is encouraged the Paralympics will go ahead in 2021: “We are going to be the beacon of light at the end of this horrible pandemic."

 
 

SM: The IPC is working towards gender equity at the Paralympic Games. How close will you come to an equal number of female and male athletes in Tokyo 2021?

CS: Gender parity isn’t as easy as just flicking a switch, and saying we’re going to have 50:50. We need the national Paralympic committees and sporting federations to produce the talent pool. There simply aren’t enough women to fill the places yet, and it’s about maintaining the quality of the competition.

We’ve set a strategy to gradually increase it. In Barcelona 1992 we had 699 women; Tokyo will have around 1750. We will already be up 17 percent on London 2012. We need to convince national Paralympic committees that gender equity is the way to go. There are some very advanced countries on this – like New Zealand - but then you have challenges in some Asian and African countries where they only have two athletes and they’re both men. We don’t want to implement quota places, where it feels like people are there just because of the rule book.

There’s a great quote from Cheri Blauwet, the US wheelchair racer who is now a doctor at Harvard and won gold at the 2004 Athens Games. She said “I could never truly call myself the best in the world. This is simply because the majority of women with disabilities have never yet had the chance to compete.”

SM: So how close are you to achieving parity?

CS: We were looking to have gender parity in medal events at the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics, which would have been the first time. But we’ve had to change it a little because in certain snowboard events we just don’t have enough women competing at World Cup level. So we’re at 53 percent men, 47 percent women – we’re getting closer.

SM: Oceania is leading the world in having female leadership in their Paralympic organisations. How do you get more women into leadership roles around the world?

CS: You have to change the mentality of the Paralympic movement to realise that gender parity is the way to go, and that can only be achieved if you have more women in leadership in the national Paralympic committees. We’ve done a lot of work in recent years to see how we can increase the number of female leaders, and how we can mentor female leaders coming through. You’ve got Fiona Allen leading Paralympics NZ, and female secretary-generals in Australia, Fiji, Kiribati and Vanuatu.  We’ve still got work to do ourselves in terms of bringing through the female leaders in our own company.

SM: How confident are you that the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games will go ahead?

CS: I’m greatly encouraged by what’s happening around the world. In New Zealand and Australia, sport is coming back again. And in Europe, the Champions League came to a climax with all the teams going to Portugal to play. Of course there’s a difference between a football tournament of eight teams, and a Paralympics where we’re calling on 4300 athletes to compete.

We know more about coronavirus, and how we can protect people from the virus. We’re learning from other sports events, like the US and French Opens. We believe it's going to be a very special Games, and a very emotional Games.

I think the Paralympics are needed next year more than ever. During this crisis, some countries have reverted to type, and undone some of the great work done in recent years. From a disability point of view we have been really alarmed that some governments have said ‘if you have a disability you’re at the back of the queue for medical treatment should you catch coronavirus’. We have to continue the great work we’ve been doing since we were formed.

SM: The Rio Paralympics drew a TV audience for 4.1 billion, and 79 percent of Brazilians said it changed their attitudes towards disability. Do you expect the same kind of response from Tokyo?

CS: Tokyo will be the games that delivers more change than any other sporting event in history. The TV audience will build to 4.25 billion, and the Games will be televised in more countries than ever before. I’m so excited because the sport is going to be spectacular. You see someone with no legs run 100m in 10.5 seconds, and you can’t help but change your attitude to disability.

We are also going to launch the biggest communications campaign in Paralympics history. It isn’t about sport – it’s about human rights and how we can use the Paralympic Games as a vehicle to drive the human rights agenda. So many violations are going on around the world against people with disabilities, 1 billion people - 15 percent of the world’s population - face discrimination every day.  We have to change the mindsets of the world, and the easiest way to do that is through sport.

* Craig Spence will speak on value and visibility on the final day of the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit, delivered by Women in Sport Aotearoa and the Shift Foundation. 

From gaol to goal - a Black Stick's double life

In an already extraordinary year, Black Stick Frances Davies has found herself working in a prison and the criminal courts, but she hasn't lost sight of her Olympic dream.

On any given weekday, you’ll find Black Sticks defender Frances Davies in the Auckland District Court.

Rest assured, she’s not a defendant – but more of an attendant, in her new fulltime job helping jurors as they head into the courtroom.

The role of court registry support officer suits Davies to a T. She’s in the final stages of completing her degree in criminology, minoring in psychology. And she’s just fulfilled her 100 hours of work experience helping in the lives of children with parents in prison.

“I like to work where I have a purpose, where I’m making an impact on people’s lives,” says Davies, who turns 24 next week.

But no matter how much Davies enjoys her new work, she won’t be ditching her other career - as a semi-professional athlete still fixed on her target of playing at the Olympics in Tokyo next year.

 
 

She’s feeling a little fatigued a month into her new schedule - working an eight-hour day, before heading to an intense evening training session with the Auckland cluster of Black Sticks players. And then trying to find time to finish her final university assignments.

“I have a new admiration for the Black Sticks players who work and play hockey,” the 78-test player laughs. “I've been hitting a wall around lunchtime. I’m living a completely different life to what I was before lockdown.”

Frances Davies (closest to camera) training with Black Sticks team-mates before Covid struck. Photo: BW Media/Hockey NZ

Davies has just returned to Auckland after two months in Christchurch, working with Pillars, a charity for children who have parents in prison.  

With over 23,000 children of parents incarcerated in New Zealand, it’s Pillars’ ethos to ‘create positive futures for the children and whānau of prisoners in Aotearoa, breaking the cycle of intergenerational offending’.

“It was so eye opening,” Davies says. “I’d never thought of what happens to the children before now. But it’s crazy the stress it puts on their lives when a parent goes into prison. It really affects them”

Davies spent time working in the family visiting centre at Christchurch Men’s Prison, helping create a “friendly, normal space” for families and prisoners to meet.

“Before Pillars, there was just a room with a table and two seats,” Davies says. “Now there are activities, books and games, so parents can interact with their kids as a family in a place where it doesn’t feel like a prison.”

The 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist also worked on the Pillars mentoring programme, where volunteers give their time to spend with those children.  

“Those kids don’t have the role model in their life to help them grow as a person. But the mentor gives them a different aspect on life, new experiences and takes some of the strain off the family,” Davies says. “I worked behind the scenes, and it was really fulfilling to see it making a difference to children’s lives.”

She also got her own family involved – her mum and grandma got out their sewing machines and whipped up bags for the kids.

Davies’ passion for working with children has seen her drive the Black Sticks’ ambassador programme with child health research charity Cure Kids. “We have a platform as New Zealand representatives, and it’s pretty awesome to be able to use that platform to help kids,” she says.

Black Sticks Rachel McCann, Frances Davies, Megan Hull and Holly Pearson visiting kids on Red Nose Day. Photo: supplied

She’s also grateful to have her first fulltime job, having spent two months applying for more than 50 positions during a traumatic time in New Zealand’s workforce (especially for women).

“I’m so stoked to have this role, working with jurors and helping them through the process. It’s a job where I know I can make my way up,” she says.

The girl who grew up in Tauranga and spent her college years at St Peter’s School in Cambridge, started off studying business at the University of Auckland but hated it.  She decided she wanted to join the police, so flipped her degree to criminology.  

But Davis admits she struggled midway through this year, feeling as though she had no purpose.

Hockey’s international Pro League was abruptly halted and the Tokyo Olympics postponed for a year by Covid-19. “I didn’t have a job, uni was put on hold and I was stuck in a hard place,” she says.

“But you just have to keep pushing. So here I am with a job, with uni and with hockey again - suddenly I’ve got them all!”

The sharp, athletic defensive player, who made her Black Sticks debut in late 2016, hasn’t lost any of her desire to play at next year’s Olympic Games.

“Back in March when it was postponed, I was pretty gutted. When I first made the New Zealand team, it was my goal - and the team’s goal – to play at the 2020 Olympics. We’d been training for four years, and it felt like it was just ripped away from us,” she says.

While lockdown gave her the opportunity to enjoy “a taste of reality” – with no hockey and spending more time with family and friends – she was soon hanging out for the sport’s competitiveness, especially in the international game.

Black Sticks Frances Davies gets down low to deny a US player the ball. Photo: BW Media/Hockey NZ

Club hockey has just restarted in Auckland, and  Davies club side of six years, Somerville, has made the Intercity women's premier final this weekend. But she says they get "a lot of heat" with eight Black Sticks in the side.

Next month, Davies will be a lynchpin in the Southern Alpiners in the new Premier League, a four-team national competition borne out of Covid. She will have Black Sticks Rachel McCann and Olivia Merry alongside her. 

After a couple of false starts, the league is slated to begin on November 12 - with the first three women's rounds played over three days, and the final rounds starting November 25. 

All games have now been moved south – from Auckland to Hamilton - as a safeguard if Covid-19 rears its head in the community again. At level 2, an easier bubble could be placed over the Hamilton venue than at the larger National Hockey Centre in Albany. 

If anything has become clearer to Davies during this topsy-turvy year, it’s just how much of an influence hockey has played on the rest of her life.

“It’s crazy to think that so much I’ve learned in a team culture playing hockey is helping me in my professional life,” she says. “Like dealing with people. High performance sport is very stressful, you always have to perform at your best, but I feel like I can now cope better in a stressful environment because of hockey.”

The little footie player who could: Chyloe Kurdas

In the second of three Q&As with keynote speakers from the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit this week, Suzanne McFadden chats with Chyloe Kurdas, who's broken down barriers for females in the AFL and golf - sometimes under stealth.

From the age of five, Chyloe Kurdas realised she wouldn’t get to be a professional AFL player. Instead, it became her goal to ensure other girls would get the chance.

She eventually got to play her beloved footie, turning out for Melbourne University for a decade. But she found her true calling off the oval, as AFL Victoria’s female football development manager – building high-performance programmes for girls – and achieving her dream of creating a national women’s competition, the AFLW, in 2016.

Kurdas then took her passion for making cultural change and gender equity in sport to golf. She’s now the national female participation manager for Golf Australia, charged with leading Vision 2025, the sport’s long-term strategy to enhance the engagement of women and girls.

She's kept her links to football, as a TV expert commentator on the game. 

 
 

SM: At the age of five, as a girl wanting to play AFL, you first realised there were barriers for females in sport. What stopped you giving up your dream to play footie?

CK: I did give it away for a long time. It was the 80s, and girls could play with boys until they were 12, but it was rare. I didn’t want to ask my parents if I could play because I thought it would attract more of the bullying I got for being such an androgynous little kid. So I found karate which was a godsend. It’s very philosophical and a lot of that I still use today. I did that for 14 years, and it probably saved my life in many ways, many times.  

I played footie with the boys in primary school lunchtime, but I gave up when I went to high school, because you go from being a kid to being a girl. Even though I was really good at footie, I still wasn’t good enough to cut it at high school as a teenager. I thought there wasn’t going to be a path for me. But I’m very glad I got there in the end.

Chyloe Kurdas says her job at Golf Australia is to evolve a culture that’s 'very gendered and very classist'. Photo: Getty Images. 

SM: So when did you start playing in earnest?

CK: I was 20 when I found a women’s league, but I spent the first year watching a friend who was playing. I didn’t play a single game, because I was waiting for an invitation to play. As a girl playing football, you were always told to wait your turn. Having doors closed on you creates a learned passiveness around the agency we bring to our lives, which is why I do a lot of work now to change that.

SM: You were one of the first women to play on the MCG, on Mother’s Day in 2004, and you’ve called it one of the best days of your life. Why was it so special to you?

CK: The MCG is an amazing piece of grass; it’s Melbourne’s heart. But to think that something that’s so revered, so sacred, hadn’t had women footballers play on it until then was quite disgusting.

What was also really special was that we were reclaiming a space back from the men and boys; something that they had dominated and hadn’t shared, that we would have rightfully had access to. There was this thinking that we weren’t good enough to be put on this special thing, that we might tarnish it. And so it was really empowering to finally play on it. And afterwards, the guys realised that we didn’t tarnish it at all.

SM: What was the most surprising barrier you faced trying to get a national competition like the AFLW off the ground?

CK: The biggest surprise was getting employed by an organisation to do something that senior key decision-makers didn’t necessarily believe in. The resistance was internal, from people who were my colleagues. There was one of me employed in each state, responsible for female development in the game - some incredible women around the country all facing the same challenges.

Internally the things we were working towards, the access to the game we were trying to bring to women and girls, was never easy. We were trying to convince people why we were trying to do it, when they were saying: ‘But if there’s no national competition, why run a talent programme?’ A lack of vision and innovation is a little demoralising, and along with the thinking ‘Is the women’s game really worth investing in?’, it was pretty exhausting. So I just did a lot of stuff under the cover of darkness, because no one really paid female football a lot of attention.

SM: You’re now at Golf Australia. How transferable were your skills from football to golf?

CK: Not at all from a playing perspective! But from a job perspective, very transferable. It’s about how you reshape and reframe systems, structures and cultures to create the senior key decision-makers’ buy-in, so they’re the ones who craft a new future for your sport.

In golf, there’s much more authorisation internally; they understand it. I think that’s partly because the angst of letting women on the greens happened about 150 years ago, and we’ve all moved past that. And the best Australian golfer ever is Karrie Webb.

The issue is around a sports culture that’s very gendered and very classist in lots of ways - and that’s globally. Our job now is to help evolve those things, so we take the great things from our past and honour heritage and traditions, but do so in a way that doesn’t close doors on people. That means not closing doors on women in the boardroom, making sure women have an easy path to access leaderships roles in our clubs, and making sure we deliver golf that works to the needs of women and girls. Our lives are a little different from men and boys. The top two things women say makes golf prohibitive to them is time and money.

SM: So do you play golf?

CK: Yes, I do have a hit, actually. Before I joined Golf Australia I had 18 months off between roles, so in that time I bought some clubs because I finally had time to play. I just hack around my public nine-hole course.

* Chyloe Kurdas will speak on participation on the second day of the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit, delivered by Women in Sport Aotearoa and the Shift Foundation. 

Shearing her knowledge: Mavis Mullins

In the first of three Q&As with keynote speakers from the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit this week, Suzanne McFadden chats with Mavis Mullins, who's as comfortable with the buzz of the boardroom as she is with the buzz of sheep clippers. 

A two-time national champion wool handler and the first female president of the world’s most prestigious shearing event, the Golden Shears, Mavis Mullins is also an agribusiness icon and an influential Māori leader.

She started her working life in her family’s shearing business, Paewai Mullins Shearing – which dates back to her grandfather, All Black Invincible Lui Paewai - and grew it to handling two million sheep a year.

After raising four children, Mullins built up an outstanding commercial and governance portfolio, and helped negotiate the treaty settlement of her iwi, Rangitāne.

 
 

She’s managed New Zealand shearing teams, organised the 2012 world shearing championships, twice won sports administrator of the year at the Maori Sports Awards, and was inducted into the NZ Business Hall of Fame.

SM: You were a champion wool handler and you managed the New Zealand team at the 2005 world championships. Did you enjoy the competitive side of shearing?

MM: Absolutely. When you enjoy that competitive spirit, you end up taking it with you wherever you go. In my school days I loved basketball, but when I had kids I couldn’t go to practice, but I started to get that hunger for adrenalin again. Back in the late ‘90s, we were quite instrumental in the wool handling game, always striving to be better, and you start to realise how much the sporting environment can impact on your life. The physical and mental sharpness, taking care of the engine room - they’re very transferrable skills that I definitely took into my business career.

A champion wool handler, Mavis Mullins was the first woman president of the Golden Shears. Photo: Stuff. 

SM: Did you come up against much chauvinism as a female in a male dominated sport?

MM: Totally. In fact, I don’t like to sound flippant, but I actually enjoy the robustness of it. The shearing industry is one of the last bastions of male chauvinism, but it’s the kind of environment where they respect hard work. Yes, women have to do it harder and better, but if you can show that you are prepared to work, you help drive a different level of participation.

SM: Four generations of your whanau have run the shearing business in Dannevirke, and you’ve passed the mantle on to your daughter Aria. What was the best piece of advice you were able to give her about being a leader?

MM: Just be yourself, and trust yourself. I have often said, ‘Think with your head, feel with your heart and trust your puku, your gut’. You see bright young things out of university who have the theory and a plan all set, but it can be difficult if you don’t have empathy, and you can't feel with your heart. I also tell her 'make sure you know where your weaknesses are, and make sure you have a plan around them'.

SM: You seem to be as comfortable doing business in China, New York City and Silicon Valley, as you are negotiating your iwi treaty settlement, or working on the farm. Do you love the buzz of negotiation in the boardroom, as much as the buzz of clippers in the shearing shed?

MM: They are both very special places to me. There’s something magical about the shearing shed. The activity in it embodies teamwork. It also has a strong economic driver. With the boardroom, I’ve learned to understand what my role is in it, what my place in it is. And if you aren’t comfortable there, you better get comfortable or get out. Life is too short to do something that isn’t your thing.

SM: What parallels do you see in a woman leading in agribusiness and a woman leading in sport?

MM: It’s almost a single line rather than two parallel lines. It’s about dealing with people; it all comes back to people. If you are a good person with a good heart and with the right objectives, you find ways to make things happen - that's as true in sport as it is in business. I’m also on the board of UNICEF, where it’s about doing your best for the child in your neighbourhood and the greater neighbourhood. And the same strand of questions apply: Why? What’s your end goal? And then, how do you make it happen?

* Mavis Mullins will speak on leadership on the opening day of the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit, delivered by Women in Sport Aotearoa and the Shift Foundation. 

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