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Swimmer leads change by keeping faith

In the first of a series on Muslim girls and women in sport in New Zealand, Ashley Stanley speaks to Noha Nasef, an ocean swimmer comfortable competing under full cover, who wants women wearing a hijab to be a normal sight in sport. 

Noha Nasef chose to take up open water swimming because she knew she wouldn’t stand out in a wetsuit.

The research scientist knows the importance of keeping active, but she also needs to stay true to her beliefs and cover up in public as a Muslim woman.

“With open water swimming, you're kind of allowed to wear whatever you want. So I cover up in full, but it's not as obvious because other people are wearing wetsuits as well,” says Nasef.

For a while, Nasef, a university researcher in Palmerston North, didn't swim as often, unnerved by people staring at her hijab. 

Success in sport and recreation participation for Nasef would be to see Muslim women representing themselves the way they’re meant to.

“We are starting to see in some sports women wearing the full hijab, while running, skating and stuff like that. But there is a lot of criticism of these women; sometimes they are not allowed to participate, or compete because it doesn’t fit into the general guidelines of dress codes,” she says.

“I would love to see that this is no longer an issue, where women can compete with a proper hijab and it just becomes a normal part of the sporting scene.”

 
 

Out of the water, Nasef is a postdoctoral fellow at the Riddet Institute at Massey University, where her research areas of interest are the health impacts of food.

Last year, she was on the other side of the research equation as a participant in a University of Waikato study looking at the experiences of Muslim girls and women in sport and recreation in Aotearoa.

There were two studies completed and combined into one report - titled ‘Building Cultural Inclusion in Sport’ - after the Christchurch mosque attacks last year.

Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Nida Ahmad led the research, which focuses on understanding how Muslim women access sport and active recreation here, and the challenges they face when they do.

The study presented a trifecta for Nasef, who could bring together her interests in health research, sport and faith.

Noha Nasef swam less often when people stared at her wearing her hijab. Photo: supplied. 

Nasef was a teenager when she moved to New Zealand with her family 20 years ago and completed her schooling here. Her parents are originally from Egypt, but they moved around a lot when she was a child.

No matter where they were, Nasef was always drawn to water. She joined a swim squad in Auckland and is now part of a squad in Palmerston North, where she moved three years ago.

“I’ve always loved swimming. I was born a water baby, so I absolutely loved it, but it was always casual,” she says.

“When I became an adult, [swimming] was less frequent because when I started wearing the hijab, people would stare and things like that. It sort of starts to become unnerving and stressful.”

Before discovering open water swimming a couple of years ago, most of the information Nasef was aware of around Muslim women's experiences with water activities was from incidents reported overseas.

“In some places, Muslim women are banned from wearing the burkini at the beach, so that information made it a little more stressful to swim here, even though it’s usually quite good in New Zealand,” Nasef says.

But her love of water was reignited after completing Auckland’s ‘Swim the Bridge’ 1km event.

“I remember my swim squad instructor was a little nervous because I was telling him I’d never done open water [swimming] before. It was a really cold day, but accomplishing it was amazing,” she says. “I do my own open water swimming at the beach or even in the Manawatu River now; it's just something I absolutely love.”

In the future, Nasef may consider swimming more seriously. But for now, seeing improvements in her own times provides enough competition.

The ‘Building Cultural Inclusion in Sport’ report highlighted “there are so many women who have different versions of the same problem.” From the get-go, there is a misunderstanding of what the problem is from a sport facilitator’s perspective and from the point of view of Muslim women.

“The facilitators think the problem is completely cultural and families are restrictive,” Nasef explains. “But in reality we do not have the right spaces to be able to comfortably do our sport or be able to be part of sport.”

Nasef says the research project covers an area where insights are needed.

“I was glad that somebody in New Zealand had decided to do this work. And it was done in a very culturally sensitive way. Nida [Ahmad], the person running this research for Holly, is a Muslim woman so it wasn’t done from a ‘window’ where you’re looking at a completely different population you know nothing about,” she says.

Professor Holly Thorpe (left) and Dr Nida Ahmad. Photo: supplied. 

Ahmad, a US-born Muslim woman living in Hamilton to complete her PhD studies, has an extensive background working with Muslim women in sport. She is on the steering committee of the Muslim Woman in Sport Network, a global group wanting to “advance the status and recognition of the role that Muslim women play in sport.”

She’s also been researching the digital lives of Muslim sportswomen and how they are using social media to represent aspects of their identities.

Nasef’s suggestions on how to implement findings from the report begin with having the courage to ask questions. Opening up conversations is a good way to start to help Muslim women and people working in sport and recreation, she says.

“It's completely fine to ask questions, especially when it's done for genuine reasons. You get people who ask questions in a derogatory manner, but most of the time, they just need to understand,” says Nasef.

“There are certain things as Muslims that we cannot do and that’s okay. It’s not going to be a ‘my way or the highway kind of thing, which is what I've always seen in other countries. That’s been one of the challenges for me to take up sport more seriously.”

Nasef says there are a number of ways sporting organisations and people involved in sport can help to make Muslim women and girls feel more comfortable in sport settings.

“I think one of the main things for me, especially for somebody who swims, is actually revising the guidelines for sportswear,” she says.

“There needs to be a more logical understanding of sportswear, not just because ‘this is the way it’s always been done’. So then someone can actually wear a full dress, which is still flexible to run in, and they won't overheat,” she says.

Over 300 young refugees tried out new sports at the Olympic Refugee Sports Day in Auckland. Photo: @NZOlympics

Another point important to Nasef is having an advisory committee to help educate facilitators about different ethnicities.

“Not necessarily just for Muslims, but even when we’re talking about Maori or Pacific Islanders. Just to be more culturally aware about the differences there are and how we like to do sport - keeping in mind there are different ethnicities and people who have different needs,” she says.

Needs such as safe spaces for women to train and play sport, and understand one of the uncomfortable situations for Muslim women – being touched by men, especially those who are not family members.  

“You get the male coaches, for example, and it’s done with good intention – trying to show you a particular move. But that’s not very comfortable for Muslim women, so having a female, where possible, to show you how to do things will help,” Nasef says.

Sports spaces could also have multi-use rooms to accommodate prayers, as Muslim people can pray up to five times a day. Being aware of dietary restrictions is another point to consider, if food is provided as part of competitive play.

It may seem like a lot, but if conversations are not encouraged, there will be limited opportunities to take steps to learn and change the status quo.

“It’s a really sticky thing. But my choices are to be Muslim, or not to be Muslim. This is part of my identity,” says Nasef.

Her advice to Muslim women or girls wanting to take up sport is to “go for it.”

“If you're passionate about it, go into it and get it done. You just have to find ways in which you can achieve those goals and make sure you put in the effort,” Nasef says.

“Be vocal, be heard and be active. Even if it can be challenging - sometimes you will come across someone looking at you or saying something inappropriate. We’ve all been through it, but don’t let it put you off something you enjoy.”

Embracing New Zealand’s diverse population will build connections and understandings of people and our small country will be the richer for it.

“True diversity and inclusion means you are willing to have the difficult conversations, make necessary changes and challenge the central dogmas to find common grounds that work for everybody, not just a few. That would be true diversity for me,” says Nasef.

If she continues to practise her own advice, Nasef will be standing out from the crowd for her strong character and beliefs - not her choice of clothing.

Olympic swim legend Jean Hurring's final lap

The only Kiwi woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming, Jean Hurring, has passed away in her 90th year. She was gentle and generous, teaching countless New Zealanders how to swim - but had a formidable, determined streak. 

Jean Hurring will be remembered as a kind, gentle and humble woman and a quiet pioneer of New Zealand swimming.

But she also possessed a steely determination and was a “force of nature” when she wanted to achieve something.

Yes, there was the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, when Jean Stewart was seventh at the turn in her 100m backstroke final, but made a spectacular burst to snatch the bronze medal in a photo finish.

Or when, desperate to get training time in Helsinki, she swam naked in an indoor swimming hall where costumes were banned – backstroking  up and down the pool only to look up and see a gallery of fully-clothed spectators staring down at her.  

But there was also the time, in her mid 20s, she snuck out the window of her parents’ home in Dunedin in the middle of the night, caught a boat to the United States, and eloped with the love of her life - fellow Olympic swimmer Lincoln Hurring.

Their children, Kim and Gary Hurring, say their mum had an impact on so many lives – including the thousands of Auckland kids she taught how to swim.  

Jean Hurring died in Auckland at the weekend, aged 89. A bouquet of flowers arrived at Kim’s home this week from the woman who beat Jean Stewart for the gold medal 68 years ago – South African Joan Harrison. “She was a lovely lady,” the card read.

After all those years, she remains the only New Zealand woman to win an Olympic medal in the pool. Others like Anna Simcic and Lauren Boyle have made it to Olympic finals, but never climbed onto the podium.

When she won her bronze medal in Helsinki, Stewart admitted she had been “very much influenced” by her friend and New Zealand team-mate, Dame Yvette Corlett - then Yvette Williams - who became the first Kiwi woman to win Olympic gold with her incredible leap in the long jump just a week before.

Stewart and Williams had gone to the same schools in Dunedin, and as the only women in the team, they shared a room in the nurse’s hostel turned women’s Olympic quarters. Neither was allowed to take a coach, but they had to travel with a chaperone.

Stewart was one of the first people to run onto the Olympiastadion track and hug Williams when she won.

“Yvette turned her slight nervousness into an intense excitement, and I tried to do that too. It’s a matter of being eager to go, not just frightened,” Stewart told a journalist when she arrived home.

Of New Zealand’s three medals in Helsinki, Stewart brought back two. Williams had stayed on after the Games, so Stewart was entrusted to bring the gold medal home to Williams’ mother in Dunedin. (The third medal was won by John Holland in the 400m hurdles).

Yvette Williams and Jean Stewart with 1920s NZ Olympian Sir Arthur Porritt in London before the Helsinki Games. Photo: Getty Images. 

Born in Dunedin in 1930, Stewart came from a family of swimmers. Her mother, Mary, was the first woman to swim for Otago at a national championship, and her two sisters were junior national champions. A reluctant swimmer at first – her sisters had to throw her into the pool - she got serious while at Otago Girls’ High, and trained in the local tepid baths at lunchtime.

Her coach, Bill Wallace, was more enthusiast than swimming expert, Stewart said in a New Zealand Olympic profile. “He knew about horse racing, so he trained me like a horse. I did what is now known as interval training, though it was fairly rudimentary."

When Stewart was selected for the 1952 Olympics, she was in her third year of training to become an art teacher (she was an avid painter throughout her life, especially landscapes). Among the close friends she made there was Ralph Hotere, later recognised as one of New Zealand’s most important artists.

In the New Zealand Olympic team of 14, the three from Dunedin – Williams, Stewart and Hurring – had all gone to Dunedin North Intermediate. Hurring and Stewart were recognised as pioneers in their sport - the first swimmers to put in long hours of training in the pool. 

Although they were the first New Zealand team to fly to an Olympic Games, it still took them a month to get there – making at least 10 pit stops along the way.

Once in Finland, Stewart and Hurring found it difficult to get training time, so they would go to the Olympic pool at 5am. They figured out a routine - not stopping at the ends of the pool but taking a breather in the middle – so officials couldn’t toss them out. And Stewart swam at the famous Yrjönkatu swimming hall, where costumes weren't permitted until 2001.

Stewart was the fourth-fastest qualifier for the 100m backstroke final, but she was determined to at least win bronze. She made a slow start in the medal race, but with a gutsy effort over the last 50m, she finished behind Harrison and the Dutch world record-holder Geertje Wielema.

There was controversy, though, as Stewart touched the wall at the same time as another Dutch swimmer, Johanna de Korte. Judges deliberated and then confirmed the New Zealander had won the bronze.

After her swim, Stewart stayed at the pool to watch Hurring race. He’d just been discharged from hospital to swim in the men’s 100m backstroke semis, after falling ill with tonsillitis. He ended up 14th and didn’t progress to the final.

Stewart loved her first Olympic experience. “If the world could live in the same friendly spirit as the Olympic athletes did in Helsinki, there would never be a war,” she told reporters when she arrived home to a heroes’ welcome with Hurring.

At that point, Hurring and Stewart were still friends. They both won medals at the 1954 Vancouver Empire Games – Stewart collecting her second Empire Games bronze – and then went to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where neither made a final.

Stewart then retired, but first went on tour visiting swimming clubs around the country with Hurring. Despite swimming in "cold and dirty pools", it was where they fell in love, daughter Kim says.

In 1957, Hurring got a scholarship to swim at the University of Iowa, and studied towards an economics degree. He embraced the student life and was swimming great times.  

It was then Stewart decided to join him in the United States – and elope.  

They returned to Auckland in 1960 and raised two children. Hurring tried a desk job, and then school teaching, but it was when the couple decided to open their own swim school, they found their niche.  “Mum and Dad taught thousands of Auckland kids how to swim,” Kim says.

Lincoln and Jean Hurring taught thousands of Aucklanders to swim. Photo: Hurring family collection. 

Naturally the Hurring children were water babies, but Gary – who won gold at the 1978 Commonwealth Games and a world championship silver – recalls the quirky story of how he learned to swim.

“Lincoln, who was quite inventive, pumped up a tractor tyre inner tube and put a bottom on it. He threw us two kids in with some toys, and let us float around the pool while he and Mum taught,” Gary says.

One day, a three-year-old Gary jumped out of the tube and somehow swam to the side of the pool. “I hadn’t had any lessons, but I must have learned by just watching them every day,” he says.

When Gary went on to race around the world (including two finals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics) Lincoln would travel as his coach, but Jean would stay at home. “She’d be up at 3am to watch me swim on TV. I’d ring her, and she would cry down the phone.”

She loved fishing and she drove a VW kombi van - once driving 13-year-old Gary to a swim meet in Pukekohe, where he set a national record, then on to Whangamata so he could surf with his mates. "She was amazing," he says.

Lincoln Hurring died in 1993; in recent years, Jean had dementia. “It robbed her of her past; the last two years she didn’t know she was a swimmer,” Kim Hurring says.

But others certainly remember.

Kereyn Smith, CEO of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, says it wasn’t until recent times that she came to fully appreciate just how much Stewart, Olympian #74, had done for swimming in New Zealand.

“She was quite a quiet achiever,” she says. “I met her a few times and I remember her as a really lovely woman. That era of athletes like Jean and Yvette continued to give their sporting knowledge and expertise for a lifetime – Jean through teaching so many kids to swim.”

Dave Gerrard, a fellow Olympian swimmer and now president of Swimming NZ, this week wrote: “Despite several New Zealand women making Olympic swimming finals, there has not been another medal at that level of competition for our country. Jean has remained an inspiration to all female athletes, but swimmers in particular.

“Jean Hurring’s swimming legacy is immeasurable. Her standing as an Olympic medallist and her contribution to water safety, teaching countless children to swim stamps Jean as one of our finest.

“Okioki i runga i te Rangimarie [Rest in peace].”

Banishing dark days, Silver Fern changes direction

After struggling with depression while recovering from a devastating knee injury, Tactix midcourter Erikana Pedersen wants to take her career in a new direction to help others. 

Last year was the “crappiest" of Erikana Pedersen’s 26 revolutions around the sun. But this year may turn out to be the best. 

Pedersen's year of misfortune was triggered just four minutes into her first game of the 2019 netball season. Turning out for her fifth season with the much-maligned Tactix, the vibrant wing attack had barely raised a sweat when she suddenly crumpled.

Helped to her feet by Magic opponent and Silver Ferns team-mate Casey Kopua, Pedersen hobbled off the court, not knowing then that she’d ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament – a netballer’s nightmare.  

It couldn't have happened at a worse time in her netball career.

Four months before, the Kiwi-born Fijian-Cook Islander made her debut for the Silver Ferns in the Constellation Cup. “It brought out that hunger and made me realise I actually wanted to compete at that level,” she says.

She was fitter and stronger than she’d ever been. But the injury would end her season as it had just begun – which also ruled her out of making the Silver Ferns for the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool.

 
 

As crushed as Pedersen was, she was also fortunate in a sense. The accounting student also works part-time on the front desk at Performance Physio in Christchurch. It’s run by Sharon Kearney – the former Silver Ferns physiotherapist who's revolutionised injury prevention in netball.

So Pedersen had the perfect workmates overseeing her rehab, reminding her to ice her knee or take a quick spin on the stationary bike. And she did as she was told, to the letter, because she was absolutely committed to getting back on the court.

But there was something that Pedersen hadn’t foreseen: the darker side of injury.

“To be honest, I really struggled with depression during my ACL rehab,” she says.

“People said it would be tough, but I didn’t understand that until I went through it. Mentally and emotionally were the biggest things. Netball is your livelihood; it’s what you do. And when that’s suddenly taken away from you, you lose your sense of self.”

Casey Kopua (left) and Ellie Bird support Erikana Pedersen after she ruptured her ACL in 2019. Photo: Michael Bradley. 

As Kearney helped Pedersen she saw just how distressing it was – especially watching the Silver Ferns succeed at the World Cup.  

“It was really tough for her because she’d had that little snippet of opportunity with the Silver Ferns, and it was devastating for her to have that taken out from underneath her,” says Kearney, who Pedersen calls "my second mum".

But it’s what Pedersen learned during those tough times that’s now steering her towards a new career.

When she completes the last two papers in her Bachelor of Business degree, majoring in accounting, at Massey University (“It’s only taken me about 10 years!”), Pedersen is looking to stay in school and study psychology.

“I’m very passionate about mental health now, after going through my ACL battle. It wasn’t all doom and gloom for me; I got a lot of learnings out of this ACL,” she says.

“Before this I just thought of injury as a ‘toughen up’ kind of thing. But it’s opened my eyes to how people can be affected mentally, and how to spot the early warning signs as well. It’s been a really interesting journey.”

Kearney, who's also the injury prevention manager at Netball NZ, has helped many elite athletes through their rehabilitation after career-interrupting injuries, and has seen many struggle with the psychological impact it has.

“The thing we don’t talk about much is that it’s a grieving process. So it’s acknowledging those emotions, and saying ‘This is hard, I’m grieving, something has been taken away from me’, and then developing strategies to deal with this. Some athletes will suppress those first elements, which makes it harder for them,” she says.

“But Kani [Pedersen] was a great patient. You have to have the application and she has it in spades; no matter what you asked of her, she did it 100 percent.

“She’s driven by unfinished business. She wants to give herself the best chance to have a sniff again.”

Erikana Pedersen's intense injury rehab has changed the way she plays netball - for the better. Photo: Michael Bradley.

Pedersen reckons her whole perspective on life has changed following that single crushing moment on court. “I know to take time out for myself now, that netball isn’t life and death, and I don’t beat myself up after a loss anymore,” she says.

And it’s also had an effect on the way she’s playing netball for the hugely-improved Tactix this season.

That’s something Kearney concentrates on in the ACL comeback: how can you help make the athlete better than they were before?

Pedersen’s point of difference as a versatile midcourter is her movement – her ability to cut and change direction; the angles she plays that make her a challenge to defend.

“That’s one of the things we worked really hard on - preparing her body to do that again. And now she’s probably playing the best netball she ever has,” Kearney says.

“She’s always had great vision; she can thread a needle with that ball. Now she’s running clear and sharp lines to put herself in the best place at the right time to execute her beautiful feeding skills, and she’s taken that to the next level.

“Sometimes a silver lining comes out of really challenging situations. And this is hers.”

Pedersen also found a bright side in the Covid-19 lockdown. Her first game this season, back when the ANZ Premiership started in March, Pedersen still wasn’t feeling like her old self.

“Not with my knee, but with my game time," she says. "And so I think that lockdown was a blessing in disguise for me. It meant I could work on different skills, do more fitness and build my confidence. So when the season started again, it felt like I hadn’t even done my ACL.

"I felt like it was an entirely new season. And I don’t think about my knee anymore. But every time I get out court, I’m just so grateful and so happy.”

Pedersen is also ecstatic at the way the Tactix have performed this season. On Monday night, the Mainlanders secured their first-ever grand final spot with a 39-32 win over defending champions, the Pulse (they'll meet again in the final in a fortnight).

Pedersen has been at the Tactix since leaving her Auckland home in 2015 - after two seasons with the Mystics - and she’s been loyal to them through some testing times. Off the court, there were the Christchurch earthquakes, the mosque terror attacks, and the Mainland Netball zone going into liquidation during lockdown - with the team losing all of their management, bar coach Marianne Delaney Hoshek.

On the court, their greatest winning streak until this season was three games in a row – their losing streak, 11 on the trot.

“Usually we’re the team trying to upset other teams from making the finals, but now we’re the ones people want to take down. It’s in a cool position to be in,” Pedersen says.

“At the start of the season, our connections were still building and we weren’t really happy. But I feel at this end of the season we’re in our stride now and peaking at just the right time.”

Erikana Pedersen Baledrokadroka is proud to be a role model to Pacific Island girls. Photo: Michael Bradley.

Pedersen is the eldest of five siblings, in a family of sporting achievers. Brother Mandela Baledrokadroka plays US scholarship basketball at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, while another brother, Bonowai Baledrokadroka, started the year playing league for the Newcastle Knights U20 side.

Both brothers returned to Auckland for lockdown, and are training together until the sports world becomes normal again. With the Tactix travelling to Auckland for six weeks of the national league, it meant Pedersen has been able to see them often. "They’ve come to a few of our games, and always try to give me a few tips,” she laughs.

There are also 12-year-old twin siblings, Leilani and John-Paul, who love netball and rugby respectively, but find their big sister’s games “really boring".

Erikana Pedersen Baledrokadroka (her full name) is proud of her Fijian and Cook Island heritage, and is comfortable being a role model.

“I’m always very proud that I’m able to be in a position where I can inspire young Pacific Island girls to reach their goals - not just in netball, but in life. To work hard and have resilience to get back out and do what you love,” she says.

A World Youth Cup winner in 2013 and a regular in the Silver Ferns development squads since 2016, Pedersen would naturally would love to have more than one international cap next to her name. But this year, her focus is on other things.

“This year is about getting out on court and playing consistently. And I want to win a premiership with the Tactix. I’ve been here for so long, through the real lows and we’re getting to the real highs right now," she says.

“It’s gone from the crappiest year of my life to one of the better years. It’s a cool turnaround. And if the call up to the Ferns came, it would be the extra present on the side.”

Where is she now? Belinda Cordwell

Belinda Cordwell remains New Zealand's highest-ranked singles tennis player, having climbed to No.17 in the world. But today you'll find her chasing sheep rather than a fuzzy green ball. 

You may remember Belinda Cordwell came within two victories of being New Zealand’s only woman Grand Slam tennis champion.

But you might be unaware she’s also the highest-ranked player New Zealand has produced, man or woman. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, she was a fully-fledged touring professional, won a singles title and two doubles crowns.

You certainly wouldn't think it now if you met her on the rural lifestyle property outside Greytown in the Wairarapa, mucking in among the cows, pigs and dogs.

There’s no big emphasis on her past sporting life and you sense Cordwell likes it that way.

As she puts it: "It doesn’t have any impact on my life. It’s something I did, but there’s very little now to show that’s what I did then."

And if that sounds like it comes with a tinge of regret, forget it.

Injuries to her back, then an Achilles problem, hurried her to a decision that it was time to walk away. She was 26, when she should have been in her prime. She had plenty more years left in her and did have targets, such as cracking the world top 10. But that’s life.

"There are absolutely no regrets," she says. "I’ve got this attitude that I had been dealt a hand of cards and played them to the best of my ability. I gave it everything and that’s really all you can do."

Cordwell, 54, and husband, Collier Isaacs, have three children - Rosie, Henry and Will. All three played tennis and for a time Cordwell traipsed around the country to age-group tournaments. A bit of memory lane about that too.

Belinda Cordwell at home on her farm in Greytown, Wairarapa. Photo: Stuff. 

She grew up in Karori in Wellington, and as luck would have it there was a tennis court out the back which the local kids used for all sorts of sporting activities.

Her father got hold of a few racquets and sawed down the handle of one for his very small daughter.

At Erskine College she played netball and basketball ("I loved it" with emphasis on the middle word), as well as tennis. But inevitably it got to the point, as so many students would recognise, where she had to choose: tennis or basketball.

She made her choice based on a preference for individual rather than the team sport.

Her career path opened up when she won the national U17 title. Part of the prize was a flight to Whangarei for the New Zealand senior nationals.

"I flew up with the idea of giving it a go and seeing how I fared against adults, and I won it. It was a bit of a surprise and maybe at that point I thought potentially I had a future in the game," she says.

Cordwell's parents insisted she could not pursue her ambition until she had gained University Entrance. She duly completed that, and an invitation to Junior Wimbledon arrived, so she promptly left school after one term of what would have been her final year.

In her second year, Tennis New Zealand sent a group of players to live, train and play in the United States. Cordwell vividly remembers the experience. Tough and single-minded teenage Americans everywhere, all armed with double-fisted backhands, which were new to the young New Zealanders.

"It was really freaky. I remember just player after player, and how big the gap was between what they were doing and what we were doing.," she says.

Money was tight and Cordwell remembers once driving 20 hours straight to get to the next tournament. Some would call that character building; others as just a pain in the backswing.

"We did it pretty tough, but it was the way it had to be if you wanted to give it a nudge."

Belinda Cordwell came close to taking a set off Martina Navratilova at the 1985 NSW Open. Photo: Getty Images. 

Having turned pro in 1985, Cordwell had good and bad days for several years, but her confidence was high around 1989, the year she leapt to No.17 in the singles charts.

The likes of Navratilova, Evert, Shriver and Sabatini were on the other side of the court, along with a pile of young wannabes.

Cordwell tells of being in the food hall at Boca Raton in Florida when a 14-year-old called Jennifer Capriati, preparing for her first round game at her first tournament, walked in.

"Everybody clapped, and I remember thinking 'Here’s this 14-year-old who hasn’t even hit a ball as a pro'. Just the immense pressure on her from the first day," she says.

"She had a really chequered time, emotionally and mentally. A lot of players were ruined by the system. It was a pretty tough world to be in anyway, and if you were only 14, even tougher again."

(Capriati fell off the tracks for a time before rebounding to become world No.1 and win three Grand Slam titles.)

It was Melbourne, and the Australian Open of 1989, where Cordwell had her big chance. She made her way past five opponents and found herself in the last four.

"It just all came together - not that I had been playing amazing tennis, but I think I was quite well-grounded and able to stay in the moment, focus on one match at a time," she says.

The Czech player Helena Sukova – "I’d always had difficulty playing her" – was a step too far in the semifinals, winning 7-6, 4-6, 6-2.

One thing miffed Cordwell. Sukova, who won nine Grand Slam doubles titles, had eliminated Martina Navratilova in the quarter-finals.

"I’d played [Navratilova] back in 1985, had a really good match, had a couple of set points, and she was No.1 and I wanted another chance against her," Cordwell says.

"She’d also made a couple of disparaging comments in the media, to the point that she’d ‘only’ had to play Cordwell in the semis."

Cordwell has one clear memory of that semifinals day. It was Australia Day and as the tie break got serious, the cannon nearby struck up a 21-gun salute. "I remember counting the salute and I looked around and I’d lost about four points. Just lost concentration," she says.

Kiwi tennis greats Onny Parun and Belinda Cordwell, in 2001. Photo: Stuff

Later that year, Cordwell won her solitary WTA singles crown in Singapore, but the injuries began eating away at her and that was that. She had pocketed $376,284 in prizemoney.

"Physically I was a bit of a mess. I would have loved to play a few more years, but I’d started to get badly injured and all the gains I’d made in terms of rankings and credibility seemed to wash away," she says.

"My back was giving me a lot of grief, then I had Achilles and foot problems. When I stopped playing it took 12 to 18 months to come right."

Cordwell had been playing fulltime since she was 16 and admits it was difficult to do anything else initially. "’I didn’t choose to retire and it was hard to move on and think about life after tennis."

She has done stints of tennis commentary and a couple of spells on the Tennis NZ board, and a bit of coaching.

But she can reflect on the greats of the game she mingled and played with.

She remembers watching a "phenomenal" teenage Boris Becker making his way through the early rounds on the outside courts at Wimbledon in 1985, on his way to becoming the first unseeded man to win the title, at just 17.

The same adjective applies to Serena Williams – ‘"right up with the best I’ve seen" - and in terms of their influence on the game, no one goes past Billie Jean King and Navratilova.

"They were real trailblazers and I have a lot of admiration for what they did for the game," says Cordwell.

These days, Cordwell is more likely to be involved in activities at Kuranui College in Greytown, where she is chairperson of the school's board of trustees, than busying herself in tennis matters.

As she once put it well after retiring: "There is so much more to life. The bit that is important is the lesson you end up passing onto your kids.

"That is a cool thing to bring, learning all those values that sport can give you." 

Who's hearing our athletes' cries for help?

On this week's Extra Time podcast: After significant investigations into cycling, football and hockey in New Zealand, now gymnastics is in the spotlight around their athletes' welfare.

Allegations of multiple New Zealand gymnasts suffering from verbal and physical abuse, bullying and unsafe training methods have surfaced over the past week.

And governing bodies of New Zealand's elite sports have done little to nothing to address athlete welfare concerns raised two years ago, according to the head of the New Zealand Athletes Federation.

Gymnastics NZ has come under fire over the past week - with athletes, parents and coaches coming forward with allegations of emotional and physical abuse, and a lack of action over complaints.

The concerns are emerging as serious issues with the sport and its treatment of elite athletes continue to be exposed around the world.

So just how bad is the problem in New Zealand, and are complaints being dealt with in a manner that will bring lasting change for gymnastics in this country?
 

New Zealand Athletes Federation boss Roger Mortimer told Extra Time a report by sports lawyer Stephen Cottrell in 2018 investigated these very issues.

Cottrell's 119-page document interviewed over 100 people and found that representing New Zealand at the elite level is not justification for unreasonable or excessive demands on athletes.

"The coach-elite athlete relationship is critical to performance and is also a key potential risk to the welfare of elite athletes. NSOs [National Sports Organisations] need to be very clear as to the expectations of their coach and management team in respect of the way people, including elite athletes, are treated and to provide the support needed to ensure these standards are met. In addition, checks and balances need to be in place to ensure there is effective management and monitoring of the elite athlete environment," Cottrell said in a summary of his report on the relationship between coach and athlete.

Mortimer said Cottrell's recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. "I have seen no action taken on that report in now what is nearly two years," he said.

"Stephen spoke a lot to the culture of environments, to leadership within those environments, to not having a culture based on a binary performance outcome - which is either you win or you lose, you're good or you're bad - so I'm yet to see fundamental structural change from a cultural perspective and also from an athlete's perspective in terms of athletes having a seat at the table.

"I really would like to go back to Georgia's [Cervin comments] and how she talked about wanting autonomy and you could sense she wanted sport to be a positive experience, as it should be.

"When I first started in this business, government funding was $3 million a year; it is now $150m a year, so there's been an explosion of investment in a whole lot of different areas and I think all we're doing is muddying the water for athletes like Georgia to actually have a positive, inspiring experience in sport.

"We actually need to take a step back and look at the place of sport in New Zealand, how sport is funded, those are really fundamental issues that have not been addressed and Stephen's report raised them, it didn't come up with the solutions, but no action from what I can see has been taken."

Joining Mortimer on Extra Time this week are two of the journalists leading the coverage of the story - Stuff senior sports journalist Zoë George, and RNZ sports journalist Felicity Reid.

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

Young basketballer eyes future far offshore

The future's looking bright for Junior Tall Fern Leah Mafua - pursuing a US college scholarship in basketball, and a business degree that's focused on the sea.  

Leah Mafua must feel like her ship has come in.

The Junior Tall Fern is happy in her new life at Otero Junior College in Colorado, USA - playing basketball and studying business, her two great passions.

And even if she decides a basketball career isn't for her, the teenager from the Hutt Valley knows she's found another future pathway offshore - in shipping.

Yes, you read it correctly: shipping.

“I’ve taken a big interest in shipping companies. I’ve found information around what the industry looks like, what kind of jobs there are, and how business can run on an international scale - it’s so interesting,” says Mafua, who's studying international business.

Mafua will be at the junior college for two years and plans to transfer to a four-year university scholarship when her initial degree is complete. 

Concentrating on the education opportunities in the US was inspired by Mafua’s older brother, Samuel. He was the first in their family to get into basketball and gave his sister sound advice from the beginning.

“He said ‘basketball is going to be there no matter what, but a free education overseas only comes once in a lifetime’. That kind of changed my perspective on things,” says the 19-year-old.

So far, Mafua has loved her college experience, having started at OJC late last year.  

 
 

As US scholarship offerings in New Zealand increase each season, the college options can vary significantly, from small community colleges to Division I state universities. Mafua says it really depends on someone’s personality when it comes to enjoying their college experience. 

“If you feel like you can mingle with 30,000 other students in comparison to 1300 students then, go for it. But for me, I like smaller communities,” says Mafua. “I've been at Hutt Valley High School in Wellington and there are 1600 kids there, so coming overseas to a college that has around the same amount of students, I get that comfortable vibe. Where I am right now is exactly the perfect place for me. 

“Some young athletes are fixated on college status with scholarships. But I think the reality is, there are so many amazing things you can experience in smaller types of schools,” says Mafua.

She led Hutt Valley High to a Wellington title in 2018 and they were then runners-up at nationals (Mafua made the tournament team that year). She also represented New Zealand at age-grade level in 2017 and 2018, and travelled with the Junior Tall Ferns to Guam in 2017 for the FIBA U17 Oceania championship, and India the following year for the FIBA Asian championship.  

Leah Mafua (bottom row, second from left) with her Junior Tall Ferns team-mates in India, 2018. Photo: Basketball NZ

Being in a place where you can grow is important to Mafua. And that's showing in her basketball achievements with OJC. 

The skillful guard made the 2019-20 NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) Division I women’s basketball All-American honorable mention list in her first year, and was the division’s player of the week in January. 

By late March she was also named on the World Exposure honorable mention All-American list. 

Next year, she will be joined at OJC by her younger sister, Jenna-Rose, who has just received the same basketball scholarship. 

As the Covid-19 global pandemic started to shut down borders, Mafua returned to New Zealand in early March after receiving advice from the college.

“I was so blessed and grateful when Mum booked my flights on the spot. She called me and just said ‘Make sure you get to the airport on time’,” says Mafua. The Māori-Samoan athlete was raised in Wellington and comes from a tight-knit family with three siblings. 

When she made it to the airport in Los Angeles, Mafua says the scenes were “insane”.

“People were rushing to terminal gates, demanding earlier flights and when a flight would come up ‘cancelled’ on the screen, everyone would panic. It just felt surreal because you only see that stuff in movies, not in real life,” she says. 

Once she was back in New Zealand, lockdown provided some much-needed rest for the young student-athlete.

“I came back and I slept for two days. And then for the next two weeks, I was just resting because I was so tired,” Mafua says.

“When you're training three to four times everyday, on top of study, you become drained.”

Keeping up with fitness and training was also difficult to maintain, Mafua admits, but she tried to focus on her nutrition during lockdown. 

“Because everything was off-limits - the gyms were closed, and we couldn’t really get onto public courts - for me it was about watching what I ate,” she says. “Even though takeaways were closed, you were tempted to go to Countdown and get fatty food. So nutrition was definitely a big test.” 

Basketballer Leah Mafua was one of the original 12 promising young female athletes chosen as Tania Dalton Foundation scholars. Photo: TDF

Away from the court, Mafua loves playing the piano and admits she likes to think she’s good on the keys.

“It’s kind of like a self-medication thing for me to just chill. I love doing stuff that will treat my well-being. So I like drawing and playing the piano -  anything to get my mind off the basketball floor and study,” says Mafua.

“For someone who is self-taught on the piano and also at drawing, I really love the idea of creativity. When you're drawing, you can do whatever you want. And when you're on the piano, you can pick certain keys to create a masterpiece in your eyes.

“The cool thing is my family can sing. I wasn’t blessed with pipes but I got the long fingers for the piano."

As an inaugural recipient of a Tania Dalton Foundation scholarship, Mafua has enjoyed the commitment the foundation provides. The foundation was set up to support talented young females in their sporting development as well as helping to give back to their communities. 

“It’s amazing. It’s not even the financial side of things, it’s how they take the time to create workshops about leadership, and all the great things that a good role model should be,” Mafua says.

Mafua admits it was hard at times to keep up with the workshops and staying in touch with her mentor Donna Wilkins (nee Loffhagen) - a former New Zealand netball and basketball representative -  and her scholarship partners Paul & Liz Blackwell - founders of the New Zealand Breakers. 

“I know deep down in my heart, and I hope they know deep down, that I have so much respect for them it’s crazy.”

She’s planning on showing her gratitude as part of her ‘pay it forward’ project - an activity the recipients present as part of their wrap-up of the three-year scholarship programme. For now, she says, her gift is a secret.

Mafua’s basketball coach at OJC was hoping to have their lead scorer back in Colorado by mid-August, even though the season is delayed until next January. 

“Our coach mentioned if I was to go back now, it would be straight study and training. I wasn't sure about going back because of what's going on in their country. But at the same time, I really want to stay on top of my study because I know how important it is,” she says.

She's decided to head back to college at the end of this month, and will be making sure her versatile skills are put to good use on and off the court.  

Fearless freeskier takes up a winter affair

Kiwi Winter Olympian and mountain explorer, Janina Kuzma, has become a film-maker, shining a light on gutsy female freeskiers. 

Sometime about now, Janina Kuzma would have been skiing down the shrinking faces of the world’s last tropical glaciers in Papua, Indonesia.

The two-time Winter Olympian should have been filming the third movie in her series, A Winter Affair, showcasing the daring exploits of the world’s top women freeskiers on slopes "no one knew existed".

A global pandemic had a say in that, though, and sent Kuzma and her husband, Chris Rodgers, rushing back home to New Zealand before lockdown.

But the alternatives to her thrilling escapades are far from a letdown.

While the rest of the world are off the skifields, she’s just spent four days camping out in the back country of Queenstown and Wanaka’s mountains, learning to be a ski guide.

Next week, she's captain of Team Kuzma in the Obsidian – an innovative new mixed-team challenge contested across the Southern Alps.

With no international skiers able to fly in to compete at this year’s Winter Games – traditionally the first stop in the Park and Pipe World Cup season - a new event was created combining 21 of New Zealand’s best skiers and snowboarders, female and male.

Janina Kuzma, team captain in the inaugural Obsidian event in the Southern Alps. Photo: 208 Media/Winter Games NZ

Kuzma was happy to take the lead in her team of seven, which includes Olympic bronze medallist snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, and Olympic slopestyle skiers Finn Bilous and Jackson Wells. 

“We’re super excited. It’s saved the season for a lot of the athletes, who now have an event to compete again,” the 34-year-old Kuzma says.

“It’s tough times for everyone - not knowing whether the 2022 Olympics will go ahead, or even the Olympic qualifiers. At least this takes their mind off that, and they can get back into that state of competing.”

 
 

Kuzma should be in her element in these five challenges over 10 days. Regarded as one of the most versatile freeskiers in the world, she’s been among the best in big mountain events around the globe, and represented New Zealand in the freeski halfpipe at the last two Winter Olympics.

The girl who grew up in the midst of a civil war in Papua New Guinea and then the jungles of Borneo is a two-time World Heli Challenge champion too.

But she’s also spent the last few years starring in films highlighting female action athletes throughout the world.

On the final day of the Obsidian, the three teams face the Mountain Shred challenge – all sent to different ski resorts to build a creative line, using the natural terrain or making their own jumps. Videographers embedded in each team will film the athletes, who are then judged on style, creativity and sport.   

“I have some super-styley riders in my team and I can’t wait to showcase them on film,” Kuzma says.

“Filming is my passion. For me, if you’re competing on the Freeride World Tour, and you get asked to film with a production team, you’ve made it as an athlete.”

Janina Kuzma climbing Aoraki Mt Cook to ski down it again. Photo: Mark Watson. 

Kuzma’s incredibly gutsy antics climbing huge mountain faces then skiing down them have made her a star in the last five Shades of Winter female freeski films produced by Austrian freeskier Sandra Lahnsteiner. They’ve picked up multiple awards at film festivals around the world.

“I feel very grateful to have been included as one of the main protagonists in an amazing field of athletes. It was my breakthrough really,” she says.

It gave her the confidence to start up her own film company, A Winter Affair. “It’s about skiing in exotic locations around the world that people didn’t know existed,” Kuzma says.

The first film, 'East West', was shot in New Zealand as Kuzma and fellow Kiwi skier Anna Smoothy and Ayako Kuroda of Japan set out to ski over the Southern Alps - crossing the Liebig Range from Mt Cook Village in the east to the Fox Glacier in the west.

“It was a huge eye opener to see how much the glacier had melted since I was there in 1999 on a school trip,” Kuzma wrote afterwards.

Last year, she produced 'Peace Mountain' after she and Swedish freeskier Evelina Nilsson skied Mt Herman – a mountain that sits on the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

“It was the most exciting trip I’ve ever been on,” says Kuzma, who had to pass by armed soldiers at the borders they crossed, but skied down the serene slopes in peace. 

The next two films in the series have been put on hold. Kuzma was set to ski the glaciers of West Papua, and then the untouched couloirs (narrow gullies) of Tasmania. Hopefully, she will get there next year.

So why are the stars of her films mostly women?

“A lot of the ski films have a huge male influence. But there are so many great female skiers out there – I just wanted to give a platform to those women to get their names out there. And so they could go on adventures, rather than always competing," she says.

To become more familiar with back country terrain for her filming, Kuzma has been training to become a professional ski guide.  

“New Zealand has some of the most amazing female guides, like Lydia Bradey, the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen,” she says. “They are incredible people who are so stoked I’m going down this pathway.”

Kuzma’s pathway has taken a new turn in the past year. After finishing fifth in the halfpipe at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and then 16th at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, she decided not to campaign for the next Olympics in Beijing.

“No, I’m done,” she laughs. “There are so many great young athletes coming through, doing the most amazing tricks. It’s definitely my time to move on and continue with my filming.”

Her husband, Chris, though, is still fully ensconced in the Olympic cycle, as the equipment manager for New Zealand’s Winter Olympic team.

Kuzma has also decided to finish up with the Freeride World Tour. As much as she loved competing on it over the last eight years, she says it was a constant battle for equality for women skiers. The tour only started paying equal prize money to men and women earlier this year.  

But she hasn’t given up the fight.

“I was coaching some up-and-coming freeride girls over the school holidays at Treble Cone. The first thing I hammered into them was ‘Equality, equality, equality, girls. You deserve to be paid equal. You need to fight for your rights’,” she says.

She’s also wants to help more young women, and has taken on the role of mentor for a young freeride skier.

“For a girl to ask me to mentor her, that means a lot. I would have loved to have had a mentor when I was younger. It makes me feel really proud – and proud of her for having the courage to ask me.”

* Live coverage of the Obsidian will be on the Winter Games NZ social media channels, and Sky Sport will screen a four-part Obsidian show after the event.

Kanah's struggle to lift out of lockdown fog

Our first world weightlifting gold medallist, Kanah Andrews-Nahu, has struggled coming out of lockdown. But it’s helped her realise that to be great, she must be committed. Not only in sport, but a medical career too.

This year’s North and South Island Olympic weightlifting championships were, understandably, like no other.

Instead of lifters congregating at one event, the athletes - 125 female and 113 male - went ‘postal’.

That means they turned up to their gyms around the country like any other training day, hoisted their best lifts in front of a video camera and then posted them online.

Kanah Andrews-Nahu, a junior world championship gold medallist and Youth Olympic bronze medallist, turned up at her Functional Strength gym on Auckland’s North Shore, and lifted more than she ever had before – 97kg in the snatch, and 124kg in the clean and jerk; a stunning total of 221kg.

And yet she wasn’t happy.

“Yeah, I did good. Undeservedly,” she says. “Nobody knows that before the competition, I’d had maybe only a week of training.

“I PB’ed after a month off. But I can’t make a habit of that – it’s a clear case of talent only gets you so far. And I don’t want to simply rely on that talent.”

 
 

She has talent by the ton. The girl who started lifting at 12 now has more than 150 records to her name. The flagbearer for New Zealand at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Argentina, she was promoted to bronze medal status a year later, when the winner failed a drugs test.

Andrews-Nahu admits she spent the Covid-19 lockdown in a different way to many other elite athletes. Although she had a full set-up of weights in her parents’ garage, she didn’t do the consistent intense training others did. “The most I did was 50 to 70 percent of my best lifts,” she says.

The 19-year-old, whose weightlifting career has exploded since she began so young, decided to take a much-needed break. Her coach, three-time Olympic lifter Richie Patterson, didn’t put the hard word on her to train during lockdown.

But when the doors to the gym swung open again, Andrews-Nahu struggled to “switch back on” to her training. With the Tokyo Olympics put off for a year, she battled to find the motivation.

“In lockdown, you were almost forced to plateau. Coming back, I felt like I was still floating around,” she says.

“People said: ‘You need to get back on that bandwagon, start putting the effort in’. But I’d fallen into that ‘I don’t know where I’m at, I have no motivation, I don’t want to go to the gym’.”

So, Patterson had to deliver her an ultimatum.

“The good thing with Kanah is that you can sit down and have a frank conversation with her. So I said ‘Now that we’re out, for my own personal state, I need a commitment from you’, because I often reflect the energy of my athletes,” he says. “And she took that really well.

Kanah Andrews-Nahu and coach Richie Patterson after hearing she was promoted to a Youth Olympics bronze. Photo: Getty Images.

He knows what she’s been going through. "Sometimes people don’t recognise that coaches are also going through this whole struggle with lockdown and Tokyo being pushed back a year," he says.

“I’ve got two young kids, I’ve got two businesses I’m trying to run, on top of coaching some Olympic athletes - and the whole timeline is completely thrown out. Then as the coach, you have to put on a brave persona because you don’t want that to get through to your athletes you’re trying to help.”

In his role on the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s Athlete’s Commission, Patterson is seeing it in other athletes and coaches too.

Sitting in the gym after a university class, Andrews-Nahu says she’s now come to the realisation that to be among the best women lifters in the world, she has to do more.

“I know I’m good, I know I’m really strong, but I could be great if I tried. And that’s not just lifting weights, but in my nutrition and everything else that goes hand-in-hand with being an elite strength athlete,” she says.

“I know what I need to do, and I know how to do it. It’s just the ‘doing it’ that’s hard.”

Now she's trying to spot her motivation on the horizon.

***

Just before New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown, Andrews-Nahu made a mad dash to the United States - and stepped one competition closer to the Tokyo Olympics.  

But she had already prepared for the worst. “I wasn’t giving up on the Olympics exactly, but I had to prepare myself for the possibility that I wouldn’t go. It took me a long time to come to terms with that,” she says.

But now she sees the 12-month postponement of the Games may in fact put her in a better position for Tokyo.

She'll be one year older. “One year stronger,” the teenager says.

Kanah Andrews-Nahu takes direction from her coach before walking out to lift. Photo: Katherine Neilson. 

Patterson says the current weights she’s lifting would almost certainly get her to Tokyo. “I’m definitely on the cards to go,” Andrews-Nahu says. “But if I don’t go this time, I’ll have so many other opportunities.”

To qualify for these Olympics, New Zealand weightlifters will have to compete at six international competitions, with the four best results translated into a world ranking.

Andrews-Nahu was ready to fly to Romania in March for her fifth qualifying competition, the IWF world junior championships (she won New Zealand’s first world weightlifting gold – in the 76kg snatch - at last year’s event). But it was cancelled, and she was gutted.

“I was really pushing for some good numbers this time, I was in really good shape,” she says.

Quickly, Patterson found another Olympic qualifying event – the Arnold in Columbus, Ohio (that’s Arnold as in Schwarzenegger). Within three days she was on a plane and competed two days later.

With fellow Olympic hopeful Cameron McTaggart standing in as her coach, Andrews-Nahu lifted well – with a 96kg snatch and a 119kg clean and jerk, breaking another eight New Zealand records in her 87kg weight division.

Her final qualifying event is next year’s Oceania championships – pencilled in for Nauru in either February or March. But there are obvious question marks over that too.

With all the confusion Andrews-Nahu has started to look further ahead, to the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. “That will be my buzz,” she says.

“I have a lot of growth that needs to happen - not just physically but mentally too. You get to a point in your journey where you know you’re talented and naturally strong, but talent only gets you so far. And that’s really creeping up on me now.”

Patterson, the 2014 Commonwealth Games champion, wishes he'd possessed half the talent Andrews-Nahu has. "I told her I would've taken advantage of that and put in the work to really realise that potential,” says. “It’s made her open her eyes.”

***

As well as aiming to be an Olympian and a Commonwealth champion, Andrews-Nahu also wants a degree. She’s in her second year of part-time study towards a bachelor of health science. But she’s approaching a crossroads – does she become a doctor or a nurse?

She’s curious about sports medicine, but is also considering following in the footsteps of her mum, Shahn, a mental health nurse. Her grandmother is also a nurse.

“Next year I want to up my number of papers and do some at summer school, so it’s almost fulltime,” she says. Balancing her study and weightlifting is another challenge, especially when she wants to give both the same intensity.

A “big motivator” is her parents. “Damn, they did a lot for me when I was still in high school and couldn’t drive myself to the gym,” she says. “My mum studied nursing fulltime, worked fulltime, and was fulltime looking after me. When I came here to train, she would sit at that table over there and study. So if she can do it, then I can do it too.”

There’s something else on Andrews-Nahu’s to-do list: she wants to learn to speak Māori.

“I know who I am, I’m a confident person who can stand on her own two feet. But If I learned how to speak fluent te reo, I would feel extremely empowered and have a real sense of connection,” says the descendant of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou.

Now Andrews-Nahu is finally getting back into a rhythm, training at the Functional Strength gym five days a week.

Patterson can see his athletes “starting to pick up their spirits and regain their direction” knowing they have to deliver at the national championships in Tauranga in November. Andrews-Nahu is among them.

“To be honest, I haven’t seen her at such a really good stage for a while. She’s been fantastic,” he says. “All it took was to sit down and say, ‘Look I’m committing to you, you have to give some energy back’.

“I’m lucky she has such a great head on her shoulders for a 19-year-old.”

In return, Andrews-Nahu wants to make a point to her coach.

“I want him to know that I can commit to coming in and doing the things he’s asking,” she says. “Just being here and seeing everyone makes you really appreciate your environment, because not many people around the world can do this right now.

“I’m in such a good place, and I don’t want to take that for granted. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to commit to the things that will better me.

“I’m taking it day-by-day. And cruising as productively as I can.”

Wonder Woodman off to a flying re-start

Desperate to get her ‘glide’ back after a double injury blow, sevens star Portia Woodman returned to her sporting beginnings – netball and athletics – and her Kaikohe hometown to play rugby again. 

Watching Portia Woodman flying down the rugby field is like witnessing a champion sprinter running on clouds, striding out to a perfect beat.

And for five years, the world saw it, and was in awe of it.

Those who knew Woodman were well aware she grew up wanting to be the fastest woman in the world over 100m. But the rest of us were witnessing a rare talent that would make the Black Ferns Sevens superstar easily one of the most recognised names in the global game.

But the sight of ‘Wonder Woodman’ in full flight has been sidelined for the last two years, as she’s battled with, first, an Achilles, and then a hamstring injury.

 
 

Now Woodman - who’s played over 150 games for the Black Ferns Sevens and remains the world’s top sevens try-scorer - wants that feeling back.

She wants her body to return to a state where she can trust it to do what she wants to do. That’s been her priority during the Black Ferns Sevens’ recent six weeks of leave.

To help get there, she chose to head back to the two sports she grew up in - athletics and netball.

 
 

First, she got back into sprint training with Kerry Hill, a New Zealand sprint coach based in Tauranga, who’s coached a string of speedy Olympians.

“I loved it,” Woodman says. “I did that three to four times a week and it was real basic stuff, but it was about getting back to what I enjoyed when I was younger.

“When I was running after my Achilles injury [in 2018], I didn’t feel like I was gliding - and that’s the feeling I like to feel when I'm running hard or sprinting.”

The 29-year-old says returning to netball for three games was “really awesome”, and helped build up her confidence to start fully trusting her body again.

“I played netball for years, and with that you get agility and mobility. You feel the spring in your step,” the former Northern Mystics midcourter says. “But after the Achilles injury, I lost a bit of that, so going back to netball and feeling that movement again was important.”

It also helped her mentally, because she hadn’t been part of playing in a team for quite a while.

“Having to make decisions on the run, while you're fatigued, and still trying to visualise and move quickly was amazing,” says Woodman. She played in the same netball team as Black Ferns sevens co-coach Corey Sweeney’s wife, Karla.

“She’s a legend and is so fit. She played centre for the whole game and I can’t even do it for a quarter. In fact, one quarter is longer than a whole sevens game, so the lungs were definitely getting a hit,” laughs Woodman.

Being back on the netball court and the running track was a great lead-in to Woodman’s return to rugby a fortnight ago - her first game of 15s rugby since 2017 (the year she won the Rugby World Cup with the Black Ferns, and was World Rugby’s women’s player of the year).

Woodman says the feeling running onto the pitch for Kaikohe Rugby Club - in the Northland women’s club rugby semi-finals - was the same sensation she used to get at an international match.

“As we were about to kick off, I felt my stomach sink. When I’m playing for New Zealand, I usually stand behind Kelly Brazier at the back of the line and my stomach also sinks every time,” she recalls.

“And I don’t know if I'm going to spew, or faint, or if my legs are going to cave out underneath me. That’s the feeling I got when I was on the field on Saturday. It was an incredible, exciting and nervous time.”

Woodman also loved having the support of her whānau on the sidelines.

“My mum and dad’s siblings were all there. My cousins, nieces, and nephews. Everyone was there to watch and it was kind of better than any international game because I was at home, in front of my whānau,” says Woodman.

Last weekend, Woodman ran out onto the field in Ahipara for the Northland women’s club final – defending champions Kaikohe versus Te Rarawa (which included another Black Ferns Sevens star, Tyla Nathan-Wong). Woodman scored two tries in Kaikohe’s second-half comeback, but it wasn’t enough to catch Te Rarawa, losing 22-19.

Kaikohe was Woodman’s home until she was nearly seven, when her family moved to Auckland for her dad’s teaching degree. Her dad is former All Black, Māori All Black and Northland legend Kawhena Woodman.

Portia is staying with an aunty on her Kaikohe farm, while she prepares to play for the Northland Kauri in the upcoming Farah Palmer Cup.

She’s looking forward to playing at Whangarei’s Okara Park. “Knowing my dad and all his siblings and my whānau have played there, and getting to follow in their footsteps - it’s going to be awesome to wear the light blue jersey with the Kauri tree on my chest,” she says.

Portia Woodman evades one US sevens player and takes on another at the 2018 Rugby Sevens World Cup. Photo: Getty Images.

Apart from sport, and the lessons of training and working hard, Woodman’s parents have always emphasised to their three children the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from.

“Being Māori has always been a big part of me. And it’s probably one thing that I’m really staunch about. I’m not the most fluent or most experienced in Te Ao Māori [Māori worldview], but it’s really important to me and my whānau,” says Woodman, who's of Ngāpuhi descent.

When her family relocated to Auckland, Woodman and her younger brother went through Māori bilingual units for all of their schooling years, which she’s really grateful for.

“I’ll do all I can to promote and work towards helping our rangatahi [young people] be proud and encourage them to go forward and achieve their dreams,” she says.

She has one child, Kaia, to influence at home - her daughter with fiancée Renee Wickliffe, who has two World Cups to her name with the Black Ferns, and one title with the sevens team.

“Our daughter is really driven and knows what she wants. She’s so talented. It’s cool for her to see us doing a job we both love and worked really hard for,” says Woodman.

“She comes and trains with us and is now heading into her own sport and trying to figure out what she likes as well.”

Having a fellow professional athlete at home means both understand the emotions and energy it takes to do multiple roles.

“Renee knows what I'm going through and vice versa. So when I’ve had a really big day, she knows the pains that we all go through which makes things easier,” Woodman says.

Woodman hasn’t been idle during her injury period. She’s taken up a building apprenticeship - inspired by her dad who has always “tutu-ed” with jobs around the house.

“I’m not a person to sit still, and building is pretty awesome. You get to be creative in your own way. I’ve started to build some planter boxes down home. They're nothing crazy but it’s a start,” she says.

The apprenticeship has been set up specifically for professional athletes and Woodman has completed one module since starting early this year. The programme should take about three years to finish.

“I still have to do my work placement, but that’s the cool thing - my cousin has his own building company up here, so I’ve teed it up to go and hang out for a couple of days a week with him,” says Woodman. “I’m a learner by doing, so I just want to get work experience and put what I’m reading in the book into practice.”

In a pre-Covid world, the gold medal match for the women’s rugby sevens at the Tokyo Olympics would have been played over the past weekend.

And if the Black Ferns sevens dominance in the opening tournaments in this year’s world series –  eventually taking out the 2020 championship - is an indication of who may have been gunning for gold in Tokyo, then the Black Ferns were looking like a strong chance.

But a global pandemic had other plans. And so the team, and the world, will have to wait one more year to see who will be at the big dance at the Tokyo Games.

Whether Woodman is planning for her future on or off the field, she is tracking well to get her body to glide its way back to confidence again.

The science on transgender sport

The science on transgender women in sport, from the person whose scientific work informed World Rugby's controversial new proposed policy

The man who helped write guidelines on transgender players in women’s rugby says he hates that his work has created a platform for people to attack transgender people as cheats.

“That’s not the case,” says sports scientist Ross Tucker. "I wish that society would be accepting.”

The report was leaked a couple of weeks ago by The Guardian, which suggested World Rugby was considering changing its policy around male-to-female transgender players, potentially banning them from playing women's rugby.

The policy change was based on the scientific report co-written by Tucker, which said, even after testosterone treatment, trans athletes retained a significant performance advantage over biological women - manifesting in "at least a 20-30 percent greater risk of injury when a female player is tackled by someone who has gone through male puberty".

The proposed ban was predictably polarising: NZ Rugby immediately came out and said while it would seek feedback on the proposal, it wasn't keen on a ban.

Wellington rugby player Alice Soper told RNZ's Morning Report she would have no problem lining up against women who underwent male puberty, and described the proposal as "TERF-y".

On today's episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to Tucker about how he came to these conclusions, the physiological differences between men and women, and the extraordinary situation sports administrators find themselves in.

This is not a discussion about whether trans women should be able to play sport. That isn't a question; sport is a human right.

This is about an intersection of competing values: of inclusion, safety, and fairness, in a situation where there isn't a clear way to balance all three.

A fundamental question in this discussion is why sport is split along the lines of biological sex.

"[We split sport] within a sometimes arbitrary range, because if we didn't do that, the smallest boxer would never win,” says Tucker. “The athlete with the most severe cerebral palsy would never have the opportunity to win that medal ... and, similarly, those who are female and therefore physiologically different in their biology would have zero chance of winning those medals if they had to compete in an open category against males.

"The scientific, biological differences between men and women are so large, they would render women irrelevant in elite-level sport. Therefore, we protect a category of people who do not have the advantage in order for their sport to have the same meaning.

"Now, we can have a Usain Bolt, who won the 100m gold medal, and we can give the same medal - of equal value - to Shelly-Anne Fraser-Price, because they've both expressed the attributes that we recognise as making them the world's best sprinter."

How big is that physical discrepancy? Pretty big, says Ross Tucker.

When it comes to speed, men on average enjoy about a 10 percent advantage over women.

When it comes to strength and power, it's even larger: between 20 and 30 percent.

In other areas the difference is even greater.

That disparity is almost invisible in pre-pubescent children - in fact, girls tend to outperform boys around the age of 10 - but that all changes as soon as puberty hits.

"Males have testes, and testes produce testosterone - along with a few other hormones - which collectively are known as 'androgens', which means 'male-making'.

"Androgens are responsible for generating 'male-ness' ... and the bits of that that are relevant to sport are: increased muscle mass; increased skeleton growth; changes to the shape of the skeleton; the cardiovascular system changes ... this creates, in males who've undergone puberty under the influence of these androgens, greater strength, greater power, greater endurance capacity, and the ability to produce forces at higher speeds than in women."

Of course, that's not universally true: there are plenty of small, weak men, and plenty of large strong women.

But, Tucker says, if you look at the extremities of athletic performance, they will all be men.

"There are 10,000 men who are faster than the fastest women in the world over 100 metres. That group of men includes 15 and 14-year-old boys.

"The argument for sport is this: we don't want to compare a very fast woman to a mediocre man. So the comparison between, say, Paula Radcliffe, or Katie Ledecky in the swimming pool, is not against someone like you or me, it's against someone who is competing at the same relative level."

Currently, sport is separated along binary lines: we have men's sport and women's sport.

But we don't live in a binary world. An increasing number of people are discovering their biological sex does not match their gender identity, and have the means and ability to take steps to remedy that: transgender people.

And remember, playing sport is a human right. Guaranteeing the inclusion of trans people is fundamental.

"A decent, tolerant society understands that there are people whose gender identity does not match their biological sex ... and a tolerant society accepts this is the case and wants those people to have every right to identify.

"The trouble for sport is it creates a situation, effectively, of colliding rights. Because there's a question now over whether that person's self-identification imposes on another person's rights for fair or safe competition."

The solution thus far has been testosterone treatment: Olympic guidelines require trans women athletes declare their gender and do not change that assertion for four years, as well as reducing testosterone levels to a certain point for at least one year prior to competition. The theory is that this reduction in testosterone would take away any inherent biological advantage.

But Ross Tucker says there's a problem with that course of action: it doesn't work.

"Only about one-fifth of the initial advantage is taken away.

"Where lean muscle mass is 40-50 percent difference, studies show [testosterone treatment] takes away about 5-8 percent.

"Where strength is 40-60 percent difference, the studies show between 5-10 percent reductions in strength when you lower testosterone. So the biological conclusion is that the lowering of testosterone does impair performance by between 0-10 percent.

"But the initial differences are between 40 and 60 percent. And therefore it does not achieve even a quarter of what would be required to guarantee fairness and safety."

And this can lead to safety concerns.

The risk of injury isn't very high in running or weightlifting, but that's not the case in rugby, Tucker says.

"Rugby's stated priority for the last five-10 years has been player welfare. So, when we look at a question like this we have to also factor in safety elements.

"And to be very clear, rugby wants, desperately, to be inclusive. It positions itself as an inclusive sport.

"But when the inclusiveness starts to create potential issues for fairness, and safety, then the question shifts slightly: now you're asking whether we can achieve a balance between these things.

"If the answer is 'no', you have to start to think about making some difficult decisions. There are trade-offs now. And the World Rugby position is that the prioritisation is player welfare. And it was felt - based on the published evidence at this point in time - that this creates an increased safety risk."

The thing is, size disparities already exist in rugby: just over the weekend we saw all 171cm and 83 kilograms of Aaron Smith line up against the 198cm, 120-kilogram lock Patrick Tuipolotu.

How is this any different?

"There is a disparity within a group of males and a group of females between the smallest and the largest.

"Those disparities span around 30-40 kilograms. The lightest men are about 40 kilograms lighter than the heaviest men, and the same is true of females.

"The issue for this question is what happens if you allow crossover. For instance, we know the typical male rugby player is 40 percent heavier than the typical female player. That's about the same difference from the heaviest female to the lightest female."

In other words, the heaviest female players are about the same weight as an average male player.

"The problem is the heaviest male is about 70 percent heavier than the typical female. The range increases by a large degree when you allow crossover.

"That's just mass, it doesn't account for strength. That male player also has a 30-40 percent difference in strength. They're 15-20 percent faster than the female player. And mass and strength and speed are the three most important risk factors for injury.

"If a person who is biologically male with typical attributes for strength and mass and speed were to compete against typical or even extreme women players, they would introduce a set of variables that is simply not seen in the women's game. And that would create the theoretical injury risk in that group."

So, what are the solutions? There aren't any easy fixes, Tucker says.

Some sports might consider open competition, like many social leagues do, with players signing up voluntarily.

Administrators could also create a third category for trans athletes, though Ross Tucker says this idea is shaky due to insufficient numbers and the stigma attached to being trans still present in some countries around the world.

"But I understand there is another group involved here, and it's the biological women who - let's be honest - have fought for 50 or 60 years to get women's sport elevated to the point where they can play it with some degree of recognition.

"We know that women have had to fight for a place in society for many decades. And I am therefore as sympathetic to them when they say our space, our opportunities, our fairness and safety is being encroached by this issue.

"If the solution to this can be ring-fenced and applied only to sport, and if sport can facilitate other ways for inclusion and to recognise [trans people] as equal in society, then I hope we can do that."

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

The woman who helped the Nuggets strike gold

Whether in the boardroom, or behind the lens, Angela Ruske has played a crucial part in the Otago Nuggets' golden NBL basketball season.

As the Otago Nuggets were on their way to grasping their first men's NBL title, Angela Ruske was trying to stay calm courtside by focusing through her camera lens.

While she's the boss of the Nuggets basketball team, Ruske is also a keen photographer. She was on the sidelines at Auckland’s Trusts Stadium on Saturday night, snapping away as her team won a down-to-the-wire final from the Manawatu Jets, 79-77.

It was fairytale ending for the Nuggets, who hadn’t played in the men's national league for six years. And Ruske played her own part in that story.

She may have a PhD in psychology, and run an alpaca farm in Dunedin, but it’s basketball that has become Ruske's true passion and occupied most of her career.

Having first picked up a ball in high school, and still playing the game, she now wears the hat of acting general manager of the Otago Nuggets and is an integral part of the team who have invigorated the sport in the south.

 
 

She played representative basketball as a teenager, married an Otago Nuggets player, and has three children who haven’t fallen far from the tree. Daughters Aleisha and Nicole both play for the Otago Gold Rush in the women’s NBL - with Nicole progressing to Tall Ferns honours - while son, Michael, has been involved in national age group squads.

“Who would’ve thought that I’d start playing in third form, and still be so invested all these years later?” says Ruske. “That’s the beauty of sport - it’s created a lifetime of opportunities for me and now for my kids.”

Angela Ruske (left) with son Michael, husband Dean and daughters, Nicole and Aleisha. Photo: supplied.

There haven’t been many upsides of Covid-19’s impact on the sporting world, but you won’t hear that from the avid basketball fans in Otago. “We couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity,” says Ruske.

Basketball Otago has a chequered financial history, with the Nuggets absent from national league competition since 2014, while the organisation re-established itself financially.

Ruske has been part of a group revitalising the sport across the region, including getting a franchise back into this year’s condensed men’s NBL.

Her long involvement as both a player and administrator made her an ideal candidate for the Basketball Otago board, where she’s had a seat at the boardroom table for over a decade.

The growth of the sport has always motivated her, and it inspired her to take action when times were tough five years ago. A ‘Keep Basketball in Otago’ campaign was formed to fund-raise and set up a financially secure local association.

“Our priority was looking after the grassroots and development programme for our kids,” says Ruske. “We’ve got to a level where that’s sustainable on its own, and we could look to bring the franchise back as a separate entity.”

Initial plans were for the Nuggets to return in 2021, with the focus this year being on securing sponsorship and funding. Enter the global pandemic, uprooting sports around the world.

When the NBL emerged with a compacted 2020 league, limited travel and reduced costs of entry, it was too good an opportunity to turn down - the Nuggets were back.

“We knew we could be part of this league and the opportunities it would provide for us next year,” Ruske says. “Not only in development of players and coaches, but awareness within our community and a platform for our sponsors to see the potential for a full season in 2021.”

It paid off. The Nuggets headed into last week’s finals as favourites, after finishing the regular season top of the table.

“Everyone was happy just to see a team in the league, but to see them perform well and be competitive has been very exciting,” Ruske says. “It speaks to Brent [Matehaere, Nuggets coach] and the players, but also the hard work put in by a lot of people in Otago.”

With the men’s league over, Ruske’s attention now turns to the women’s NBL.  General manager Justin Nelson confirmed on Saturday a competition schedule will be announced soon - relieving those who had doubts for the women's contest this year. 

The Otago Gold Rush have been practising behind the scenes, keeping their skills and fitness up in preparation for whenever the switch may be flicked.

“They’re hoping to schedule at least some South Island matches against the likes of Canterbury and Southland, but they would welcome the opportunity for whatever a league season may look like this year,” says Ruske.

“Numbers are only growing for girls at secondary school level, and there’s so many talented athletes around New Zealand. Having this women’s league running, with the visibility Sky brings, hopefully increases the chance of them selecting basketball as a sporting choice.”

Angela Ruske (front row far right) with the 2019 Otago women's U23 team, including both her daughters. Photo: supplied. 

Ruske often gets a first-hand look at the up-and-coming talent in the women’s game. She plays in the local B grade competition, which serves as a pathway for younger girls to develop alongside more experienced players.

“We’re a mix of 50 to 55-year-old women who still love the game, and some younger ones; our youngest being around 16,” she says. “We bring them through and give them the experience they wouldn’t otherwise get playing in their school competition, before they move up to A Grade and the Gold Rush.

“And it’s good for us, having the younger ones who can run up and down the court.”

Ruske’s long-standing team enters local masters competitions each year, luring ex-Tall Fern Tracey Kelly (nee Garland) back from Dubai to join in.

While the game is now sustainable at a local level, Ruske is one of many voices calling for more government funding for basketball in general.

“It impacts everything you’re trying to do, from grassroots through to the elite level. You’re handicapped by the number of people you can employ, the opportunities you can present,” she says. “You need to provide an elite product to keep people interested, and you can’t do that on a shoestring budget.

“Past funding shortages have put the brakes on resources that support the growth of the game. Thankfully we have a large number of passionate volunteers to provide adequate coaching, but we’re at capacity for court space in all of our competitions. There’s so much more that could be achieved, and additional funding would alleviate that.”

With many balls already in the air, Ruske has stepped up to coach a Year 10 team in the absence of Matehaere, feeling more comfortable coaching at the junior level. But she also takes moments to enjoy the slow serenity of a sunrise from the alpaca farm-stay she runs with husband, Dean. “I’ve taken up hobby photography, and a few sunrises are all I have time for these days,” she laughs.

Otago basketball fans will be hopeful she’s also seeing in the dawn of a new era for the game down south. 

Are we doing enough for Māori and Pasifika in sport?

This week's Extra Time podcast asks are sports looking after Māori and Pasifika players, and are they doing enough to get more Māori and Pasifika into top-level coaching roles?

All of New Zealand's professional sports teams have large numbers of Māori and Pasifika players. Are we getting things right with coaching, and embracing and acknowledging cultural diversity?

Netball New Zealand's national coaching development manager, Tania Karauria, says it's an ongoing challenge to understand the key to keeping teenage Māori and Pasifika players in netball. And all sports, she says, have to take a look at the opportunities they're presenting to Māori and Pasifika coaches. 

"If you look a boards and interview panels, or any systems and structures where they're looking at working alongside coaches and bringing them into the fold, I think for Māori and Pasifika, it makes it way easier if they can see one of their own sitting in any of those decision-making positions," she says. 

"If they don't see anyone they can relate to, it becomes a really challenging difficult place to be for a coach." 

So what do coaches need to understand about Māori and the different Pasifika cultures, and Māori and Pasifika players, to ensure they're given every opportunity to succeed? 

Dr Sierra Keung, an academic at AUT in Auckland who has researched the cultural differences in coaching from a Māori and Pasifika perspective, says it comes down to relationships. 

"It starts with being willing to listen to others. There are not many Māori and Pasifika in the coaching space, but there are in the support space, so leaning on those staff members, leaning on the senior leadership team to understand the practical implications they can implement in designing the game plan for the week," she says. 

"I would put a wero out to organisation that when they do recruit coaches, that there's a buy-in for the well-being [of players]. That it's an embedded part of developing our athletes on the field as well as off the field." 

Also joining RNZ's Joe Porter on the podcast this week is former All Black Tamati Ellison, who is a coach with the Kanaloa Hawaii Major League rugby side trying to join a revamped Super Rugby competition.

And former Kiwis and Warriors coach Frank Endacott chips in with why he thinks the Warriors' current woes stem back to recruitment problems. 

 
 

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

Click here for more news articles.

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