When the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed, those who would have known just how the New Zealand team felt were the athletes selected for the 1980 Moscow Games.
Their dreams were shattered 40 years earlier by a boycott - and 34 of those Kiwi athletes never got the chance to compete at another Olympics.
In the first of a three-part series on the fate of some of those athletes, this is gymnast Rowena Geisreiter’s story.
Kiwi gymnast Rowena Davis was only 14 when she got to fulfil a dream of competing alongside Nadia Comaneci – at the 1979 world championships in Fort Worth, Texas. She even gifted the Olympic champion a Māori doll.
“There were some pretty big names, huge names competing. It was the Nadia Comaneci era,” remembers Davis, now Geisreiter. “But we were just from little old New Zealand, so we didn’t consider we could be part of the next Olympics. I didn’t even know I could qualify at the world champs.”
Known for her consistency in competition, Geisreiter performed well and discovered she’d qualified New Zealand a spot at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Her next challenge was to get selected for the New Zealand team. “There was a wee bit of ‘who’s going to go?’ I had to keep being consistent and keep staying on top,” she says.
Winning was something Geisreiter had aimed for ever since joining Dunedin’s Athlon Club, aged seven, after her school gym teacher Pat Broad suggested she had a future.
“I loved it from the beginning. I was runner-up in my first competition and thought: ‘Next time I have to win’. I must have had a competitive spirit right from the get-go,” Geisreiter says.
Win she did, rising to become the New Zealand artistic champion. She won a bronze medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton as one of the four-strong New Zealand women’s gymnastics team.
But competing at the Olympics had never been on her radar until she unexpectedly qualified in December 1979.
The same month, while Geisreiter and Comaneci were landing somersaults, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In retaliation, US President Jimmy Carter and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games.
That led to New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon pressuring the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association to join the boycott. But they resisted, announcing a team of 99 athletes, including Geisreiter.
Thinking she was going to the Moscow Olympics, Geisreiter jetted off to the United States for three months to hone her routines at the SCATS Gymnastics Club.
“My parents committed to the cost of sending me to the States. At that stage it was all go,” she says. “But the Americans were leading the boycott and definitely weren’t going. I began training at SCATS, but people there kept saying, ‘You shouldn’t go’.”
Pressure for New Zealand to join the boycott intensified, with word reaching Geisreiter in the States. “It was on again, off again, ‘yes you’re going’, ‘no you’re not’, ‘yes you are’,” she says. “That was the hard part, not knowing what was going to happen.
“The end result was I could go independently, but if I did, New Zealand Gymnastics would never get any more government funding. So it was basically blackmail.”
In the end, only four New Zealand athletes competed in Moscow – modern pentathlete Brian Newth, the team’s flagbearer, and canoeists Ian Ferguson, Alan Thompson and Geoff Walker.
With her Olympic dream in tatters, Geisreiter came home only to find herself returning to the States, for an international invitational organised for nations boycotting the Olympics.
“I probably didn’t focus too much on missing the Olympics at the time because there was another trip – to the ‘fake Olympics’ in America,” she recalls.
“Then, weirdly, there was a trip to Moscow for the next world champs, competing against the Olympic gymnasts in the Olympic stadium. I remember thinking: ‘What? We can go there now?’ It just didn’t make sense.”
Determined to get to the next Olympics in Los Angeles, Geisreiter committed to another four years of training, and qualified once again. But this time she was up against tougher New Zealand selection standards.
After 14 years of gymnastics, Geisreiter was gutted when she wasn’t named in the 1984 New Zealand Olympic team. An argument was put forward that she’d missed out on the Moscow Olympics and trained intensively for an extra four years.
“There were submissions, pleas and resubmissions, but the selectors wouldn’t budge,” she says.
“Their standards were pretty unreasonable for gymnastics. I wasn’t going to be good enough for them if I didn’t have a chance of a medal or a final.
“It was a kick in the guts. You’re the best in your country and that’s not good enough…. I thought ‘what’s the point’, and then I quit. It was more devastating than missing out on the Moscow Olympics.”
Geisreiter recalls how alone she felt. “I couldn’t commiserate with other people. I just wrapped it up and put it away somewhere because no one really got it. People would say, ‘Oh well, at least you got as far as you did’. No one else understood. I guess if you were in a cycling or rowing team, at least you had the whole team to share it with.”
The full impact didn’t hit until much later, at a team reunion 30 years on. “I realised I was one of the ones who’d never got the opportunity to go to the Olympics. I was in this special category of those who’d totally dipped out and then I was really angry,” Geisreiter says.
“I hated politicians after that. Politics should not have interfered. What the heck has politics got to do with sport?”
At the 2010 reunion, athletes selected for the Moscow Olympics were formally recognised by the NZOC. Geisreiter remembers how upset many still were.
“There were people crying and telling stories about bomb threats to try and stop them from going; even people getting their letterboxes blown up. I never knew any of that because I was 15 and didn’t understand the whole political involvement,” she says.
Geisreiter feels for today’s Olympic athletes disrupted by Covid-19. “It’s probably worse for them because I had another event to focus on. For them, they might be going, or they might not. Some don’t know when they can next compete overseas, and there are no audiences for those who can. At least I knew exactly where I stood.”
Her advice to Tokyo Olympic hopefuls? “If you’ve got that goal, you have to go with it, focus on it and work towards it. If it doesn’t happen there’s obviously going to be disappointment. But you’ve just got to bite the bullet and say: ‘Yes we’re going, so let’s do what we have to do’.”
Forty years on, missing out on the Olympics is not something Geisreiter thinks much about unless someone reminds her. “Then I’m like, ‘Oh bugger’. If I sit and watch the Olympic ceremonies it sets in, but it’s not something I dwell on,” she says.
“I kept on being active. There’s no point in sitting around wondering. I do a lot of cycling now and race at a local level and really enjoy that for what it is. I’m grateful for the skills and ability to focus. I just use them somewhere else now.”
Geisreiter is a bike coach in Dunedin, conducting cycle skills programmes in schools and coaching mountain biking. “It’s actually very much like gymnastics. It’s balance, coordination, timing, strength and body weight,” she explains.
Four decades on, the disappointment of missing out on the Olympics has never entirely gone away.
“It was a big thing, but it was out of my hands,” Geisreiter says. “Going to the Olympics is an opportunity that not many people get - and I could have but didn’t. I didn’t get the blazer, but I got the patch that goes on it.”
She brought back a once-mighty trimaran from the dead, and now 'still green' sailor Liz Alonzi is about to race Timberwolf in one of the world's iconic coastal yacht races.
Liz Alonzi lovingly calls her “Wolfy… with a Y” – the unmistakable bright green trimaran with a snarling wolf on her bow, sitting placidly on the Waitemata Harbour.
Together they'll hunt down the leaders in the iconic Coastal Classic yacht race from Auckland to Russell on Friday.
It’s still a fresh relationship. Just six years after she started learning to sail, 31-year-old Alonzi now owns this 10.6 m speed machine - once among the quickest in New Zealand.
In the past six months, she’s brought Timberwolf “back from near dead” – spending hundreds of hours working on the multihull, on top of her job as a software engineer. It’s been a true labour of love.
And at the same time, her determination and enthusiasm has rejuvenated an entire class of multihulls.
“I’ve been in love with her ever since I bought her. Even with all the weed on her bottom, she was the coolest boat,” Alonzi says.
The commodore of the NZ Multihull Yacht Club, Greer Houston, has been amazed by Alonzi’s passion and was “stoked” when she asked him to sail Timberwolf with her in the PIC Coastal Classic - a race the trimaran once won.
“It’s very impressive what she’s done,” Houston says. “It’s quite a prestigious boat that hadn’t had a lot of love, and she’s been giving it quite a lot in the last few months.
“It’s a huge undertaking for someone who hasn’t had a lot of sailing experience, but she’s so willing to learn. And that’s definitely got other people enthused in the larger multihulls – so there’s quite a good turnout in the race this time for the 10-metre boats. It’s really regenerated that division of the race.”
Alonzi’s sailing addiction goes further than Wolfy. She’s on the committee of the NZ Multihull Yacht Club, who organise the Coastal Classic, now in its 38th year.
And she’s training to become a course marshall in this summer’s America’s Cup on the Hauraki Gulf; learning to lay course markers for racing.
The American-born Alonzi has been enthralled with multihulls ever since she moved to New Zealand in 2016. It was a brave step she took simply because she wanted to go sailing.
Growing up, she didn’t play a lot of sport but was always active. While at the University of Iowa – “in the cornfields of America” - she took up cycling, riding long distances on gravel roads.
“Then I was living in Chicago and I started to go stir crazy in the concrete jungle. There’s not a lot of nature there – you have to hunt it out,” she says. So in 2014, she started sailing lessons.
At the end of that summer, when the boats were put away for winter, Alonzi didn’t want to stop sailing – so she headed to Australia for a six-month yacht racing holiday.
After that, she was on a yacht delivery between Malaysia and Thailand, when she had a fortuitous meeting. “We stopped for dinner with another boat, and I met a woman who was a project manager for a software company who was also travelling,” Alonzi recalls.
“We just got chatting over dinner and she said: ‘If you really like sailing and you work in software, you should really just move to New Zealand.’ My next plan had been to sail on the west coast of the US; New Zealand hadn’t even crossed my mind.
“So I came down here, sailed for a winter, got my first work contract - and I knew I was here to stay.”
Alonzi had her first taste of multihull sailing in Southeast Asia. “They are monsters, just so unforgiving,” she says.
But she didn’t baulk when a friend asked her to help deliver a 17.5m catamaran, Sundreamer, back to Auckland after the 2016 Coastal Classic. “I thought that was really cool,” she says.
And so she started learning to sail multihulls on the Hauraki Gulf. She loved the racing and the “banter” amongst the fleet, then began looking for a multi to call her own.
“As soon as I started sailing, I knew I wanted my own boat in five years. And I bought one in three!” she says. “I had a little keelboat – like a giant dinghy with an outboard – which was great to learn on.” But she kept her eyes peeled for a trimaran.
A horrible accident out sailing didn’t faze her. “I was packing a sail on the bow, and I wasn’t looking forward and the cat slammed into a wake and I got thrown,” Alonzi says. “I ended up underneath a compression beam and snapped my fibula. It was insane.
“I made it through one week before throwing a tantrum about not getting out on the water.”
The break also made her more determined to buy a multihull. The morning the 10.6m Cochrane-designed trimaran went up for sale, “I had multiple people text me to say she was listed.”
Timberwolf was in a sorry state. It hadn’t moved from its swing mooring at the base of the Auckland Harbour Bridge for 18 months. “The guy who owned it loved the boat, but it didn’t fit in with his life anymore,” she says.
So Alonzi took up the challenge to bring the 21-year-old boat back to some of her former glory, as a three-time winner of the Auckland to Tauranga race, and the winner of her multihull division in the 2012 Coastal Classic.
She drew up a “54-item to-do list” for Wolfy. But then the country went into Level 4 lockdown, and she got a new job with start-up MATTR, her haul-out plans were put on hold.
“The lockdown was rough. Watching the time tick down when I knew I had to get the boat to Cat 3 [safety regulations] by October 9 so we could do the Coastal,” says Alonzi, whose Instagram name is 'The girl and her wolf'.
For five weeks, she worked on the boat at least five hours every day, even after her regular eight-hour day job.
The first task on her list was three hours scraping “nasty stuff” off the bottom of the hulls, with the help of a sailing friend, before hauling the tri out of the water. That became a nightmare when there was no cradle available for her in the city, so she had to buy timber to modify one herself.
Then came 90 hours scraping off the old antifouling paint; Alonzi did 50 of them. “It was super toxic. I wore a respirator, but my skin still went horrible,” she says. She then repainted the hulls over 20 hours.
She worked on the boat’s electrics, repaired a leak in the transom, and learned how to use fibreglass to fix a crack in the cockpit floor.
When a winch ripped off the deck the first time she took Timberwolf sailing, she had the entire winch set-up replaced. Boatbuilder Bob Fisher helped with the proviso he could sail with Alonzi in the Coastal - he’s one of her three male crew.
Alonzi is grateful to the 16 or so volunteers who helped her. There was a sense of accomplishment and relief when she received her safety certificate allowing her to race this weekend.
Although she “cannot stand” driving boats, she’s still looking forward to helming Wolfy across the start-line off Devonport on Friday morning – in what will be her fifth Coastal Classic.
“I’ve been on foredeck since I started racing - put me on the bow and I’m super happy. With driving you have to focus, and you can’t move around. I get so antsy,” she laughs. “But my big thing now is getting that helm time to get confident.”
Houston says the crew will be encouraging Alonzi to stay on the helm. “The best part about having your own boat is getting to drive it,” he says.
“I’ve said I think you should definitely drive the boat at the start and the finish. Those are the best parts of the race.
“She’s so keen to make the boat go faster – she wants to win. And she’s not afraid to pick people’s brains, which is a good trait to have.”
Alonzi’s goal in this race isn’t necessarily to win. The forecast – 10 knots from the north east – won’t be pushing the strong fleet of 176 boats to break race records.
“If the forecast plays ball, I just want to sail better than I ever have before. I’m still so green with it – which is hilarious because the boat is green,” she says. “I just have to not lose focus while I’m on the helm.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: New Zealand will host three World Cups over the next three years, kicking off with rugby in 2021, followed on by cricket in 2022 and topped off with football in 2023. All three major events are at different stages of planning and delivery, but all are progressing on track - despite the unforeseen interruptions by Covid-19.
LockerRoom speaks with the women from each code tasked with bringing the events to life to see how they’re going so far.
Strangely, the Rugby World Cup 2021 could be in a better position because of Covid-19, says Michelle Hooper, the tournament’s director.
“The opportunity to bring the world to us in 2021 and showcase women's sport, at the highest level, really excites me,” she says. “And the opportunities we have, the challenges and the hurdles to get there are still present, but the opportunity is probably greater than it ever has been before.”
The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics means the pinnacle events in both the sevens and 15s format will only be scheduled six weeks apart. The head of the women’s game at World Rugby, Katie Sadleir, has coined it “the golden year of women’s rugby.”
The opportunities go beyond the event, according to Sadleir, and so World Rugby are making sure they do all they can to invest in the women’s game to reap the rewards.
“There's quite a significant leverage and legacy programme being driven by the organising committee in New Zealand. They’re using the event to leverage and drive rugby in New Zealand and around the globe,” says Dublin-based Kiwi Sadleir.
One of the initiatives Sadleir is most passionate about is the coaching internship programme put in place for this World Cup.
All 12 teams will have an additional coaching resource 12 months leading up to the event. Being selected as a member of a high-performance coaching team will benefit the female recipients and add much needed coaching experience to their resume.
It’s just one area of focus from the global strategy for women’s rugby launched in 2017, just after Sadleir was appointed at WR. And it will be a point raised when stakeholders meet to discuss the halfway point of the eight-year strategy at the World Cup next year.
Leadership and development programmes including Ako Wāhine - an educator programme empowering more female coaches, managers, referees and administrators - global marketing campaigns profiling players, and unbundling commercial partnerships for the women’s game are a few of the other deliverables.
Status update: “It’s a 10,” says Hooper. “We’re tracking for a Rugby World Cup in September and October next year. We’re tracking on with our unstoppable energy.”
The tournament will be hosted in three stadiums across two cities, Auckland and Whangarei. And Sadleir is staying in New Zealand until the end of November for the announcement of the official draw.
Project status report: ICC WOMEN'S CRICKET WORLD CUP 2022
Date of tournament: February-March 2022
Project manager/CEO: Andrea Nelson
Project sponsor: ICC
Status: ON TRACK
The Women’s Cricket World Cup was scheduled to start in February 2021, but with Covid-19 causing havoc with qualification tournaments, the International Cricket Council made a call in August to postpone the event by one year.
After New Zealand launched the nationwide event in mid-March, New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown the week after.
“We had come back from Australia after watching the women's [T20] World Cup final with 86,000 people at the MCG - which was an amazing experience,” says Andrea Nelson, CEO of the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup. “We pretty much got straight off the plane, did our launch, and then that happened.
“Like everyone, you took a while to understand how big Covid-19 was and seeing the impact on sports bodies around the world so we got quickly into contingency planning.
“We worked with the ICC and the government and had a really solid biosecurity plan. So we had a plan to do it, and a plan if we didn’t.”
Had it gone ahead as first planned, the eight teams would not have experienced a substantial lead-up to the event, which has a $3.5m purse up for grabs. And Nelson says the push back in dates has allowed more time to action a quality event.
“The exciting thing about this event is it's not just a 31-day festival. It's actually about what does it mean for women’s sport globally?” she says.
“So in 2022, we're right in the middle with the women's rugby World Cup next year, then you have the cricket World Cup, which is kind of larger in terms of national stretch and global profile, and then you have Fifa [World Cup in 2023]. So you’ve got a really great trajectory. It's going to be amazing to have three women's World Cups in three years.”
The cricket matches are being held at six venues across the country, and similar to the rugby World Cup, it’s about what the tournament can provide for all New Zealand and its people.
“We have a similar programme called the ‘leverage and legacy’ programme,” says Nelson, who’s also worked on the 2012 London Olympics and 2017 league World Cup.
“What it basically means is, how do we use the event to leave a lasting legacy for participation, for growing people and women in sport, and what can we do with [investing in] facilities?
“And from New Zealand Cricket’s point of view, it’s building the pipeline to ensure the White Ferns are successful.”
Like rugby, they’re also looking to the neighbouring Pacific countries to see what can be done to support cricket in the region.
“The ICC have a massive development programme in the Pacific Islands and we’re working on how New Zealand, as the host, can really help with that. It gives us a chance to do more which I’m excited about,” says Nelson.
The imminent focus is on rescheduling the entire tournament.
“It’s pretty extensive to get a World Cup rescheduled. You have to check with the broadcasters, all the teams, and all the cities, so we’re looking to have a new schedule by the end of the year,” says Nelson.
This summer is looking hot for NZ Cricket after recently announcing the White Ferns will take on England in February and March, and plans to host Australia are in the works too.
Status update: “It's on a new track, but it’s on track,” says Nelson. “In the next few months, we're doing a bit of a reset. We’ll look at the schedule, look at our plan, and make sure we're doing the right thing for the new time period. But we’re not slowing down.”
Project status report: 2023 FIFA WOMEN'S WORLD CUP
Date of tournament: July-August 2023
Project director (NZ): Jane Patterson
Project sponsor: Fifa
Status: ON TRACK
The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will most likely be the biggest sporting event ever hosted in New Zealand.
The magnitude of the occasion is not lost on experienced sport administrator Jane Patterson, responsible for delivering the co-hosted tournament here.
When we spoke, Patterson had only been working in her role as project director for five weeks.
“I’m absolutely privileged to be able to work on an event of this size,” says Patterson. “To be honest, you don’t necessarily see this scale of event in a country the size of New Zealand, so from a purely sector standpoint, it's just an amazing opportunity. And then obviously as someone who is passionate about women's sport, then that combined is a well-rounded piece for me.”
After winning the bid to co-host the world-class event with Australia, the trans-Tasman buddies go into an early planning stage before starting the process of delivery.
Patterson has been diligently working on organising what’s needed to determine which stadiums and cities will host games. There are 32 teams in the tournament, and 13 stadiums in up to 12 cities between the two countries.
As part of the initial steps, Fifa delegates will visit New Zealand by the end of January for site inspections. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, the visits were postponed, but with a longer lead-in time in comparison to rugby and cricket, Patterson says there have been minor impacts so far.
The hosting details should be confirmed by the end of the first quarter next year alongside the organisational structure, and team, to help Patterson with delivery.
“I think one of the things I'm excited about is the collective opportunity the Fifa World Cup, the ICC women's World Cup, the women’s rugby World Cup and the 2022 IWG on Women and Sport conference [hosted in Auckland] offers New Zealand,” says Patterson.
“To champion equality for women and girls, to see more women and girls playing football and inspiring the nation to be physically active and delivering long-term enduring social impact - that’s what excites me. This collaboration and collective opportunity.”
The similarities across the visions for each World Cup is clear but the compounded impact is limitless.
So success in 2023?
“I have this vision that there shouldn’t be a person in New Zealand that isn’t engaged and knowing that this is going on. From airports to retail stores to taxi drivers, bars, and bus shelters. I just imagine it's everywhere,” Patterson says.
“The athletes, the teams, the administration staff, the fans, they have just an unforgettable experience and slice of New Zealand. That’s the part where New Zealand has an opportunity to come into its own.
“I also think of the other elements that come from the opportunity of putting the spotlight on a Fifa women's World Cup. Sports coverage is hugely powerful in shaping norms and stereotypes about gender, so the media has the ability to challenge some of the norms. Suddenly the spotlight can go on those sorts of things as a result of hosting something that’s here over a length of time.”
Status update: “I would say we are right on track. I meet with Fifa, probably three evenings a week with the time difference because they're in Zurich,” says Patterson. “We have deadlines and deliverables and at the moment we are meeting all of them. So I would say, right now from a project point of view, we are right on track and right where we need to be.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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).
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."
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."
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
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.