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Arizona's realising her dream for wāhine in sport

Born and raised in a rugby community, outstanding young Kiwi leader Arizona Leger is living her dream, working towards gender equality in sport at a global level. 

How a Kiwi bot can combat attacks on athletes

Female athletes are more likely to be the targets of vitriolic online abuse. But two Kiwi women have created a bot to call out the sports trolls, Ashley Stanley discovers.

Gina Crampton, a Silver Ferns captain-in-waiting

After mulling it over with other top athletes, Gina Crampton took on the role of Silver Ferns captain. Now she waits to see if she's allowed to lead them against England.

Suzie Bates back in black for the 251st time

The most-capped White Fern in history, Suzie Bates opens up on her comeback from injury, playing 250 games for NZ, and the trio of captains guiding the team to next year's World Cup. 

Don't take our eyes off the ball

From football to sailing, netball to tennis - in the space of one week, sport made some important steps towards equality. But, Suzanne McFadden writes, there were also stark reminders of the global problems facing women's sport.

I took a week off work – sure, there aren't a lot of places to go in a lockdown - but I've returned to find a small shift in the sporting landscape, taking it that much closer to equality.

In a week when we were coming down off the Olympic-Paralympic double high, when the country wasn’t yet ready to take to the field again thanks to Covid-19, so much still happened in women’s sport.

There was the revelation of a women's America's Cup - where every team who contests the next America’s Cup (venue still unknown) must field a four-woman crew to race on a scaled-down 40ft foiling monohull in their own regatta. Opening the door for more women to sail for the holy grail of yachting has been something LockerRoom has pushed for over a few years now. At least the AC37 women's event is a step in the right direction.

The Wellington Phoenix will finally field a semi-professional female team in Australia’s W-League this summer, a move which will no doubt boost the women’s game here, and help prepare our Football Ferns for the 2023 World Cup co-hosted by New Zealand. It comes with restrictions: the team must be based in Australia and field at least seven Australians. But, again, they're on the right track. 

There were smaller wins, too: Gold medalist Holly Robinson collecting the award for a Paralympic moment of gratitude, after thanking the officials for their hard work when she won the javelin F46 in Tokyo.

Dunedin javelin thrower Holly Robinson on her way to winning Paralympic gold in Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images. 

And with the Constellation Cup between the Silver Ferns and Australia in October postponed last week because of the pandemic, Netball NZ showed their adaptability, quickly organising a three-match series for the Ferns against the NZ Men instead. Not only does it help the Ferns with their Commonwealth Games preparation, it bolsters the growing relationship between the men's and women's games. 

Then on Sunday, we watched two teens battle out an extraordinary women’s final of the US Open, stealing a good deal of the limelight away from Novak Djokovic’s bid to become the first man in half a century to win a calendar-year Grand Slam. It gave us an insight into the future of women’s tennis – hopefully for the better.

But there were reminders during the past week, too, that we can’t take our eye off the ball.

The Afghanistan women's soccer team were "saved from a nightmare" - evacuated from Kabul, and given humanitarian visas to live in Australia - after the Taliban took control of their country. But other Afghan athletes have not been so fortunate.

A Taliban spokesperson told Australia's SBS TV that women's sport - including women's cricket - would now be banned in Afghanistan. They do not allow women to be seen with their face or body uncovered.

Cricket Australia say if this stance proves to be true they will have no alternative but to cancel the first-ever men's test between Australia and Afghanistan in November. "Our vision for cricket is that it is a sport for all and we support the game unequivocally for women at every level," their statement read. 

And here, where our sportswomen increasingly have a voice, some of our top female athletes spoke up on Suicide Prevention Day. World junior BMX champion Jessie Smith (below) wrote on her social media accounts how much she misses her friend, Olympic cyclist Olivia Podmore, a month after her death, and admitted she still struggles with her own mental health most days.

Paddler Kayla Imrie shared how heavily the past two years have compounded on her mental wellbeing: missing Olympic selection and having her wedding plans postponed twice by the pandemic.

And while the US Open showdown was a historic celebration of a new generation of strong young women, it was also served up a reminder of the importance of keeping them safe.

Brit Emma Raducanu is 18; her opponent Canadian Leylah Fernandez, 19.  Drawn on the side of the court in the Arthur Ashe Stadium were the numbers 9/11/01 – a date so deeply and painfully etched in New York City’s history; a date before either player was born.

The ESPN commentators chose to call them mostly by their first names and kept returning to just how special the moment was. “There’s not going to be a loser in this match,” tennis great Chris Evert said.

But of course, we demand a winner. And with a bloodied knee, an exceptional baseline game and a massive final ace, Raducanu triumphed 6-4, 6-3. She became the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title; the first British woman to win a Grand Slam title since Virginia Wade in 1977 (Wade, now 76, was watching from the crowd).

No woman in the Open era has ever won in only their second Grand Slam (she made the fourth round of Wimbledon this year). She didn’t drop a set in 10 matches on the bounce. And it was also the 18-year-old’s first long trip away from home, and without her parents, who couldn’t get to New York because of Covid travel restrictions.  

Raducanu and Fernandez, both unseeded, played with the kind of physical power, athleticism, speed and shot selection you’d expect from world tour veterans. Players they’d stepped over to reach the final.

For just shy of two hours, they played out long, dramatic rallies, swinging the momentum back and forth, but with a lightness – not weighed down with expectation.

During the tournament, Fernandez often spoke about having fun, producing a game the crowd would enjoy. Raducanu’s team kept having to change the date on her airline ticket home.

And they both spoke with a maturity that belied their youth. Especially when a disheartened Fernandez took the microphone to address the crowd afterwards, acknowledging the 20th anniversary of 9/11. “I just hope I can be as strong and as resilient as New York has been these last 20 years,” she said, and the crowd erupted.

Old friends: Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez go to hug after one of the most memorable US Open singles finals. Photo: Getty Images. 

Raducanu and Fernandez came through the junior Grand Slam ranks together. They both have roots in Canada, and come from multicultural backgrounds. (Raducanu has a Romanian dad and a Chinese mum, was born in Canada and moved to England aged two; Fernandez’ dad – and coach – is from Ecuador, while her maternal grandparents are from the Philippines.)

It was the first all-teen Grand Slam final, men’s or women’s, since 1999 when Martina Hingis was upset by a 17-year-old Serena Williams. Both those women, though, were already in the top 10 in the world.

Fernandez turned up at Flushing Meadows ranked #73 in the world; she’d never been further than the third round at a major tournament. Raducanu was ranked 150th as she stepped up for the qualifiers on the back courts of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center; today she’s No.23. And US$2.5m (NZ$3.5m) richer. She can now buy a new pair of air pods after annoyingly misplacing hers before her first qualifying game.

That’s a priority for Raducanu right now, and long may that be the case. Tennis needs to protect its very young stars, and let them be teenagers.

This is a sport where you're constantly seeded and ranked, the numbers next to your name predicting where you should finish. Where players are on the road for months at a time, expected to turn up and turn it on week after week. Where there is such a high rate of burn out, injuries, suffocating media attention, and public and sponsor expectation.

Even this week we saw four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, a leader of the last next-gen, lose her cool in her loss to Fernandez, and then announce she wanted to take a break from tennis for a while.

American Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion, received more than 2000 “vile messages” on her social media after her third-round exit from this tournament. It was nothing new, she said, just part of the wave of “never-ending hate” directed at her.

Evert, who played in her first Grand Slam at 16, had her own wish for Raducanu and Fernandez.

“What I hope for these two young ladies in the future, they have people who are going to protect them and have a good team around them who are going to give them the space they need. Who are going to let them be teenagers and live a normal life and not get overloaded with endorsements and over-playing tournaments. You want to seem them healthy first.”

And her advice to the players themselves: “Enjoy it, because life will never be the same.”

Hopefully, with the help of all of us surrounding our sportswomen, it will just get better.

A double international rises from the north

"I'm actually old to be making my debut," says new Black Fern Krystal Murray. But she's already been to the top of another sport and is setting rugby in the north alight.

Krystal Murray may have taken a slight detour in her rugby career.  But the proud Northlander has finally made it to her “dream” destination of the Black Ferns. 

It doesn’t bother the 28-year-old that it comes a little later than originally planned. She’s just appreciative of the opportunity in front of her now. 

And ‘Muzza’, as she’s more commonly known, puts her selection down to the revival of women’s rugby in the Far North - driven by none other than a few friends and local Black Ferns.  

Aroha Savage, Rawinia Everitt, and Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate “have pretty much started a movement up here for us women.” They’ve sparked a fire in Murray and others in the region to play for more than themselves. 

“They’ve just moved mountains for our people and we've got to give them a lot of credit,” says Murray. “If it wasn’t for them starting our local rugby, we wouldn’t even have people to play for Northland. 

“We’ve been inspired by these ladies who have come home and contributed to our community. It’s awesome.” 

Before the Black Ferns trio moved back up North, there was not much to do, says Murray. 

“It’s so important that people realise if the groundwork needs to be done, we need people to do it so that there are more opportunities for our ladies to come through. Because there is so much talent in these rural bushes,” Murray laughs. 

Being named in the Black Ferns squad for the first time was “exciting” for the No. 8 turned prop. 

“It’s such an honour and privilege to play for this team. It's been a dream of mine since I was little so it’s awesome that it's finally here. I’ve worked hard to get here,” says Murray. 

Krystal Murray made the Blues team for the first women's Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Chiefs in May 2021. Photo: Getty Images. 

It’s not the only sport Murray has worked hard at to reach the top. She’s already represented New Zealand in the 13-women-code at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup - playing against her partner, Ngata-Aerengamate, who made the Cook Islands team.

But the Northland Kauri captain wants to add to the honour, and is aiming to be part of the Rugby World Cup squad next year, when the ninth edition of the pinnacle rugby tournament kicks-off in New Zealand in October. 

“That’s pretty much where my sights are set,” Murray says. “And just to play my best. I haven’t given my best at this level so it’s a good challenge to play to my full potential. That’s probably one of the biggest things for me.”

Spectators will probably be wanting to see how much more Murray can give on the field, given her outstanding form over the past couple of seasons - and her statistics this year. She’s the leading try scorer in the Farah Palmer Cup, Northland's top women's point scorer, is their goal kicker, and is a front rower who can run like a back.

It’s no doubt that type of range and consistency saw Murray get the nod, over the phone, from Black Ferns head coach Glenn Moore, earlier this week.

Murray was nervous throughout the day, trying to keep herself busy with the lawns and weeding, but she admits there was something else on her mind when the phone call came through. 

“I was thinking 'I hope my phone doesn’t cut out of reception',” she laughs. “I live quite rurally and there's not much service around, so I was just hoping and praying that it wouldn't cut out.”

She wasn’t the only one nervously waiting in her household for team news. Ngata-Aerengamate, who already has 30 tests for the Black Ferns, was right beside Murray. 

“We were just trying to keep each other really calm I guess,” she says. “We were just hoping both of us would make the team so we can go and play in that black jersey together.”

The pair will be able to tick that goal off their list. Although Murray has travelled overseas before with sport, this time she’s looking forward to the overall experience.

“I just want to go play some good footy and represent New Zealand well,” says Murray. “And just represent my people in the far North and try to inspire people all over New Zealand.”

With the defending Rugby World Cup champions not playing any tests for two years, their upcoming four-match Northern Tour against England and France will be a good benchmark to see where Murray and the relatively young side stack up on the international stage.

The Black Ferns will head away next month, but the FPC is set to recommence next weekend. Whether the named Black Ferns will play out the remainder of the season, before they leave, is yet to be confirmed. 

Krystal Murray will become a dual international after representing New Zealand in rugby league. The former Kiwi Fern is off-loading to her support in the final against Australia in the 2017 Rugby League Women's World Cup. Photo: Getty Images.

Even though Murray is one of 12 debutants, she is also one of the more mature team members. For that reason, she brings a unique perspective to the squad. 

“I was thinking I am actually old to be making my debut but at the end of the day, my pathway has been different to others. We’re all here to contribute to the jersey and knowing what I can bring, only I can bring,” Murray says. 

She’s been through “some hard struggles” and been under a lot of pressure in her life, so is able to offer support to those who may need help in managing difficult situations. 

The youngest of six children switched between codes growing up in Kaitaia but decided to focus on rugby when the Northland Kauri made their debut in the 2019 FPC competition. 

Murray says they received a lot of support from other provinces to form a Northland women’s team so she was able to stay home to play sport for the first time in her career. 

Being able to stay locally has contributed to Murray’s solid performances.  

“I 100 percent feel that being here, in my hometown, and having the support of my family and my community, has helped me get to where I am today with making the Black Ferns,” she says. “Because I feel like I’ve got a lot more to play for.”

When she was playing league, Murray’s dad would drive her to Auckland every weekend to play for the Papakura Sea Eagles. The lengthy four-and-a-half hour commute (one way) was worth it when she made the Kiwi Ferns. “There was no rugby or league up here in Kaitaia so I had to travel.”

But accessing the game of rugby in Northland meant Murray’s pathway to the Black Ferns has helped “prove that we don’t have to leave to make it.”

*Black Ferns End of Year Tests

Weekend of  October 30/31

Black Ferns v England

Weekend of November 6/7

Black Ferns v England

Saturday November 13

Black Ferns v France

3pm, Stade du Hameau, Pau

Saturday November 20

Black Ferns v France

3pm, Stade Pierre-Fabre, Castres

*Venues, dates and kick off times for England fixtures yet to be confirmed

New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia are still investigating the possibility of an O’Reilly Cup fixture before the Northern Tour, after the original series in New Zealand was cancelled.

Scaling mountains to create opportunities

Having helped many Kiwi athletes to win medals at the Winter Paralympics, Jane Stevens sees her role as giving anyone the opportunity to experience freedom on the mountains, Alex Kerr writes. 

Jane Stevens grew up with a love of the mountains, with skiing part of her DNA. It was no real surprise when the hobby became a job, but with 35 years dedicated to a career on snow, it’s so much more than simply a ‘job’.

At 3am, she can be on a Zoom call to Europe for an International Paralympic Committee meeting, and by lunchtime, be out on snow at one of the local mountains near her base in Wanaka. 

The afternoon brings a phone call from the parents of a teen learning to sit ski after being paralysed in a mountain bike accident. Fun, freedom and independence are finally back on the agenda after what was looking like a very bleak future.

Being able to help in this way is what's kept her in the sport for such a long time, explains Stevens, the adaptive snow sports manager at Snow Sports NZ

“People might have limited expectations about what they can achieve, particularly if their life has been changed through injury, but then they get up there on the mountain and they see that we have equipment and the professionalism that’s around them," she says. 

“Our ethos is not to look at what people can’t do, we look at what people can do, and we adapt. It’s pretty simple: a ski’s a ski and a snowboard’s a snowboard, it’s going to run the same no matter who’s on top. Whether they’re sitting down or standing on one leg or have a cognitive disability, it’s about understanding the person. What do they want to achieve?”

Stevens has been in her role for nine years. The job title doesn’t come close to explaining exactly what she does and the impact she's had - not only on the sport itself, but on so many lives.

She has a firm belief she can get anyone out on skis or a snowboard enjoying the mountains if they want to, no matter their disability.

"Anyone who wants an opportunity, I’ll do anything to help them. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s just skiing with their mates or whether it’s to get to the Paralympics, we’ll bend over backwards to ensure they have the opportunity to do so.”

Jane Stevens gets in a spot of heli skiing. Photo: Snow Sports NZ

Most of the country's major mountain resorts and Snowplanet in Auckland run adaptive snow sports programmes, with special equipment, like sit skis, provided by Snow Sports NZ, and specially trained instructors and volunteers. Stevens overseas the resorts’ adaptive programmes, heads up the adaptive arm of the NZ Snowsports Instructors’ Alliance and trains adaptive snow sports volunteers.

Para skiers Bailley Unahi and Kirstie Fairhurst tried out sit skiing for the first time while studying at Otago University, encouraged to join Adaptive Snow Sports NZ by their local ParaFed.

“I didn’t think I’d be any good at it, I thought that looks scary, how could I possibly be any good at it?” says Unahi. She first talked to Stevens while signing up and was surprised to learn how much support was available.

“Jane’s made it easy. They’ve got such a good set up with the volunteers, the instructors, discounts on lift passes, all the stuff that makes it so much more accessible. The training that the lifties have, that all comes from Jane and all the knowledge that she’s passed down.”

Fairhurst adds: "It’s pretty crazy that it’s offered in New Zealand, for such a small number of people in the sport."

From feeling they wouldn't be able to be independent on the mountain, Unahi and Fairhurst now enjoy skiing for fun, and both have a goal of qualifying for the 2026 Paralympic Winter Games. Stevens is supporting them along the pathway.

“She’s a great person to have on your side,” says Fairhurst. “It is a heavily male-dominated sport and it can be intimidating when your peers are all guys. It’s nice to have another female and to have open conversations. Jane tells you how it is but advocates for you as well.”

Jane Stevens (centre) working with upcoming Para skiiers Kirstie Fairhurst (left) and Bailley Unahi. Photo: Snow Sports NZ.

Stevens has been involved in every aspect of adaptive snow sports. In the early days of her career, she was even on the New Zealand team as a guide to visually impaired World Cup skier Jo Duffy. From helping first timers learn to ski or snowboard right through to coaching Paralympians, she’s the main point of contact.

“It’s a massive spectrum but it’s actually very simple. All you’re doing is ensuring there’s opportunity at every level, from grassroots through to high performance, they’re not separate,” Stevens explains.

Becoming a high performance athlete was something three-time winter Paralympic medallist Adam Hall set his mind to at the age of nine, and Stevens was there “from day dot.”

Starting out on skis at six, Hall initially struggled with the sport. Born with spina bifida, he lacks muscle strength in his legs, so steering two skis was a challenge. Switching to snowboarding three years later was a game-changer.

“It was something I could be good at amongst my peers,” explains Hall. “When I was on my snowboard it was like, I could go really far with this. How far do I want to take it?”

At the time, snowboarding wasn't included in the Winter Paralympics, but Hall stuck with his new passion, began competing - and winning - against able-bodied athletes, waiting for the day that he could represent New Zealand at the Games. The 2002 Salt Lake City Games came and went and, finally, with Torino 2006 looming, it was time to make a call.

“By 2004 Jane was saying, 'Come on, if you want to do this you’re going to have to change back to skiing',” Hall recalls. And with a hefty dose of Kiwi ingenuity, that’s what happened. The pair borrowed a pair of old skis from the Stevens’ family ski shop, drilled holes in the tips, tied the skis together and headed up to Mt Dobson.

“That was a very special time,” says Stevens. “I still remember it well. It was a powder day so the worst possible day we could have imagined for learning to ski. We didn’t really have a clue what we should do, it was trial and error. We had such a fun day, we just laughed. Adam crashed a lot but by the end it was, yup, we can do this, this is possible.”

Hall made it to the 2006 Games in Torino, with Stevens as team coach. The young Kiwi finished last in every event, but his coach and support team were convinced of his potential and Hall remained committed.

“It was like, Ok you can just walk away and quit or take in the experience, look at what everyone else was doing and learn from that,” says Hall. “That was the pathway I went down.”

Four years later in Vancouver, Hall won Paralympic gold in slalom and Stevens was there to see it.

“When he crossed that line, I can’t describe what that felt like,” Stevens recalls. “I knew it was going to happen, it was a matter of when, it wasn’t an if. He’s an incredible athlete, it was an amazing moment.”

Jane Stevens (centre) with Paralympians Adam Hall (left) and Corey Peters. Photo: Snow Sport NZ

Stevens by then had taken a role with the British team, playing a major role in developing their adaptive programme, as well as working with the British Association of Snowsport Instructors to write a high-end training system.

“The Brits had offered me a fantastic opportunity to look at the development of the next generation, how to develop people across the whole pathway. It was a tough decision but the right one at the time and at that stage my work with the New Zealand team was all voluntary. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t done that.”

Sochi 2014 brought its share of challenges for Hall, who finished outside the medals but with trademark determination and a work ethic second to none, he forged ahead with his sights firmly on the 2018 PyeongChang Games. If a comeback was on the cards, he knew exactly who he wanted in his corner.

“We were looking for someone to come in as assistant coach and I always had Jane in my mind,” says Hall. “I just thought, how cool would that be to be able to get back on the podium with Jane there, since she was there at the beginning.”  

Stevens knew PyeongChang was going to be something special with the exceptional athletes New Zealand had. “Corey Peters set the tone with a bronze medal and Carl Murphy had the most amazing race in the men’s snowboard and was unlucky to miss out on the medals. With Adam I had the upmost belief that he was going to go out there and do something spectacular and he did.”

Hall won gold in slalom as well as bronze in super combined.

“It was one of the best days in my working career,” remembers Stevens. “All the thoughts running through your mind, all the people who had worked so hard behind the scenes and done such an incredible job to give those guys the opportunities that they had.”

‘Opportunity’ is a word that Stevens uses often.

“The cool thing about my job, it’s not about a factory churning people out, it’s very individual,” she says. “The key to everything we do is being able to understand exactly what that person is able to achieve and really digging deep – what are their goals?

“I’m really lucky, I work with people who are amazing. They come to me and say this is what I want to do, and I say, great, we can do that for you. The best thing is, if you invest that time in people then you’re going to see some great things come out of it.”

The brain behind fuelling the All Blacks

The woman who feeds and powers 30 national icons daily tells Ashley Stanley of a career as something of a pioneer in sports nutrition

Katrina Darry’s heart still races when she hears the Skype ringtone. 

That sound reminds the dietitian of the call that re-booted her career helping to feed the All Blacks.

In 2008, the team were looking for a nutritionist. Darry applied for the role and made it to the interview stage. But at the same time, she was heading overseas for eight weeks with her husband, Hunter, as her brother was getting married in Italy. 

“So, I ended up being interviewed at four o’clcok in the morning in London in Taine Randell’s flat, where we were staying, via Skype,” laughs Darry, from her hotel room in Perth via Zoom. 

“I still feel my heart beat everytime I hear the Skype sign-in sound but it was gold because I could put all these notes around the outside of my screen and no one could see.”

Randell, former All Black and Highlanders captain, was a friend of Darry’s husband, who also played rugby in Otago. “It was funny, I literally sat in my pyjamas and just looped a scarf around my neck.” 

They called back two days later to confirm Darry had the job. “I honestly just about choked because I did not believe I would get it.”

Darry has been with the All Blacks ever since, seeing them through three World Cups and now a four-month stint away in Australia, the US and Europe during the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Initially the domestic role was for two days a week, but it kept growing each year. By 2014, Darry was asked if she would like to go on the All Blacks end of year tour. It would also serve as a chance to prepare for the World Cup in England the following year. 

“I was like ‘Okay, I’ve never been away from my kids for that long at all and I’d never travelled,” laughs the mother-of-four. 

But by the end of the tour, her presence had made the team’s experience so much better they offered her a fulltime role. “I was like ‘Wow, this is awesome’,” she says.

Kat Darry (left) prepares a sausage sizzle for players following an All Blacks training session during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photo: Getty Images. 

Darry is responsible for providing and tweaking every player with an individualised meal plan. And when the team is not on the road, she spends the rest of the year organising menus with hotels. “I also make all the snacks and smoothies at each training so the hotel does the three main meals and then I do all the individual stuff,” Darry says. 

So how much food does an All Black team go through?  “Most of them would roughly eat about 5,000 calories a day, some are less and some have more, like 6,000 calories,” she says. 

As you can imagine, a lot of food is consumed while they travel and Darry does the groceries for the team snacks twice a week. “So you’re looking at a lot of shopping bags,” she laughs. 

“What I try to do in different countries is get some of their local snacks and things like that for the boys to try but we also travel with a lot of New Zealand food.”

She’s ultimately a resource for the players, but it’s not difficult to convince them of the importance of what nutrition can do to their performance. “I’ve got the knowledge to help them be better,” she says.

“But we have very few players who haven’t come through an academy and so their basic understanding of nutrition is good. Even just the drive within themselves, how they talk with each other, and knowing what is needed for you to be the best within that team really helps.” 

Her professional skills have come in handy at home too. She used the same approach from feeding the All Blacks for her growing children.

“Funnily enough, all my kids have been athletes,” says Darry. “They've all been involved with rowing so it's really easy to get them to buy into good nutrition. It's when they finish.” Her son Sam also plays for the Blues in Super Rugby. 

Darry’s own career commitments have always complemented the children's schedules. And the support from her husband and mother have been immeasurable. 

“I have a fabulous husband who lets me live my dream but I also think my job is my family’s dream anyway so that makes it easy,” she says. 

“Every year I would make a bargain with the kids that they could come and stay with me for a weekend somewhere in New Zealand so they could get on a plane and come and sleep in my bed, they loved that. But now they're too old and embarrassed to come near me."

Getting into her career path was not planned, it was more an evolution of opportunities Darry took along the way. 

Her move from her family farm in South Canterbury to Dunedin for study, led her to what was called at the time a consumer and applied science degree.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do but that kind of encompassed all the subjects from a science background that I was doing so I thought I’d start with it and see how we go,” says Darry. “And then I sort of got into nutrition and then went into postgraduate dietetics.”

As part of her postgraduate study, Darry had to train in a hospital. “But I just always had this inkling, and I don’t know why, that I wanted to get into sports nutrition,” she says.

Kat Darry prepares all the team snacks and food at every training session. Photo: Getty Images.  

There was no formal qualification back then so when Darry decided to go further with her studies and complete a Masters, she used it as an opportunity to figure out if there were some areas of sport and nutrition that could grow.

She ended up studying part-time and working with some “amazing people” to set up the first sports nutrition paper at the University of Otago. 

But Darry knew she also needed to get some practical experience to back up her Masters research. 

She was already working with athletes, so approached the local gyms in Dunedin and started providing clinics, offering “very basic nutrition. There was no high performance at all.” And things grew from there. 

Darry got involved with Otago Rugby, and would eventually go on to work throughout the Gordon Hunter, Tony Gilbert and Laurie Mains coaching reigns with the province. 

“In those days, you didn’t have PowerPoint or anything like that. I literally turned up with a board that had little key points,” Darry laughs. 

“I still remember getting my first contract for $2000 to work with the Highlanders when they first became professional. I'd never been paid up until then so I was incredibly excited.”

Once Gilbert made it as the All Blacks assistant coach in 2000, he asked Darry to get involved with the national men's side. She started working for two days a month, slowly introducing sport nutrition and what that meant for a rugby player. 

In 2002 Darry lost her role with the All Blacks. At the time it was “devastating” but on reflection she says it was “perfect.”

“I just had my fourth child so four children under six, we shifted back to Christchurch, I had kids starting new schools so it was just a crazy two years working as a mum,” she says. 

During the early part of her career, Darry was doing what she could with little blueprint. She had contracts with Otago Sports, the Highlanders, All Blacks, Silver Ferns and the New Zealand women’s hockey team. 

Darry admits she was able to do them all because the programmes were not as big as they are now. So it meant she could have her four children in between finishing her Masters and juggling three to four roles at a time. 

There is no standout career moment for Darry. “I’m just so lucky to be working in this environment, everyday,” she says. “I'm not sure a lot of women have had the luxury of being in an environment where family has been appreciated. 

“I'm away four months of the year but the rest of the time I work from home. I mean how good is that? So I was always there when the kids got up and went to school in the morning and I was there when they got home.” 

There’s only a handful of women in the All Blacks wider squad. For this tour, Bianca Thiel, the team's services manager, and Rachael Whareaitu, digital content producer, join Darry. Communications specialist Jo Malcolm and operations coordinator Paula Powlesland are working for the team from New Zealand. 

Kat Darry (third row, three from right), Bianca Thiel (second row, second from left), and Jo Malcolm (third row, three from left) with the 2017 All Blacks team. Photo: supplied. 

“We all have great relationships. It's also really fun to catch up with other females when you're in different cities because you do have a lot more of a chitchat than probably what the male banter is about,” laughs Darry. 

But this tour campaign is a bit different to others, she says. “We all noted that the farewells this time were hideous,” Darry says.  

“Normally you know your family is coming in three to four weeks. World Cups have been our longest period away from our families but I always knew that my husband was coming within four weeks so that gets you through the time.”

However, Covid restrictions mean the All Blacks will now stay overseas until the beginning of December. 

“So you just have to take each week as it comes,” says Darry. “Our weeks are so different so that’s what is great about shifting every week, there's a new challenge. I'm just lucky I don’t have little children at home anymore.”

For Darry, the success of the All Blacks and her role within the team works so well because it’s an environment that encourages growth. 

“And that is critical. I keep learning about my nutrition, my players, myself, and how to work in a team environment. You’re never ever static,” she says. “That obviously feeds out to the people around you as well so that’s why I think it's such a privilege to be amongst all of this.” 

Fist bumps, four-peats and final throws in Tokyo

As the curtain comes down on the Tokyo Paralympics, Suzanne McFadden looks back at the unforgettable moments of triumph and raw emotion from our Kiwi sportswomen 

New Zealand in lockdown was a good thing for the Paralympic Games. 

While Covid-19 confined the country to home, our athletes in Tokyo were enthralling us with powerful performances, edge-of-the-seat drama, and emotional outpourings. It was sport at its best.

Interest in Para sport surged as we tuned in online and on TV. We could have seen more – but the free-to-air coverage fell short of a personal best. The Para athletics field events, where New Zealand won four medals, suffered most, and we were dished up a disappointing sliver of live action.  

It wasn't our most successful Paralympic in terms of medals. New Zealand won 12 in total – down from 18 that the team brought home from Rio five years ago.

But 10 of the medals from Tokyo were won by women; sprinter-jumper Will Stedman was the sole male medallist.

All the medals came from either the pool or track and field. The cycling team didn't get on the board. In some sports, New Zealand were on the back foot, not having had the same exposure to international competition in the past year as other nations.

It was a relatively green team and New Zealand’s chef de mission, Paula Tesoriero, was happy to have 18 new Paralympians, who she says have set a solid foundation for the Paris Paralympics in three years time. “I certainly believe every one of our athletes left everything they had out there. And that’s all we expected of them, that they gave it their best,” she says.

Another side to Sophie

Sophie Pascoe wore her heart on her sleeve at these Paralympics. Never before have we seen her so candid or so vulnerable, giving us a glimpse of how heavily the past 18 months have weighed on her. And yet she managed to further embed herself as one of New Zealand’s greatest athletes, raising her total haul to 19 Paralympic medals.   

The mental strength and resilience of Paralympians has never been questioned, but we got to see more of that at these Games with so many extra challenges at play.

An exhausted Sophie Pascoe after winning gold in the 200m medley SM9 - and needing medical attention. Photo: Getty Images. 

In tearful – sometimes sobbing – post-race interviews, Pascoe revealed how she’d struggled mentally with the pandemic lockdowns and the one-year postponement of the Games, which affected her motivation and her training. Her reasons for swimming.

She didn’t swim near her best, really hurting in the last 25m of her races, yet still won four medals. She needed to be cut from her togs and given oxygen pool-side after winning the individual medley, and was exhausted by the time she reached her fifth event, the 100m butterfly, and for the first time in her four-Games career, she failed to win a medal in a final.

But maybe we all came to revere Pascoe that much more more when we saw that fragility, that self-doubt, and how much performing at her very best means to her. She’s the embodiment of disabled sport, but also of all athletes who struggle sometimes.

A damehood for Pascoe must now be on the cards (Dame Sarah Storey, Britain’s greatest Paralympian, won her 17th gold medal in Para cycling in Tokyo; Pascoe has 11).

Best newcomers

You get the feeling Lisa Adams could be in this for the long haul, just like her sister/coach, Olympic icon Dame Valerie. Lisa Adams dominated the shot put F37 – all six of her throws went further than anyone else in the field, and she broke the Paralympic record four times.

And just as she did after finishing seventh in the discus, as the last Kiwi to compete in Tokyo, Adams spoke of the pure fun she’d had out in the middle. You can expect her to be back in Paris in 2024 (although she may need permission from her son).

Sprinting has given Danielle Aitchison the ability to walk unaided – and two Paralympic medals at her first attempt.  

Her smile after winning her first medal – silver in the 200m T36 – was priceless. The 20-year-old, who has two rare forms of cerebral palsy, backed it up with a bronze. Tesoriero was impressed by the “lovely, understated way” Aitchison went about her preparation and her performances.

And I’ll include Tupou Neiufi in this category – even though she competed at the 2016 Games in Rio. She was just 15 then and a late call-up to the New Zealand team, swimming in one event.

Her gold medal in the 100m backstroke S8 was New Zealand’s first gold in Tokyo, the most memorable because it was the least expected but reflected Neiufi’s dedication over five years (including leaving school early to train) and how far she’s come.

Otago gold rush

They’re Dunedin’s track and field superstars, and Anna Grimaldi and Holly Robinson probably both benefited from the year-long postponement of the Paralympics.

Long jumper Grimaldi, a gold medallist in Rio, was sidelined for two years after breaking her foot in 2017. And Robinson, who won silver with the javelin five years ago, was hit with physical and mental exhaustion in 2019.

Holly Robinson hurls the javelin to Paralympic gold in Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images. 

Both could have quit, but they came back stronger this summer, and kept us on the edge of our seats in a rainy Tokyo last Friday - Grimaldi breaking the Paralympic record on her first leap and staying in front for the rest of the competition; Robinson pulling out a clutch sixth and final throw to fly from bronze to gold.

Favourite quotes

“I’m so proud of our Para athletics bubble, we are lit, we are mean. We had eight Paralympians in our group, our crew got seven medals. Especially the girls - we got three golds, a silver and a bronze,” Lisa Adams, first in shotput, seventh in discus.

"I did really leave it all out there and even left some on the side of the pool. But that is what a fight is all about and I really wanted it, I wanted to make it a four-peat… It just came down to that last 10 metres not breathing,” - Sophie Pascoe, after blacking out after winning the 200m medley, and her 12th Paralympic gold medal.

“Rio, I won on accident and this time I did it on purpose,” Anna Grimaldi on back-to-back long jump golds.

“It’s been such a rollercoaster ride just getting to these Games, she was a winner before she even got onto the blocks,” Carmel Howarth, on her daughter Nikita’s fourth place in the 100m breaststroke S7 with a broken arm.

Sports it would be cool to see Kiwi women in at Paris 2024

How about some women in the Wheel Blacks? It’s a mixed gender event, and having a female athlete on the court comes with points benefits. There are women competing in the sport in New Zealand, so it would be great to see the team back in the next Paralympics (after finishing eighth after a 13-year absence) with female faces. 

A women’s five-a-side football event – so far, there’s only ever been a men’s competition for blind athletes in the Paralympics, because too few nations have women’s teams. It’s fast, skillful and mindboggling.

Wheelchair fencing – it’s like ballet with a weapon. Just look at the speed, strength and grace of Bebe Vio of Italy, who removes all four of her prosthetic limbs to fence (she had meningitis at 11) yet decisively won her second consecutive gold in the women’s foil in Tokyo.

Behind the scenes of a peculiar Games

As the Kiwi team packed up in Tokyo, chef de mission Tesoriero - who's also our Disability Rights Commissioner, said there's nowhere she feels more comfortable than in a Paralympic Games village.

A Para cycling gold medallist at the 2018 Beijing Games and a broadcaster in Rio 2016, Tesoriero says she’s never had a better insight into the mammoth operation that is the Paralympic Games, or what’s needed to look after a national team – especially in the most trying circumstances.

“On a personal level, my love of the Paralympics continues to grow. For me, there’s no more comfortable place to be than in a Paralympic Games village," she says. “It’s like a little world of disability.

"There are more people like me, no awkward stares, and most things are accessible. I wish the rest of the world could be like that. More social inclusion, greater accessibility.”

NZ Paralympic team chef de mission Paula Tesoriero in her most comfortable place, the Paralympics Village. Photo: Paralympics NZ. 

The New Zealand team benefited from going further than the recommended safety protocols, and made their bubble as small as they could – not having cleaners on their floor of the village, utilising fewer volunteers. Even Tesoriero didn’t go to watch the athletes compete in person – instead she welcomed them back to the village afterwards and focused on their pastoral care. 

“The challenge for us coming from a country that’s extremely vigilant around Covid, was seeing other nations who were less vigilant. And reminding the team that you can only control what you can control," she says. 

As they did with the opening ceremony, the New Zealand team chose not to attend the Games’ closing extravaganza. It was too much of a risk, Tesoriero says, after keeping the team safe from Covid right through the Games. And most had already flown home.

But on Sunday night, the Sky Tower back in Auckland lit up gold (for medals) and purple (the international colour of disability awareness).

“We got our athletes here safely, they produced great performances and won medals," Tesoriero says. "And to get everyone home Covid-free and safe is a great achievement.”

New Zealand’s Paralympic medals in Tokyo


Tupou Neuifi – 100m backstroke S8

Sophie Pascoe (2) - 100m freestyle S9; 200m individual medley SM9

Lisa Adams - shot put F37

Anna Grimaldi - long jump T47

Holly Robinson - javelin F46


Pascoe - 100m breaststroke SB8

Danielle Aitchison - 200m T36

William Stedman - long jump T36


Pascoe - 100m backstroke S9

Aitchison - 100m T36

Stedman - 400m T36

Silver Ferns captain sets new milestone: 100 years old

One of the original Silver Ferns, Oonah Shannahan becomes the first to turn 100 - just days before one of her rivals reaches the same rare milestone, Suzanne McFadden discovers.

She may not have beaten the Australians on the netball court, but our second-ever Silver Ferns captain, Oonah Shannahan, has finally ticked that off 73 years later.

At her home in Christchurch's McCormacks Bay, Oonah will be celebrating her 100th birthday on Friday - the first Silver Fern to reach the exceptional milestone. And two days later, she’ll be joined in the exclusive Centurions Club by one of her Australian opponents.

Still sharp as a tack, with a lovely wit, Oonah lives with her daughter, Louise, and says she doesn't get around the garden like she used to. She will quietly raise a glass of champagne at becoming a centenarian (the pandemic lockdown has, of course, postponed any party).

Although she may not like to admit it, Oonah was a netball trailblazer, setting the scene for future Silver Ferns by leading the New Zealand team in the first test to be played on New Zealand soil, in Dunedin in August 1948.

They lost that test to the touring Australian Diamonds, but Oonah can now rightfully claim a small victory over them.

Oonah Shannahan enjoys a glass of wine last Christmas. Photo: Lesley Murdoch. 

As far as the Australians know, they’ve never had a Diamond reach 100 years. Well, that’s until Sunday – when one of their netballers who played in that historic test series also reaches a century.

Wyn Haywood – a talented wing attack (or attack wing as they called the role back then) - lives in Melbourne, still in her own home. A big cricket fan, Wyn will celebrate by walking out to her mailbox and lifting a cricket bat in a nod to 100 not out.

Both women remember each other from that netball series, and Wyn has an old sepia photo of them contesting the ball in a tour match between Canterbury and Australia. They’ve never seen each other again, but they’ve both have wished each other well on joining a team where they are very first members.


Oonah Murray was born in Dunedin on September 3, 1921. Her father worked for the railways, so the family of five children followed him to Taihape, where they lived for five years, before he got a job in Christchurch. Oonah has lived in the city ever since.

Her two older brothers both fought in World War Two. “Looking back on it we lived in a great time. We worried with the war, of course, but you got on well with everyone,” Oonah says.

She was introduced to netball at primary school, and played in the champion Sacred Heart School team in Christchurch.  

Captain of the victorious 1947 Canterbury team, Oonah was chosen to play for New Zealand against Australia in the first of three tests in 1948. The selectors decided that rather than move the whole team around New Zealand, they would bring in different players in each city hosting a test – Dunedin, New Plymouth and Auckland.

Oonah wasn’t upset by this. The date of the third test was also the day her sister Mary was getting married  and Oonah was a bridesmaid. “I think we were more interested in a wedding than we were in the netball,” Oonah says.  

A midcourter, Oonah was chosen to play at centre for the first test. "A skilled player, she passes with deliberation and foresight and her court movements appear always to be effortless and unflurried," the test programme read. 

Opposing captains during the 1948 netball series: Australia's Mary White and New Zealand's Oonah Shannahan. Photo: Netball NZ. 

At the time, she was working for a fruit and vegetable auction house. “They made a big fuss of me on that occasion. They presented me with a book I could keep records in,” Oonah says.

She has no idea where that is today; she also had a New Zealand team blazer, but never wore it again. “I don’t know what happened to it. Sorry about that,” she says with a laugh to her daughter.

“The game against Australia was really no different to playing another association. You know, they didn’t go to any special trouble for it," she says. “We had two practices together, that was all.”

The coach of the team was Myrtle Muir, always known as “Mrs Muir”, New Zealand netball’s first coach. “But she hadn’t been coaching players for some years,” Oonah says. “She appointed herself to run the team, I think.  We were never pre-schooled in what to expect.”

That would turn out to be a problem – as Australia played a completely different ball game than the Silver Ferns.


The Australians arrived in Auckland on a flying boat they’d caught on Sydney Harbour. They were nine years late.

Up until then, the only game played between the two nations had been in 1938, when the first New Zealand team toured Australia and lost the solitary test, 40-11, in Melbourne. The Australians were supposed to visit the following year, but then war broke out.

The first test of 1948 was played at the Forbury Park racecourse in Dunedin – on a special court drawn up on an asphalt carpark - to cope with an unprecedented crowd of 2000.

Silver Ferns captain Oonah Shannahan leads the NZ team on a marchpast at the first 1948 test in Dunedin. Photo: Netball NZ.

A collection of newspaper clippings from August 1948, collated by Netball New Zealand historian Todd Miller, paint a fascinating picture of that game.

New Zealand was the only nation in the world still playing a nine-a-side game. The Australians only played with seven players, a rule the rest of the world was adopting. New Zealand was holding out, but these games would be played to Australia’s rules.

In some games on tour, though, the visitors wear made to wear thick, scratchy stockings under their heavy woollen tunics – the Aussies were used to wearing short socks.

The sport was also known then as women’s basketball – it wasn’t until 1970 New Zealand changed the name to netball.  

Both sides took time to settle in, but journalists wrote New Zealand found it difficult adjusting to the seven-a-side game and getting used to a “more liberal interpretation of the stepping rule”.

The score at the end of the first quarter reflected that – the Australians led 11-1.

Australian Lillian Hewish cuts off a pass from Silver Fern Azalea Clark to Mary Sullivan in the first netball test in 1948. Photo: Netball NZ.

It soon became obvious, though, that the goalpost at the northern end of the court was exposed to a strong breeze. With the sheltered shooting end in the second spell, New Zealand closed the gap to 13-9 at halftime, but couldn’t sink a goal in the third quarter (to be fair, only four goals were scored at the windy end by both teams in the entire match).

The Australians played a faster game, with long, hard one-handed passes, that “bewildered” the Kiwis, who used more frequent, shorter passes to get down court. Australian captain, Mary White, later questioned the New Zealanders' style, saying it seemed to tire them out.

The two sides played very different defensive styles too. “Where we played a game away from partners, they played a game on top of their partners,” Oonah says. “If they’d played our game they would have been pulled up every minute.”

Among the defenders in the New Zealand side was Dixie Cockerton, who later became the second Silver Ferns coach (after Mrs Muir) and took the team to the first World Cup in 1963. One of the Ferns shooters, or ‘goal throwers’, Azalea Clark (now Sinclair) turned 91 last month, and lives in Tauranga.

“Azalea was a great shot,” Oonah says. “She was in my regular team and we were a good combination.”

Despite a comeback – outscoring Australia 9-1 in the final quarter – New Zealand lost the test, 27-16. When the game was over, they played a 10-minute exhibition under nine-a-side rules. New Zealand “played spectacularly” according to the Otago Daily Times, winning 4-2.

As the Australians got into their groove, the Silver Ferns lost the next two tests by margins of 31 and 22. But the series opened the door to future internationals – even if their next meeting wouldn’t be for another 12 years.


Wyn Haywood was 27 when she toured New Zealand with the Australian side. She made friends with one of the Silver Ferns, Del Turner (later Bandeen), and decided to stay on for three months to see some of the country.

She stayed with the Turner family in Christchurch, and got herself a job at a nearby ice cream factory.

Wyn’s grandson, Cam Osborne, says his Nana tried her hand at many things – she was a tailor’s apprentice, and during World War II worked for Ansett refurbishing planes for the war effort.

After her New Zealand sojourn, she returned to Melbourne and was told she had a heart murmur. “They said she needed to slow down her netball,” Osborne says. “She kept playing club for a while, but her international career was two tests and that was it.”

Australian Diamond #15, Wyn Haywood, turns 100 on Sunday. Photo: supplied. 

Wyn married and had two children - and now has five grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. She cut her ties with netball when her playing days were done.

“Nan was the youngest of seven kids, and netball was like an escape for her,” says Osborne. “Her father abandoned the family when she was six, and they moved from country Victoria to Melbourne. Then she started playing at primary school, she liked and it she was good at it.”

She even finds it hard to watch a game these days.

“Compared to her game in the ‘40s, netball today is almost unrecognisable to her,” Osborne says. “In her mind, back then it was about skill, today is about strength. She doesn’t like that part of the game. But she always loves hearing the score when Australia and New Zealand play.”

And she still holds dear the honour of being an Australian Diamond. She's kept a box of newspaper clippings and photos, and even the menus from meals they had in New Zealand. Her green blazer from the tour has been kept in her wardrobe and is in pristine condition.

“She was proud to represent Australia, but she didn’t make a big deal about it,” Osborne says. “I didn’t find out she'd played till about 10 years ago.”

Wyn’s sporting days caught up with her in recent years - she has two new knees and a hip replacement. She lives on her own in the Melbourne suburb of Bentleigh and “still has all her marbles”, her grandson says. Plans for her 100th birthday party at a local hall have sadly been scuppered by Victoria’s Covid lockdown.


Dame Noeline Taurua, Silver Fern #108, wrote a message for Silver Fern #8, Oonah Shannahan, on reaching her 100-year milestone.

“Our Silver Fern #8, captain of the 1948 team, is still paving the way in life like she did in our sport. One of the true pioneers of New Zealand netball,” she wrote. “I was fortunate to meet Oonah in person in 2019 and she is remarkable.”

Two Silver Ferns legends - 100 test players apart: Oonah Shannahan and Dame Noeline Taurua. Photo: Netball NZ

The Silver Ferns coach had morning tea with Oonah two years ago, after the Silver Ferns won the World Cup. “She has a great way with her,” Oonah says. “They’re very lucky to have her.”

Like Taurua, Oonah continued to give back to the sport once she finished playing when she got married. Her husband, John Shannahan, represented New Zealand in soccer.

“It seemed to be the fashion in those days, to stop playing when you got married and had children,” Oonah says.

The Shannahans had two children, and Louise played netball right through school; when she went teaching in Timaru, she played for the Fire Brigade team. “My netball career wasn’t paved in glory like Mum’s, but I made lifelong friendships,” Louise says.

"Our sport has been built on the brilliance of people like Oonah. We'd like to pay tribute to her for helping provide such a rich Silver Ferns legacy," - Jennie Wyllie, Netball NZ CEO.

Oonah and her sisters, Mary and Julia, became well-known administrators in Canterbury Netball (which also celebrates its centenary this year). Mary, a national long jump champion, served as secretary of the netball association for years, and was the netball correspondent for the Christchurch Press. Among her many roles, Oonah managed the Canterbury team, and she later received a Netball NZ service award for her work. 

“It was a good interest for us, because we were great workers,” she says.  The sisters also played golf together.

She still watches a fair bit of netball on TV, “but if it’s one-sided, I’m not interested,” says the grandmother of two, and great-grandmother of one. 

“I don’t think it’s a marvellous game. In fact, if I had to choose between watching netball and rugby, I’d choose the rugby.”

The secret to her longevity? “It’s almost impossible to answer. I’ve had a very enjoyable life. I’ve been very lucky.”

Does she ever wish she could have played more games for New Zealand?  “No, it’s not something I had regrets about. Life was busy, and you just got on with the next thing.”

Nikita's victory as Sophie triumphs

On a night where Sophie Pascoe claimed her 11th Paralympic gold in dramatic fashion, her swimming flatmate in Tokyo, Nikita Howarth, swam to her own victory, of sorts. 

Nikita Howarth will bring home a handful of metal to remember the Tokyo Paralympic Games by. Just not the kind she wants to keep.

Eleven metal screws and pins and a plate in her elbow – after a skateboarding lesson four months ago went terribly wrong - ensured the three-time Paralympic swimmer got to step up onto the starting blocks for the first time in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Making the final of the 100m breaststroke S7 was a massive achievement, only six weeks after her surgeon gave her the all-clear to dive back in the pool, following surgery that was like repairing a shattered glass.

Then to finish fourth in the medal race, just 1.6s off bronze, was even more remarkable. “I wasn’t expecting to come about a month ago,” Howarth said after the race. “So the fact that I’m here, and raced in a final, is quite cool.”

An hour later, Howarth was in the stands cheering as Paralympic legend Sophie Pascoe dramatically won her second gold in 24 hours – and her fourth medal of these Games - in the 200m individual medley. Pascoe needed medical attention immediately afterwards, when she "blacked out" on the side of the pool and had to be cut out of her swimsuit. She was fine afterwards, but put it down to not taking a breath for the last 10m of the race desperate to cling on for the gold. 

At the track, their Kiwi team-mate sprinter Danielle Aitchison doubled her medal tally with bronze in the 100m T36.

Sophie Pascoe holds up four fingers - for a fourpeat in Paralympic individual medley golds. Photo: Getty Images. 

Howarth’s family would normally have joined her in the pool stands – they were there in force at the last two Paralympics. Instead, in these odd times, they were back home in Cambridge, but still celebrating what she’d achieved.

“It’s been such a rollercoaster ride just getting to these Games, she was a winner before she even got onto the blocks,” her mum, Carmel, says.

It has to be said, Howarth has never been short on determination. As an eight-year-old, she met Olympic gold medallist Sarah Ulmer at school, and promptly came home and told her parents she was going to be a Paralympian.

Five years later, she became New Zealand’s youngest ever Paralympian, when she competed at the London 2012 Games as a 13-year-old. Another four years, and she was a Paralympic champion, winning gold and bronze at the Rio Olympics.

Then she left swimming to take up Para cycling – chasing another dream she’d had since she was a kid. She immediately broke a world sprint record and started training for Tokyo, but developed psoriasis and the pain forced her to give up riding. She then returned to the pool and kept her goal of a third Paralympics alive.

Then in April this year, 22-year-old Howarth was spending time in Raglan with her partner, who’s a keen surfer and skateboarder. She broke her left arm so badly trying a move on his skateboard that the first doctor who saw her doubted her chances of competing at the Paralympics four months later.

“It was a shocking break,” Carmel Howarth says. “The surgeon said it was like trying to put a shattered glass back together.”

Howarth was born with a bilateral upper limb deficiency, which made the repair that much more difficult.  “The surgeon had never done that operation on someone without a hand before,” Carmel says.

She couldn’t start swimming again until July 12 – just six weeks before the Paralympics began. “Even then she could only kick to start with,” Carmel says.

A gutsy performance from Nikita Howarth saw her finish fourth in the 100m breaststroke S7 after recent arm surgery. Photo: Getty Images.

As she warmed up in the pool during the week, she wore a brace to protect the arm. She admitted after the 100m breaststroke final, the break was still causing her grief.

“So much. It definitely impacts my training and my racing,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I’ve just got to get it fixed when I get back home, and then hopefully it should be good.”

Carmel Howarth wasn’t surprised her daughter pushed her recovery faster than normal. “Her determination is phenomenal, it always has been. But she doesn’t exactly see it. She doesn’t realise how inspiring she is to other people,” she says.

She sent her a text in the morning that said: “Go hard, Toes, and have fun.” (Why Toes? “Because she doesn’t have hands,” Carmel laughs).

After her heat she rang the family on a group chat, including her sisters Rhiannon and Astrid, and dad Steve. “She was really happy,” Carmel says. “Even though she said her time wasn’t anywhere near her personal best, we told her we didn’t expect that. She said to us what if I don’t medal? I said ‘So? Just have a good swim and enjoy it’.

“The fact she’s even in Tokyo is phenomenal.”

Howarth was the last of the New Zealand Para swimmers in Tokyo to get her chance to race, eight days into the Games competition. She still has the 50m butterfly on Friday – the event in which she won bronze in Rio five years ago. She withdrew from her gold-medal event, the 200m individual medley SM7, knowing she wouldn’t have the race fitness with her bad break.

She’d got a little bored waiting eight days for her first race, unable to go anywhere with the strict Covid protocols.  “It’s been quite strange for them, confined to their apartment or the pool,” says Carmel (all of the Kiwi swimmers share a four-bedroom apartment in the village). “This was the first Paralympics where Nikita wasn’t considered a child. But she hasn’t had the freedom to get out and see things.”

Howarth is used to having her family in the stands at the Paralympics, and even hearing her very vocal mum from the pool. “I yell every time she lifts her head in breaststroke,” Carmel says. “She told me once that I was the reason at the Rio Games the swimmers had to come off the blocks in one race, because I’d been yelling after the starter’s whistle. I told her it wasn’t me, but she’s adamant it was.

“It’s bizarre to watch her on TV, but you still get all the same nerves. Five minutes before the race my heart starts racing.”

Kiwi Danielle Aitchison on her way to 100m T36 bronze in Tokyo; gold medallist Shi Yiting to her right. Photo: Getty Images.

As Pascoe held on for victory from a fast-closing Zsofia Konkoly, she beamed and held up four fingers. It was a ‘four-peat’ – the fourth time she’s won gold in the 200m individual medley across four Paralympic Games.

She stormed ahead in the opening butterfly leg, and, unchallenged, looked certain of the gold turning into the final freestyle 50m almost 4s ahead. But Hungarian Konkoly made a late charge and Pascoe clung to the gold, touching the wall just 0.27s ahead.

But she said her body was in agony as lactic acid built up in the final leg, and she didn't take a breath in the last 10 metres. She remembers little of what happened next, other than blacking out. 

Pascoe swore afterwards it would be the last time we'd see her race in the 200m individual medley, one of the toughest events in swimming. 

New Zealand's most decorated Paralympian now owns 11th Paralympics golds - and could make that 12 on Thursday in her final event, and her favourite, the 100m butterfly. 

Another Kiwi woman made a final in the pool on Wednesday, with backstroke gold medallist Tupou Neuifi making the top eight for the 50m freestyle S8 splash and dash. Despite a powerful start, she was quickly mowed down and finished fifth. 

At the Olympic Stadium, Aitchison was confident of gold in the 100m T36 at the Olympic Stadium, having recorded the fastest qualifying time. But with her cerebral palsy, she didn’t recover as fast for the evening final. “It was brutal,” she said, after crossing the line in a photo finish for second to fourth.

Aitchison flies home on Thursday, proud of her bronze and the silver she picked up in the 200m. Both of her races were won by China’s Shi Yiting, who ran a world record 13.61s in the 100m.

Opening gates to Pasifika rugby communities

Bridging the language barrier is one way Tidah Leaupepe hopes to encourage more Pasifika people into roles off the rugby field, Ashley Stanley writes. 

Over two thirds of the rugby playing population in Auckland is of Māori and Pacific descent. But only a very few make up roles off the field. 

Tidah Leaupepe wants to help change that. 

The proud Samoan-Tongan woman has been working at Auckland Rugby for three years and is involved with a number of initiatives focused on “opening up the gates.”

Last month Leaupepe delivered the first RugbySmart programme in Samoan and Tongan languages with the support of her communities. Then the sport and recreation graduate went to the South Island to help lead Ako Wāhine, a programme to get more women involved in off-the-field roles. 

RugbySmart is an injury prevention programme for coaches and referees, created by New Zealand Rugby and ACC in 2001 to help decrease injuries by teaching a range of skills to keep safe. And it's working. 

But generally there's been a low uptake from Pacific people to complete the programme. But the 45 people who attended the “first of its kind” evening at the Manukau Rovers Rugby Football Club in Māngere in August, suggests the new approach is resonating with these communities and was considered a major success. 

“I really underestimated the value of this,” says Leaupepe, Auckland Rugby's delivery lead for central Auckland. “I didn’t understand the magnitude until they arrived and I saw it with my own eyes, to see how connected they were, how much fun they were having, and how they wanted more.”

Tidah Leaupepe (front of the room) addressing participants at the first RugbySmart programme delivered in Samoan and Tongan. Photo: supplied. 

Language is one of the barriers stopping people from attending. But Leaupepe knew she could easily remove the obstacle by speaking and collaborating with her rugby community members across provincial unions. 

“We got the resources translated into our languages and asked people to facilitate,” she says. “So we've got it in Tongan, Samoan and Niuean. I’m working on Cook Island and Māori, and also trying to find a contact for Fiji in Auckland.”

From just one session in Samoan and Tongan, those who were there started asking about other opportunities in the game. “There are people who now want to become educators, who want to become facilitators, and they want to see more of this stuff in our community,” says Leaupepe, who's also part of NZ Rugby's coach advisory group, responsible for developing the game across Aotearoa. 

It all started when Leaupepe put her hand up to help in Māori and Pacific rugby in June.

Tidah Leaupepe (fourth from right) and Auckland club rugby delegates and board members at Eden Park. Photo: supplied. 

The mother-of-two understands the position she holds at Auckland Rugby is responsible to the communities she serves, so she invited the club rugby delegates and boards to Eden Park to introduce herself and open the floor to ask how they could work together. 

“You know how we are as Pacific people - everyone comes to the table, you share what you want, everyone says their peace at the table, and we just talanoa [loosely translated as talk]," Leaupepe says. 

“They said it was really cool to be invited to the office and to get to know everybody and share our stories, and then discuss what we would like to see in this space.”

There’s a lot of knowledge and expertise that can be shared across rugby communities, says Leaupepe. “I want to provide more opportunities for our people. So I want to open the gates,” she says.  “We're always talking about the solutions lying within the community, so all we need to do is provide them with that pathway to be able to develop and grow in this space.”

The former Auckland women's development coach lives by these beliefs which have shaped the approach. 

Leaupepe knew she had to work across unions - in the RugbySmart case with Counties Manukau - and those who are strong rugby advocates, to be able to deliver the programme in Samoan and Tongan. 

There was an impressive line up of women leading the workshop modules including Manusina’s most capped player, Ala Bakulich- Leavasa, Samoan teammate Sosefina Leaitua, Cook Island Sevens captain Margarette Nena and former Black Fern Doris Taufateau - now a Tongan women’s coach. They were four of 11 facilitators on the night (seven were women). 

Former All Black Saveatama Eroni Clarke, NZ Rugby's Pasifika engagement manager,  opened the evening, and paid tribute to the momentous occasion for Pacific communities, nearly 20 years after the RugbySmart programme was initially rolled out nationwide. 

A successful turnout for the first RugbySmart programme delivered in the Samoan and Tongan languages. Photo: supplied. 

Leaupepe isn’t resting on her laurels. She  knows this is a massive step but at the same time understands “we’re just scraping the surface.”

“My thinking now is, 'What else is there that I can help you with?'," she says. "I’m just trying to dig a little bit deeper because I still think we are at the surface level of some of the issues. We just want to work together and do more.”

In her day-to-day role at Auckland Rugby, Leaupepe is primarily responsible for looking after the schools in central Auckland, from coach and player development, organising representative teams and tournaments and offering resources and expertise to the region's clubs.

This year, before Level 4 Covid restrictions, Lauepepe and her team had delivered around 30 RugbySmart sessions in person.

The possibilities to use this tailor-made approach for other non-playing rugby roles, such as referees, is Leaupepe’s next target. “I have been contacted by ACC and other codes to have a look at how they can adopt this approach,” she says. 

“I’ve also been approached by a few of the provincial unions in the South Island when I was down there, asking about it. They're wanting more on how to engage with our Pacific community.” 

Leaupepe was in the south to help lead the Ako Wāhine programme - a dedicated women’s rugby-educator initiative run out of NZ Rugby and aligned to World Rugby’s women’s strategy.

They may be two different programmes but “they have the same essence... They’re based on our cultural values, traditions and how we do things,” says Leaupepe, originally a participant in the programme. 

Working with the creator and main lead of Ako Wāhine, Vania Wolfgramm, has been “really cool.” The former Black Fern and Black Ferns sevens representative is now the game development manager of women’s rugby at NZ Rugby. 

“A real benefit of being a part of Ako Wāhine is it just fills my cup,” says Leaupepe. “So when I go to those courses and I facilitate them, it reminds me of my obligation to our community. And how to pave the way forward for the next person and bring them up."

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