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The Tokyo Lowdown: Day 3

On a day when NZ celebrated its first medal in Tokyo, our Kiwi sportswomen had a mixed bag of results - but it was an unforgettable day for the baby of the team. LockerRoom's daily update on our women athletes continues.


Performances of the day

It's been one heck of a 24 hours for Erika Fairweather.

The Kiwi teenager held her own in three races against the world's top freestyle swimmers - and there's still more to come. 

Normally, Fairweather would have spent Monday back at Kavanagh College in Dunedin studying and doing her head girl duties. But instead, the 17-year-old was across the Pacific Ocean at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, breaking a New Zealand record, and then lining up against two absolute powerhouses in the Olympic 400m freestyle final.  

Fairweather wasn't rattled by the change in scenery, or finishing eighth in a final where world No.1, Australian Ariarne Titmus, became the first swimmer to beat defending Olympic champion, American Katie Ledecky, in an Olympic race across three Games. 

As if it were just another day, Fairweather went back to the athlete village after her final for a nap and some food, ready to go "all guns blazing" into the 200m freestyle heat later that night. "There’s no other way to really attack it, eh?”

And she did just that. Fairweather qualified for Tuesday's 200m semifinals after finishing fifth in her heat - her time of 1m 57.26s was another personal best (by 0.12s) and the 14th fastest overall to make the top 16 cut-off. 

For Fairweather, it was "super amazing" to race in her first Olympic final - one she didn't expect to make. "That wasn’t the best performance from me, but I’m not going to let it define my experience here," she said afterwards. 

“[My nerves] were pretty high. I didn’t approach it the way I wanted to. But I think that’s just down to experience. It’s my first one, so I’ve definitely got nothing to lose." 

Erika Fairweather after realising she's second in the 400m freestyle heat, breaking Lauren Boyle's NZ record. Photo: Getty Images.

Going into the final with Titmus and Ledecky was already an achievement in itself for the high school student. 

The favourite to win, Ledecky led until the 300m turn. Titmus kicked off for the final stretch and made her move, managing to get in front and stay there to win the gold medal with a personal best of 3m 56.69s - and the second fastest in history. Titmus is the first person to beat Ledecky in an Olympic race. Incredible.  

Another young'un in the final, 14-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh, finished fourth, missing out on the podium by a little over one second. 

After the 200m freestyle, Fairweather will link up with Eve Thomas, Carina Doyle and Ali Gayler in the 4x200m freestyle heats on Wednesday night.

Quote of the day

"Honoured to be a part of surfing history... 9th place finish here at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Thanks so much to everyone who has supported me through out this fabulous journey. I am so extremely grateful to have an awesome team here in Japan." New Zealander Ella Williams after her exit from surfing's Olympic debut.   

Images of the day

Thirteen-year-old Momiji Nishiya of Japan will go down in history as the first woman to win Olympic gold in skateboarding. Nishiya became her country's youngest ever medallist, and ensured Japan took a clean sweep of gold in street skateboarding - one of the new sports introduced in Tokyo - after Yuto Horigome won the men's division. 

The International Olympic Committee's goal to appeal to younger audiences is working as the women's silver medallist was 13-year-old Rayssa Leal, from Brazil. And taking home bronze was Japan's Funa Nakayama, at the ripe old age of 16. 

The good news

The Black Sticks had two reasons to celebrate early Tuesday morning - they remain unbeaten in the women's hockey competition, and their two most experienced players, Stacey Michelsen and Sam Charlton, returned from injury to take the field against Japan.

New Zealand notched up their second win from two, but they had to really fight the host nation for the 2-1 victory.

Japan scored first, from a penalty corner early in the second quarter, but it was their tight defence that really flummoxed the Kiwis. Eventually, New Zealand scored from two penalty corner goals late in the second spell - a direct shot from Olivia Merry, and then a deflection from Hope Ralph off a Merry strike. 

Captain Michelsen suffered a hamstring injury in a Pro League test against Australia earlier this month, while vice captain Charlton had been nursing a hip injury. New Zealand's next game is against Spain on Wednesday. 

Black Sticks captain Stacey Michelsen weaves her way through two Japanese defenders in NZ's 2-1 Olympic victory. Photo: Getty Images.

As Hayden Wilde bagged New Zealand’s first medal - a bronze in the men's triathlon on Monday - it no doubt gave a confidence boost to two of his mixed relay team-mates, Nicole van der Kaay and Ainsley Thorpe, lining up in the women's triathlon 24 hours later.  

The 23-year-old Wilde, from Whakatane, and Tayler Reid, who was 18th in the men's race, will then join van der Kaay and Thorpe in the mixed team relay event this Saturday –  the first time the 300m swim, 8km bike ride and 2km run relay has been contested at an Olympics.  Thorpe, Wilde and Reid have already tasted success together claiming bronze at the 2019 ITU world triathlon qualification event in Tokyo. 

The women could find it windier and the water choppier on the course than the men encountered, as a typhoon bears down on Tokyo. 

The not-so-good-news

Ella Williams just couldn't catch a break on Monday, her Olympic surfing debut coming to an end in the third round, knocked out by Brisa Hennessey of Costa Rica.

The 26-year-old from Whangamata got through to the top 16 and didn’t waste any time getting started, picking up a smaller wave within 30 seconds of the clock starting. But Williams trailed Hennessey throughout the heat; the Costa Rican putting together a final combined score of 12 (6.5 and 5.5) out of 20 to Williams' 7.73.

The surfing at Tsurigasaki Beach wasn't ideal for larger scoring wave opportunities, but Hennessey made the most of what was on offer, getting up for 10 wave attempts to Williams' five. 

And after her first three disappointing rounds, New Zealand's first skeet shooter Chloe Tipple shot her best in the last two – hitting 46 out of 50 targets – to end with a total of 108. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old, who was 13th in Rio, it was too little, too late, this time around - finishing 27th in a field of 28. 

Tipple's lead up to the Games was life-altering, when her mother unexpectedly died from a brain aneurysm early last year. A lengthy break from shooting, and rocky training arrangements through Covid-19, weren't easy to deal with. 

New Zealand's long distance swimmers Eve Thomas and Hayley McIntosh finished fourth and sixth respectively in their 1500m freestyle heat on Monday night, but their times weren't fast enough to progress them through to the final, where Ledecky is again favourite to win the inaugural Olympic gold (the first time 1500m has been on the Olympic programme).

And if the organising committee doesn't have enough on their plates, the weather continues to wreak havoc, with the rowing scheduled for Tuesday delayed another day or two as the grade three tropical storm looms.  

What the?! 

You know you’ve hit new heights when Twitter creates a personalised icon for you. Simone Biles has become the first Olympic athlete to have an emoji dedicated to her, in the form of a goat (for Greatest of All Time, in case you didn't know) named Goldie. When you use the hashtag #SimonBiles or #Simone, Goldie - wearing a leotard with a gold medal - performs a split leap.

Simone Biles during the women's qualification for the artistic gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Getty Images.

Biles is in good icon company with NFL Super Bowl winning quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady.

The iconic American gymnast won four gold medals and one bronze at Rio, but she uncharacteristically struggled - along with her US team-mates, in the opening day of qualifying. Despite the slow start, Biles still leads in the all-around standings - and still has the potential to win six medals in Tokyo.

Another legend of the sport, Oksana Chusovitina, bowed out of her eighth Olympics after failing to qualify for the top eight in the vault. Competitors and officials gave the 46-year-old a standing ovation as she left the floor.

Chusovitina has not missed a Games since 1992, where she won gold in the teams for the Unified team (before most of her competitors in Tokyo were even born). She's also represented the Soviet Union, Germany and finally, Uzbekistan.

Rikki's pick

Rikki Swannell has given her daily pick for Tuesday to Luuka Jones – who's heading into the semifinals, and hopefully final, of the canoe slalom (the top 10 go through to the final).

“Jones became our first canoe slalom Olympian when she competed as a teenager in Beijing and is now at her fourth Games. She produced a stunning run in the final in Rio to win silver,” says Swannell.

“The paddler from Tauranga [shout-out to Otumoetai College!] came into these Games a little under the radar, but her second preliminary run changed all that, qualifying third-fastest for the semis.”

Who's up on Tuesday

TRIATHLON: Nicole van der Kay, Ainsley Thorpe, individual race, 9:30am

SWIMMING: Erika Fairweather, 200m freestyle semifinal, 1:30pm

SAILING: Alex Maloney and Molly Meech, 49erFX, 3pm

CANOE SLALOM: Luuka Jones, K1 semifinals and final, 5pm and 7pm.

FOOTBALL: Football Ferns v Sweden, 8pm

Surfer's legacy lives on in Kiwi Olympic show jumper

Show jumper Uma O’Neill has been called on at the 11th hour to compete for NZ at the Tokyo Olympics. The girl from Hawaii, whose grandfather was a surfing legend, explains to Suzanne McFadden how she ended up riding for the Kiwis.  

Uma O’Neill’s grandfather must have known something no one else did seven years ago when he bought her a brash young grey stallion named Clockwise.

Jack O’Neill wasn’t a horseman. In fact, the American was a surfer, credited with inventing the surfing wetsuit (who hasn’t heard of the O’Neill brand?).

But he loved his 17-year-old granddaughter, Uma, and was an ardent supporter of her show jumping career. 

Uma never got to ride Clockwise of Greenhill Z before Jack bought him. The horse was in Germany, trained by two-time Olympic show jumping medallist, Paul Schockemöhle.  They’d only seen him on a video.

“When we got him, it was never said: ‘Clockwise is going to be an Olympic horse for you’,” Uma O’Neill says. In fact, the two of them didn’t exactly hit it off on when they first met.

“Although my grandfather didn’t quite understand the sport so much, he thought he was the best horse in the world and he would take me everywhere. And he truly has. So maybe he saw more than any of us.”

Clockwise – who goes by the barn name ‘CW’ – has now taken 26-year-old O’Neill to the pinnacle competition of the sport.

Next week, the pair will ride for New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics – called into the team when Sharn Wordley was forced to withdraw a fortnight ago when his horse, Verdini D’Houtveld Z, suffered an injury.

O’Neill and Clockwise, the team’s travelling reserve pairing, had just arrived in Germany from their farm in Santa Cruz, California, when O'Neill heard the news.

But sadly she couldn’t share it with her grandfather. He passed away in 2017, at the age of 94. “We very much miss him,” the talented equestrian says.

Uma O'Neill and show jumping horse, Clockwise, had a rocky beginning to their relationship. Photo: Sara Shier Photography.

So how did a girl born in Hawaii into a renowned surfing family, who's lived in California ever since she was 13, end up in the New Zealand show jumping team?

O’Neill’s father, John Impey, was born in New Zealand, just outside Auckland. Most of his family still live here (his brother, Brent Impey, is the former chair of New Zealand Rugby).

Her dad, and mum Shawne, settled in Maui, where Shawne was a professional windsurfer. Growing up, O’Neill - who had dual citizenship - would often visit her family in New Zealand.

It was her dad her took her to her first pony camp in Maui when she was nine.

“I’d been going every once in a while for lessons, but it was all very casual,” O'Neill says. “Then one summer, my father got me a pony camp package. I just had so much fun. Then we started taking lessons, and I leased a pony at the pony club.”

A few years later, O’Neill and her mother moved to the US mainland to be closer to grandfather Jack in Santa Cruz, and she took one pony with her. As her equestrian talent blossomed, she began representing the United States as a young rider, but brewing in the back of her mind was the idea of one day switching to compete for New Zealand.

“The United States is such a competitive nation, and I knew New Zealand would give me lots of opportunities,” she says. “And I hoped I could help New Zealand build up its show jumping too.”

Let's get back to that initial relationship between the girl and her star horse. O’Neill was about to turn 18 and was looking for a horse to ride in the North American Young Rider championships when she was first introduced to Clockwise.

“It was a little bit of a tricky beginning,” she says. “He was young, a seven-year-old stallion, and he’d always been ridden by a professional, much larger rider than myself. It took a bit of time, but we eventually built a great relationship. It’s been quite the journey we’ve been on.”

Clockwise is quite the character, it seems.

“Life revolves around him quite a lot, we’ll just say,” laughs O’Neill. “He loves attention, but he doesn’t like to show it so much. He wants everything to revolve around him in the stable, which it does. But he also wants his alone time.

“He knows he’s the main guy around.”

For the past three years, O’Neill has worked closely with trainer Mariano Maggi, an Argentinian who rides for Sweden.

“Mariano has come in and done a lot of the flat work with Clockwise and really helped me with him. It’s taken everything to a new level. He’s an incredible horse,” she says.

Initially, O’Neill had not expected to jump Clockwise in “the big classes” - fences up to 1.6m high, like at the Olympics. But she would represent the US on board the stallion, including her biggest victory yet, at the 2018 FEI World Cup North American qualifier in Vancouver (where they had the only clear round of the competition).

It wasn’t long after that she switched her riding nationality to Kiwi.

O’Neill readily admits the Olympics weren't on her radar growing up.

“I didn’t have it as a big goal in my childhood as some do. I wanted to make it to the top level in show jumping, but the Olympics is a big goal and I never thought I’d be in the right situation – with the right horse, at the right time with the right ability,” she says.

“It's a very tough sport in that way. Timing is so much of it.”

But when the New Zealand equestrian selectors asked her if she would be the “fourth rider” - the team’s travelling reserve - for the Tokyo Games, O’Neill was over the moon.

“I was very excited,” she says. "To have the opportunity to go is an incredible thing, and it was a long way to go as the fourth rider, but we knew it was an important position. If something happened, I felt I was a strong enough reserve to come in. And it was worth it for the team.”

It's a massive undertaking to fly a horse halfway around the world knowing it would only get called up to compete if disaster struck a team-mate or their horse.

And Clockwise has done it the hard way – flying anti-clockwise to get to Japan.

“From California it’s just under nine hours flying to Tokyo,” O’Neill says. “But Clockwise has made a 12-hour cargo flight to Germany, and he’s been doing his 10 days’ quarantine in Aachen [Denmark].” Today he starts the final leg, an 18-hour flight to Japan.

“It’s quite an adventure around the globe, but he’s a very seasoned traveller and very relaxed about it all.” And fortunately, he didn’t know there was a shorter route.

“In the end, we’re doing it for the team – it’s about having the strongest team representing New Zealand.”

Clockwise of Greenhill Z is a Zangersheide stallion - a line of Belgian warmblood horses bred for showjumping. Photo: Sara Shier Photography. 

O’Neill has met her Kiwi team-mates Daniel Meech and Bruce Goodin (at 57, the most senior member of the New Zealand Olympic team) at events around the world. “I think we will make a great team,” she says.

She’s hoping Clockwise will handle the heat and humidity at Equestrian Park – the same venue that hosted the equestrian events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But she’s unsure how they will react to an empty stadium.

“I haven’t yet experienced jumping at an event that large without a crowd. At the five-star grand prix I’ve jumped, there’s always been a crowd, and I feel that brings you up a little more. But we got used to jumping with no people last year with Covid, so it’s just something we’re going to have to experience there,” she says.

“Yes, it’s going to be strange to be in a big stadium without a single person in a seat, but we’re so grateful to even be going.”

O’Neill had always imagined if she got to go to an Olympics, her close-knit family would occupy some of those seats.

Her mother lives with her at their O’Neill Show Jumping base. “She’s so supportive, she’s there all the time for me, so she’s definitely disappointed not to be there,” O’Neill says.

Shawne O’Neill could have been an Olympian herself. But at the time that she was the world champion in windsurfing, she was classed as a sponsored professional - and the Olympics were open only to amateur athletes.

It’s Uma O’Neill’s hope to come out of her own Olympics with a “positive experience – for myself and the team – and that we all make it out healthy.

“We’re walking into such an unknown situation, that’s the most important thing at this time,” she says. “Like with everything now, we have to be prepared to be flexible.”

  • The New Zealand show jumping team will compete in the individual qualifying on Tuesday, August 3, with the final the next day. They will then jump in the team qualifying on Friday, August 6, with the final on the 7th.

The Tokyo Lowdown: Day 2

Day two was generally a cracker for our Kiwi sportswomen at the Olympics, especially in and on the water and the artificial turf in Tokyo. LockerRoom's daily update on our women athletes continues.


Performances of the day

New Zealand's youngest Olympian, schoolgirl Erika Fairweather, made a colossal splash in the Tokyo Aquatic pool on Sunday night - smashing a national record and comfortably making the final of the 400m freestyle.

Fairweather, just 17, finished second in her heat behind world No.1 Australian Ariarne Titmus. But the teenager's time of 4m 02.28s shaved more than four seconds off her personal best time, and broke Lauren Boyle's national record of 4m 03.63s, set at the 2012 London Olympics. 

The Y13 student at Dunedin's Kavanagh College looked stunned as she cast her eyes up to the electronic board and saw her time. It makes her the fourth fastest qualifier for Monday afternoon's final. 

No wonder she's already being touted as a future athlete to watch.

Living on the outside of the Olympic Village, Holly Pearson was pulled into the Black Sticks women's side on Sunday and made a huge impression - scoring her first goal in international hockey and sealing New Zealand's 3-0 upset over world No. 3 Argentina.

The 22-year-old from Taranaki wasn't initially included in the Black Sticks squad of 16 for Tokyo, but a late rule change allowed teams to extend to 18. And with captain Stacey Michelsen recovering from tearing her hamstring in a test against Australia on the way to Tokyo, and vice captain Sam Charlton suffering a hip injury, Pearson and Tessa Jopp - the other late call-up - were brought into the team for the first game of their Olympic campaign.

Together, the two ring-ins created the third goal of the match in the final quarter - Jopp perfectly placing the ball into the circle and Pearson drilling it on the turn into the back of the goal. 

While scoring was "pretty cool," Pearson said afterwards, she was happier with the win. "I think we did really well. They have a lot of aggression, Argentina, and I think we dealt with it pretty well. Especially round the back - our defenders were pretty calm under the pressure which helped today.

"It gives us a little bit of momentum, hopefully, going into the rest of the week, and over a tough side is pretty good for us."

The sixth-ranked Black Sticks, who've twice come oh-so-close to an Olympic medal, did well to hold the marauding Las Leonas (The Lionesses) scoreless through the first half, but really came alive with a goal off their first penalty corner of the match early in the third quarter. Kelsey Smith deftly juggled the ball over the prone Argentinian keeper (see images of the day, below). Moments later, they took it to 2-0 when Hope Ralph deflected Megan Hull's drag flick off a second corner.

Black Sticks goalie Grace O'Hanlon made some outstanding saves, one with her hand behind her body right on the goal line, to deny the favourites. New Zealand are straight on to their next match against Japan on Monday night. 

Holly Pearson hugs Black Sticks team-mate Tessa Jopp after scoring her first international goal in NZ's shock 3-0 slaying of Argentina. Photo: Getty Images

Rio silver medallist Luuka Jones made a great recovery in her second run to go into the semifinals of the canoe slalom ranked third. Jones wasn't thrilled with her first run, where she touched two gates and with a 4s penalty found herself 10th fastest.

But with a quick, clear run in the second round, Jones had the fastest time of the day, only bettered by Australian Jessica Fox and German Ricarda Funk. The top 24 paddlers go through to Tuesday's semis, including Tauranga doctor Jane Nicholas, who's representing the Cook Islands. 

Quote of the day

"It's been a bit mixed for me. I'm actually staying outside the village because I'm the 18th player and I'm staying with Georgia our [reserve] goal keeper. We're staying at The Conrad, and it's very nice." - Black Sticks goal scorer Hope Pearson on her unexpected Olympic experience so far.

Images of the day

The good news

Most of our rowing women are well on their way in their march to the medal podium. Double sculls duo Brook Donoghue and Hannah Osborne and the New Zealand eight are through to their finals, while four-time Olympian Emma Twigg is in the single sculls semis after another compelling performance on the Sea Forest Waterway. 

"I'm really proud of us and what we've achieved so far," Donoghue, the two-time world champion in the double scull, said. "I think we have more to give so I'm excited to put it out there."

Twigg won her quarterfinal convincingly, by over 7s from Switzerland's Jeannine Gmelin, to be one of the clear favourites in Wednesday's semifinals. 

Both the eight and the pair of Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler had fantastic rows on Saturday, winning their heats. Prendergast and Gowler, who gave massive performances in both boats, will race again in their semi on Tuesday afternoon. The world champion eight had to battle from behind to take the only automatic ticket to Friday's final.

Kiwi surfer Ella Williams made her Olympic debut in style - progressing straight to round 3. Photo: Getty Images. 

An ecstatic Ella Williams stamped her mark on history, surfing straight through to the top 16 in the sport's Olympic debut at Tsurigasaki Beach. 

The former world junior champion from Whangamata wasn't afraid to say how proud she was finishing second behind young American phenom, Caroline Marks. Williams had a ding-dong battle, switching places on the leaderboard with Costa Rica's Leilani McGonagle, but finally snatched the points she needed for direct qualifying to the third round. 

"It was definitely the moment of do-or-die. You know, you really just have to think on your feet, thinking smart and really be in tune with your surfing and make sure you are on those best waves," she said. "The conditions are changing so much you really have to be adaptable and take whatever comes with you."

The not-so-good-news

The women's rowing quad - Olivia Loe, Eve Macfarlane, Georgia Nugent-O'Leary and Ruby Tew - will race in the B final after failing to qualify through their repechage. The Kiwis were fourth with 500m to go, and managed to climb to third at the finish line, but only the top two boats went through to the A final.

The Football Ferns will be playing for pride in their final game against Sweden on Tuesday night, after losing their second game in the Pool of Death – a 6-1 drubbing from world champions the United States. The New Zealanders were hanging in there at 3-1 with 10 minutes to go, but their energy petered out. The Ferns scored three in the goal fest - but sadly two of them were own goals. 

Skeet shooter Chloe Tipple had a disappointing day on the range, sitting in 28th of 28 after three qualifying rounds. Her score of 62 is well below the two leaders from Italy and China with a perfect total of 75. Tipple faces another 50 targets tomorrow before the shoot-off for medals later in the day.

Another of our female swimmers to make her Olympic debut, Ali Galyer didn't progress past her heat in the 100m backstroke. But Galyer still has her favoured event, the 200m backstroke, later in the week. 

What the?! 

Twelve-year-old Hend Zaza became one of the youngest athletes to ever compete at an Olympics, when the table tennis player from war-torn Syria played in the opening round of the women's competition. 

Zaza, who carried the Syrian flag in Friday's opening ceremony, was just 11 when she qualified for the Games at the West Asian qualifier, beating a Lebanon player nearly four times her age. But in Tokyo, where she's easily the youngest athlete at these Games, she has to pack her bags already after losing her preliminary round match to Austrian 39-year-old Liu Jia – who has a 10-year-old daughter.

Tokyo's youngest Olympian, Hend Zaza, in her first round table tennis loss to Austrian Liu Jia. Photo: Getty Images. 

The youngest female competitor at a summer Olympics was Italian gymnast Luigina Giavotti, who competed in 1928 aged 11 years 301 days.

And even the mighty have fallen in the first round - a wobbly tennis top seed Ash Barty was upset by 48th-ranked Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo, 6-4 6-3, just a fortnight after winning at Wimbledon. The Australian, however, lives on in the doubles.

Rikki's pick

Ella Williams is Sky Sport presenter Rikki Swannell's one to watch on Monday. 

"After a great first-up performance surfer Ella Williams is back in action again. She's now in the round of 16, with quarterfinals and semifinals also today. Ella looks like she's having the time of her life - and surfing like it too!"

Who's up on Monday

SURFING: Ella Williams, 3rd round, 10am.

SHOOTING: Chloe Tipple, skeet qualifier and medal round, noon.

SWIMMING: Erika Fairweather, 400m freestyle final, 2.20pm; 200m freestyle heat, 10pm; Hayley McIntosh and Eve Thomas, 1500m freestyle heat, 11pm.

HOCKEY: Black Sticks v Japan, 11.45pm

The Tokyo Lowdown: Day Zero

In your daily guide recapping the fortunes of Kiwi sportswomen at the Tokyo Olympics, our rowers had an up and down Day Zero. 

Performance of the day

Emma Twigg took the first strokes on her row to Olympic redemption.

Fourth in London, fourth in Rio, Twigg came out of retirement to finally step onto the podium at these Olympics. Wearing a white singlet to combat the heat on a stunning day on the Sea Forest Waterway, Twigg led from start to finish over the 2000m of her single sculls heat.

It had been over a year since her last major regatta, but the former world champion never looked troubled by Dutch rower Sophie Souwer, who was over 4s behind her. 

This is Twigg's fourth Olympics, and the former world champ admitted to a few nerves. "The Olympics is a special event and I guess it's a good thing we do experience nerves because you know it means something. It's a kind of a nice feeling," she said. She has the same game plan for the quarterfinals on Monday - "just keep something in the tank for later in the week."

While Twigg's victory wasn't unexpected, outside of the NZ rowing team, no one was sure just how the new double sculls duo of Brooke Donoghue and Hannah Osborne would fare in their first international outing. Donoghue is a two-time world champion in this boat, and in a shock turn just before the Games, her long-time crewmate Olivia Loe was tipped out for Osborne.

After the first few hundred metres, the Kiwis were the last boat, but they then hit their straps and stormed through the middle of the field to lead at the halfway point. They stretched out to win comfortably, 2s ahead of the United States crew. 

Brooke Donoghue (left) and Hannah Osborne power their way to double sculls heat victory on the Sea Forest Waterway. Photo: Getty Images. 

"It has been a little bit of a whirlwind," admitted Osborne, who's previously raced in the Kiwi quad. "To end up in the double with Brooke has been amazing. To be honest, it felt like we were racing at home. It wasn't anything too crazy." 

It wasn't the best start for the new quad of Eve Macfarlane, Loe, Georgina Nugent-O’Leary and Ruby Tew. They were off the pace in their heat, finishing fourth, but have another chance to qualify in the repêchage on Sunday. 

Quote of the day

"It feels good to be out there. It's been a long time coming. It was definitely a bit of a lung-buster, but you often get that with your first race,"  - Emma Twigg

Images of the day

The good news

There are more women athletes at the Tokyo Olympics than at any other time in Games history. It's the first time the Games have achieved near gender parity, with 49 percent of the almost 11,000 competitors female. That's up from 45 percent at the 2016 Rio Games. 

For the first time, all 206 nations have at least one female and one male athlete in their teams. And all countries - plus the IOC Refugee team - were encouraged to have their flag carried by one female and one male at the opening ceremony. 


Germany women's hockey captain Nike Lorenz will wear a rainbow stripes on her arms and socks in their opening game against Britain on Sunday, in the latest sign of athlete activism. The IOC has allowed the 24-year-old to support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement and sexual diversity with her colorful bands. 

According to Athlete Ally, there's an historic number of out LGBTQ+ athletes at these Olympics ("142 and counting").

The Football Ferns taking a knee before their first game was one of the first demonstrations under the new relaxation of Rule 50, that states "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The not-so-good-news

The typhoon brewing to the west of Japan has already disrupted the Olympic schedule. With bad weather expected to hit on Monday, changes have already been made to the rowing events to avoid gusty, choppy conditions - the women's eight heat has been moved from Sunday to Saturday.  It's not good news for the Kiwi sailors, who start their competition at Enoshima on Tuesday.  But it's possibly good news for surfer Ella Williams: the tropical cyclone could bring big waves to Tsurigasaki Beach, south-east of Tokyo.

And the 30 degrees Celsius-plus heat and humidity in Tokyo today took its toll on Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva who collapsed during her qualifying round. Gomboeva was checking her archery scores when she collapsed; staff and teammates rushed to her aid, putting ice on her head to cool her down.

What the?!

The man who planned the Olympic opening ceremony can't take a bow tonight - he was fired the day before because of an awful Holocaust joke he made in a comedy show in 1998. The Games organising committee booted out the director of the show, former comedian Kentaro Kobayashi, after a video emerged of his skit, where he cut up paper people and joked about playing a game of “let’s massacre Jewish people". 

And Ghana's 100m sprinter Aissata Deen Conte and her four Olympic team-mates will now get to compete in Tokyo after her country made a speedy U-turn on their decision to withdraw from the Games to 'protect the health of their athletes' from the pandemic spike in Tokyo (almost 2000 Covid cases reported yesterday). But after a slap on the wrist from the IOC, Ghana quickly changed their minds. 

Rikki's pick

For the best watch this weekend, seasoned Sky Sports commentator Rikki Swannell is picking the Black Sticks' first hockey match of these Olympics, against Argentina on Sunday (3.15pm).

Black Stick Kelsey Smith in action against Argentina in 2020. Photo: Simon Watts/

"While the European hockey nations have been able to play each other during the pandemic, the Black Sticks have only had a handful of matches against Australia in the past 18 months. An opening game against Argentina at the Olympics is a heck of a way to get back into international competition.

"Argentina is ranked second in the world but despite winning medals at four consecutive Olympics from 2000 to 2012, Las Leonas have never won gold.

"The Black Sticks have some seasoned pros who've known their own Olympic heartbreak and a win in game one against a powerhouse side would set the tone for their campaign."

Who's up this weekend

Saturday 24 July (NZT):

ROWING: Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler, women’s pair heat, 1.10pm. Women's eight, heat, 3.20pm

FOOTBALL: Football Ferns v United States, 11.30pm

Sunday 25 July

SHOOTING: Chloe Tipple, skeet qualifying, noon. 

SURFING: Ella Williams, 1st and 2nd rounds,1.20pm

ROWING: Quad repêchage, 1.50pm; pair repêchage if needed.

HOCKEY: Black Sticks v Argentina, 3.15pm.

CANOE SLALOM: Luuka Jones, K1 heat, 4.45pm

SWIMMING: Ali Galyer, 100m backstroke heat; Erika Fairweather, 400m freestyle heat, 10pm.

* You can track down the New Zealand performances you want to watch through the Sky Sport schedule.

The Tokyo Lowdown: An Olympic preview

After five years' wait, they're finally here: the Tokyo 2020 (+1) Olympics. Prepare yourself for new sports, empty stands, expressions of solidarity, Covid cases, typhoons and a heatwave, and medal surprises. 

The 101 women of the New Zealand Olympic team are poised to explode out of the blocks on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

Technically, 18 of them already have - the Football Ferns opened New Zealand’s campaign on Wednesday night, going down 2-1 to arch-rivals, Australia’s Matildas.

Even though they didn’t get the win in what's deemed to be the toughest pool of the competition, the team made a statement before the whistle even blew by taking a knee to support a global call for greater racial equality in sport.

Expect to see a lot of that over the next 17 days - athletes advocating for social justice, permitted under the new Olympic guidelines. 

Get ready for the hottest, and the strangest, Games in recent memory.

Team snapshot

This is the largest team New Zealand have ever sent to a Games – almost half are women (for the record, there are 110 men) and there's one more female athlete than in the 2016 Rio team.

Of the 211 athletes representing Aotearoa across 21 sports, just over 30 percent are of Māori descent. New Zealand’s youngest competitor is 17-year-old swimmer Erika Fairweather and the most mature is 51-year-old equestrian jumper Bruce Goodin. 

See a full list of the New Zealand team here.

The Tokyo Lowdown

LockerRoom will bring you daily updates of the New Zealand women competing at the Olympics in The Tokyo Lowdown. We'll highlight the Kiwi performances of the day, what may not have gone swimmingly well and we'll let you know who to look for the next day. We'll also feature colour stories from in and around the Games. You can keep up to date by subscribing to our free LockerRoom newsletter or by following LockerRoom on Facebook or Instagram

Medal predictions

If you want to be prepared for Olympic banter around the water-cooler, former Olympian and LockerRoom contributor Sarah Cowley Ross talks about how New Zealand may stack up in the medal tally and who to watch out for in this episode of The Detail.

There are eight female medallists from the Rio Olympics returning - silver trap shooter Natalie Rooney, Luuka Jones (silver in the women's K1 slalom), Dame Valerie Adams (silver in shot put), sailors Alex Maloney and Molly Meech (silver in 49erFX), Lydia Ko (silver in golf), the Black Ferns Sevens (silver), and Lisa Carrington (gold and bronze in canoeing). 

Carrington could bring home four medals at these Games - a feat no other Kiwi has ever managed. 

Paddler Lisa Carrington has two golds and a bronze medal from the last two Olympic Games. Photo: Getty Images.

Our rowers are looking hot to collect medals, particularly the women’s eight, the reigning world champions (from 2019, before Covid-19 struck), and Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler in the pair. And the track cycling women also have a shot at adding to New Zealand's tally.

Shot put queen Dame Valerie Adams has been tipped to lift her Olympic medal tally to four, after throwing some of her best distances since before she had her two children. 

Jonelle Price, the sole woman in the New Zealand three-day eventing team, will be in the running for an individual and team medal. With a proud history in eventing, the Kiwi team were fourth in Rio but bronze medallists in London four years earlier.

Regardless of her finish, Erica Dawson, deserves a medal - sailing in the Nacra 17 mixed multihull with Micah Wilkinson after breaking her leg in a training accident a month ago.

And of course, the world will be watching Laurel Hubbard in the women's +87kg weightlifting class.

Opening ceremony

The Games opening ceremony is set for 11pm (NZT) and it’s drawing a lot of attention already – not so much for what the occasion usually means for athletes and the world. Or how much it costs. 

But because Tokyo is in a state of emergency and major sponsors are pulling out of the spectacle (Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was publicly ordered to attend by Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates after Brisbane was named the host city of the 2032 Games).

The pandemic has already watered down a ceremony that had promised to be a colourful celebration of Japanese pop culture.

The organising committee hope the power of sport will bring people around the globe together and provide hope and encouragement. But it’s anyone’s guess if these disrupted, stripped-back Games, and their theme "Moving Forward", will provide that through this pinnacle event, wrapping up on Sunday August 8.

Only 20 or so New Zealand athletes are expected to march in the opening ceremony.

Sarah Hirini with the kākahu (cloak) she will wear carrying the flag of the NZ Olympic Team in Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images. 

This includes some of the sevens players, following their leader, Te Pou Hapai Wahine (female flag bearer) Sarah Hirini, who's sharing the honour with rower Hamish Bond. Surfer Ella Williams is expected to be there in her first Olympics, with her code one of the four new sports introduced at these Games.

Not all of the New Zealand athletes will be there through until the end of the Games. Once they’ve competed, athletes have 48 hours to leave the Olympic Village, and move into a designated hotel to wait for the next available flight home. That means even athletes won’t be able to support their teammates. 

Atmosphere in Tokyo

Competitors have had an extra year to train but they’re going into an Olympics with no spectators, in the hottest season, and with a stack-load more health and safety protocols than they've ever witnessed at a sports event before. 

Only a small group of approved dignitaries, sponsors and staff will be in the stands but given some have decided to skip the opening ceremony, there may be more pressure for them to sit out completely.

The temperature will also play a big role in the way these Games unfold. Tokyo is experiencing sweltering heat and high humidity, with temperatures reaching well into the 30 degrees Celcius range. There's also the threat of a typhoon hitting Tokyo too. 

New Zealand athletes have been preparing in the lead-up to the Games with creative training methods to help mirror heat conditions using saunas, heat chambers and layering up clothing.

But even the Sky Sport presenters are struggling, and they're not even competing in this heatwave.

Rikki's Pick

Each day in The Tokyo Lowdown, experienced Sky Sport presenter Rikki Swannell - at her third Olympics - will give her pick for the event to watch that day.

Today, it's rower Emma Twigg, who's rowing in the single sculls heats. 

"An earlier than usual start for rowing, means our first glimpse of Emma Twigg. I'm hard pressed to find an athlete who I'd love to see win a medal more than Twigg who was fourth in London and Rio.

"She retired after the Games in 2016, went overseas, got back in the boat and committed to putting herself through another campaign. A medal in Tokyo would be a testament to her perseverance and determination."

Catch all the action

Want wall-to-wall Olympic coverage? Sky TV, New Zealand's official Olympic broadcaster, has 12 Olympic channels with live content between noon and 2am (NZ time). And there's also a 24-hour Olympic news channel for sport enthusiasts. You can track down the New Zealand performances you want to watch through the Sky Sport schedule.

TVNZ is the free-to-air partner and will offer 12 hours of action each afternoon and evening on One. And our own Cowley Ross will be providing insight and expertise as part of their broadcasting team.

If you’re in Auckland, another option to take in the action is the NZHQ at The Cloud, on the downtown waterfront. With no crowds allowed in Tokyo, the New Zealand Olympic Committee has set up the home venue for anyone to watch the NZ team compete alongside the athletes' families and supporters.

Who's up today:

Emma Twigg is rowing in her fourth Olympics in Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images. 

ROWING: Emma Twigg, single sculls heat, 1.20pm; Brooke Donoghue and Hannah Osborne, double sculls heat, 2pm; Olivia Loe, Eve Macfarlane, Georgia Nugent-O'Leary and Ruby Tew, quad heat, 2.50pm.

OPENING CEREMONY: Sarah Hirini carries the New Zealand flag, 11pm.  


Kiwi shutterbug ready to fire at Tokyo Olympics

It takes a sharp eye, a supple body and super-quick reflexes to be a top sports photographer. And Kiwi snapper Alisha Lovrich has prepared well for the Tokyo Olympics, Heather Dawson discovers. 

When Alisha Lovrich lines up in Tokyo, it will be the culmination of years of training.

And just like the athletes she’s photographing, the pressure will be on. She has one shot to get it right. There’s no re-run of the 100m sprint if she misses the moment.

“The whole stadium falls quiet, and I can hear my heart beating. It’s total silence except for the odd camera shutter from the crowd. Then the gun goes off, the crowd roars, and you have nine-point-something seconds to get yourself together and get the shot,” the Auckland-based photographer says.

It’s something that Lovrich, a middle-distance runner turned pole vaulter, has been working towards for years. She initially dabbled in sports photography when an injury kept her out of the Auckland athletics championships.

She decided to take pictures of friends at the meet for fun and upload them to social media. Her work was so well received she was invited back with a full media pass, and her sports photography career has snowballed from there.

She’s working in Tokyo as Athletics NZ’s preferred photographer and will be snapping pictures for the Black Sticks hockey teams as well.  

Taking great photos is a sport in itself.

First, there’s having a game plan and knowing the athletes you’re up against. Lovrich walks through how she plays it, capturing both action and emotion.

She uses shotput as an example. “Tom Walsh and Valerie Adams often only need one qualifying throw, so I aim to get the action shot early, because I want to be in a different position for the final.”

Sports photographer Alisha Lovrich has been doing her own training for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: supplied. 

Just as sportspeople study their opposition to anticipate their every move, Lovrich has learned the best photo position for each athlete. “Tom spins across the circle when he throws, whereas Val glides. For Tom, the best place to shoot from is behind, and for Val, it’s to the side. You get your action shots of the throw, and then it’s about capturing the emotion of the final,” she says. 

Conditioning also plays its part. It takes a good level of physical fitness to carry bulky camera equipment around, and to get into the often-bizarre positions required to nail the perfect shot.

Lovrich credits her pole vault training for making her stronger and more robust to the rigours of her job. (She's still competing to national level, but when it comes time for the national champs, she's always on the back end of the lens). 

As well as the physical requirements and technical knowledge of lighting, framing and sporting nous, she actively trains for her moments behind the lens.

“There are apps you can have on your phone which train your reaction time,” she says. “That’s so important as a photographer, so I’m often using Tap Tap, where you have to move your fingers around quickly. It translates to being able to make adjustments on my camera on the go, so I don’t miss a moment fluffing around with my equipment.”

That’s vital, because like anyone performing at the Olympics, there’s a lot of pressure. In between snapping pictures, Lovrich uses a quick rating system on her camera, before sending the best images to a communications team who are in the stands, waiting to send them out to a wider media audience.

“Speed is so important in that whole process. We live in an instant world now, and while it’s hard to compete with the big media outlets, we still have to get it right for sports fans as soon as we can,” she says.

NZ pole vaulter Imogen Ayris clears the bar. Photo: Alisha Lovrich. 

There’s even an Olympic spirit amongst international sports photographers, who build up a camaraderie in the trenches of the photography zone. “People know what country you’re from, and the athletes you’re there for,” Lovrich says. “They push you forward and get out of the way for you to get the shot of your athlete, especially if they know they’re going to medal. It’s very sweet.”

Lovrich believes sporting smarts plays a big role in a successful shot.  “When you’re in sport, you know how to read sport,” she tells. “You know the flow of a game, you know how to read emotions. You can’t predict everything, but you can predict enough to know what will make a good shot.

“When I’m photographing running, I place myself halfway around the bend, because the athlete will run through the line, and then start celebrating as they round the bend to slow down. If you’re shooting from the finish line, you’re only getting their back.”

Among the highlights of her career, Lovrich lists capturing Usain Bolt in his last race at the world championships in London.

“All the photographers are sardined in together, there’s hardly any room. And you don’t risk going to the bathroom,” she laughs. “I’d been there for five hours, capturing [NZ distance runner] Camille Buscomb, who raced before Bolt, and then just stayed in the prime spot.

“It’s that moment where you only have a handful of seconds to get it right, and your adrenalin is firing up. Bolt didn’t win, but he did run through and I got a cool shot. That whole experience, from the athlete himself, to the atmosphere and reaction of the crowd, is probably my highlight.”

Lovrich was also nominated for World Athletics Photo of the Year, with an image of a rainbow-haired Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and her son. The photo made an exhibition in Monaco. “It’s one of my all-time favourite shots, because it’s so cute, but also shows that emotion and humanity side of sport that’s instantly relatable,” she says.

Double Olympic champion sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce with son Zyon. Photo: Alisha Lovrich.

Trips to Doha and London for world championships, to the Gold Coast for Commonwealth Games and Tokyo for the Olympics may sound glamorous, but the reality is far from it.

“Think two-minute noodles while you’re editing and napping on the media room floor,” laughs Lovrich. “The days are long, you’re often not eating or drinking properly because you don’t want to sacrifice your spot to have to go to the bathroom, so you just have to eat when you can.

“You really have to think like an athlete. I wear good shoes and good socks because I’m on my feet all day. I take my roller with me because my back is often munted. I take electrolyte tablets with caffeine in them, and often munch on something like dates with heaps of potassium so I don’t cramp.”

Similar to the athletes, her timeline in Tokyo has to be well-managed. “I started a schedule months ago, based on the New Zealand team likely to be selected. Transport is going to be difficult, and the organisers have limited the number of photographers allowed at any one event, so I had to pre-book my spot for the big Kiwi days.

“I’ve put in for all the hockey pool games as well as Kiwi track and field events, and pretty much every day, there’s something I’m shooting.”

When she’s not vaulting over poles or jumping between sports shoots, Lovrich has found commercial work to help make photography her fulltime job. She works with corporate clients providing everything from headshots to campaign imagery and has also set up an online print shop capturing landscape works.

Alisha Lovrich has the tools of her trade prepared for the Olympics. Photo: supplied. 

She’s even able to relate wedding photography back to sport. “Again, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. You can pre-empt the big moments, the reactions to certain moments. It’s just like sport, but slower… and in prettier clothes.”

Known for her sense of humour, she has a following amongst the athletics community for making her outtakes into memes, often shared by the athletes for a laugh.

Being at a Covid Olympics is a mixture of excitement and duty for Lovrich.

“The thing I love most is the athlete interacting with their closest people, and we won’t get that this time,” she says. “I’ll miss the hugs, the tears, the atmosphere.

“I feel like it’s a privilege because I’m one of the only people in the world who will get to see the action live in person. So I feel a responsibility to athletics fans, hockey fans, and the people of New Zealand to replicate what I’m seeing in the field to show those people back home.”

In doing so, she’ll achieve a childhood dream. “I always wanted to go to the Olympics. I dreamed it would be as an athlete, but I’ll definitely take this.”

Memory Games: The vault that launched 1000 smiles

A mysterious Tui in a pool, a breathtaking pole vault and a freakish rowing double: LockerRoom writer David Leggat, a reporting veteran of five Olympic Games, shares his favourite memories. 

What's your first Olympic memory?

Back in 1968, the early morning swimming class for 10-year-olds had assembled at Christchurch's Centennial Pool. There were about 10 of us, overseen by celebrated local coach Jack Breward. 

On one morning, Jack became quite animated with us. He had a habit of clapping his hands urgently if he wanted our attention, or to stress a point.

“Come on! Two more laps then you have to finish for the day because Tui’s coming in. She needs the whole pool because she’s going to the Olympics in Mexico,” he announced.

It meant nothing to us, except we’d be off to school a few minutes earlier than usual.

“Tui” turned out to be Tui Shipston, a Commonwealth Games representative in Jamaica two years earlier who was heading to her first Olympics.

She turned up just as we were stepping out of the pool. Boy, she was tall and, er, old. All of 16 as it happened.

The memory stuck. What were these ‘Olympics’ which our coach had spoken of with such reverence? I’d been lucky enough to have attended two All Black tests by this point, but the word ‘Olympics’ hadn’t really registered.

For the record, Shipston, who’d turned 17 when the Games began, made the final of the 400m individual medley, finishing seventh.

And it spurred a curiosity in me.

What are your favourite Olympic moments - first watching from afar?

Two stand out, and are very different.

I wasn’t at the Tokyo Games of 1964, but wish I’d been there to watch Peter Snell.

Sir Peter Snell winning the 1500m gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

He’d already won 800m gold in Rome as an unheralded 21-year-old four years earlier. By 1964 he was among the biggest names in world athletics. So, no pressure.

Snell delivered with gold in the 800m, relatively comfortably, then the 1500m by a distance. He toyed with the field and even watching the film now, as he surges away on the final lap, you can’t help but be awestruck at the power and dominance he exerted.

Three Olympic events, three gold medals. Hard to top.

Then at Rio five years ago, watching Eliza McCartney, in a disbelieving head-clutching moment, realising she had grabbed the bronze in the women’s pole vault final, inspiring teenage girls to strive to go higher.

It also stands out for me as I discovered the number of people who hadn’t the slightest interest in pole vault, but contacted me within the next few days just to say they had watched it, and loved it.

And then being there?

So many, but here are three:

My first Games in Barcelona in 1992. On the final day of the athletic programme at the Montjuic Stadium, Fermin Cacho -Spain’s representative in the final track event, the blue riband 1500m - wasn’t expected to figure at the sharp end.

Instead, Cacho sprinted clear in the final 200m to head off the African contenders, to the backdrop of a deafening roar to clinch the gold. Think hairs on the back of your neck. He was no one-off Charlie; he won silver four years later in Atlanta.

Twelve years later and it’s an overheated day in Athens. The men’s triathlon race had, for New Zealand fans, a dream finish as Hamish Carter and Bevan Docherty duelled for gold and silver over the last 800m, having burned off their rivals. With one final thrust, Carter shook off his dogged rival to claim gold.

How often do New Zealanders get the top two places on an Olympic podium? Blyth Tait and Sally Clark did in the individual eventing at Atlanta and that’s it. It was a slightly strange feeling as they came down the road clear of everyone and you knew New Zealand had 1 and 2.

Joseph Sullivan and Nathan Cohen celebrate double sculls gold in London 2012. Photo: Getty Images.

And finally, London 2012 and the Eton Dorney rowing course. At 250m from the finish, double scullers Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan were fourth, seemingly out of it.

Then they found a fifth gear and positively roared past the three boats in front of them to grab a stunning gold just before the line. Sullivan, in the stroke seat and soon to join Team New Zealand as a grinder, flung his arms high, then stood up in the boat to soak in the cheers from the bank. Magic.

What's your dream scenario to play out in Tokyo?

Given this will be an Olympics like none before it, what chance of there being plenty of surprises? So how about a New Zealand medal or two no-one had foreseen?

Say, young swimming gun Erika Fairweather standing on the podium after the 400m freestyle? Or Jordan Parry, who no-one outside rowing circles has heard of, taking over Mahe Drysdale’s single sculling job?

Kavanagh College student Erika Fairweather will swim in the 200m, 400m and 4x200m freestyle in Tokyo. Photo: BW Media.

It’s easy to root for the tried and tested, but the sheer exhilaration of watching something completely unexpected happening would make these a Games to be remembered, albeit in the strangest of all possible circumstances.   

What events are you most looking forward to?

The men’s 1500m final. Simple. The classic race and what chance a New Zealand presence in the form of double Olympic medallist Nick Willis? Or his young hopeful Sam Tanner?

The mind races back to the final sprint in the home straight in Beijing 2008 when my estimable colleague Eugene Bingham briefly lost the plot as we watched Willis thrust his way into third – later promoted to second - in the final strides: “Go on boy, go! He’s done it! You beauty!” Olympic experiences, and memories, tend to stay with you a long time.

Olympic Bonds: The Spoors and their eight sisters

New Zealand's Olympic women's rowing eight boasts two pairs of sisters. But the Spoors sisters tell Sarah Cowley Ross they never dreamed they'd go to Tokyo together.

It wasn’t until earlier this year sisters Lucy and Phoebe Spoors even imagined they might row together at an Olympic Games.

In the past, if they’d ever thought about the Olympics, it was their other sister, Grace – Phoebe’s twin – that they pictured would go with Lucy, the eldest of the trio.

“I remember thinking when we were younger, Grace just wants it more than me,” Phoebe says.

But Grace pursued a career off the water, and Phoebe - who'd once disliked rowing - was then inspired to be like her big sister. So for this combination of Spoors siblings to be in the same team - let alone the same event – making their Olympic debut together is an extra special feeling, they say.

The Spoors are part of the sweep squad for the women’s rowing eight, the reigning world champions and gold medal favourites in Tokyo.

They’re one of two sets of sisters in the eights squad of 10, along with Kerri and Jackie Gowler. And it’s why, they say, the crew have a special relationship.

"The whole group genuinely cares for each other. We're a wider group of sisters," Lucy Spoors says. 

Having grown up in Christchurch, Lucy and Phoebe Spoors share a house in Cambridge, and train with the rest of the national rowing squad on Lake Karapiro.

Rowing has brought the siblings, who are three years apart, closer together. And although it was initially Lucy who inspired her younger sister to strive to make the New Zealand team, they now support each other and drive each other to be better.

(Above: Lucy, left, and Phoebe Spoors receive their Olympic silver fern on being named in the rowing team for Tokyo).

Spending so much time together every day – on the water or at home – means there’s inevitably some friction, but the sisters are not happy to sit in tension.

“We never let things get to a huge boiling point because we’re not happy to let things stay in that space for more than half a day,” Phoebe, 27, says.

“If there are any issues that are hard to talk about, then the easiest person to talk about it with is your sister.”

And they say that ability to connect as sisters, and the love they have for each other, helps the entire boat.

“Communicating is easy for us as sisters – we see this as our asset. It’s an asset that the wider group get to share as well,” Phoebe says.

Although they share a unique bond, their paths to the Tokyo Olympics have been quite different.

Lucy was a keen basketball and netball player at Christchurch Girls High School, who discovered rowing after a suggestion from the school’s sports coordinator.

“I loved it from the first go,” says the linguistics graduate. “I had the immediate dream of going to the Olympic Games.”

After making the New Zealand junior team in Year 12, Lucy won a scholarship at St Peters’ College in Cambridge for her final year at school.

That year she was part of the four who won the 2008 world junior championships in Linz, Austria. She made her elite women’s international debut at the 2010 world champs on Lake Karapiro.

In contrast, when Phoebe first hopped in a boat, she wanted to hop straight out.

“I remember thinking ‘there’s no way in hell I’m doing this again. I can’t believe I’ve got roped into this – it’s way too hard’,” says Phoebe, who’d go to watch her big sister at regattas where their mother was often the regatta manager. 

But she stuck with it, and she and twin Grace rowed at Maadi Cup together. Grace made the national junior team at high school, and then took up a scholarship at the University of Washington.

Phoebe Spoors rowing on Lake Karapiro. Photo: Art of Rowing. 

Phoebe initially missed out on an American college scholarship - admitting “she wasn’t good enough” and needed to spend a year getting in better shape. She eventually joined Grace at college in Seattle.

At the end of their schooling, Grace, who’d won a world junior bronze in the four in 2011, decided to finish rowing and concentrate on her career. She now lives with her American fiancé in New England, selling medical products.

There was a switch in Phoebe’s mindset towards the end of her time in the States when she realised she could also row for New Zealand - feeling empowered by Lucy's success back at home.

Phoebe found she was closing the gap between them physically and began to think: “If she can do it maybe I can, too.”

After completing her political science and communications degree, Phoebe returned to New Zealand in 2017 and making the national rowing summer squad, and the following year she raced at the world championships in the elite women’s four.  

Being around Lucy, by then a ‘well-established’ rower, accelerated her learning curve.

“Until that point, Lucy had lived away from home since Year 13, so we had only really seen each other at Christmas and for a short summer break each year,” says Phoebe.

“So in a way, rowing has brought us back together, even closer.”

Describing each other’s strengths as rowers, Lucy says Phoebe is really calm under pressure. And her little sister doesn’t realise how strong she is.

“She has more raw power than I have,” she says.

Mentally they’re quite different, Phoebe says. “Lucy’s fiercely competitive, and has a real sense of determination and experience to back that fierceness up.”

Olympic rowing flatmates Olivia Loe, Brook Robertson, Lucy and Phoebe Spoors. Photo: Getty Images. 

The sisters live with Lucy’s partner Brook Robertson and Olivia Loe – rowers who are both Tokyo-bound in the men’s pair and women’s quad respectively.  

The Spoors love being able to debrief at the end of day, constantly checking in with each other.

"It's so nice just to be able to ask each other: 'Is this worth worrying about?'" says Lucy, 30. “Most of the time it’s the other one saying to you ‘You don’t need to worry about that, who cares!’”

Virginia Spoors, mother to the champion rowers, says all three of her daughters are very close. She reflects on how unique it is for Phoebe and Lucy to be in a position that not many sportspeople ever get to experience.

“Their relationship is based on honesty,” says the proud mum. “They’re lucky to have each other and Phoebe really grateful to have had the insights from Lucy coming into the programme.

“They may be sisters but it’s how they fit into the team dynamic that counts.”

Lucy narrowly missed out on going to the Rio Olympics five years ago – her quad crew fell short by three seconds at the final qualifying regatta.

After that, she switched from sculling to sweep oar rowing, and was part of the eights crew who made history winning the world title in 2019.

As the current world champions – with no competition for nearly two years – Lucy knows they have a target on their backs.

“But I’m confident that we’re much better than 2019. We’ve put in a lot of hard work and I do feel prepared,” she says.

The 11-strong NZ rowing eight squad for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

Two years ago, Phoebe was in the women’s quad crew on the World Cup circuit. “I’ve come in and out of the [eights] boat as a reserve over the last few years,” she says. “But as a group we’ve been training really hard together for three years.”

The tight-knit sweep squad have remained largely unchanged over that time. When the boat is at its best, they say it's like a calm, connected unit. 

The Spoors family, including Grace, had planned to be in Tokyo cheering the sisters on – before Covid changed everything. So instead they will be supporting from New Zealand’s Olympic HQ at The Cloud in Auckland with other parents of the women’s eight.

The ability to share the highs and lows of sport as well as help each other achieve their goals is something that the Spoors sisters don’t take for granted.

“We’re incredibly grateful to do this together,” says Phoebe.

Adds Lucy: “To be able to finally say: ‘I’m an Olympian’ is a way of representing how long a journey it’s been for me and how much work we’ve done.

“It feels like the pinnacle.”

* New Zealand's Olympic rowing campaign starts on Friday morning at 11am, live on Sky Sport 3; the women's eight have their heat at midday on Sunday, on Sky Sport 6.

The woman who stitched up our Olympians

Ever wondered about the team behind New Zealand’s Olympic uniform? Rebecca Baker goes behind the scenes to find out what goes on overseeing the design and production of clothing for over 450 Kiwi team members.

When a fraction of the 211 Kiwi athletes who’ll compete in Tokyo march in the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday night, back in Auckland Liane Smithies will be closely watching the cut of their cloth.

At the Olympics, the black uniform with the silver fern is a symbol to which Kiwis feel really connected. It's the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s ethos that our teams and athletes showcase our unique culture and values on the world stage.

Smithies, the NZOC's uniform project manager, and her team of tailors have helped bring that vision to life.

Describing herself as “56 years young”, Smithies trained at a fashion design school and has spent 30 years working in the garment industry, the last six with the NZOC.

The way Smithies sees it, her Olympic event requires a sewing machine, a whole lot of attitude and a big heart. Although it does not grant her medals, it’s still a rewarding, but sometimes brutal, experience.

She believes it's crucial to have the athletes as part of the uniform process, especially when designing the village and podium wear. So she forms focus groups with athletes to voice their opinions.

“I truly believe that we all feel good about ourselves when we’re wearing clothes that we like,” she says. “If we wear clothes we feel dumb in, we don’t feel good about ourselves and we may lose confidence. My role is to make everyone feel good about what they are wearing at the Games.”

Liane Smithies alters opening ceremony trousers for the 2021 NZ Olympic team. Photo: supplied. 

It’s Smithies intention to make a uniform that’s presentable and comfortable for every member of the New Zealand team.

She measures each person and discusses how they wear their garments. Smithies is honest and straight to the point about what looks good and what doesn’t. So the unique “dynamic garments that work” are produced in a swirl of blunt opinions and colourful swearing.

She credits her 16-strong production line as a “well-oiled machine”, who can adapt to any curve ball that’s thrown their way.

“You can’t be a perfectionist because things change all the time,” she says. Instead, adaptability is a key attribute because “the deadlines don’t change and the garments still have to meet high standards.”

For these Olympics, the New Zealand teamwear is dominated by the traditional black, but there are also 'flashes of Pacific blue' in the clothing. New Zealand is written in Japanese script, katakana, as a nod of respect to the host nation. Quick-drying fabrics and white and light grey options have been used to keep athletes cool in what's predicted to be the hottest Olympics yet. 

Flagbearer Hamish Bond in the NZ uniform and Te Māhutonga, the team’s kākahu [cloak]. Photo: Getty Images. 

To the public, Smithies’ job might seem like a dream, but really it’s a hectic nightmare. “I love helping at the Games, but it isn’t a walk in the park as I work solo for up to 30 days straight,” she says.

She jokes that “coming home… exhausted and sleeping in my own bed” is her favourite Olympic memory.

But on a more serious note, watching her production team’s hard work parade before the world at the Olympic opening ceremony is a highlight. “It always gives me goosebumps and brings tears to my eyes,” Smithies says.

Smithies was lucky enough to attend the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games where she worked in the athletes’ village as the alterations guru.

But the strict regulations that have come out of the Covid-19 pandemic mean she’ll be watching from home this time around.

“The majority of the team have been measured and assigned sizes that should fit okay,” Smithies says. “Generally, most athletes will be in the village a shorter time than at other Games, so they can cope if items are not a great fit.”

Still her team put a ‘swaps programme’ in place where spare uniforms have been sent to Tokyo, so athletes can trade uniform items to help get a better fit or in the unlikely case of a uniform malfunction.

Surfer Ella Williams shows off the silver fern on the 2021 NZ Olympic tracksuit. Photo: Getty Images. 

Smithies emphasises the NZOC’s integrity lies at the heart of the organisation. One way this comes through is in her own mantra: “Repair. Reuse. Upcycle.”

Extending a garment's life beyond the Olympics is an important sustainability goal for Smithies. This starts with the design, where she adapts the logo placement and colour of the garment so Olympians will feel comfortable wearing the uniform once the Games are over.

It brings her joy knowing the uniforms aren't going to waste. Whether garments are passed down through the family or donated to people who need them most, they will always have a story to tell.

She believes New Zealand is “a humble country with humble values”, which becomes obvious in the Games Village where the NZOC, in an act of respect and friendship, gift any leftover uniforms to low decile areas of the host country.

Smithies does her part to help other countries on a smaller scale. At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, she watched the Ghana women’s hockey team playing the Black Sticks (NZ won 12-0).

“Their uniform was practically falling off them”, she says, so she helped alter their playing strip afterwards to be more presentable and comfortable for the rest of the competition.

(Above: The label sewn into the New Zealand Olympic team's blazer)

The ethics of NZOC preparation help create a uniform that means more than just a piece of fabric because it honours the athletes and people around them.

Beautiful things can happen, one stitch at a time.

Olympic Bonds: The Ferns keeper and her dive teacher

In the final countdown to the Tokyo Games, our Olympic Bonds series talks to the Football Ferns No.1 goalkeeper, Erin Nayler, who's indebted to her dad for teaching her how to dive.

It all began when Erin Nayler and her dad, Mark, would drag the family’s mattresses off their beds and out onto the back lawn of their home in Whenuapai, on the outskirts of Auckland.

Nayler was 10 years old, an aspiring footballer who’d been put in goal for half a game every week because no one else in her Lynn Avon club team wanted to do it. You know how the story goes.

She decided she wanted to take goalkeeping seriously. She’d already broken her wrist bravely saving a goal.

“I did save it, didn’t I?” she turns and asks her dad, during a rare visit home.

“Yeah, you saved it. And you played out the whole game. We didn’t realise it was broken until afterwards.” She was one tough little girl.

Back then, she asked her dad – one of her two biggest supporters and her toughest critic – to help her learn to dive without landing awkwardly, so she wouldn’t hurt herself again.

“Out came all the mattresses on the grass out the back, and I taught her how to dive without fear,” Mark Nayler recalls. “We progressively pulled the mattresses away till she was just diving on grass.”

It worked. Over the next 19 years, Nayler never broke another bone. And her mum, Diane, never complained about grass-stained mattresses.

Erin Nayler and her dad, Mark, in Auckland at the naming of the NZ football teams for Tokyo. Photo: Suzanne McFadden. 

It wasn’t only Nayler who was leaping and lunging onto bedding in the backyard. Her brothers, Hayden and Cameron, joined in, and they eventually became goalkeepers too (their youngest sister, Katie, didn't want a bar of it).

“I like to claim I was first, right Dad?” Nayler laughs. “I was always trying to dive higher than Hayden. He was very good at it, too. It was always very competitive between us.

“We were all tall, so maybe that’s why we all ended up in goal.” Nayler is 1.76m (5ft 9in) before she stretches out her long levers. “Or maybe we weren’t just very good in the field, now that I think about it…”

But neither of the boys would reach the lofty heights their sister has. In an international career spanning eight years, she’s played 71 games for the Football Ferns, and tended goal for professional club sides in the United States, France and England.

Tokyo will be her second Olympics, kicking off tomorrow night when the Football Ferns play Australia's Matildas, two days before the opening ceremony. 

Her dad remembers spotting Nayler’s abilities soon after she joined in at her brothers’ training sessions, when she was eight.  

“The biggest thing I recognised with Erin was her very, very quick reflexes, and for a keeper that’s a fundamental skill to have. Thankfully, she’s still got them,” he says.

“That’s what sets keepers apart - if they're quick to react, like a racquet sport player. It's really key."

Mark Nayler was never a goalkeeper himself. He spent his football playing days in defence. He knew enough, though, to teach his daughter the basics – first as her school coach, then as a sort-of sideline analyst. “I was able to give her constructive criticism,” he says.

“Yeah, he’s been good - and bad - at times,” Nayler says. “As a kid, I was always asking him for advice, and he would give me very critical advice. Sometimes I wouldn’t want to talk to him after the game.

“But most of the time Dad was really helpful. He helped me to refine parts of my game at a young age, and taught me to really enjoy the game and believe in my goals.”

She knows he’d still be standing behind the goal, urging her on, if he could be.

While Mark was playing the hard-nosed parent, wife Diane (pictured above with their three eldest children) was the softer one.

She was Nayler's No.1 fan, cheering on her daughter at the 2015 World Cup in Canada and the 2016 Rio Olympics. She’d get up at 3am with Mark to watch Nayler play in goal for French club FC Girondins de Bordeaux.

But, sadly, Diane died in April 2018. Just six weeks before Nayler played for the Football Ferns in rare home game with Japan in Wellington - a game her mum would have loved to see her play. 

“Just so you know, Dad is definitely the tough parent,” Nayler says. “Mum would be very upset about me going away to play overseas; she’d always be wanting me to come home. But it’s been great having the balance of them both.”

Mark Nayler says he now tries to be both in Diane’s absence.

“I am the person that I am, but trying to be the person that Diane was isn't easy. I have struggled with that at times,” he says. "But that’s just life isn’t?

For the past four years, Nayler has only been able to make fleeting visits back home, typically only a smattering of days here and there. Her most recent trip was last month, when she returned to train with the Football Ferns before the squad was named for Tokyo. It was the first time she’d been back to New Zealand for a year.

Nayler keeps in touch with her dad regularly through online messaging and video calls. “Thank God for technology,” Mark says.

Erin Nayler saves an attempt from Cameroon's Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene at the 2019 World Cup in France. Photo: Getty Images.  

He tries to keep up with his daughter’s games, though there wasn’t a lot to watch this season - she got to play just one game for the English Women’s Super League club she was contracted to, Reading.

While she spent almost all of a frustrating season on the bench, she was able to focus on her training building up to these Olympics. 

She’s now looking for a new professional club side and would be keen to stay on this side of the Equator – maybe playing in Australia’s W-League (especially if Wellington Phoenix can get a women’s side together) - in the run up to the 2023 World Cup, co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia.

Being that much closer to home would make the Nayler family - and her Kiwi fiancé, Jordan Carter - happy.

When the Football Ferns open New Zealand’s Olympic campaign, playing archrivals Australia in the Tokyo Stadium late Wednesday, there will be no family in the stands. There will, of course, be no-one in the stands in these Covid-stricken Games.

To be honest, Mark Nayler says, he was half-expecting these Olympics to be called off all together.

“But I’ll be up watching every game in the early hours of the morning,” he says. He and Diane went to Japan in 2012, to watch their daughter play in her second U20 World Cup.

Football Ferns keeper Erin Nayler punches the ball clear of Dutch striker Shanice van de Sandren at the 2019 World Cup. Photo: Getty Images.

At 29, she sees herself as an “old hand” in the Football Ferns squad. “I think as a goalkeeper you can tend to last a bit longer than the other players,” she says.

Now she's passing on all the tips and tricks she's learned through her career in an e-book she wrote last year, entitled The Goalkeepers Handbook

After the Rio Games, where New Zealand notched up their first win at an Olympic tournament but couldn't get past the group stage, Nayler wasn’t really looking ahead to the next Games. "You can get injured; anything can happen in that time," she says. "But then Tokyo was on my radar, so it’s a real honour to make the Olympic side again, given the year I’ve had with not so much game time. I can't wait."

She isn’t perturbed that the Football Ferns are in the ‘Pool of Death’ with Australia, World Cup champions the United States and 2016 silver medallists, Sweden.

“Any group you get in the Olympics is going to be tough. And as Kiwis we’re always the underdogs and we step up to the challenge,” she says.  

“It would be great to get some points off Australia first-up. The US are a different kettle of fish, and if we can nick a point, or maybe even three, that would be incredible. But I believe we can do it.”

Mark Nayler is sure he’ll get the chance to watch his daughter play for the Football Ferns, up close again, in the not-too-far-off future.  

“I’d like to see her playing at the next World Cup as well. Just two years away, eh Erin? I’m sure you’ll be in the mix,” he says.  

“I’m football mad [he has a soccer-inspired number plate], so I live vicariously through Erin. She’s done very, very well, and I’m immensely proud of her.” As her mum would be too. 

* The Football Ferns' opening Olympic match against Australia kicks off on Wednesday 11.30pm (NZ time), and will be live on Sky Sport 8. 

Where is she now? Vicky Latta

On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, David Leggat talks with Vicky Latta, the only Kiwi woman to have won two Olympic medals in the challenging sport of three-day eventing. 

Had life taken a little twist in her teens, Vicky Latta’s life may have been more about mastering the world of ballet than eventing.

At one point, the jeté, adagio and arabesque would have been front of her mind, rather than sitting in a saddle trying to master the equine skills needed for the world’s most demanding equestrian circuits.

“You know how kids decide what they want to be? Well, I wanted to be a dancer,” Latta says.

As life turned out, Latta won two Olympic eventing medals - more than any other New Zealand woman has - and has a place in the sport’s pantheon alongside the likes of Sir Mark Todd, Blyth Tait and Andrew Nicholson.

Now 70, and retired from her careers with horses and law, Latta looks back at how she was good enough, at 15, to have the suggestion put to her to travel to the London Royal Ballet School.

But then she heard about a New Zealander a grade ahead of her, a leading pupil in London who'd suffered a fall which ended her budding career.

“She was stunning. The story wasn’t actually true, but she didn’t like the environment and decided she was out of it,” Latta says.

But the injury story stuck in the teenage Latta’s mind. There was the thought: “Your career could be over, then what?”

She'd always loved animals. Living with her parents at Titirangi, she had a pony at 10 and always had cats and dogs.

“Travelling to Newmarket for school, there were paddocks everywhere and I‘d count the horses. Horses always fascinated me,” she says.

Vicky Latta congratulates Broadcast News after the dressage test at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Photo: Stuff. 

In her early teens, life revolved around school, horses, ballet and piano, not necessarily in that order.

“I liked music, wish I’d kept it up, but we had a nun who whacked me over the knuckles if I played a bad note.” Latta didn’t appreciate that.

On finishing school, she settled on law as a “good all-round degree”, joined an Auckland practice and became a partner.

Business was the priority for a time. Equestrian – and she did plenty of showjumping as well as eventing in those days – was done when it could be fitted in.

That changed as her prowess caught national eyes.

Latta made a New Zealand team for a trans-Tasman test at Gawler, South Australia, in 1987 and for around the next decade she was there or thereabouts with the elite New Zealand eventers.

She had a very consistent horse, Match Point, but her real success came when she bought Chief off prominent New Zealand horse personality Merran Hain.

Chief, a New Zealand-bred bay thoroughbred gelding of British and French stock, became one of the world’s best eventers with Latta.

They made the World Games squad for Stockholm in 1990.

Back then travelling across the world with a horse was an expensive business. But, using a ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ philosophy, Latta decided to “have a crack”. Her law partners were supportive, so she thought she’d give it six months and see how it went.

They won their first two events in England, and then were sixth at their first major three-day event at Saumur, France. Off they went to Stockholm and finished a creditable 11th.

They were ninth at the famous Badminton trial in 1991, despite Latta’s misgivings after she’d seen the course – “I wondered why on earth I thought that was a good idea”. Then they were on the Olympic team.

By the time of the Barcelona Games, Chief was ranked among the world’s leading horses and in 1992, the combination was never worse than fourth at any event (including third at Badminton).

Chief and Latta finished fourth in the individual event at the Barcelona Olympics - one place behind bronze medallist Tait - as well as winning silver in the team’s event. That remains New Zealand’s best team result.

The NZ eventing team with bronze from the 1996 Olympics: from left Vaughn Jefferis, Vicky Latta, Blyth Tait and Andrew Nicholson. Photo: Getty Images. 

Those Games are remembered for the disastrous final day’s showjumping leg when Nicholson’s horse, Spinning Rhombus, ploughed over or through several fences, dropping New Zealand out of the gold medal position.

But Latta is a fierce defender of Nicholson’s bad day. As she points out, had she not gone into an incorrectly marked penalty zone, costing 10 points, New Zealand would still have won the gold; ditto for Blyth Tait and Messiah’s lost time penalties.

“Anything slightly different and we’d still have been okay,” Latta says.

She enjoyed the “brillliant” Games in Spain, but that could not be said for Atlanta four years later.

It’s important to remember Latta was an amateur, riding and competing alongside professionals. She and Chief won a creditable six events on the circuit in their time in the United Kingdom.

Chief was then retired in 1995 but Latta had a decent, developing replacement in Broadcast News.

The horse didn’t have a lot of experience but showed encouraging signs and was named in the Olympic squad. “I thought, ‘oh well, we’ll have a crack at it," she says.

Rule changes were brought in, among them the shortening of the cross country in anticipation of serious heat.

Latta and Broadcast News were the best of the New Zealand team on the dressage, but the cross country did them in.

“Andy [Broadcast News’ nickname] was a bit ‘ditchy’ – not a fan of ditches — and as we approached about the sixth fence it had a big ditch. I tapped him on the shoulder and he obviously felt ‘sod that’,” she recalls.

“At the next fence [a double] I checked him back to steady him and he launched. He jumped the first fence but landed at the foot of the second and hit his nose on a concrete pipe. I went sailing over his head as he stopped suddenly and that was that.”

Still, she received her team bronze medal, along with Tait, Nicholson and Vaughn Jefferis. Tait and Sally Clark won the individual quinella as New Zealand reinforced their status among the world’s best eventing nations.

Vicky Latta spent a decade riding at the pinnacle of eventing. Photo: David Leggat.

The dreadful exchange rate at that time meant Latta either had to turn professional, which she didn’t fancy, or head home.

She’d had 10 years at the top and “it was quite hard going. I decided I probably wasn’t as keenly competitive [as others] and it was time to get out really,” she says.

Regrets? No, she’d had a terrific career and had been an integral part of New Zealand’s best period in the sport, even to this day.

Chief was going to come home too, but the fare to transport him went up, so he found a new job in England, babysitting yearlings. Latta reasoned if he was happy, it would give her a chance to visit.

He was put down at 28 in 2006, due to stomach growths which could not be controlled.

As for Latta, she did a stint as the New Zealand team manager, highlighted by winning a swag of medals in the teams and individual events at the World Games in Rome in 1998, including gold for the eventing team, and individual gold and silver for Tait and Todd respectively. Under Latta’s stewardship, that still stands among the greatest single World Games achievement by any nation.

She admits she felt a bit ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ in that role and no doubt her former team-mates probably thought she might be a pushover to getting their way on important decisions. Somehow you’d doubt that with this intelligent, determined woman at the helm.

Latta went back into practice, doing IT and sports law for another six years.

For the past 10 years, she’s been the secretary of the Carbine Club – which raises funds for the disabled sport - having been one of the first six women admitted; she's also a life member.

Latta has little to do directly with the sport now, but she has much to reflect on with pride and satisfaction. 

She would have been keen to stay involved and help school young horses and riders. However, as she points out ruefully, when you’re in the saddle “you don’t bounce so well as you get older”.

* Twelve New Zealanders have won Olympic eventing medals; six of them are women – Margaret Knighton, Tinks Pottinger, Latta, Sally Clark, Caroline Powell and Jonelle Price. Latta is the only one with two of them.    

Why Chance is a fine thing for Football Ferns in Tokyo

When Football Fern Liv Chance suffered a serious knee injury in England, she wondered how she'd ever return to international football. Now she's a pillar in the NZ side at the Tokyo Olympics. 

Liv Chance is lying in her hospital bed, hours after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery, and she tells her boyfriend how she’s going to get back up again.

First of all, she’s going to learn to walk again after her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) repair. Her longer-term targets are to be selected in the Football Ferns squad for the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France, and to start every game.

In and out of the Ferns squad since making her debut in 2011, Chance admits those goals felt like make-believe.   

“After my surgery thinking about playing again felt like an impossible dream,” says the now 27-year-old. “It was important to take it a day at a time and set small achievable goals. It was getting off one crutch, and then no crutches, and then walking and then building up to running again.”  

When the midfielder ruptured her ACL playing for Everton in June 2018, the World Cup was 12 months away.

But Chance set about achieving those seemingly impossible goals. And for nine months she was fully committed to her rehabilitation.   

Football Ferns coach Tom Sermanni has been impressed by Chance’s thoroughness, focus and discipline.

“She put everything necessary in place to make a full recovery in as short a time as possible, without cutting corners,” he says.

Liv Chance says she had her good days and bad days in her rehab from an ACL reconstruction. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek

Chance went onto achieve both of her goals at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France and was one of New Zealand’s best players. Sermanni describes her as a natural leader.  

“One quality that stood out in France was her confidence to back herself and keep looking to get on the ball, even when under pressure,” he says.  “She also showed a great willingness to make forward runs and support our strikers. Liv’s shown great character and is a real asset to our team.”

Now two years, on Chance is looking to back up her impressive World Cup performance at the Tokyo Olympics, as the Ferns take on the might of Australia, USA and Sweden.  

“It’s going to be a huge challenge. We’re not favourites, but we know that football is a funny game, and anything is possible,” she says.

‘The best moment in my football career’

Chance remembers standing in the tunnel of the Le Havre Stadium in France in 2019, as the Ferns prepared to take on the European champions, the Netherlands, in their opening World Cup game.

The noise was deafening.

Adrenalin and nerves were coursing through her body as she took the hand of a young French girl who was her player escort ahead of her World Cup debut.  

“It was a surreal and incredible feeling, and without doubt my best moment in football,” she says.   

“It’s that moment that all footballers long for. To be on the world stage representing your friends and family and your country. There is nothing better.”  

Chance almost capped a dream debut when her shot in the 12th minute hit the crossbar and came out. She’s known for those sorts of moments.

Chance scored a stunning goal for the Brisbane Roar in the semifinals of the W-League this season, and now wants to show her quality on the world stage.  

Brisbane Roar's Liv Chance (centre) makes her way out of a Melbourne Victory sandwich during the 2021 W-League semifinal. Photo: Getty Images.

“My goal is to be a complete, confident player,” she says. “Tom has backed me and given me the confidence that I needed a little bit. I needed a push and he said: ‘Do what you like to do and be the player that you want to be’.”

Sermanni says Chance brings some unique qualities to the team: “She has great vision and ability to produce passes that open defences and create chances. She also has a knack of scoring special goals.”

Down and out

Chance vividly recalls the moment she ruptured her ACL in 2018 while playing for Everton away to Reading in the Women’s Super League in England.

One of the Reading defenders kicked a long ball down field, and Chance chased it. The player she was marking had a bad first touch, Chance was ahead of her, and the opposing player hit her from behind.

“I wasn’t concerned, but two days later we thought we’d get a scan just to be sure. It showed a partial tear of my ACL which was enough for surgery,” Chance says.

She had set her rehab goals but was frustrated when she didn’t have the resources and support at the Everton Women’s Football Club to achieve them.

This is a common problem – women’s teams are often under-resourced, and that support can be the difference between a successful return to sport or a re-rupture of the ACL.

The rehab specialist for the Everton men’s team, Matt Taberner, noticed how poor Chance’s development was at that stage of her rehab and he took over. It was a game-changer.

“I spent nearly every day with him for eight months leading into the World Cup and that support changed my mentality,” she says.  

Tauranga-born Liv Chance is in line to make her Olympic football debut in Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images. 

The minimum time for an ACL reconstruction rehabilitation is nine months. Chance was able to achieve hers in nine months in a professional environment. For younger athletes it’s recommended to delay a full return to sport until at least 12 months post-surgery.

Chance says coming back from a serious injury has its ups and downs and one day she saw red.

“I was supposed to start running on the field, and I had been building up to it for months - but it was snowing outside and so all the fields were closed. I was so pissed off…  but I got over it,” she laughs.

ACL injuries in female footballers

Chance isn’t alone when it comes to suffering an ACL injury.

ACC statistics showed between 2008 and 2017, there was an increase of 120 percent in the number of girls aged 15 to 19 that had ACL reconstruction surgery.

ACL injuries have become more prevalent in 10 to 19-year-old females, where previously this injury was seen as a professional sports injury.

ACC injury prevention partner Nat Hardaker says the evidence shows the greater prevalence of ACL injuries in females is in part due to the neuromuscular strength deficit girls tend to develop as they go through puberty.  

“This doesn’t get adequately addressed as they continue to progress through to higher levels of their sport, so we often find that girls aren’t as physically prepared to cope with the increased demands of the game,” she says.

“There’s also a genetic component which further highlights the importance of developing functional strength as the primary strategy for preventing these injuries.”

Sermanni, who’s coached at the highest level of football for more than 40 years, has seen many female players damage their ACLs. “The mechanics of the female body seem to make them more susceptible to ACL injuries than their male counterparts,” he says.

When asked what she does differently since her ACL injury, Chance replied: “Everything”.

“I thought I was invincible when I was young,” she says. “I thought ‘I’ll be fine’. Now I take better care of my body. Every time I train and play, I do my pre-activations and I warm-up properly with a dynamic warm-up like the ‘FIFA 11+’ warm-up. It’s a habit now.”  

Liv Chance with her parents, Alison and Brent Bell, at the naming of the Football Ferns side for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek.

Chance says the support that ACC and High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) offers players in their recoveries from injury is massive.

“To know that they are taking care of you during a really hard time is so important,” she says. “It can be a lonely journey as a player when you’re injured, so it’s great to keep connected.”

ACC supports NZ Football to integrate player welfare and injury prevention into everything they do to ensure players optimise their health and performance.

Don’t take your body for granted

Chance encourages all young women footballers to get into the habit of warming up properly and doing activations with bands and stretching.

“Football is a game where there are lots of changes in direction and jumping so you need to be ready for that,” she says. “If you feel like you’re not stable on your landing, then it’s about repetition and building up that strength. We all have weaknesses in our bodies, so it’s just a matter of identifying them and strengthening those areas.”

She says it’s crucial to stay patient and hang in there during the rehabilitation.

“It is a rollercoaster journey coming back from a serious injury. You’ll have good days and bad days,” she says. “It’s important to reach out to people who’ve done their ACL and been in that position because they’ll be able to help you.”  

But above all, Chance says, prevention is the best approach. “Don’t take your body for granted,” she says. “The cost of a major injury is huge and you want to do everything you can to prevent injury so it doesn’t impact on your football and your life.”

Next Wednesday, Chance will be back, waiting in the tunnel ready to represent New Zealand on the world stage again.

* The Football Ferns' opening Olympic match against Australia's Matildas is on Wednesday 11.30pm (NZ time), and will be live on Sky Sport 8. 

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