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Giving the Black Ferns a World Cup they deserve

Michelle Hooper, tournament director for the 2022 Rugby World Cup, talks to Ashley Stanley in part two of LockerRoom’s video series, The Big Four, where we meet the women leading the four global sporting events in New Zealand over the next two years - three World Cups and the IWG Women and Sport conference.

One of the greatest motivators for Michelle Hooper to run the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand was to make sure the Black Ferns - five-time world champions - got to play in front of packed houses.  Because, she says, they deserve so much.

"They deserve every New Zealander to know all of their names. They deserve to be able to come to a stadium like Eden Park and everyone's cheering for them. Because look at what they've done for our country," says Hooper, the director of the 2022 world tournament.

"And now they've got the chance to defend it on home soil. That's just outstanding, you know? I think equally the players coming here from overseas, playing a Rugby World Cup here in New Zealand is the holy grail of rugby for those players."

Hooper has filled stadiums before. The girl who started as a volunteer at Team New Zealand in their 2000 defence of the America's Cup went on to be general co-ordinator of the 2014 FIFA Girls Youth Olympics in China, and competition director of the 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup in Auckland.

This will be her fourth Rugby World Cup - in the 2011 tournament she ran all the matches at Eden Park, in 2015 she was match commissioner at England's Twickenham ground, and she was called in to help deliver the last men's World Cup in Japan in 2019.

In episode two of our series, The Big Four, Hooper admits she faced a "very, very difficult" decision postponing this World Cup for a year because of Covid-19. "The threshold for risk is too great for the tournament to take part this year. And when you look at the opportunities in 2022, they're much better. It's going to be amazing." 

* You can watch part one, Andrea Nelson and the ICC Cricket World Cup 2022, here.  Next Friday: Jane Patterson, COO for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup

Silver Fern Maddy Gordon gets thumbs up to run

The latest Silver Fern, Maddy Gordon has had to learn not to over-train, and is primed for the start of the ANZ Premiership this weekend. 

Her alarm goes off at 6am and Maddy Gordon is up and out of her bed, putting on her running shoes and dashing out the door.  

Moments later she is charging up the hills around Miramar, overlooking stunning ocean views on a cool and beautiful Wellington morning. This is her happy place.

“I love it here,” says the 21-year-old, who grew up in Whangarei, and last month made her debut for the Silver Ferns.

“I pride myself on being fit and I love pushing myself. It’s a great feeling to get out for an early morning run over the hills and take in the amazing views we have down here.” 

It's not that long ago Gordon would get in trouble for overtraining - always going for a run on her days off.

These days she talks to Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse's strength and conditioning coach Adam Allen and physio Nikki Lynch, and if she feels underdone that week, she gets the thumbs up.

“I love it when I get the all-clear for a run. It’s good for my soul,” she says.  “But I’ve also learnt the importance of rest and recovery. I make sure I’m not overdoing it so when it comes to time to perform, I'm ready.”

Gordon is looking to back up a breakthrough season for the Central Pulse where they defended their ANZ Premiership title. Her standout performances in the midcourt saw her earn her Silver Ferns test debut against Australia.

Maddy Gordon makes her Silver Ferns debut in their 2021 Constellation Cup victory over Australia's Diamonds. Photo: Getty Images. 

Becoming Silver Fern No.177 was a surreal feeling for her.

“It came around much sooner than I expected. I didn’t think I would be this young,” she says.  “I remember just standing out on court and it dawned on me that I was achieving a lifetime goal. It was so exciting and I want to build on that.”

The speedy and hard-working midcourter has a big future ahead of her. Last season she was at the heart of the Pulse’s title winning season, adjusting to a new role at wing attack.

“I love the speed and agility of the position. The short, sharp play suits my style of play and I'm hoping to keep progressing there,” she says. “My goal is to learn all three [midcourt] positions well and own them.”

NetballSmart director Sharon Kearney says Gordon is one of the brightest netball prospects in New Zealand.

“Maddy moves well, hard and fast and does this repeatedly during a game – a bit like a terrier, I suppose. And to do that she needs to be strong, athletic, and fit,” says Kearney, who was physio for the Silver Ferns for 16 years.

“Maddy likes to challenge herself. She understands that to play the game she wants to and keep injury-free, she needs to be able to cope with the demands of the game and by covering all elements of fitness, strength, core and recovery, she’s able to achieve this.”

Gordon made a bold call to move south and chase her dream to be a regular in the Silver Ferns.

She grew up in Northland and moved to Auckland for the last two years of high school before coming to the capital. 

“I didn’t enjoy it in Auckland and my netball didn’t go anywhere. I wanted to make progress, so I made the call to go to Wellington purely because of the coaches – Yvette [McCausland-Durie], Wai [Taumaunu], Sandy Edge and Irene [van Dyk]. They are great coaches and good people,” she says.

“We played Wellington before and they would always beat us. I knew something good was happening down here and I wanted to be part of it. I absolutely love it here and wouldn’t change a thing.”

Maddy Gordon was a stand-out player for the Pulse in last year's rejigged ANZ Premiership. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

Gordon is focused on the short-term and helping the Pulse get off to a good start as they look to defend their title for a third season running. They have a few new faces in the line-up this season, with Whitney Souness returning to the midcourt from a season with the Magic, and newcomers Parris Mason and Paris Lokotui bringing a fresh new vibe to the side. 

Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio will be missing from the side for their first-up clash with the Stars in Palmerston North on Sunday, as she is suffering ongoing fatigue. 

The Pulse are the only team in the ANZ Premiership with a new coach - former Scotland coach Gail Parata returning home and replacing McCausland-Durie.

“We find that most other teams are up for it when we play them, and they put up their best performance against us. It’s always a good challenge and we’ll be ready,” Gordon says.

A big part of her success, she says, has been staying injury-free. She is a big believer in the ACC NetballSmart warm up which the Pulse do every time they play and train.

“NetballSmart is ideal because it incorporates all of the movements we do in the game. We do a lot of jumping and landing and the prop and stick movements, as well as stopping, which gets us game ready.”

She says the increased investment of ACC into the injury prevention programme NetballSmart - $3.6m over the next three years – is great for the game and ensures the wellbeing of netballers all over New Zealand.

A recent 10-year nationwide review of netball injuries revealed a 120 percent increase in the number of 15 to 19-year-old girls having anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery.

Gordon says the cost of a major injury is huge, both in terms of recovery and on the player’s livelihood. 

The impact of NetballSmart has shown a steady decline in the rate of ACL injuries and overall a decrease in rate of all injuries in netball since 2014.

“NetballSmart is so important for our young players,” she says.  “We need to bed in these good habits for players early in their development. When I was young, I just wanted to go out and play.

“But as I have got older, I've realised how important it is to look after your body. I know I need to be fit, strong, move and land well and recover fully. I haven't had any major injuries and I put that down to being 'NetballSmart'. The more you can invest in your body the better you will be in the long-term.”

Emma Gilmour waits for extreme rallying call

One of the world's fastest female rally drivers, Emma Gilmour is biding her time to race in the radical new Extreme E series by competing in the NZ Rally Championship.

As a kid, Emma Gilmour would hold on tight in the back seat of the family car while her mechanic dad, Alistair, would drive fast. Legally, of course.

Still prone to car sickness as a passenger, she eventually found her equilibrium behind the wheel. That quick driving by dad, she reckons, is why she took to rally driving like a duck takes to water.

So you’d imagine Gilmour felt like she was in the back seat again when watching, half a world away, her team’s electric SUV rolling at the bottom of a sand dune in the Saudi Arabian desert - crashing out of the first event of Extreme E, the world’s latest motorsport series.

Gilmour, recognised as one of the fastest female rally drivers in the world, was back at home in Dunedin – waiting for the call-up to join her Veloce Racing team in the radical electric off-road racing series.

She’s a reserve woman driver for Veloce, one of nine teams in the new Extreme E series, which travels around the globe racing in very remote places devastated by the effects of climate change. It’s motorsport with an environmental message, and also the world’s first gender-equal motorsport series (two women, two men in each team).

“It was exciting to watch from afar, but it’s kind of frustrating too,” Gilmour says. “It’s really, really exciting to be invited, but I’m not quite there yet.”

Covid-19 and border restrictions have made it more difficult for Gilmour to get there. But as she waits to hear if she’ll be flown over to race on the beaches of Dakar, Senegal, for the next round of the series next month, Gilmour won’t be sitting on the couch.

She’s racing in the New Zealand Rally Championship, starting with this weekend’s Otago Rally as a hometown favourite in her beloved Suzuki Swift.

The 41-year-old Gilmour, who’s been tearing up the gravel for half of her life, still dreams of becoming a full-time driver on the world stage. And she knows she’s never been closer to it.

But for now, she will keep running her car dealership, Gilmour Motors Suzuki, that’s been in the family for decades, and racing on New Zealand’s back roads she knows so well.

Emma Gilmour has had 12 months to fine-tune her rebuilt Suzuki Swift before the Otago Rally, starting tomorrow. Photo: Fast Exposure 

“In a perfect world, I would be a fulltime driver in the Extreme E, the world would return to normal and I could travel to races, but still rally here in New Zealand. I could be part-time with my business, and I could teach road safety,” she says.

“It’s kind of strange for me having a day job at a desk one day then whizzing along on the gravel at 160 km per hour the next. My body’s thinking ‘What the hell, lady?’

“But I still get such a buzz from it. It always surprises me when people say: ‘When are you going to give up?’”

Because she’s in the prime of her driving life, and has never felt better behind the wheel.

***

Growing up in Dunedin, Gilmour got her first horse at eight.

“Mum and Dad weren’t horsey at all, but they supported me and my sister’s equestrian dreams,” she says. Gilmour represented Otago in eventing, and dreamed of riding for New Zealand at the Olympics.

But while studying design at the University of Otago, Gilmour had an obstinate young horse that began rearing up. She was terrified. “I just decided, 'No I’m out, I don’t want to do this anymore',” she says. “I'd had friends who’d suffered broken hips and head injuries.

“Now that’s a really gutsy sport. Rally driving may be dangerous, but no, horse riding is much more dangerous.

“It was the best decision. There’s no point doing something if your heart’s no longer in it.”

Always active, she had a go at mountain bike riding and trail bike racing, and started navigating in rally cars for her cousin Gwynn, and sister Monica (“she gave up horses before me,” she says).

Then she thought she’d try her hand at driving. She bought her cousin’s car – a Mitsubishi Evo 3 - and raced in the Targa Bambina tarmac rally in 2002.

She was 22 and her dad was her co-driver – this time he had to hold on. She was fast, winning the 4WD class at her first attempt.

Emma Gilmour has raced internationally in rally, rallycross and cross country rallying. Photo: Trev Hill

“When I started, I saw the car like a big two-tonne object. Now I get a thrill out of making it dance on gravel from corner to corner,” she says.

Gilmour quickly found similarities between horses and rally cars. First there’s the speed and adrenalin buzz, mixed with a little danger. Whether you’re on a horse or in a fast car, you get all the feel through your seat, she explains.

“Riding was great for developing resilience. In all sport, it doesn’t matter how well you prepare, you can do everything in your favour and still have a bad day.”

Her driving style has been described as “aggressive, smooth and committed”.

“Early on in my career, I was focused on the wins. But now it’s the people you meet and the experiences you have that are the best part of this sport,” she says.

***

Gilmour had hoped she would get to see more of the world through the Extreme E series.

The unique motorsport event was the brainchild of Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag, who was involved in Formula One and came up with Formula E, the open-wheel electric racing series. This off-road series is billed as “the race for the planet”; its aim, to reinvent motorsports as an environmental force for good.

It’s raced in zero-omission ‘Odyssey 21’ vehicles, that look like overgrown electric buggies, in far-flung corners of the world. The final three rounds will be raced amongst the retreating Arctic ice in Greenland, the cleared Amazon rainforest in Brazil and the fast-melting glaciers of Patagonia’s Tierra del Fuego.

The Veloce Racing team car, before crashing out of the Saudi Arabian round of the inaugural Extreme E series. Photo: Steven Tee.

And it’s attracted some of the sport’s great names – two-time world rally champion Carlos Sainz, rally’s most crowned driver, Sébastian Loeb, and Formula One champion Jenson Button.

When the Extreme E series was first announced last year, Gilmour was signed up as the No.1 female driver for a team, “but its funding fell over and I was absolutely gutted,” she says. “I still had people pushing my name forward and Veloce wanted me as their reserve driver. It’s good to have a foot in the door.”

She’s reserve to British driver Jamie Chadwick, who won the inaugural W Series - the all-female single-seater racing championship - back in 2019. It was their French male driver, Stéphane Sarrazin, who rolled their SUV after hitting a patch of camel grass in the first qualifying round of the first event in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, earlier this month.

“It damaged the roll cage of the vehicle, which compromises the structural integrity of the car, so you can’t keep racing,” Gilmour explains. “So they were out for the whole weekend. It’s tough when they’d travelled all that distance.

“The series is just so challenging. From the cool concept of Extreme E to the remote locations and racing without leaving a trace. And levelling the playing field with everyone seeing the racecourse for the first time together.

“With circuit races you could stay on a simulator for weeks before and know the course like the back of your hand.”

Emma Gilmour's Veloce team-mate, Jamie Chadwick, winning the first-ever W Series. Photo: Getty Images. 

***

Gilmour says being a woman has given her career opportunities some male drivers haven’t had, to build an impressive CV in global rallying, rallycross and cross country driving.

“As a woman, people remember you; you stand out,” she says.

She was the first woman in the world to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross in 2014, with fellow Kiwi Rhys Millan (cars racing on a dirt track built up inside a stadium) and was the only female to make the final of the X Games.

Gilmour was then crowned the top driver of the FIA Women in Motorsport cross country rally selection after a desert rally training camp in Qatar in 2015. The following year she became the first female to win an event in the NZ Rally Championship, dominating the Rally of Canterbury.

But there’s a flipside to the opportunities she’s taken up. “You’re often there as the marketing piece, so you don’t always get the best equipment - you’re not given the opportunity to win. You’re just the girl competing,” she says.  

“In Qatar I was driving over sand and a wheel disappeared into the countryside.

“But the way I see life, if you have a chance at doing something, but haven’t got the best car, you still go out and do it. It’s better than sitting on the couch.”

She sees the best way to prepare for the Extreme E series is to drive. And she won’t be just ‘the girl competing’ in the NZ Rally Championship.

“I’ve had a few reliability issues over the last few seasons with my car. We did a big rebuild at the start of 2020, and then Covid hit,” she says.

“But that’s given us another 12 months to fine-tune the car. It’s going better than ever, and I’m driving better than I have before.   

“When you’re younger, you can be pushed around. It takes a while as a woman to find your feet and make your mark.”

And she won’t be alone – she’s one of five female drivers in a record entry field of 114 starting the Otago Rally tomorrow.

World BMX champ veers away for mental health

Olympic hopeful Jessie Smith has battled a loss of confidence - going from junior BMX world champion to 'riding like a five-year-old' - and chosen to take a break from the sport.

Jessie Smith is used to riding the bumpy road of a BMX track. 

The 2019 junior world BMX champion has been travelling and competing around the globe since the age of 11 and was en route to qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. 

But the 19-year-old has also been dealing with her own mental highs and lows off the track. 

After silently battling away for over a year, Smith has made the call to steer away from the sport and the New Zealand high performance pathway. For now.

“I think at the end of the day, your happiness should always come first, and I let my mental wellbeing slip for well over 15 months which was really hard,” says Smith.

“But like people always say, the shit you go through is what makes you a lot stronger and I’d like to think I’ve learnt quite a bit about myself along the way.”

Smith is referring to the slippery slope she found herself riding after experiencing a major crash in 2019, which left her hospitalised in Japan for over a week with a ruptured spleen. She was training in Tokyo in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympic Games.

“I noticed I wasn’t riding like I used to. I wasn’t feeling good and I wasn’t really doing any big jumps,” recalls the four-time world champion. “I was super scared of doing everything. From going fast to doing big manuals, I was really afraid.”

The fear of riding has always been there but Smith says overthinking her last move in 2019 got in the way, causing her to crash in Tokyo.

Jessie Smith is no stranger to crashes in BMX, like this one at the 2013 world champs in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images.

“I know how good of a rider I am so when I made that massive mistake, it kind of imprinted in me. So I wasn’t really doing any big jumps and I wasn’t progressing,” she says. “I stayed like that up until now.”

She likens the drop in confidence to going from junior world champion to riding like a five-year-old. “I was battling with that every day,” says the eight-time New Zealand champion.

Even after recovering physically from the incident, her mental health remained shattered. Smith was turning up to training and race days with a deflated mindset. 

“In my head I was like ‘There's no way I’m going to be able to do what I know I can, or what I used to do, so what's the point?’,” she says. “I tried so many psychologists to help with that fear and my crazy thoughts and stuff, but nothing was really clicking until the end of last year.”

Smith found Taylor Rapley of ĀHUA Psychology in Wanaka, a mental skills coach who was able to make sense of things for her. Rapley also represented New Zealand in alpine skiing for nearly 10 years. 

Her practice is about mindfulness and using awareness to allow people to be uncomfortable with their thoughts, says Smith.

“It’s not about changing your thoughts or emotions, because I just hated them. I wanted to avoid my thoughts and emotions at pretty much all cost,” she says. “But once I actually sat with them, I realised ‘Wow, I’m really unhappy’. And I'm not enjoying the sport I’m meant to love which was really hard.”

It was difficult because Smith thought she needed to always enjoy what she was doing. But with the help of Rapley she learned that’s not the case. Before connecting with her, things were constantly going up and down for a while, says Smith: “I was in a really depressed and really anxious state. 

“But I just thought I should keep on going and keep pushing. I thought ‘This is what everyone goes through’, ‘This is the athlete's life’ - which is really shit to say.” 

"I felt the top people would see and they’d be like ‘Oh, she’s just a weak link, we don’t need her’."

It wasn’t until she spoke with her good friend, Tori Peeters - a performance excellence coach at St Peters School in Cambridge and the 2020 javelin national champ - that things started to become clearer.

“She could just see I was all over the show but I didn’t want to admit it,” Smith says. “I was so good at avoiding everything. She was like ‘Mate, you’ve got to do something. “And that’s when I pretty much started to want to get better. I was like ‘Wow, this is bad’. I want to change, I don’t want to keep going like this.” 

Smith has been investing in her wellbeing ever since. But admits the biggest hurdle is wanting to help yourself otherwise nothing is going to change. “When I was working with my other psychologist, I didn’t really want to get better, I just thought I’ll keep pushing through it,” she says.

A strong support crew of women - including Peeters, hammer thrower Julia Ratcliffe, rower Emma Twigg, cyclist Emma Cumming, and chair of the NZ Olympic Committee's Athletes’ Commission, Sarah Cowley Ross - are the reasons why Smith stayed in the sport for so long after the 2019 crash. “I love training with them in the gym,” she says. 

Emma Twigg (left), Julia Ratcliffe, Tori Peeters and Jessie Smith supporting Ratcliffe. Photo: supplied.

When she opened up to the group about her struggles, they were supportive of the young athlete and mentioned their friendships were strong regardless of whether she was riding or not.

Smith is now splitting her time between working as a mountain bike coach, a convenor at St Peters School and labouring. She'll also pick up coaching a hockey team at St Peters this year and hopes to work towards her teaching degree so she can pursue her love for outdoor education. 

Letting her family know about her decision to step away from the sport was another big step for Smith. “I've never actually spoken to my family about anything that goes on in my head,” she says. “Because I was always like ‘This is my problem, no need to worry or stress them out’. 

“But as soon as I sent the message, I got a lot of tautoko [support] and love from them that I always knew I had. I’m just really grateful to have incredible friends and family that I can lean on for support.”

Even though her inner circle have been encouraging, Smith admits being in a high performance programme is really hard while “trying to be a human being.” 

“Because you're also trying to be a professional athlete, trying to be the best you can be," she says. "But obviously when you get injured or something, you go to physio and when you are struggling with your performance stuff, you go to your sport psych.

“But it's not like you're going to turn around to your support crew and your coach and stuff and be like ‘Look, I’m really struggling'.

"Some will do that. But I never really wanted to do that because I felt the top people would see and they’d be like ‘Oh, she’s just a weak link, we don’t need her’."

Jessie Smith celebrates victory in the junior women's elite at the 2019 world championships in Belgium. Photo: supplied.

Smith says hopefully that’s something that will change in the minds of other athletes and possibly a change in the environment is needed to encourage that shift simultaneously.  “It might allow athletes to actually be open and honest because I think if I was able to do that, maybe I would’ve felt less pressure.”

High Performance Sport New Zealand have recently launched their 2024 strategy with initiatives focusing on athlete welfare. 

Smith practices mental wellbeing now by being present and aware of her thoughts and emotions throughout the day. She’ll stop to look around and notice small details. “That just brings your awareness to the ‘now’. Like ‘I’m here now; this is what I’m doing now; and I’m only as good as I can be right now',” she says. 

“There’s no point in thinking well into the future or well into the past. You just need to live in the now and be grateful for what you've got. Whereas before I had no idea what was going on. I can't even remember a lot of things because I wasn’t there, I wasn’t present.” 

Rapley also guided Smith to learn more about her thoughts and emotions instead of suppressing them. Now, she can break down her thoughts by relating them back to core values she's identified.

“I created my values and one of them was self-compassion and self-kindness, which I never really practised before,” says Smith. “I’m a perfectionist and I always want to be good and perfect at everything. I’m also a people pleaser.” 

These traits meant Smith would form negative, unnecessary, false ideas in her head. “When I’d be riding it would be stuff like ‘You’re shit, you’re never going to get better, you might as well quit', all that bad stuff. And it's so true what people say, what you think is what you become,” she says.

“I was just thinking negatively, thinking really bad things. And then that affected my emotions and that affected my behaviour and it just spiralled from there.” 

Actively practising these skills around her mental health will hopefully see Smith back in BMX further down the track, when the time is right. 

She hasn’t quit the sport completely, she says. “Hopefully I can find that passion and love for the sport again because there is no point in trying to commit to a sport that you're only going to put 50 percent in. That’s what I was doing. And that’s not me. I want to give 100 percent.”

The Olympic Games in Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 (if BMX is included in that edition) will suit Smith if she’s in a better position to put her best foot forward. Plus she already knows what it takes to be in an Olympic cycle. 

“I’ll have some pretty good skills to back me and I know I’m an amazing BMXer so those skills won't go away,” she says. “It’ll just be building back up the courage and a bit of fitness.”

Showjumper's dream ride - from orphanage to Olympics

From humble beginnings in Siberia, Taupo teenager Annabel Francis has taken the New Zealand showjumping world by storm and is on the verge of her first Olympics.

There’s a couple of things which make Annabel Francis stand out in her world of showjumping.

The first is physical. As her coach, Jeff McVean, cryptically put it, “She’s not small; she’s tiny”.

Her mother, Debbie, says she’s 1.56m tall, and that might be on her tip-toes.  So McVean’s on the money. Francis tips the scales at 42kg.

The second thing is her utter determination to succeed in a tough, gruelling sport. She has buckets of it and now, at just 18, she’s eyeing a trip to the Tokyo Olympics later this year, assuming it goes ahead.

Overall victory in the six-event World Cup showjumping series, including the finals in Auckland earlier this year, confirmed her distinct promise. She is one of the top New Zealand-based Olympic hopefuls.

And to show that was no fluke, Francis finished her season last weekend with victory at the Premier League series finals championship show in Masterton, aboard her German import La Quinara – or ‘Queenie’ - where she won three series crowns as well as picking up minor placings.

She added the title to an already bulging trophy cabinet that also includes the World Cup NZ Series, the Young Rider Series and the Top-ranking Mare award from the weekend.

“I just had a feeling this would be my season,” she says. “It really has been a good one.”

You could say.

Oh yes, then there’s her backstory, which is far removed from that of her friends and rivals.

Francis was born in Russia. Debbie brought her to New Zealand from an orphanage in Novokuznetsk in Siberia. She was just three months old.

Debbie Francis and daughter Annabel. Photo: supplied. 

Older sister, Charlotte, had been adopted from an orphanage in Archangel in north-west Russia. She was nine months at the time and Debbie then returned a year-and-a-half later for Annabel.

Her husband, noted Canterbury horse man Wayne Francis, had died of cancer and they had been trying to have children.

One day she confided in a friend that above all she wanted children. “She said there’s plenty of children out there who need a mother,” Debbie recalls.

Within New Zealand, officials categorised her as a single mother, although widowed, and therefore ineligible to adopt.

“That annoyed me. I thought that was a stupid thing,” she says. “So I thought, okay I’ll find somewhere that doesn’t mind, and I had the wherewithal to support the children.”

She contacted the Inter-Country Adoption New Zealand, or ICANZ, in Auckland.

It took a couple of years before she was cleared to collect Charlotte, who is now 20. It was a lengthy process and Debbie admits there were times she had worries about what on earth she was doing. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have them.”

And she makes it clear she was not rescuing the girls from desolate, poverty-stricken environments out of a Dickens novel.

“The children were warm, well fed, and had lovely toys. It was like walking into your mother’s kitchen, lovely smells, homemade cooking. It wasn’t a horror story,” Debbie Francis says.

Fast forward through a good education, primarily in Christchurch, before the family moved north to Kinloch, on the western side of Lake Taupo. The move was to enable Annabel to be in a better location for her showjumping development.

At St Margaret’s College in Christchurch, Annabel had her first significant decision to make: she showed promise at a couple of sports, notably gymnastics - which involved a heavy time commitment in a national squad environment - along with school and the horses.

“When she was about 10, I said ‘you’re going to have to make a choice. You can’t do justice to riding and gym,” Debbie says.

Annabel was torn, so Debbie said: “What would you hate to not have in your life?”

“She went away, thought about it and came back and said: ‘It’s the horses’.”

Riding Carado GHP, Annabel Francis clears a fence in the Silver Fern Stakes at the 2020 Horse of the Year in Hastings. Photo: Getty Images. 

The sisters were surrounded by them. Mum had been a dressage rider and there were stables. Debbie laughs: “The poor child had no choice, really”.

Such has been Annabel’s progress since then, she is now within reach of realising an Olympic dream. Charlotte, now 20, also rides but is now studying veterinary science.

Despite their genetic backgrounds, they are “proper sisters”, their mother says. “They’ve got each other’s back, they’re great friends, they fight over clothes, things like that.”

Annabel did correspondence school after moving north. “But I thought horses were a fulltime job for me, so I stopped doing school,” she says.

She jumped at the top level for the first time at the Wairoa Show in 2018 – “I was nervous, but got third and knew I could definitely compete.”

Usually Olympic equestrian teams have a large overseas-based component. But Covid has had a seriously detrimental effect to events around Europe, with cancellation of annual events around the continent, so form is a tricky element to assess.

New Zealand have qualified a team of four – three, plus one substitute, who can be called on in the event of injury or illness.

Francis is very much a contender, especially after the World League series success aboard her horse, Carado GHP, an 11-year-old imported from the Czech Republic and, at 15.1 hands, relatively small. The Horse of the Year Show, which could have been a key determinant for the selectors, had to be called off.

In the six-leg national series, Francis record three victories, three second placings and two fourths aboard Carado and her other horse, German import La Quinara, a 12-year-old standing 16.2 hands.

“They have different personalities,” Francis says. “La Quinara is quite brave, Carado a little harder to ride. He’s quite spooky and you have to ride him a lot harder at times.”

If she is chosen for the Games, she won’t get to choose which horse to take. That’s the job of the selectors, albeit with some input from the rider.

Gently pushed, she concedes La Quinara would likely be her preference.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Annabel Francis rides Carado GHP at the opening round of the World Cup NZ series in Hastings in 2020. Photo: Getty Images. 

At the North Island championships in Hawera, Francis took the quinella, first and second, and by the end of the season she was clearly the country’s best domestic-based showjumper.

Francis is devoted to the discipline, keeps journals, studies breeding of the top showjumpers and is keen to pursue a career in breeding in the future.

She wanted to get to Gothenburg, Sweden, for the World Cup final as the New Zealand contender, but Covid rubbed that out. Next year, hopefully, that’s on her target list.

McVean, a former Australian Olympic representative, and father of former leading New Zealand jumper Katie (who’s now living in Canada), is highly impressed with Francis.

“I knew she had talent just watching her, and determination. It’s just a matter then of getting it right – and being lucky with the right horses. Without that you’re nobody,” he says.

He points out far from being a disadvantage, Francis’ diminutive stature can be a real asset. The horses benefit from carrying a lighter weight.

McVean is not worried that she’ll burn out after such a rapid rise and not yet 20.

“She doesn’t faze out worrying about everybody else. It’s all about getting it right for herself,” he says.

He knows she's daft about horses and she gobbles up whatever footage she can gather from the top European riders and competitions. 

"It's a sport we all learn from every day because we're dealing with animals. And if we're not learning, then something's wrong with us," McVean adds. 

He’s adamant Francis can foot it at the very highest level, but needs a couple of warm-up events to tune up before Tokyo, if she’s picked.

The showjumping team nominations are expected to go to the New Zealand Olympic Committee in mid-June for final ratification.

Of the other equestrian disciplines, eventing and dressage both have the same nomination date. Eventing will take a team of three and a reserve, while there is one spot for an individual in the dressage.

Pure As: Esther Molloy's little miracle

WATCH: Silver Ferns manager Esther Molloy talks about the stem cell transplant that saved her young daughter's life. 

Esther Molloy's dedication to the Silver Ferns is second only to her devotion to her family. And she knows the Silver Ferns always have Team Molloy's back, especially through the very tough times. 

Behind the scenes, the World Cup-winning team manager has been dealing with her eight-year-old daughter Charlotte's rare and crippling auto immune disease, juvenile dermatomyositis - which left her unable to walk or to fight off a common cold. 

The Molloys' world began to unravel back in 2016, when Charlotte complained of sore legs. Eventually she developed cruel side-effects like calcinosis - painful lumps of calcium under her skin. 

But with the guidance of specialists at Starship Hospital, Charlotte underwent a bone marrow stem cell transplant - and with a new immune system Charlotte's body began to respond. For the last 12 months she's been illness-free. 

The 2021 edition of Netball NZ’s highly successful Pure As series takes fans on a new journey, with five episodes showing the incredible stories of individuals from across netball's wider high performance system.

Last year’s inaugural series was an instant hit with fans, with more than 1.5 million organic video views and a global reach of four million.

You can watch the first episode, with Cat Tuivaiti, here, episode two with NZ Men's captain Kruze Tangira here, and episode three, Monica Falkner, here.

All episodes will be launched with an exclusive first watch through www.silverfans.co.nzand shown on LockerRoom every Tuesday and Saturday.

Black Sticks relieved to have Sam Charlton back

One of the most capped Black Sticks players in history, Sam Charlton, is seeing her hockey career through fresh eyes. 

It wouldn’t have been a shock had Sam Charlton decided to wind up her Black Sticks career a few months ago. 

So much has happened in the 251-test defender’s life since the Tokyo Olympics were put on hold for a year.

She found a full-time job she loves, one she never imagined doing: helping residents at a drug and alcohol treatment centre to lead healthier lives. 

She now has a husband, marrying Black Sticks veteran Marcus Child in December. (She’s still debating whether she’ll have a new name on her back for this weekend’s North versus South series;  her New Zealand team-mates reckon 'Charlton-Child' has a posh ring to it).

In a parallel universe, the couple would have been on their honeymoon in Italy right now.

And the 29-year-old Charlton also has an upgraded knee - undergoing surgery for a split meniscus suffered in a club hockey match last July - and is just coming back to match fitness.

So, when her husband decided not to go to another Olympics - pulling the pin on his own 172-cap career to focus on a new career managing frozen foods for Foodstuffs - Charlton admits she thought about retiring too.

“But I’m pretty stubborn.

“I gave quite a lot to my rehab for my knee, and I don't think I would have done that if I hadn’t intended to keep playing.” A third Olympics – and with that, the chance of winning an elusive medal – kept beckoning.

“I decided I'll give it a go and see what happens. I think last year taught us there's a lot of things you can't control, so you just have to take every opportunity that arises.”

After 11 years in the side, it's put a fresh spin on the sometimes repetitive nature of training for Charlton. And Black Sticks coach Graham Shaw is happy to have a player he calls "a phenomenal athlete and team leader" back in the frame. 

Sam Charlton, in one of her last games for the Black Sticks, vs Argentina in February 2020. Photo: Getty Images. 

While the worldwide halt in international hockey has been frustrating for the Black Sticks – they haven’t played a test in 14 months - it’s turned out the timing couldn’t have been better for Charlton.

For one, it’s allowed her to sink her teeth into her new career. A qualified nutritionist who'd been working with young athletes, Charlton now runs a ‘living well’ programme at Odyssey House, an addiction treatment centre in Auckland. She helps design menus for the residents undergoing treatment, and manages the Odyssey Café, where recovering residents work and learn new skills.

“It’s so rewarding getting to help people who are in a super vulnerable place in their lives,” she says.

“I never thought this was where I’d end up, but it’s been really awesome learning so much about a whole part of life and the community that I didn't really know existed.”

But it wasn’t easy finding work. As New Zealand was plunged into Level 4 lockdown a year ago and the Black Sticks couldn’t train, Charlton struggled. “I honestly applied for everything and anything – I couldn’t even get a job washing dishes.”  Until this role came up, filling in for someone on maternity leave.

"It's wild and crazy and very stressful, but what a cool moment in history. You'll be the people who went to the wacky Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games."

She was working full-time at Odyssey House until January, when she cut down to four days a week. From today, it’s down to three days and she’ll stop altogether in June to fully concentrate on the Tokyo Olympics in July.

But it’s an area she’d really like to return to. “Understanding how you can make a long-term meaningful impact takes a while,” she says.

Charlton’s recovery from surgery has taken a good degree of time and patience too.

"I've been really lucky there haven't been [immediate] milestones I had to reach like ‘there’s a test match in two weeks and I can't play’. When your recovery lags and you've got international competition coming up, it just adds an extra layer of stress," she says.

“It’s not that there hasn’t been stress this time - I've had plenty of moments where I’ve had a bit of a breakdown, and been like: ‘Oh my goodness, I'm so far behind’.”

Charlton has been there before – she injured the same knee in the final of the 2018 Commonwealth Games when the Black Sticks won gold.

“There was a quarter to go when I tore my meniscus quite badly. But they repaired it and I was back playing a World Cup maybe 13 weeks later. It was really quick,” she says.

“And it honestly gave me no trouble for two years. Then just when we came out of a lockdown, I was playing a club game and kind of felt a really similar feeling – but this time it split. It’s been a bit trickier and a lot more kind of grumbly coming back from it.”

Black Stick Sam Charlton fights for the ball with Australian Jane Claxton in the 2018 Commonwealth Games final. Photo: Getty Images

Charlton had hoped to be back to full training in the first week of this year, and she recalls coach Shaw was “a little shocked” when she turned up further behind the eight ball.

“It’s been a pretty long road, and not an easy one for her,” Shaw says. “The knee in hockey can be a particularly tricky injury and you don’t want to rush coming back. But I really admire the way Sam’s approached that.

“She’s not only an outstanding person to have in the environment, someone who leads the team really well. But just to get back such a quality hockey player on the field – the athleticism, the individual ability she brings to the team, is just second-to-none.

“She’s a phenomenal athlete, who covers a frightening amount of ground, and you miss that a lot when you don’t have someone like that on your team. I’m just so pleased for her – and her team-mates – that she can get back on the field, because she’s such a team player.”

Although she's done most of the rehab work alone, Charlton certainly felt the love of her team-mates, especially those in Auckland.

“Grace [O’Hanlon] and Liz [Thompson] live up the road and Fran [Davies] lives down the road - in the first part of my recovery they’d drop me in baking and stuff,” she says. “Then I went down to the premier league to commentate on some of the games and that was really nice to see everyone again.”

Tauranga-born Charlton, who first played for New Zealand in 2010, is itching to play for North against South at St Paul’s Collegiate in Hamilton this Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday. The games double as Olympic trials.

While the Black Sticks are now back in centralised training at North Harbour, and have been playing against local boys’ sides on Tuesdays, this will feel closer to test hockey. 

“It's pretty tricky to replicate the pressure of an actual game in our training and we're all very competitive. Once we’re playing in something that resembles our regions, we get very proud and we want to win. So I think they’ll be really competitive games, which will be cool," she says. “I played a club game last week and I kept saying to the girls, ‘I'm so nervous – but excited’."

NZ Olympic Ambassador Sam Charlton takes a selfie with kids from Campbells Bay School. Photo: Getty Images. 

So the biggest question remains: will the Olympics actually go ahead?

“The closer you get, the more you realise this is actually happening,” Charlton says. “What’s starting to become clear is it's not going to be the same as Rio or London.”

As one of New Zealand’s Olympic ambassadors, Charlton was at a training workshop recently where three-time Olympic medallist Barbara Kendall pointed out to her how special it would be.

“She really expressed that, yes, it's wild and crazy and very stressful, but what a cool moment in history. You'll be the people who went to the wacky Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games,” Charlton says.

“And at the end of the day, if you win a gold medal, no-one's going to be like, ‘Oh, it was that one, you know’. You’ve still got that gold medal.”

As Charlton turns up to the Tuesday afternoon Black Sticks training, there’s a buzz in the team as the transTasman bubble date is set for April 19. It means they may finally get a test or three against Australia before the Olympics.

“Ideally the scenario would be that we could also travel through there on the way to Tokyo,” Charlton says. “It’s been bizarre coming to terms with not knowing when your next game is going to be.”

The Black Sticks coaches feel the same way.

“These girls are used to playing 25 internationals a year. But to play no games in 14 months is a real challenge,” Shaw, a former Irish international, says. “We feel they’re tracking really well – they’re as fit as they’ve ever been – but until you come up against another nation, you just don’t know.

“The girls came back in January and have been getting stronger and stronger. A real credit to them. It’s not easy to keep training. I really admire the physical shape they’re in.

“I just want a game now to test exactly where we’re sitting.”

* The North vs South matches – 12.30pm on Saturday and Sunday, and 8pm on Tuesday – will be shown on Sky Sport Next. Entry to the games at St Paul’s Collegiate is free.

Pure As: Monica Falkner

WATCH: Silver Ferns shooter Monica Falkner talks about the pain of losing her dad, then fighting back from injury in part three of Pure As.

Monica Falkner knows her dad, David, would have shed tears watching her finally play for the Silver Ferns against England last year - after five harrowing years. 

In the latest episode of Pure As, the mini-documentary series from Netball New Zealand, Falkner talks about losing her father - who brought her up alone for the first 10 years, and died of brain cancer in 2015. Then as her netball career was taking off, the young shooter ruptured her ACL and took 15 months to return to the game. 

Growing up on a farm in the valley of Matahai, in Whakatāne, Falkner was her dad's sidekick. She came home from Hamilton for the last months of his life, and put netball on the backburner.

On her return, she quickly made her mark trialling with the Magic, making the 2017 World Youth Cup team and winning the world title.

She reveals how tough it was being in the Silver Ferns side, but spending seven games on the bench without playing. And then even tougher, injuring her knee and taking longer than expected to get back on court. 

She knows her dad would have been emotional seeing her make her Silver Ferns debut against England last October.

"In that moment, I think he would have been so proud. Every day I think about it, and I'm really sad he never got to see this part of my career - it's what I was aiming for, for so long," she says. 

The 2021 edition of Netball NZ’s highly successful Pure As series takes fans on a new journey, with five episodes showing the incredible stories of individuals from across netball's wider high performance system.

Last year’s inaugural series was an instant hit with fans, with more than 1.5 million organic video views and a global reach of four million.

You can watch the first episode, with Cat Tuivaiti, here, and episode two with NZ Men's captain Kruze Tangira here.

All episodes will be launched with an exclusive first watch through www.silverfans.co.nzand shown on LockerRoom every Tuesday and Saturday.

From radio DJ to running cricket’s World Cup

In LockerRoom’s video series, The Big Four, we meet the women leading the four global sporting events in New Zealand over the next two years - three World Cups and the IWG Women and Sport conference.

In the first episode, Suzanne McFadden talks to Andrea Nelson, CEO of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2022.

Andrea Nelson was a teenage sports drop-out statistic - something that’s stayed with her and influenced her career.

She was, she says, “the girl that dropped PE as soon as we got to fifth form. Actually, I never found a way to engage with organised sport, which is something that really inspires me in my job... not just in women's sport, but in all the events I've done. For me, it wasn't till I was 30 that I really discovered a love of taking part in sport.”

Now the woman whose career in sports began working on the 2012 London Olympics, and led to key roles delivering the 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup and the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, has ended up in the sport she truly loves - leading the organisation of the ICC Cricket World Cup being played around New Zealand at the end of next summer.

In the first part of our series, The Big Four, Nelson talks about the challenge of getting bums on seats, what the World Cup can do for society, how the year-long postponement has become a bonus and how the tournament now has an air of certainty about it. And she reveals her past as a radio disc jockey. 

* Next Friday: Michelle Hooper, the tournament director of the 2022 Rugby World Cup

Ironman maiden wins her race to beat arthritis

In an inspiring tale of courage and determination, Kylie Frost has overcome a painful disease to conquer her first Ironman - with 70 seconds to spare.

The wooden cane that Kylie Frost once relied on to help her walk now hangs on her wall, holding her colourful medley of triathlon medals.

The latest addition is perhaps her most prized - the Ironman NZ finisher’s medal. Frost was the 511th - and last - athlete to officially complete this year's gruelling Ironman course in Taupō, crossing the line with just 70 seconds to spare till the 17-hour cut-off.

But the time didn’t matter much to Frost. The 47-year-old mother of three lives with ankylosing spondylitis - a painful and exhausting inflammatory arthritis - so just finishing her first Ironman meant everything.

Six years ago, she couldn’t run and often needed crutches to walk. She had to have a nap halfway through making her bed. And she swam with a mask and snorkel because she couldn’t turn her head to breathe.

When she finished the Ironman - running down the red carpet in the finish chute, cheered on by her family including nine-year-old daughter Samantha and husband, Tony, who’d completed the race three hours before her - Frost opened a locket from around her neck, revealing the photo of her old coach, Tony O’Hagan.

A two-time Ironman NZ podium finisher, O’Hagan died suddenly last June.

“We had a few conversations during the race,” Frost laughs. She had a lot to thank him for.

Kylie Frost's walking stick is now used to hold the medals from her athletic pursuits. Photo: supplied. 

“When I first wanted to do an Ironman, some coaches turned me down because they didn’t understand my condition. But Tony was happy to help; he was amazing.”

There’s no doubt O’Hagan would have been proud as Frost completed the 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42.2km run. She reckons she could have done another lap.

“Not that I really wanted to,” she says.

But less than two weeks after she’s accomplished her “small miracle”, Frost is seriously thinking about her next race – the 2022 Ironman NZ. She wants to get faster.

***

Frost remembers her first “flare” at the age of 11 – intense pain where she couldn’t stand up or walk for three days.

“I had a gastro bug at the time and the rheumatologist now thinks that’s what would have triggered it,” she says.

“I had a lot of leg pain at night as a kid, which they said were growing pains. Then I had a lot of back pain with my three kids, but it wasn’t till I was 40 that they finally diagnosed it - even though my brother has the same condition.”

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is an incurable inflammatory condition affecting the spine and lower back - where vertebrae can fuse and become inflexible - but the pain and stiffness can be felt in the shoulders, hips, ribs, heels, hands and feet. Frost has had all of that.

“It can suddenly move from one part of the body to the next, there’s no rhyme or reason to it,” she explains. “I couldn’t work out why my ribs hurt; I thought I was out of breath all the time because I was unfit. But my lungs weren’t moving.” 

Even today, she has only 10 percent lung expansion. “I’m fit enough not to notice it - only when I’m riding up hills. Then you can hear me wheeze,” she says.

Kylie Frost exiting Lake Taupō after the 3.8km swim of the Ironman NZ. Photo: FinisherPix

Frost got to the point where her legs would collapse under her on stairs and she needed crutches to get around. “My rheumatologist said ‘Go to a physio and strengthen your core, it might just help you’,” she recalls.

Her skeletal physio was “horrified by how weak I was”. He encouraged her to start off by walking in the hydrotherapy pool at West Wave, near her home in west Auckland, three times a week.

At the same time, husband Tony was training to be a scuba diver, and swimming 400m bursts in the pool next door. Frost was determined to do the same.

“I started going early in the morning, with a mask and snorkel because I couldn’t move my head and my neck,” she says. “It was a very slow progression – two or three months.

“Then one of the women at the front desk asked if I had a goal to work towards, and I said ‘I’ve always wanted to do a triathlon, but I can’t ride a bike and I’m still having trouble walking’.

“So she got the manager to give me a pass to the pool gym for two weeks to see what I could do. I’d spend half an hour on the exercise bikes and walking on the treadmill, then go to the hydrotherapy pool.”

Ten months later, Frost had trained hard enough to attempt her first event – a small ‘try a tri’ at Maraetai in Auckland in early 2016. Her husband did it with her, after she’d had a scare attempting to swim 300m in Rotorua’s Blue Lake the month before. “My chest froze up – a bit like an asthma attack,” she says. “I had to have a full cardio check-up before I was allowed to do the triathlon.”  

That small triathlon triggered a rush in the Frost family. A month later, Tony signed up to do the 2017 Ironman NZ. “I didn’t even know what an Ironman was,” Kylie admits, “and I watched him train over the next nine months thinking, ‘You’re insane!’

“A year later, I finally admitted out loud, ‘Yeah, I want to do this too’.”

***

The Frosts live on a car yard they own and run in Henderson. They work there seven days a week, taking turns to do their triathlon preparation. “Saturdays are my long training days; Sundays are my husband’s. One will be at work while the other trains,” Kylie Frost says.

“During the week, it’s a lot on the wind trainer and treadmill, so we can make it work at home. We have a big white board in the office with our schedules – there a lot of juggling with Samantha’s things too. It got a bit insane for a while there.”

Kylie Frost during the 180km cycle leg of the 2021 Ironman NZ. Photo: FinisherPix. 

When Frost was first diagnosed with AS, she thought it was a life sentence. “It’s degenerative, so eventually it will get worse for me, and I’ll probably end up in a wheelchair,” she says. “But I’ll just make the most of it while I can.

“My doctor said 10 percent of people with this condition go on to lead a full, good life. They’re the ones who are the most active.

“The challenge for me was knowing how to be active, because I would always react to a new exercise, which put me into a massive flare for a week. That’s where the physio took me back to build on my basic core strength. The pain switches off your muscles, and I needed to reactivate my muscles so I could do normal daily stuff.”

She could have given up running. “I’d run 500m and have excruciating pain in my ankles, but if I kept going it would disappear as my glutes and hamstrings activated and clicked in. Once I understood I had to get through that period, it was okay.

“My husband said after the race [the Ironman] I have something he doesn’t – mental strength.

“My disease has given me drive and determination – something that most athletes strive to find. If I  just had the physical strength to go with it, there would be nothing I couldn’t do.”

For three years, she worked with Tony O’Hagan, a five-time national triathlon champion who became a successful coach.

“He understood me, and knew we just had to train differently; take a longer, slower approach. I could talk to him about anything,” Frost says.

When O’Hagan died suddenly, aged 54, Frost was devastated – but even more determined to complete an Ironman “to prove his faith in me was justified”.

The emotional moment Kylie Frost became an Ironman. Photo: FinisherPix

Her husband’s coach, Andrew Mackay from Boost Coaching, offered to train Frost to keep the momentum going. She also became one of two budding Ironman athletes to receive the Tony Jackson scholarship for the 2021 event – which covered her entry and coaching costs.

MacKay’s coaching style was different, but Frost was able to adjust. “We crammed a year into five months to get me ready,” she says.  

He was there in the early hours of March 28, pushing her to make the finish before the Ironman cut-off deadline. “On the run in the last lap, I’d stop to walk a cone and take some really deep breaths, then Andrew would go: ‘You can’t walk, you aren’t going to make it, you have to run’.

“I had some not very nice thoughts about him at the time. But it was the right thing to do – it was what I needed.”

***

Frost still has limited mobility. She lacks strength in her shoulders and legs, has bulging discs in her spine, and her ribs still don’t move a lot when she breathes.

Then on the day of the Ironman, she also had a cold and struggled with her breathing in the swim. Her feet started throbbing during the bike ride and continued through the run (which was her first-ever marathon). 

But she was the urged on by her support team - her friend, Deb Sheard, ran with her through the dark, lighting the way with her phone. Tony joined her for the last 4km, and even Frost's mum began running alongside her, "even though she has issues walking, let alone running".

They all helped her to the finish in 16h 58m 50s, and she knows now she could have pushed herself harder.

“I was up and walking fine the next day; my only issue was losing a big toenail. And I was tired,” she says a few days later.

“It tells me I could potentially go faster, I have a lot more in me. My goal over the winter is to run 5km without stopping; I can do about 2.5km now.”

Frost hopes to one day run the Great Wall of China Marathon. Her husband has his focus on the world championship of Ironman events in Kona, Hawaii (this was his sixth Ironman finish).

She’s already talking about her second Ironman as soon as next year. “My physio said this could be a really good project for us over the next year. He’s planning how he can help me get faster," she says.

“This is from someone who, when I said five years ago I was doing my first triathlon, his response was: ‘Is that really a good idea?’ Now he’s going to pass on his patients to me who want to do similar things, so I can help them.”

Tony and Kylie Frost before the start of the 2021 Ironman NZ. Photo: supplied. 

Frost knows that being so active is not only keeping degeneration at bay, but setting an example for others – including her kids. One of her adult sons and her young daughter have already been diagnosed with arthritis.

“Sam did her first Weetbix Tryathlon the week before [Level 3] lockdown, and she did really well.  I don’t think it will be long before she’s into them as well,” Frost says.

She’s still being flooded with messages of congratulations from around the globe.

“It’s inspired a lot of people. One professional triathlete who’s training overseas sent me an amazing video. She watched me on the live tracker while she was running on the treadmill and was yelling at the feed. She was in tears,” Frost says.  

“I’ve had a few people around the country say they’ve entered next year’s race because of me. But it’s also great getting the name ankylosing spondylitis out there, so people recognise it." She raises money for Arthritis NZ with every event she does. 

“I would love one day to get together a group of people with conditions like mine, and we all pick a race and do it together.”

She’s already proved anything is possible - "if you believe".

Skydiving into the record books with Mum

Auckland mum and daughter duo, Paree and Jordana Del La Varis, are avid skydivers attempting to set their first New Zealand record together. 

One is a horse veterinarian by trade, and the other a retired nurse who used to fly small aircraft. 

But away from their daily hustle and bustle, the mother and daughter duo of Paree and Jordana Del La Varis are avid skydivers. 

Mum, Paree, holds two New Zealand records in the sport - the last accomplished in the 'largest star formation' category with 20 people in Parakai back in 1987, four years after she got into the sport.

She already had her licence to fly before seeing an ad for parachute training at the local aviation sports club and literally jumped at the opportunity. 

And now 28-year-old Jordana wants to follow suit and have her name etched into the history books alongside her parents - who were involved in skydiving throughout her childhood - and set a New Zealand record with her 64-year-old mum. 

The Del La Varis family had a small sheep and beef farm in Kumeu in northwest Auckland, where Jordana grew up riding horses and competing in eventing. But recently she decided she wanted to be like her mum and leap out of planes. 

People are a little shocked to hear Jordana skydives with her mother. “It’s not a normal sport to be doing especially when people might only know one person [who skydives] but certainly not a family of skydivers,” Jordana says. “I think when people find out, they're really intrigued and in awe that we can do it together as a family.” 

Paree adds: “It’s a really special thing to have your daughter on the same load. Sometimes I think we should go on separate loads, but it's still pretty special.”

Mother-daughter combo Jordana Del La Varis (left) and Paree Del La Varis (right) hope to compete at the skydiving nationals next year. Photo: supplied.

Paree has stayed involved in the sport, despite having breaks along the way to have her two children and repair a broken leg. She lost her husband, Wayne, tragically killed in a car accident on the way to a drop zone. She’s currently working for NZ Aerosports, a local business providing a range of parachutes for skydivers in New Zealand and around the world.

She wasn't sure if her daughter would be interested in the sport. “But as she’s shown such keen interest and has really done a lot within the sport with her various training regimes, I certainly feel very strongly that she would be there [for the record].

For Jordana, it’s a special moment too. “I've never set a New Zealand record so I guess getting it ticked off would be an amazing achievement," she says. “But then on top of that to be able to do it with Mum, it makes it so much more special.”

The pair attempted to set a national record at the weekend, with a sequential jump attempt with eight other women from around the country.  The complex, first-of-its-kind attempt in New Zealand, was part of a seven-day skydiving festival, the 'Mad King Boogie' (named in honour of Parakai local 'Mad Dog' Ross King).

The 'sequential' record is building and completing multiple points within a dive. With a larger group of skydivers at varying skill levels, it didn’t quite work out this time round. But a second attempt is planned for next spring at Skydive Auckland. 

The Del La Varis women say it will only drive the group to reflect and practice more.

Practising on the ground for the women's sequential record attempt at the 2021 Mad King Boogie skydiving festival. Photo: supplied.

Jordana says they’re both really competitive. “We’re quite good at pushing ourselves and each other to achieve more,” she says. “After jumping we always debrief if we’re in the same car because I’m always wanting to do better. And I know Mum is the same.”

Paree agrees: “Jordana is an extremely focused person and I guess that gives her a really good level of expectation for herself.” Jordana is also involved in distance running and completed the Maraetai half marathon last month.

With just under four decades of skydiving to her name, Paree says women’s records are really special because in her experience, having a group of women in the sky is different to men.

“It’s lovely to see women’s faces all around you when you’re up there. There's a real camaraderie within the sport,” she says. “And there's some really strong powerhouse women in the sport, it's just great.”

For Jordana, it's important to have more experienced women as role models.

“Having that strong supportive female space as a younger jumper is really special,” she says. “I’ve done a few jumps but I’m still a relative novice jumper in the scheme of things so having older jumpers to look up to and encourage us is really good.” 

A lot has changed since Paree started. “There's definitely more women doing it now,” she says. “And there’s been huge changes in the equipment and gear we use. It’s evolving literally before your very eyes. There are so many disciplines within the sport now in comparison to when I started.” 

Paree recalls starting when parachutes were round and less controllable. “It was all very exciting," she says. “Some people were landing in trees and other places." When they changed to rectangular, "it just progressed from there really.”

There’s been progression in training and regulations too. That's an area Fiona McLaren, the operations manager at Skydive Auckland, is interested in.  “I developed a real passion for teaching and competition,” says McLaren, who represented New Zealand at the 2012 world parachute championships. She no longer competes but in her role, she's still able to help others get to where they want to in the sport. 

McLaren says there are around 350 registered, active skydivers in the New Zealand industry. Skydive Auckland have the largest community and carry out more than 10,000 jumps every year.

“The community is amazing. We’ve got a mix of people from so many different backgrounds, so many different professions and so many different ages,” she says. “We have a skydiver here who is over 70, and then you’ve got people who come in on their 16th birthday to sign up.” 

The women’s sequential jump record attempt is about involving all of the community including those who are still learning, says McLaren.

“It’s an inclusive thing about bringing all the women on board for it, not just the top female skydivers in New Zealand. It’s about making it open to everyone so everyone gets to experience it,” she says. 

The Del La Varis women were unable to put in a team for this year’s national competition just before the festival, but plan to enter next year. “We were actually in a team a couple of years ago together which was really nice," says Paree. 

Long-term, representing New Zealand is Jordana's goal. “Being on more New Zealand records would be amazing first-off. That’s a big one within New Zealand,” she says. “And then ultimately representing New Zealand is sort of every sports person’s ultimate goal if they're of a competitive nature like myself.”

Pure As: Kruze Tangira

WATCH: In part two of the Pure As series, NZ men's captain Kruze Tangira reveals how netball saved his life. 

There were many times as a kid that Kruze Tangira wanted to walk away from netball, the only sport he truly loved. And even today, as captain of the New Zealand men's team, he admits there are times he still feels he "isn't good enough". 

Growing up in the Taranaki town of Waitara, Tangira was fascinated by netball, and started playing at six. But as a boy playing in girls' teams, he struggled with the "snarky remarks" from parents on the sideline, and found he had no-one to talk to.

There were many times he felt like giving up, he says in the latest episode of the Netball NZ doco series Pure As, but he's grateful he stuck with it through his primary school years. At intermediate school, though, he was devastated when told he couldn't play anymore. 

It wasn't until he was 16 and discovered men's netball that his passion for the game was rekindled.

"I found an environment where I could be fully myself, without any negative comments, without being shamed for being a male netballer," he says. "It saved my life in some respects, because it gave me a sense of purpose and a community that would have my back when no-one else would."

When Tangira first made the NZ men's team, the "heartache, pain, sorrow and struggle" he went through in his early netball years made it all worth it, he says. 

Tangira, one of seven children, breaks down as he reveals the courage needed to tell his loving, religious family that he was gay. 

The 2021 edition of Netball NZ’s highly successful Pure As series takes fans on a new journey, with five episodes showing the incredible stories of individuals from across netball's wider high performance system.

Last year’s inaugural series was an instant hit with fans, with more than 1.5 million organic video views and a global reach of four million.

You can watch the first episode, with Cat Tuivaiti, here.

All episodes will be launched with an exclusive first watch through www.silverfans.co.nzand shown on LockerRoom every Tuesday and Saturday.

Click here for more news articles.

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