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Football's Flea leaps between roles in women's game

One of New Zealand's footballing greats, Annalie Longo has taken on a new role to grow the game for women and girls across the country. But she's not ready to hang up her boots yet, with a home World Cup still calling. 

The mystery of Peng Shuai

The mysterious disappearance of the Chinese tennis star – and her unconvincing 'reappearance' - has sparked unprecedented high level commentary.

Lawyer leading change to gymnastics' troubled culture

As the mending of the unhealthy state of gymnastics in New Zealand gets underway, lawyer Sally McKechnie wants to challenge ideas, guide changes, and ensure children understand what's right and what's wrong in their sport. 

White Fern mum's battle to get back up to speed

LISTEN: White Ferns vice captain Amy Satterthwaite continues to cement herself as a legend in world cricket after returning to the game as a mum, but she admits it hasn't been easy. 

The weight of injury won't defeat Megan Signal

Forced out of the Tokyo Olympics on the day of her competition, Megan Signal has become adept at dealing with the heartbreak of injury - while trying to inspire others - she tells Merryn Anderson in part 9 of our Out Into the Open series.

No one moment defines Megan Signal as an athlete. 

Not the knee injury that denied her the chance to compete at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Not her selection for Tokyo, her first Olympic Games. 

Not even her withdrawal on the morning of her competition at those Games - because of a last-minute shoulder injury - characterises who the 31-year-old weightlifter is. 

The idea of ‘no defining moments’ came from her coach Simon Kent early in their journey together.  

Signal had already worked through a string of lows and injuries in her career and the idea instantly resonated with her.  

“Our journey is ever-evolving, ever-changing, and it doesn’t matter whether you make it to your goal or not, there is no moment that defines who you are,” she says.  

Knowing her identity, not only as an elite athlete but also outside of weightlifting, helped Signal to not lose her sense of self when she was forced to withdraw from the women’s 76kg competition in Tokyo.  

“I’m in a space where I’m so grateful for all the work my coach has done with me over the last three years, because it was really quite surprising when this all happened. Even though from the outside looking in, there were lots of tears and I was struggling, I was genuinely okay,” says Signal.  

“I knew I was okay because we had made sure we had multiple conversations around my identity as an athlete, but also as a daughter, a sister, an aunty, a coach, a business owner - all of these other incredible things.” 

Megan Signal trains in her home gym in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Rob Ford. 

The morning of July 29, when Signal was due to fly to Tokyo to compete in her first Olympic Games, she dislocated her left shoulder at her final training in Auckland. 

“It had been niggly the few days prior, but because of the close proximity to the competition day, we didn’t really know anything about the injury. We didn’t know what was achievable and what wasn’t,” Signal says.  

Resting her shoulder, Signal knew things weren’t looking good when it dislocated a second time - this time with very little force while on a massage table.  

Then the night before her first competition lift in Tokyo, Signal told Kent: “Every part of my body is telling me ‘please don’t do this’.”  

Kent told her he was supportive of whatever decision she made, and ultimately, Signal opted to withdraw.  

“It was really important for me personally that we exhausted all our options before we withdrew. I can honestly say we tried everything,” she says.  

“I was trying to fight against it, but there comes a point where you have to listen.” 

Signal and her coach Simon Kent work on the mental side of the sport just as much as the physical. Photo: Warren Davie, Photofitt

Listening to her body and not overtraining is a challenge Signal is now facing in her recovery. Having to wait until New Zealand moved to Level 3 to have surgery, she's only just been able to start seeing a physio in person.  

A fortnight ago, she got the all-clear from her surgeon to remove her sling, safety bar squat and jump, all while keeping her elbow tucked by her side. 

“Training for me is something I genuinely love doing and it’s a real pivotal part in keeping me mentally happy,” she says. “I genuinely love it so it’s hard for me to stop, especially through lockdown.” 

With no family or friends in Tokyo with her, Signal had the full support of the New Zealand weightlifting team throughout her injury. Lifters Cameron McTaggart, David Liti and Kanah Andrews-Nahu and coaches Tina Ball, Richie Patterson and Kent were all staying in the same apartment with her.  

She was concerned sharing news of her withdrawal with the team would negatively affect them, with Liti and Andrews-Nahu yet to compete. But McTaggart comforted her, saying they were there to support her journey as much as she was there to support them competing.  

“I knew I had them to lean on while I was over there and that was a huge relief for me, because I really was worried about bringing them down when I wanted to see them thrive,” says Signal, who told the team through a lot of tears.  

“That was a big, really comforting moment while we were over there, prior to telling the rest of the world I was withdrawing.” 

Returning from Tokyo without having competed, Signal experienced a range of emotions in her MIQ stay - a high being her letter from the New Zealand Olympic team. It had her official Olympian number on it - New Zealand Olympian #1493.  

“Each day was different. It was a long mourning process for me and I’d wake up some days and feel completely fine; I’d wake up other days and really not know what to do with myself and cry on my pillow for hours on end.” Signal is able to laugh about that two-week period now. 

Having suffered multiple injury setbacks near pinnacle events, Signal insists her goal-setting process hasn’t changed. Instead she’s changing the way she looks at her goals, so she doesn’t miss what’s in front of her.  

“I don’t look as far ahead anymore, and that’s not to say I’m scared to,” she says. “It’s just to say I know from experience that nothing is promised.  

“Even though the goals are still there - Paris 2024 is still there, next year’s Commonwealth Games are still there - I don’t get any closer to them by putting my blinkers on and gunning for that one qualifier or one competition. For me, I get there by staying a lot more present in my day-to-day and making sure I’m doing what I need to in my day-to-day. 

“I’m still a dreamer, I’m always going to be a dreamer and I love dreaming big. But I’m also a realist. I know injuries happen, I know things out of my control happen and it’s just about accepting that and dealing with that as it comes. But in the meantime, keep dreaming and I’ll just keep chipping away day by day.” 

Signal’s vulnerability and openness on social media aligns with her goals to inspire the younger generation.  

“I’ve had such a good response from people in terms of how it’s helped them. And for me, weightlifting is incredible but it’s not everything,” explains Signal. 

“There’s more to the journey I’m going through than just being able to lift big weights. A big part that’s really important to me is being able to inspire and help.” 

Megan Signal competing at the 2019 world weighlifting championships. Photo: supplied. 

Signal’s advice to anyone going through an injury is to continue showing up for themselves mentally, and not playing the comparison game.  

“Being able to determine when you’re comparing yourself to where someone else is in their injury, when you’re choosing to wallow, when you’re staying down for too long - you have to be aware of when that’s happening so you can pick yourself up,” she says.

Signal also encourages people to reach out if they need help, knowing what it’s like to be stressed and upset.  

“Be a lot more aware of the good things that are happening around you, the progress you’re experiencing, the love people are giving you, the support and help they’re giving you,” she says.  

“Be really grateful for that and just living happier, living lighter - that helps your recovery process.” 

At the end of February next year, Signal has the chance to make the cut for the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games in a local qualifier. But her focus for now remains on recovery.  

“It’s almost more important for me to have four more years of national championships and if I’m lucky, world champs if my body’s still good. That’s more important for me than trying to push to get back for one competition,” she says.  

“I do this because I love it, so I want longevity over one pinnacle event.” 

Despite every setback on her journey, Signal remains positive and credits much of that to her holistic approach to life as an athlete.  

“I hope that through all of this, in some way, shape or form, what happened to me and the fact that I’m okay and I’m able to keep trucking on is an example of how the conversation and the narrative can change with high performance and elite athletes,” she says.   

“So that when things like this happen, because they do happen all the time, our athletes - who are also humans - are okay.”  

Where is she now? Jaynie Parkhouse

A teenage Jaynie Parkhouse stunned the swimming world winning gold in the 800m freestyle, cheered on by her home crowd, at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games. Still involved in swimming today, she tells David Leggat how her doubters spurred her on too. 

One of New Zealand’s great swimming achievements almost didn’t happen.

As the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch approached, Jaynie Parkhouse was, by her own admission, “swimming terribly”.

The 17-year-old felt she wasn’t improving at all. At the trials before the Games in January that year, she wasn't selected for the 400m or 800m freestyle. She just scraped into the 100m freestyle “because they needed me for the relay,” she recalls.

“I nearly gave up just before the Games. I’d had a really bad season. But my dad said to me ‘Look Jaynie the Games are in your home town, let’s knuckle down and we can do this. Let’s give it another shot’. Thank God he did.”

Thank God indeed. For without Pic Parkhouse’s words of encouragement, the Games - and New Zealand sport - would have been deprived of one of the country’s most memorable sporting moments.

Jaynie Parkhouse is now Jaynie Hudgell – she married her husband and fellow swimmer Craig Hudgell at just 19, he was 20. Today she’s president of Swimming New Zealand.

She’s always had swimming in her blood - starting swimming in Cambridge around age three, and took to it like the proverbial duck.

In the early 1960s, the family moved to Christchurch where her father -  Vincent Temple Parkhouse, but Pic to everyone -  took over running the Wharenui pool complex.

“He was chief cook and bottlewasher. Back in those days you didn’t just coach,” Hudgell says.

“So he ran the plant, cleaned the filters, cleaned the pool. We would get in and paint the lines in the pool. It had a hands-on small community feel about it.

“Dad had an engineering background and was very practical.”

After some time living in Toronto, Jaynie Hudgell and her husband, Craig, are now in Auckland. Photo: supplied. 

Hudgell’s mother Betty was Pic’s right-hand woman, ran the books and was a better swimmer than her husband.

Jaynie’s older brother and sister, Paul and Megan, also swam, but there was no question who was the star of the family show and soon the age group titles started piling up for Hudgell.

“The training was intense as I got older,” she says. “There were 12 sessions a week, two-and-a-half hours a session.”

Her dad was a follower of Arthur Lydiard, the athletics coaching guru who guided the great Olympic champions Peter Snell and Murray Halberg and a clutch of other top middle distance runners. And, Hudgell says, he had a mindset like Duncan Laing, the lifelong mentor of double Olympic swimming champion Danyon Loader.

He put her through long training sessions and hard work - and it paid off. “It never seemed a chore. I always loved going to the pool, even at 5am to see my friends,” Hudgell says.

She was 16 when she was picked for the 1972 Munich Olympics - the baby of the New Zealand team. She now knows she didn’t have the necessary self-belief at the time.

That said, she loved the Munich experience.

“I learned a lot from that, learned to believe it was possible. If I could ever get that feeling across to a young swimmer… you don’t know your potential. A lot of it’s in the mind and if you get that right, you’re halfway there,” Hudgell says.

Having made the 1974 Commonwealth Games swim team, and with her father’s words ringing in her ears, Hudgell got down to work, and sliced a pile of seconds off her best time in the lead-up to the competition.

She was also spurred on by a story in The Press newspaper in Christchurch.

“The article said I was the last pick on the team and pretty much inferred I was [only] in the team because my father was coach,” she recalls.

“It got me so angry, and I felt I had something to prove. I guess I trained harder than I ever had.”

Initially only selected for the 100m freestyle, her times improved so much that after breaking her national 800m record she finished up in the 100, 200, 400 and 800m, her favourite discipline. Her father taught her a sprinters’ kick which certainly helped, and she was fit, courtesy of that training regime.

“I was so ecstatic to do it, for my country and to prove I am worthy of this place – and to feel I hadn’t let people down.”

A then unheard-of six-week training camp at QEII pool topped things off nicely. Then came working on her mind.

“I used to play in my mind the 800m race, over and over. I could almost see exactly how the race played out. It was a really strange thing,” Hudgell says.

“I could see myself fourth coming into the last turn, then sprinting and winning it. Since then, I’ve tried to get that point through to people. You’ve got to just imagine the possibilities.”

Her competition was “three little Aussies” - Rosemary Milgate and Sally Lockyer, both 14, and above all, the 13-year-old whiz, Jenny Turrall, who had just broken the world record.

 “Windmill arms,” Hudgell remembers.

The 17-year-old remembers looking at these girls and thinking “they’re kids”.

“And I started looking at the positives. I knew they couldn’t be any fitter than me, it was not possible, and I knew they weren’t faster than me over 100m.

“It was my home crowd, all my friends were going to be there.”

Wharenui club swimmers Jaynie Parkhouse and Mark Treffers won Commonwealth gold on the same day in 1974. Photo: Stuff. 

It was January 26 and another Wharenui product, Mark Treffers, had won the 400m individual medley earlier in the day. Hudgell’s good friend Susan Hunter won bronze in both the 200m and 400m IM.

Hudgell held the national record in the 800m freestyle at 9m 26s. In the heats, she chomped a pile off that to clock 9m 04s. She was thrilled, now recognising the possibilities.

She suspects the Australian trio didn’t really give her a thought, focusing more on each other.

“Dad and I had a race plan. He said ‘just swim your own race, but don’t lose them’.”

Hudgell always felt she was a chance of a medal when the race began, if not a gold.

Leading up to the last 100m, she felt good. She turned to the sprinters’ kick and burned out a 30.5s final lap.

The race was a real thriller - four swimmers side-by-side up and down in the closing laps, the crowd on its feet, the roars echoing round the arena.

And upon touching the wall in 8m 58.49s, just .04s ahead of Turrall? “I knew it was very close but I felt I’d won it,” Hudgell says.

“I was so ecstatic to do it, for my country and to prove I am worthy of this place – and to feel I hadn’t let people down.”

Up in the stands, her mother was sitting with Craig Hudgell, the national backstroke champion but who hadn’t qualified for the Games. They were surrounded by Aussie supporters, who’d been shouting the odds about their impending medal clean sweep.

“Mum was nervous as all heck. Craig had written in the programme a No.1 by my name. The Aussies were all saying [their swimmers would finish] 1-2-3,” Jaynie Hudgell says.

“My mother couldn’t believe it. Craig stood up, turned to the Australian fans and, pointing at Mum, said to them ‘that’s her Mum’.”

Hudgell backed it up with bronze in the 400m freestyle the following night. 

It sounds bizarre now, but within a year, not yet 20, Hudgell’s career was over.

She didn’t go to the world championships in 1975 – she suspects in hindsight she had lost some of her drive, and was unwell at the following nationals. “So after that I thought ‘Oh well I might as well hang the togs up’,” she says.

“It was the right thing to do. Even though I was only 18, I’d given a lot of time and effort to my swimming. But I had to finish school and get a job.”

She was happy with her decision and never regretted it.

After several years living in Toronto, the Hudgells have long settled back in Auckland. They have a son, a daughter and now grandchildren to enjoy.

They also have an insurance company, specialising in personal health and risk brokers. And now she's president of Swimming New Zealand.

Hudgell was approached by Dave Gerrard - a former Commonwealth swimming champion, past president and highly respected administrator - who asked if she would consider the role.

‘‘I’ve never been a boardroom person. But I have an opinion and a fresh outlook on things I see that can work,” Hudgell says.

“I’m really excited and hope I can contribute in a meaningful way. I really think swimming in New Zealand is in a great place.”

The Hudgells still swim three times a week “for pure enjoyment. We’ll swim till we die”.

*Two postscripts, from the ‘Imagine that happening today?’ file:

Hudgell attended Villa Maria College in Christchurch, which also had one of its teachers - versatile field athlete Sally Mene, mother of former Silver Fern captain Bernice Mene - in that Games team.

The day after her triumph, Hudgell had the 400m freestyle final to swim in the evening, but she was also among a clutch of athletes invited to go to lunch with the Queen on the Royal Britannia yacht.

“I don’t think these days you’d be going. But I said, ‘Oh man, I’m going’,” Hudgell remembers.

“I sat by Prince Philip, had a lovely lunch and the Queen said ‘I hope this doesn’t upset your swim’. I said ‘I’ll be fine’.”

Never a truer word.

Ten years in the US, Katie Bowen's still Kiwi as

Even after 75 internationals, tenacious defender Katie Bowen still sees herself as a kid in the Football Ferns. She tells Suzanne McFadden why she keeps returning to the US, but why coming home to her mum means more than ever. 

She's spent almost a decade kicking a football about in the United States, yet it's remarkable Katie Bowen hasn’t picked up any hint of an American drawl.

She laughs at the observation, and admits she’s surprised, too.

The experienced defender, who’s also been a Football Fern for the past 10 years, noticed it herself during the Ferns’ series with Olympic champions, Canada, a month ago, where there were eight young Kiwis fresh from the US college system in the side.

“There were a couple of young girls whose accents I just couldn’t believe - they had such an American twang. And I was like ‘Oh my gosh, did I ever have that?’,” says Bowen, who now has her hard-earned green card. “I’m kind of happy that I didn’t.”

She has no doubt why - after living in North Carolina, Kansas City and Utah - she still sounds very Kiwi.

Every day, and sometimes twice a day, Bowen phones home to Auckland to talk to her mum, Pippa.

Her mother is her best friend, she says. And Pippa has also stepped up to be her No.1 supporter - a role previously filled by Bowen’s football-mad dad, Dave, until he passed away four years ago.

While it was her dad’s love for Manchester United that rubbed off on Bowen and her three older siblings, it was her mum who held her hand on the sidelines on Saturdays, watching the other kids play before Bowen was old enough.

And her mum is still there on the sideline whenever she can be (pictured below with Bowen's sister, Kelly, at the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France). Otherwise she’s watching every game the 75-cap international plays with the assistance of satellites. 

In fact, the whole family have been tuning in to watch Bowen from a distance this season, at the Tokyo Olympics, her rollercoaster season with Kansas City in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and two sets of Football Ferns internationals – the latest, a two-game series against Korea Republic starting this Saturday.

“One of my brothers gives me a lot of feedback on my games, which is taking a page out of my dad’s book,” Bowen says. “He’s taken on that critic role, which I really appreciate because he plays football too." Patrick "Patch" Bowen plays for Bay Olympic in the Northern League. 

“My other brother [Danny] works for the family’s electrical company, so he can’t slack off too much to watch my games - but he does when he can. My whole family are super invested.

“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without them. It can be very daunting and sometimes a lonely experience when you play overseas. And I still get really homesick. But the support of my family makes it a whole lot easier to be halfway across the world for months at a time.”

This is the longest Bowen has ever been without seeing a member of her family.

She wanted to come home three weeks ago, after wrapping up her sixth season in the NWSL and ending her contract with Kansas City (the team finishing 10 of 10 in their NWSL debut). But frustratingly she couldn’t nab an MIQ lottery spot to come home to.

“It’s been a tortuous experience. The number of times CJ [fellow Fern CJ Bott] and I have burst into tears when we didn’t get a spot…” she says.

But for now, at least, she’s been reunited her other family, the Football Ferns, in Goyang, South Korea. And she finally has an MIQ reservation for mid-December.

“I’m not counting down the days, because I don’t want to wish my life away,” Bowen says. “And I have South Korea to think about. But I am super-pumped to be finally coming home.”

Football Fern Katie Bowen tries to evade Sweden's Anna Anvegard during their clash at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: FIFA via Getty Images.

There will, undoubtedly, be an emotional family reunion when she's released around Christmas (when she’s hoping to get golf clubs). But then Bowen needs to get to work.

“I’m very fortunate to stay with my mum and not have to pay rent,” she says. “But unfortunately, [playing football] is still not a great salary and I have to be earning money.”

Since she began her annual pilgrimage to the US – taking up a football scholarship at the University of North Carolina in 2012 – she’s been returning home each summer, and giving one-on-one coaching to young footballers.

There’s one player in particular – Amy Crawford - who she’s formed a bond with over the past four years.

“I coach her three times a week consistently in my off-season. I’m open to coaching anyone, but she’s definitely my No.1 priority,” Bowen says.

Crawford plays for the West Auckland women’s team, and hopes to go to university in Australia and play for an A League Women's team. They keep in touch when Bowen is in the US.

“I don’t make [coaching] too serious to the point where kids aren’t enjoying it," Bowen says. "I just try to help out with whatever aspirations they have. I really love coaching - it is work, but it’s not a chore for me.”

Bowen has a degree in communications, and has thought about returning to school once her playing days are over to become a teacher.

“I’ve always wanted to be a special needs teacher, and I’d love to work with the Special Olympics. Hopefully after football I land somewhere great,” she says.

The lure of the A League is strong for Bowen, too, and she's had conversations with Melbourne City over the past few months. But there’s one hang-up, she explains.

“It's during the NWSL off-season, which would mean virtually no time to spend with my family, which is so very important to me."

Yet it could be the best way to realise a long-time dream to play in a professional team alongside her “besties” – Football Fern stalwarts Hannah Wilkinson and Erin Nayler.

“The three of us are always joined at the hip,” Bowen says. “We’ve spoken almost every day during the Covid pandemic. So if we could make our dream happen in Australia that would be awesome.”

The Three Amigos (from left) - Erin Nayler, Katie Bowen and Hannah Wilkinson. Photo: FIFA via Getty Images. 

Wilkinson will play her first season with Melbourne City when the competition starts next week. But she’s nursing a minor injury which ruled her out of joining the Football Ferns in Korea.

Bowen isn’t sure where she will end up in 2022. It seems logical she wants to return to the US.

“I have my green card now and that was a couple of years’ work in progress. It’s so valuable,” she says. “And I like the length of the season and where the off-season falls so I can come home for Christmas and my niece and nephew’s birthdays.”

She’s sometimes taken aback when she considers the longevity of her football career. She made history as a 14-year-old playing for New Zealand at the U17 World Cup, and was just 17 when she first played for the Football Ferns.

She’s been to three World Cups and two Olympics, yet Bowen still feels like a youngster in the New Zealand strip. It’s because, she explains, she’s still playing alongside veterans Ali Riley and Ria Percival.

“When I was first in the Ferns, they were the older players in the squad – and I was the young one looking up to them. It’s kind of weird because I still feel a little like that,” she says.

Still, she enjoyed welcoming the young rookies into the side for the Canada series, and recognises it’s an important step in the Ferns’ build-up towards the 2023 World Cup in New Zealand.

“The more caps we can get under players’ belts, the more confidence we hit 2023 with. It’s a great opportunity for us older players, too, to get a fresh perspective,” she says. “A lot of them have really seized their opportunities. I was really impressed.”

After an experienced New Zealand line-up suffered a tough 5-1 loss to the newly crowned Olympic champions in their opening game, new Football Ferns coach Jitka Klimková introduced more of the young players in game two, where they went down 1-0 , but with a much improved performance.

“You can’t help but think this is a fresh slate. With the massive progress I saw in just two days on that Canada tour, it got me really excited for what could potentially happen after we’ve had seven tours or longer tours of a few weeks,” Bowen says. “It does feel like a fresh start working towards 2023 and beyond.”

Football Ferns Hannah Wilkinson, Emma Rolston, Daisy Cleverley and Katie Bowen sing the NZ anthem at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: FIFA via Getty Images. 

Bowen fully understands the prestige, the legacy and the advantages playing a World Cup at home brings.

“I was fortunate enough to play in the U17 world tournament here in New Zealand, and that alone was unbelievable. But it’s a whole new ballgame when it’s the full women’s FIFA World Cup,” she says. "Honestly you dream of this moment, and it very rarely happens for players.”

Most of all, Bowen knows what it will mean to her family.

“They've always travelled with me to tournaments like this, but this time it might be a 30-minute drive to see us play. It will be a huge honour to play in front of them and the other Football Ferns families," she says.

Still, Bowen knows it will be a “bittersweet experience” for her mum.  

“I think she'll be very emotional; she’d gone to those big events in the past with my dad. She came to France [the 2019 World Cup] and while it was joyous occasion, there was some weirdness about it too,” Bowen says.

“But having my three siblings and my nieces and nephews all there this time will be huge. I can’t wait to see Mum in the stands and hear her cheering my name.”

* The Football Ferns play Korea Republic at Goyang Stadium on Saturday at 6pm (NZT) and Tuesday 11pm. Both games will be live on Sky Sport 7. 

Giving girls a hand up to skateboard and learn

Two Kiwi women are helping empower girls through skateboarding and education, in countries where kids need safe spaces to play and learn, Merryn Anderson writes. 

From her home in Berlin, Kiwi Claire Dugan recalls a story from a hospital in Kabul which still touches her heart.  

A teacher from Skateistan – a non-profit organisation teaching girls in Afghanistan to skateboard while giving them an education - was at the local hospital to get blood tests. 

Suddenly, the teacher heard a nurse say “Fatima? Teacher Fatima, it’s you!” 

The nurse had been a student at Skateistan, attending a back-to-school programme five days a week, which covered three grades of education in under a year. It helped the young woman to catch up so she could go to a public school, graduate and then study to become a nurse. 

“I love that story,” says Dugan, who’s helped run the Skateistan programme for almost a decade. “It really encapsulates exactly what Skateistan is trying to achieve - trying to get students back into school, or succeed if they are in school, and go on to realise their ambition.” 

Today Dugan, 36, is the deputy executive director of Skateistan, which now has skate schools in four countries, teaching kids from low-income families - especially girls - how to ride a skateboard.   

Skateistan is much more than learning to do an ollie or a kick-flip, though. Along with providing safe spaces for children, the programme also provides education and learning resources and builds kids’ confidence.

During Covid they got creative keeping in touch with their students by distributing food parcels to support their families. And most recently, Skateistan helped 40 staff - and over 150 family members - to safely leave Afghanistan as the Taliban took control of the country.  

So how did a Kiwi with an accounting degree from the University of Otago end up running this life-changing programme? 

Kiwi Claire Dugan (left) with local Skateistan staff in Kabul. Photo: supplied. 

Born and raised in Wellington, Dugan first visited Berlin at 12, travelling with her father who was an academic spending his sabbatical there. Spending six months at a German school, and then returning at 15 for three months, the immersive experience initially gave Dugan culture shock.  

On returning to New Zealand and receiving her degree, she worked as a chartered accountant in Auckland, but it was something she didn’t want to do long-term. “I knew I wanted to do something else with that skill and I really wasn’t quite sure what,” says Dugan.  

So she returned to Berlin and in 2012, came across an organisation based in Kabul looking for someone who fit Dugan’s profile.  

Her fluency in German and English, as well as her accounting background, impressed Skateistan founder, Oliver Percovich, who set up their interview from Kabul over Skype.  

Australian Percovich created Skateistan after visiting Afghanistan in 2007 and noticed when he skateboarded down the streets, the joy it brought the community. For a lot of kids living in the war-ravaged city of Kabul, it was the first time they had seen a skateboard. It sparked an idea. 

Percovich described skateboarding as the carrot that drew kids in, but he developed Skateistan to be much more than a sporting venture. Then he had Dugan’s help to take it beyond Afghanistan – they now run skate schools in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia.  

The first employee based in Berlin, Dugan set up the head office and now oversees all internal operations, working with a team of around 20.  

Her work growing the organisation saw her named a finalist in New Zealand’s Women of Influence Awards in 2015. Part of the global category, Dugan’s influence on women across the world through the Skateistan programme is incredibly visible.  

Young women in Afghanistan are free to skateboard thanks to the safety measures Skateistan puts in place. Photo: Getty Images. 

A key focus of Skateistan from their inception has been bringing the programme to girls and young women, who face a lot of obstacles trying to find safe access to education.  

Under Taliban rule, girls are banned from physical exercise like riding a bike, or going out without male supervision. So safety of their students is always a major concern for Skateistan.  

“Afghanistan is one of the hardest places in the world to be a girl, and unfortunately that hasn’t got any easier,” says Dugan.  

And the task isn’t as simple as just getting girls to the classes in Afghanistan. Skateistan has to provide safe transport for both the girls and female staff they hire to teach, as is culturally appropriate. 

“We take all these steps that are obviously resource-intensive, but totally necessary if you want to actually get girls participating,” says Dugan.  

It’s a double-edged sword though - the empowerment of women through the programme and other sports can bring unwanted consequences, says University of Waikato professor Holly Thorpe.  

“There’s still thousands of women in Afghanistan who've bought into this dream of sport as empowering their lives, and being a wonderful thing in their lives," she says. "They’ve fallen in love with sport and through this have come to hope for different futures for themselves. But tragically, under a new political regime, that passion is putting their lives and their families’ lives at risk."

Thorpe’s work spans continents, after a Marsden Grant in 2017 supported her research into informal sports in sites of conflict and disaster. Working as a researcher with Skateistan since 2011, Thorpe is now on the organisation’s international advisory board. 

Skateistan adapts its programmes to suit their locations - with the help of the advisory board and skateboard legend, Tony Hawk. Photo: Skateistan

Initially Thorpe was planning to travel to Afghanistan for her research, but decided not to go when she learned of the risk - not to herself, but to the students.  

“As a feminist researcher, that didn’t sit well with me,” she explains. “If I’m going to a location for research purposes, but putting local kids and local staff at risk because I’m there, that didn’t feel right.”  

Having international staff in Kabul can also put their programmes at risk, so local ownership and employing local staff is another key value for Skateistan.  

Not only does it reduce risk, it ensures every programme is personalised to suit the area and its young people, something Percovich insisted on from the beginning. 

“He didn’t want to come in and implant some Western ideas of what is a good life for these young people in Afghanistan,” says Thorpe. “He very much saw this needs to come from these communities and ultimately be led by and for these communities.”  

Research by Holly Thorpe (third from left) in informal sports in sites of conflict lent itself to the Skateistan board. Photo: Simon Adams

The concept of local ownership is very close to Dugan’s heart, especially in Afghanistan where local women are being employed to teach young girls.  

“These are the voices that need to be leading the organisation at the end of the day, because they represent the communities we’re serving,” she says. 

Dugan gives an example from the skate school in Atlantis, South Africa, where Skateistan worked with a community leader who knew how to skateboard and brought hundreds of kids into the new programme. “You would never get that if you transplanted an American skateboarder to South Africa to start something; it just wouldn’t work.” 

For now, the skate school in Kabul is on pause. The Taliban have suspended any education for girls and women over the age of 10, and in some areas have forced women to stop working altogether.  

Skateistan is planning to rebuild, helping girls up to the age of 10, and it’s also supporting those students who have fled the country.  

“Some of them will be based in refugee camps for the foreseeable months,” explains Dugan. “They’re contacting us and saying: ‘Hey I want some skateboards, there’s a whole bunch of Afghan kids here who want some programmes’.” 

They have an ambitious plan to expand to 20 locations over the next year, and reaching 4500 students a week. 

Dugan is excited to see what they can develop, and to discover what the next chapter in the Skateistan story looks like.  

Tori Peeters overcomes the blow of Olympic no-go

NZ javelin champion Tori Peeters has moved through anger and grief at her non-selection for the Tokyo Olympics - knowing she should've been there. Now, she tells Angela Walker in our Out into the Open series, she's made her wellbeing a priority - along with Paris 2024. 

Tori Peeters’ jaw is almost on the floor.  It’s August 6, 2021, and she’s watching the women’s javelin final at the Tokyo Olympics.

It's an event she qualified for internationally, but instead, she’s having to watch it on TV back in New Zealand. She can barely disguise her feelings as she stands amongst her workmates at St Peter's School in Cambridge. 

She knows she’s perfectly capable of throwing the distances many of the finalists are producing. Only seven weeks earlier, she’d thrown 60.15m at a meet in Australia, but New Zealand Olympic selectors deemed the distance was not far enough to prove she was capable of a top 16 finish.

On this day in Tokyo, however, that throw would have placed her seventh overall. Her omission from the team feels more shocking than ever right now.

Her colleagues are shocked too, not least that she's able to stand by and watch. They know how distressing it was for her when she wasn’t selected for the New Zealand team. Viewers nationwide glimpsed her pain when she choked back tears on One News.

Thirty of the 32 javelin throwers who qualified internationally are in Tokyo, competing at these Games. Peeters is one of only two qualifiers not sent to the Games to represent their country.

Peeters’ phone starts to “blow up” with comments she’s heard many times already: “WTF? This is ridiculous. You should be there. This is outrageous.”

Peeters, too, is angry - but a part of her feels reassured. Now she knows, without a shadow of doubt, that she is good enough to compete on the world stage.

The New Zealand record holder since 2014, Peeters can start the process of moving on positively – with Paris 2024 firmly in her sights.


Fast-forward three months and Peeters’ winning smile has returned. She’s made wellbeing her priority and her resilience shows.

Every throw Tori Peeters released at the 2020 Canberra Track Classic broke her national record. Photo: supplied.

While the 27-year-old says not getting selected for the New Zealand Olympic team was “absolutely devastating”, she has weathered the storm and prevailed, helped along by the support of friends and family (who’ve nicknamed her Thor).

“My friends reminded me that my worth wasn’t determined by a team selection,” she says.

“I’m still Tori and I can throw 62 metres. And I believe I can throw a lot further than that still.” (Her personal best stands at 62.04m).

Peeters plans to compete throughout the domestic track and field season over the summer. Beyond that, she hopes to get competition experience in Europe before next year's world athletics championships in Oregon and the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, which are only two weeks apart. 

As she looks forward, Peeters knows it would be simpler to brush her Olympic non-selection under the carpet. Plus, it’s not in her nature to make a fuss.

However, she doesn’t want other athletes to go through what she’s endured. She’d like to see future selections prioritise the human being at the other end of the process.

“I’m not really one to make a song and dance,” she says. “But I want to speak up and inspire change, so what happened to me doesn’t happen in the future and people learn from my story. It’s not about me.”


Peeters’ selection saga began back in April this year, while she was competing in Australia. At the time, she was officially ranked 24th in the world - a list that extends to 500, such is the competitive nature of athletics globally.

“I was feeling confident and thought, ‘Sweet, I’m sitting pretty’. I certainly wasn’t thinking I wouldn’t be picked because I wasn’t considered top 16 capable,” she says.

Then, 48 hours out from contesting the Australian national championships in Sydney, Peeters received a phone call advising her she’d been selected for the New Zealand Olympic Games team - but with a condition. She’d have to throw 62m by the end of the month. 

“I thought, ‘What the hell? Where’s this come from?’ The Aussie nationals were about to be my last comp over there and I had an MIQ spot booked back in New Zealand in five days’ time. And there weren’t any more comps back home.”

Overwhelmed by the sudden pressure of having to match her personal best at short notice, or forgo her Olympic dream, Peeters struggled mentally to prepare for such a high stakes event.

Tori Peeters throwing earlier this year at the Porritt Classic in Hamilton. Photo: Alisha Lovrich

In the meantime, a 15-strong athletics team for the Games was publicly announced back in New Zealand, with Tori Peeters’ name clearly on the list.

In a cruel twist of fate, none of the countless people who’d inundated Peeters’ phone with messages of congratulations had read the sentence near the bottom of the press release saying (only) Peeters’ selection was subject to a condition.

“Everyone was congratulating me that I was going to be an Olympian,” Peeters says. “Yet here I was getting ready for my last chance to be selected.

“How the hell do you even concentrate? I was over there on my own, without my coach, staying at an Airbnb.

“I just cried that whole day because it was all so overwhelming. That was the most difficult thing I think I’ve ever dealt with.”

Peeters says she felt like she’d been set up to fail and, as such, wasn’t able to produce the requisite 62m in Sydney that week.

When she returned to New Zealand, she and her support team launched an appeal.

“We appealed for less distance and more time. Having crunched the numbers, we provided detailed analysis based on pinnacle competitions to show that it was really 60 metres that indicated top 16,” Peeters says.

“But I was told, ‘No, we'll give you until the end of June and you can have only these three competitions [back in Australia] to throw 62 metres - or throw 61.50 metres at two events’. There was zero consideration given to the impact of weather conditions.”

Javelin – Peeters explains – is an event where results can vary dramatically depending on the wind. “What if all three of the competitions took place in heavy rain or massive headwinds where no-one could throw near their best?” she says.

The next challenge was redesigning Peeters’ training programme, which until now had been geared towards peaking in Tokyo in August.

“If you look at the timeline and how you periodise an athlete, there was much that wasn’t taken into consideration. I’d just done a competition season in New Zealand and Australia, performed well, had a little peak and was home to have a rest and train. I was exhausted physically and a mess emotionally,” she says.

“The appeal process and trying to wrap my head around all the legal stuff had been stressful. I felt as sick as a dog for a couple of days because I was so nervous and wound up. It was an awful feeling.

“Suddenly I had to prepare to compete again and hit my PB. I went straight to Gus [strength and conditioning coach Angus Ross] and said: ‘Is this physically possible?’”

Reassured of her capability by Ross and her coach Debbie Strange, they made a plan to get her ready to compete again in Australia.

Before long, things were tracking really well. “My training throws were unbelievable,” Peeters says. “Deb said it was the best she’d ever seen me throw, and so we felt quite good.”

On the Gold Coast, at the first of the three competitions, Peeters says she didn’t manage to “connect technically on a few things”, plus the conditions were far from ideal.

“Everyone was a good five metres down on their throwing which showed the conditions weren’t favourable.”

Then, while training for the second competition, Peeters suffered a serious back spasm. “It came on all of a sudden. To be honest I think it probably came on from stress.”

Barely able to walk, Peeters had no option but to miss the second competition.

“I was getting physio every day, buying turmeric, having all sorts of things. Literally clutching at straws to get better so I could throw,” she says.

Still unable to train before the final competition in Townsville, Peeters began to worry she’d risk long-term damage if she competed.

“I’ve only got one body, and I worried I could ruin it for life because of one competition to make the Olympics,” she says.

With the assistance of a sports chiropractor, who was also a javelin coach, Peeters managed to rehabilitate sufficiently to have a final shot.

“In Townsville, I threw into the most outrageous headwind I’ve ever thrown into, so I was stunned to reach 60 metres – twice. I was the only competitor in those conditions to throw anywhere near my PB.”

But 60m into a headwind wasn’t considered enough - and Peeters’ Olympic selection journey came to a sad end.

Tori Peeters has refocused to next year's world champs and Commonwealth Games, followed by the 2024 Paris Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

While dealing with the intense disappointment, Peeters found it heart-warming to hear from some of the world’s best javelin throwers - headed for Tokyo - who’d heard of her plight.

“They actually sent messages saying: ‘Hey what’s happened is awful. We’re really gutted you’re not coming over to compete. We’d been looking forward to competing against you’,” she says.


Reflecting on her journey, Peeters is convinced there are lessons to be gleaned from her story. She’d like to see selection processes “more orientated around the wellbeing of the athlete, especially when they are still competing to try and cement their selection”.

She’d also like to see the unique nature of an event taken into consideration, such as the dramatic influence weather can have on javelin results.

New Zealand’s longstanding selection policy requiring evidence of a top 16 finish has left many Kiwi athletes bitterly disappointed over the years – especially since most countries don’t create tougher requirements but simply send athletes who have qualified internationally.

In the case of Tori Peeters, not only did she have to demonstrate she was capable of a top 16 finish, she had to do so with a prescribed metric of 62m - that turned out in Tokyo to equate to top six.

“New Zealand selection policies shouldn’t belittle athletes when they have actually done enough to qualify by international standards,” Peeters says.

Selection into teams is a subject sport sociologists and psychologists have investigated, some noting the dehumanising and often unpredictable nature of it and its impact on athlete welfare.

Their research, like Peeters’ story, suggests athletes could sometimes be better supported during and after the selection process, whatever the outcome is.

“Yes, it’s high performance sport and you obviously need to be able to perform to a high level,” Peeters says, “but we are humans first.”

寻找平衡:新西兰女性是否在应对 Covid?

In part seven of Out into the Open, Professor Holly Thorpe is discovering how Covid is impacting Kiwi women in sport and the novel ways they're responding. 

As each new wave of coronavirus has hit New Zealand’s shores, it’s spawned an outbreak of another kind – free coaching sessions, online boxing workouts and pilates classes.

Through the wonders of digital technology, many women working in sports and fitness have offered free, or koha-based, classes and sessions during lockdowns, because they care about the mental health and wellbeing of others, particularly women, in their communities.

Professor Holly Thorpe, a sociologist in Te Huataki Waiora School of Health at the University of Waikato, discovered the fascinating social trend during her research into how women across sport in New Zealand have responded to the Covid pandemic.   

Thorpe and her team in the pilot study spoke to elite female athletes and coaches, and to women working in the fitness sector. They talked about uncertainty and fear around their futures, and how through this "incredible social disturbance" they've found ways to look after themselves and others.

They revealed this is essentially what Kiwi women do: on top of running a business and raising a family, they also take on the unpaid care of their whānau and their communities.

“A lot of digital and emotional labour went into these classes - and it wouldn’t be just a workout,” Thorpe says. “It was ‘Okay, let’s spend 20 minutes connecting. Have a cup of tea, how’s your cat?’ Then they’d have a workout and debrief.

“Some people said it was lifesaving to just to hear other women’s voices; it really helped them get through difficult times at home.”

It was also clear after lockdowns women have felt overwhelmed returning to sport and work, as they face new risks and more uncertainty.

“But again, the theme came through of women working in the sector really caring for their communities,” says Thorpe.

“Someone told me: ‘I went a bit crazy and bought $500 of bulk sanitiser; I’ll wear the gloves and my mask if it makes them happy; we’ll do the session outside’. They want to do whatever it takes to make people feel comfortable again'.”

Some women who run boxing gyms have offered free or koha-based online trainings during NZ lockdown. Photo: Getty Images. 

And then there are the consequences facing a generation of aspiring elite athletes, many whose dreams of competing on the international stage have been dashed. “There’s grief that comes with that; some have stepped away from sport earlier than they wanted to and found different paths,” Thorpe says.

Now Thorpe gets to broaden the study, after receiving a two-year James Cook Research Fellowship to understand the social, economic and emotion toll the global pandemic has had on New Zealand women - and how they’ve coped in a time of turmoil.

“I can now get a longitudinal perspective of women’s experiences over four years, and find ways to prioritise women’s voices. Then we can take [the research] back to sports and health organisations to push for gender-responsive policies and approaches.

“It’s going to be important for coping and resilience during the pandemic, but also for rebuilding our communities afterwards as well.

“There’s going to be a long tail, and even longer for some communities, some women and some sports participation.”


It’s no secret the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women.

Last year alone in New Zealand, 90 percent of employees who lost their jobs during the pandemic were women. Globally, women lost more than 64 million jobs, resulting in an estimated $800 billion loss of income.

While New Zealand’s “wellbeing budget” back in May this year acknowledged the impact of Covid on women, Thorpe is concerned there haven’t been enough gender-specific policies to help them.

“Most of the [budget] investment went into infrastructure – construction and roading, obviously more male-dominated jobs,” she says.

“Māori and Pacific women have fallen behind in the workplace. And we’re seeing more women in precarious employment this year.

“It’s not going to be a quick fix – the emotional, social and economic burdens of this are going to go on for many years. And it’s impacting all women differently, based on the intersections of ethnicity and class, and other variables, not just gender.” (Thorpe has also been working on another study exploring how New Zealand women from different cultural backgrounds understand, define and manage wellbeing). 

Competitive weightlifter Mihi Nemani is part of the multidisciplinary team researching how Kiwi women are coping in times of Covid. Photo: supplied. 

The new research project around Covid focuses on three core groups – mothers with young children, young women in low socio-economic communities and women with chronic health conditions.

Thorpe, a working mum who lives with a chronic lung condition, says she's excited to lead a strong cross-cultural team of researchers.

Dr Nida Ahmad is Muslim and has worked with Thorpe producing a research report on building cultural inclusion in sports communities for New Zealand’s Muslim women.

Dr Grace O’Leary, who’s been a gymnastics coach and fitness instructor, is Māori (Te Arawa iwi) and has just completed her PhD on women sex workers’ experiences of sport and physical activity.

Mihi Nemani (Ngātiwa and Samoan) is a former world body boarding champion and world masters weightlifting champion, who’s on a Sport New Zealand PhD scholarship focused on young Māori and Pasifika women’s experiences of sport and physical activity, in south Auckland and Porirua.

Women’s involvement in sport and physical activity will be a key focus of this new study. It will look at how women’s movement practices contribute to their understanding of wellbeing and connection before, during and after the pandemic.

“It builds really nicely on the work that started early in the first lockdown of 2020,” Thorpe says.

Many of the elite athletes who spoke with Thorpe and her team (Ahmad and Dr Allison Jeffrey) back in those times had returned to live in their family homes for the first time in years, and became “really creative” modifying their training. Through Instagram we saw athletes training for the Olympics lifting tractor tyres and pushing utes (like javelin thrower Tori Peeters below) or swimming in home-made pools in the milking shed. 

“When they’d settled into lockdown, they started to think ‘What does this mean for my career? What happens if it never starts again? Do I have to start thinking about another career?’,” Thorpe says.

A global report by United Nations Women and the International Olympic Committee published before the Tokyo Olympics on the impact of Covid on women, girls and sport found the gender inequalities being felt in society had been mirrored in sport. It presented recommendations to create a future in and through sport that builds back better for women.

As women’s sport was making huge strides in gender equality through 2019, Covid had threatened it to knock it backwards. Slashed revenues across the entire ecosystem of sport, clubs, teams and organisations could fall back to prioritising investments in traditional sports – where men have been dominant.

Thorpe has seen that happen in New Zealand. “With limited resources, decisions are made and some people making those decisions fall back on familiar priorities,” she says. “Our policies in sports recovery from Covid need to have a gender focus.”

There’s concern, too, that a generation of children is missing out on social connections through school and sport.

“There’s a lot of embodied trauma associated with this, and sport could be part of the recovery,” Thorpe says. “But are kids going to race back to sport? When they’ve lost seasons and with that, lost some of their skill development?

“Some of us might have a backyard to kick a soccer ball around, but many have not. You lose your confidence and may not hurry back.

Holly Thorpe and her son jumping over surfboards to stay fit during Covid lockdown. Photo: supplied. 

“On the other side are parents, who give their time to volunteer. If they’re struggling economically and socially, they may not put their hands up to coach or help out.” Families may not be able to afford to pay the fees for their children to play sport, either.  

“I think that’s going to create a real ripple effect in sport.”


As New Zealand prepares to move into a new phase of the pandemic response - and Aucklanders cross their fingers to leave lockdown restrictions which will allow them to return to the gym or the pool - Thorpe’s research may be helpful.

“Coming out the other side of lockdown last year, as women got back to something like real life, they said they had fears but found a new appreciation for the places and the people they move with,” she says.

“We found women in the sport and fitness sector love being with others and moving together. A running coach talked about her running group finally getting back together and the first morning running to watch the sun rise. It was incredible.”

Women had embraced technology to stay active and connected. “It was a great substitute,” Thorpe says. “But some of them said once they got back to sport and fitness face-to-face again, how wonderful it was to really see people again.

“The moving body is where we get joy in our sense of connection, and now there’s a new appreciation for that.

“But it’s going to be really different for different women - whether it’s being back in your waka ama crew or doing your mums and bubs in the park workout. But it’s still about connecting with others.”

Evergreen 理疗师跳到 Silver Ferns'救援

With over 150 test caps as the Silver Ferns physio, Sharon Kearney keeps giving back to netball - helping prevent injuries around the world and stepping into the breach to help the Ferns once again. 

When Sharon Kearney got the call, she knew exactly what she had to do. 

With key members of the Silver Fern management team stuck in lockdown in Auckland as the world champions were about to play England, Kearney’s more than 150 test caps as physiotherapist of the Ferns would come in handy.  

“When you’re the physio for the Silver Ferns, you don’t sign up to be the case manager at the end of a computer and to buy the supplies; you sign up to do the fun stuff,” Kearney says.  

And she knew this challenge would be fun.  

Kearney has an extensive CV, including being part of the victorious Silver Ferns team when they won the 2003 Netball World Cup in Jamaica, but this time the task at hand was a lot closer to home.  

Covid-19 had continued to rock the sporting world, this time impacting the Silver Ferns' international calendar. When the rest of New Zealand outside of Auckland moved to Level 2, it meant the Ferns series against the England Roses could go ahead in Christchurch.  

While four Auckland-based players were given exemptions to leave the city for the series, the decision didn’t extend to the team’s physiotherapist, Mark Overington, their doctor, Melinda Parnell, or the Fern's manager, Esther Molloy. 

So Netball New Zealand turned to Kearney - known throughout the game as 'Shaz' - asking her to step up and fill in as physio for the three test matches. 

Silver Ferns physio Sharon Kearney (far right) was part of the new-look management team who stepped in for the series against England and Aotearoa Men. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Kearney last took care of the Silver Ferns in 2015, and now runs her own physiotherapy practice, as well as working with NetballSmart, the sport’s injury prevention programme.   

She and her partner, Kevin Dysart, run Performance Physio clinics in Christchurch and in Akaroa where they live. They have two daughters who are following in their parents’ footsteps – now both physiotherapists, too.  

Knowing the team up in Auckland had her back made Kearney’s decision to fill in a lot easier.  

“Being able to do it at short notice, knowing that I had Mark at a phone call and Mel heavily supporting me behind the scenes - the ones who knew absolutely everything about every player - was fundamentally important to my ability to be able to just jump out of my physio clinic and do it,” she says.  

It would have been hard to find anyone more suited for the last-minute replacement; the tests being in the same city as Kearney far from her only asset.  

She was the Silver Ferns physiotherapist from 1993 to 1995 and returned to the role in 2002, going on to win one Netball World Cup title and two Commonwealth Games gold medals. 

Stepping away after the 2015 World Cup, Kearney worked for two seasons as the physio of the Tactix before stepping into a role with NetballSmart, a programme designed to support players and coaches to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.  

Kearney helped to establish NetballSmart but with the programme growing significantly, she’s now a consultant to it. 

Since 2019, Kearney has been a member of the World Netball medical committee, where she’s able to share her experience and passion for the game on a global scale. 

Sharon Kearney (with former Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy) was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2020. Photo: Government House

Kearney has been inspired to give back to the sport that had given her so much.  

“Having worked at the elite level, I’d seen injuries occur at that younger age that then impacted their ability to be the best they could be at their most pivotal point,” she says. “Here was an opportunity to give back to the grassroots and start developing a holistic injury prevention programme to help with performance and injury prevention in our young netballers.”  

During the series against England (which the Ferns lost 2-1),Steel manager Dayna Kaio stepped in for Molloy and Silver Ferns centurion, Dr Lesley Rumball, sat on the sidelines in case her medical advice was needed during a game. 

At the end of the week, Kearney finished up her work with the Ferns and passed the responsibility back to the team in Auckland. “I thought that was me done and dusted because Covid was going to go away and Mark was going to be able to get out of Auckland,” she says. 

But when it became clear Auckland wasn’t going anywhere, Kearney’s expertise was called on again for the Cadbury Series between the Silver Ferns and Aotearoa Men in Wellington.  

“They asked me if I’d do the men’s series because I knew the players, I knew the injuries, I’d developed the relationship and it was probably going to be easier for me to pick that up rather than trying to bring somebody else in,” Kearney recalls.  

And there were a lot of injuries to be managed over the two series, including Ferns captain Gina Crampton battling with the hip adductor strain she suffered against England.  

This is where the support of the team back in Auckland came in handy - with Kearney in constant communication with them on the best ways to manage the players.  

“They were hugely valuable. Mark had been working with the players for the last four years so he knows them really well. I could ring and say: ‘Hey Mark, this has happened, this is where we’re at, talk me through your understanding of this athlete and whether this could be a big deal or a little deal’.” 

This series felt a lot different for Kearney, the lack of preparation due to restrictions impacting both players and coaching staff.  

“The whole series was challenging because we had players who hadn’t been able to train at the level they needed coming into camp,” says Kearney.  

“It was about hitting the ground running and make the best of what you could under really challenging situations.” 

They had to adopt a ‘get on and do it’ attitude, according to Kearney, none more so than coach Dame Noeline Taurua overseeing a new management team.  

“We know high performance management teams work really well when they know each other really well and they’ve got their great sounding boards and almost intuitively understand what people are thinking at the time. Noels didn’t have that... so I really take my hat off to her for embracing it as she embraces everything.” 

Kearney can now add three more international caps to her name, totalling 154 over the span of her career, but her two on-court highlights come easily to her mind.  

The two-goal win over Australia in the final of the 2003 world netball championships sits alongside the double extra-time thriller at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games as matches that still resonate with Kearney.  

Two members of that Commonwealth champions team also get a mention in Kearney’s journey.  

Often referred to as the netballing GOAT (greatest of all time), Laura Langman’s 141 consecutive Silver Ferns tests are a testament to her work ethic off the court, Kearney says.   

“If you gave her anything that would help mitigate risk from an injury perspective, she’d work on it and she’d want to know that she was getting better. Invariably she was, which I think helped her stay in the game for as long as she did.”   

Sharon Kearney helped Silver Ferns legend Casey Kopua return to full fitness for the 2015 Netball World Cup. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Another special person in Kearney’s work was Ferns’ legend Casey Kopua. When Kopua was ruled out of international netball after rupturing her patella tendon in October 2014, Kearney was part of the team who brought the defender back to full fitness before the World Cup in August 2015.

One doctor told Kearney there was no way Kopua would be able to play at the World Cup, to which Kearney responded: “You don’t know Casey.” 

“Not many people gave Casey an ounce of opportunity to think that she would ever be at those world champs 10 months later. I have never seen a young athlete apply herself as hard as she could to be there, she so wanted to be there,” Kearney says. 

“For her to play in that final against Australia was absolutely inspirational and we can’t underestimate how talented, how hard working and how gutsy that kid is.” 

For Kearney, the young girl who so longed to be a Silver Fern but came up short (literally), her career achievements are a fitting tribute to the game she loves.  

“Each place along my journey has been around growing and about me being better than I was before. By doing that, it’s kept me inspired, it’s kept me wanting to learn and more importantly, it keeps me wanting to give back repeatedly to the sport.” 


With one year to go till the final of the women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, tournament director Michelle Hooper has laid down a challenge for a world record on day one - to create a legacy for women's sport globally. 

Michelle Hooper doesn’t want to just break the world record for derrières on seats at a women’s rugby game when the Rugby World Cup kicks off at Eden Park next October.

She wants to double it, and then some.

The current world record belongs to the rugby-passionate French – a sell-out crowd of 20,000 who poured into Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris to watch England convincingly beat Canada in the 2014 Rugby World Cup final (the only Cup final, mind you, the Black Ferns haven’t played in).

The 2017 World Cup final between the Ferns and the Red Roses was the next highest crowd puller - 17,155 fans at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast.

Hooper, the tournament director of the one year-delayed Rugby World Cup 2021, wants to see a sell-out for the opening day – a triple-header at Eden Park on October 8.

“Around 45,000 to 48,000 is what we’re aiming to achieve,” Hooper says, at home on Waiheke Island.

But it’s not all about bragging rights over other rugby nations. The intents are far deeper than that.

“Achieving that number is one thing, but it’s actually what it looks like to the world - the sentiment and the emotion behind it,” says Hooper.

“It’s about the legacy that full stadia create for women’s sport that's beyond a number. These are the very best female rugby players on the world stage playing at Eden Park on day one, and these sports stars represent resilience in every sense of the word. Our actions could create a legacy for women’s sport globally.”

It's an impressive line-up first-up – South Africa versus France, World Cup debutants Fiji meeting the might of England, followed by reigning champions New Zealand against Australia. It's highly likely the two finalist - who'll be back on Eden Park on November 12 - will come from these half-dozen teams. 

(The other six nations in the tournament play the following day at the Northland Events Centre in Whāngarei).

Black Fern Stacey Fluhler kisses 'Nancy' - the New Zealanders' nickname for the Rugby World Cup, after victory in 2017. Photo: Getty Images. 

Hoopers’ Rugby World Cup team have targeted the opening day for a reason.

“The buzz for the 2011 Rugby World Cup here in New Zealand started from day one, and then rolled across the whole tournament,” Hooper says. “We thought ‘What could we do that would fuel that hype?’”

Hooper came on board in January 2020 with an impressive background in global tournament organisation. She’d worked on the America’s Cup, the world triathlon series, a FIFA World Cup and the Winter Olympics.

And she’d helped run three Rugby World Cups in the past – as head of team services at the 2011 tournament in New Zealand, match commissioner at Twickenham in 2015, and then called in to run team services again for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Eden Park has been like a second home to her, after delivering home matches on the hallowed ground for Auckland Rugby and the Blues.

“When I first arrived, Waitakere Stadium was booked for the first match of the tournament. They only had Eden Park for the semis and the finals,” Hooper recalls.

“So I said ‘No.1 we have to have the opening day at Eden Park – that’s the ultimate if we’re going to supercharge the women’s game’. It’s arguably the best rugby stadium in the world.”

During New Zealand’s first Covid lockdown in March 2020, Hooper and her team gave World Rugby enough confidence in the numbers they could draw to Eden Park. “But overarching all of this was that New Zealand Rugby had only ever sold tickets to women’s rugby once, and that was a test event in November 2020 at Waitakere Stadium, to test the triple-header format,” Hooper says.

“Now we have the challenge of how do we fill it? Half-full isn’t good enough, because it’s actually about what it means to women’s sport to fill a stadium. That’s why we’ve made it a world record attempt.”

Ticket sales for the opening day started on November 1 - coinciding with the Black Ferns playing their 100 test. With a “compelling price point” - from $5 for kids and $10 for adults – they’ve sold 4000 tickets for day one so far.

But there’s still the not-so-small matter of a global pandemic that could upset their plans. With New Zealand’s borders closed and the future uncertain, Hooper can’t predict how that could affect ticket sales.

“We have to plan for a tournament to be delivered with Covid in the community,” she says. “What we’re seeing globally are full stadiums everywhere, people wanting to watch sport again. They are now where we will be hopefully in October 2022.”

As five-time world champions (from six tournaments), you’d expect the Black Ferns to be hot favourites on home soil for the first time, which has to increase their competitive advantage.

But they’ve failed to set the rugby world on fire during their challenging Northern Tour – losing heavily to England by record differences (31 and 41 points respectively), then going down to France by 25 last weekend. The final test against the French is at Castres on Sunday morning (NZ time).

Yet the games have attracted eyeballs. Around 12,000 came through the turnstiles at Pau to watch New Zealand v France - prompting rugby commentator Nick Heath to tweet: “French crowds at women’s games are a known thing. But it’s not a duty-bound sisterhood that is turning up to watch. It’s lads, old boys, work groups, families… They come because, ‘C’est rugby!'”

As England notched up their 17th test win on the trot against Canada last weekend, one million people tuned in to watch on BBC’s live free-to-air coverage.

Rugby World Cup 2021 tournament director Michelle Hooper. Photo: supplied. 

Hooper doesn’t think the Black Ferns’ run of losses will deter crowds next year.

“Yes, the tour didn’t get off to the start New Zealanders would have hoped for. But we’re in a pandemic,” she says. “New Zealand Rugby had every intention of preparing them as best as they could, but they had seven home tests and one away test in the build-up that couldn’t happen because of Covid.

“They will have every resource they need between now and the tournament; the commitment is there from NZ Rugby. And let’s hope we see the phoenix rise from the ashes.

“But they need New Zealanders to back them. For years, through all kinds of adversity, they’ve proudly represented us offshore. Now we’ve got 11 months to get in behind them.”

What has come out of this tour is the growing strength of rugby worldwide, Hooper says. “England look incredible, so disciplined. This has just piqued the interest in how other nations will perform,” she says.

The RWC organisers have wisely turned to other sports for guidance in these unprecedented times.

They’ve tapped into the knowledge of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, how they successfully led a team into – and out of – Japan; the protocols they followed, the bubbles within bubbles they stuck to. “We’ll overlay that with all our planning for the tournament,” Hooper says.

Vaccine passports are likely to be required to enter the three World Cup stadiums being used in the tournament, and a health and safety manager will join the organising team next year.

Leaders of the 'Big Four': (back row, left) IWG conference's Rachel Froggatt and Cricket World Cup 22's Andrea Nelson; (front, left) Rugby World Cup 2021's Michelle Hooper and FIFA World Cup 2023's Jane Patterson . Photo: Suzanne McFadden

Hooper is also using her position in the ‘Big Four’ collaboration to see how others are preparing in Covid times. The leaders of the four global women’s sporting events coming to New Zealand in the next two years – the World Cups in cricket, rugby, football and the IWG Women and Sport conference - meet regularly to share their knowledge and experiences with each other.

While it happened by chance - and Covid postponements for cricket and rugby - Hooper believes the alignment of the four events “turned out to be our destiny.”

“The measure of success for the country hosting a World Cup is normally about the registered player base for the sport. But what if through sport as a platform we can change the landscape for women globally?” she says.  “I think that’s the bigger question now at play.

“The empowerment of women and girls directly increases the economic growth of countries, and sport plays a role in empowering women and girls in communities. It lifts them up, makes them feel they can go on and do other things. The global pandemic has a dire effect on squeezing women out of the workforce, which is shocking.

“Right now, women and girls need hope and these World Cups we’re about to deliver need to reach them.”

The Rugby World Cup has found “a really high interest” from corporate sponsors: “We’ve sold seven of the eight spots available,” Hooper says. “The demand is there from sponsors, they just have to now work out how best to activate it.

“I think we'll see a turning point in commercial interest in women’s sport based on all these tournaments taking place here in Aotearoa.”

* The Black Ferns finish their Northern Tour against France on Sunday morning, with a 2.50am kick-off live on Sky Sport 1. 

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