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Memory Games: The boxer floored by the haka

Alexis Pritchard - the first New Zealand female boxer to win an Olympic bout, in London 2012 - recalls watching a swimming legend with her grandpa, being overwhelmed by the haka, and her message for boxer David Nyika,

Olympic Bonds: Erica and Micah, the Little Chargers

He's taught her the ropes of sailing a flying cat, sharpened her card skills and tried to make her love Formula One. And Erica Dawson couldn't be more grateful to her skipper Micah Wilkinson as they head to the Tokyo Olympics. 

Ories rugby trio hone in on a home World Cup

Ayesha Leti-l'iga, Amanda Rasch and Joanah Ngan Woo are club-mates, Pride mates and Black Ferns together, all striving to play at the 2022 Women's World Cup on home soil.

Renee's self-belief strengthened with Steel

A world champion sevens player and promising basketballer, Renee Savai'inaea chose to pour her strength and smarts into netball - a decision paying off at the Steel.

Basketball helps Suzie Bates' White Ferns comeback

LISTEN: Outstanding White Fern cricketer Suzie Bates has returned to her old passion, basketball, during her rehab from surgery, and has found another way to make a difference.

Suzie Bates is on track to return to the White Ferns after shoulder surgery, but she may not return to the bowling crease any time soon.

The former New Zealand captain is back in the White Ferns fold, after surgery on her rotator cuff, and is hoping to be back to full fitness for the series against England in three months' time. And while the two-time World ODI Player of the Year is able to bat and throw in training, it will be a while before she bowls again.

"In this team, my role is to get back batting at the top of the order and back being able to field at 100 percent," Bates tells Dennis Katsanos on the Through the Pickets podcast. "And not wasting too much time on bowling if that's not a really clear role for me in the White Ferns set-up."

Bates admits one of the best things to happen during her rehab has been returning to her basketball roots, as an assistant coach of the Otago Nuggets for the 2021 NBL men's season. Bates played for the Tall Ferns at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"When I [started coaching], I was struggling to see where I was going to contribute with a group I hadn't had much to do with, and the male-female dynamic," she says. "But the first thing for me is inspiring other women to coach men... being a female face on the coaching staff."

Also in the podcast, Bates reveals she would like to do more cricket commentary and use her PE degree in the future to help grow the confidence of kids. 

And she talks about how Silver Fern Donna Wilkins and Olympic gold medallist Sarah Ulmer influenced her career, her love of karaoke, and why she went to a roof-top party with LeBron James and the US basketball team. 

* Through the Pickets is the NZ Cricket Players' Association podcast. 

Olympic Bonds: Rebecca Petch and her power coach

Rebecca Petch, who's taken over from Sarah Walker as our BMX Olympic medal hope, has made a huge jump ahead in power thanks to her strength and conditioning coach, Shaun Paterson, as Sarah Cowley Ross discovers in our Olympic Bonds series. 

It’s the first five pedal strokes that make the difference. And that’s something Olympic-bound BMX rider Rebecca Petch, and those around her, are acutely aware of.

“If you’re strong and powerful out of the gate in BMX you get yourself out of the traffic early,” she says.

“So, I wouldn’t be good if I didn’t go to the gym to be strong and powerful. I wouldn’t be as good if I didn’t have Shaun.”

She’s talking about Shaun Paterson, her long-term strength and conditioning coach. They’re sitting alongside each other in the café at the Avantidrome in Cambridge, where they crank out demanding training sessions in the gym most days.

Working alongside Petch’s BMX coach, former elite rider Matt Cameron, Paterson’s role is to help the 23-year-old be explosive, with the priority on “making Bec as strong as humanly possible in the first five pedal strokes.”

Together they’ve been working on her strength in the gym, which has progressed to the point where she is able to nearly dead-lift three times her bodyweight; the 63kg rider’s current best is 173kg.

“Bec is one of the better athletes in New Zealand. She’s a weapon,” says Paterson.

Rebecca Petch with strength and conditioning coach Shaun Paterson (left) and BMX coach Matt Cameron. Photo: Cycling NZ

“If we can get Bec to the front, out of the traffic, into the first turn into the lead… there’s every chance she can maintain that position.”

But the building of the three-time national BMX champion’s power and optimal cadence (a measure of high speed power) hasn’t been all she’s developed. The mental muscle Petch has grown, says Paterson, has been “significant”.

“For a long time we’ve talked about Bec having more swagger simply because we believe in her and we want her to believe in herself more,” he says.

Petch, who’s been racing since she was three, backs that up. “Last year, if I was scared of jumping a jump at the track I would almost break down in tears. Whereas now ‘I’m like stuff it, we have to do this’,” she admits.

It’s the kindness Paterson has shown to her – both as an athlete and as a person - that Petch says makes their bond so special. 

Paterson, who works for High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ), reckons working with Petch has been so rewarding because of her work ethic and her thoughtfulness to thinking about training - why each exercise matters.

“It’s a real privilege to work with someone so humble and hard working as Bec,” he says. “We have to rein her in at times because she wants to train hard all the time.

“That’s where Matt and I work together to make sure she’s not going to get too cooked.

“It’s my role to take the lead from Matt depending on what phase Bec is in her training to develop her athleticism on the bike.”

For the last five years, Petch and Paterson have ground away in the Avantidrome gym developing her from a Pathway to Podium junior rider to an elite rider off to her first Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Rebecca Petch warming up for last year's Red Bull Pump track world champs in Cambridge. Photo: Red Bull. 

In 2008, BMX debuted at the Olympic Games in Beijing and a young Petch vividly remembers watching New Zealand’s BMX legend (and future Olympic silver medallist) Sarah Walker and thinking: “I want to be there one day.”

“I still remember that day in Room 2 at Pekerau Primary School in Te Awamutu – I was in awe of the Olympics,” she says.

It’s been a challenging ride to selection for the current national champion, who was officially named as New Zealand’s sole female rider in Tokyo on Thursday – taking on the mantle from Walker.  

Paterson says the past few months have been tough on Petch because of the uncertainty around whether she’d be selected. But the words of her strength and conditioning coach have helped her get through.

“Shaun has really reassured me that everyday we’re training for what we want,” says Petch. “He’s positive all the time.”

“That’s why I try to tell Bec and all my athletes – be brave, the opportunity is here and now” -  Shaun Paterson

Paterson is Scottish-Sri Lankan and grew up in rural New South Wales, Australia, before coming to New Zealand in 2014. He’s worked at HPSNZ since 2015.

His own sporting journey as a track and field sprinter shaped his career and ultimately his thirst for wanting athletes to fulfil their potential.

“As an athlete I wasn’t able to take a courageous step forward in a competition. I let my insecurities take over,” he says.

“That’s why I try to tell Bec and all my athletes – be brave, the opportunity is here and now.”

Rebecca Petch (centre) racing in the motos of the 2019 world champs. Photo: Nico van Dartel

That unwavering support combined with the environment at the HPSNZ training facility has allowed Petch to lift her game, she says. Being surrounded by other strong female athletes pushing for success in Tokyo has not only been a benefit to her physical preparation but also her mental strength.

“I’ve never really been a confident person, but the environment has made me more confident,” she says.

"Shaun’s a massive part of that and having other female athletes in the gym with me, all shouting at me as I go for a personal best, it’s awesome.” 

Athletes like javelin thrower Tori Peeters, hammer thrower Julia Ratcliffe, four-time Olympic rower Emma Twigg and cyclist Olivia Podmore. “We’re from different sports but we’re all about being better,” Petch says.

The BMX track in Tokyo’s Ariake Urban Sports Park is 10-15 seconds longer than a normal World Cup track, so training under increased fatigue has been a focus of Petch’s preparation, both on the track and complimented in the weight room.

“We need to make sure I can still technically execute at the end of the race,” says Petch.

Rebecca Petch receives a silver fern from NZ Olympic team chef de mission, Rob Waddell, after being named for Tokyo. Photo: Cycling NZ

That’s where the postponement of these Olympics has been a blessing in disguise, Petch admits. “I’ve had an extra year to train and I’ve hit some personal bests lately which show me it’s all coming together.”

What’s also special about Petch, Paterson says, is that she doesn’t have all her eggs in one basket. It's also her goal to join the police force. 

“Bec is going to make a great policewoman – it’s a tough job but she’ll be a big asset to the police,” he says.

Petch hasn’t raced in 16 months internationally – in her last events she made the semi-finals at two World Cups in Australia - so she’s excited about the prospect of lining up in Tokyo.

Right now, she’s training in the Wintec heat chamber in her full BMX race kit, with the climate set at Tokyo heat and humidity conditions.

She’s also visualising different possibilities that may play out in Tokyo – including if her coach Cameron, who will travel to Tokyo, is exposed to Covid-19.

“I’m visualising being by myself at the track and still executing how I want to race,” she says.

Even if she finds herself alone, she’ll know she has the support of her team at home behind her - including Paterson back in Cambridge, watching the race on TV.

Paddle queen's Olympic build-up on a duck pond

Three-time world rafting champion and firefighter Anne Cairns will race in canoe sprint for Samoa at the Tokyo Olympics, after a build-up in a muddy Manawatū lagoon.

In an international paddling career spanning more than 20 years, Anne Cairns is set to make her second Olympic appearance in Tokyo. And she’s done so by spending a significant amount of time training in little more than a duck pond.

The 40-year-old New Zealand-based Samoan international juggles life as a full-time firefighter and world champion athlete, lives between two cities more than 200km apart, and trains at a range of locations on the ocean, rivers and lakes.

Among them is the 750m-long Hokowhitu Lagoon in Palmerston North – a waterway she describes as “little more than a duck pond.”

“I guess you wouldn’t believe someone heading to the Olympics would train at the lagoon,” says Cairns with a smile. “A few multisport paddlers train there along with me and I end up going round and round. In the summer months especially, it’s muddy and weedy.”

Conventional it is not – but then there’s very little that’s conventional about Cairns’ life or paddle sport career.

Dividing her time between Palmerston North, where she works as a firefighter, and New Plymouth – the hometown of her partner and fellow kayaker Carl Barnes – she has to be both versatile and creative to meet her training demands.

“In a normal week I paddle on between four to six pieces of water between Palmerston North, Whanganui and New Plymouth,” Cairns says.

“I would sometimes finish my last shift in Palmerston North and drive up to Whanganui to train there. At New Plymouth I paddle on the Waitara River or on a lake out of town or in the sea. For Palmerston North it’s Hokowhitu Lagoon, or when it is too low or weedy, out at Foxton on the river.

“The running joke is I sleep in three beds a week - in Palmerston North where my mum and dad live, New Plymouth and a bed at work - and paddle in about six different places.”

Anne Cairns, Connie Richards, Erin Taylor and Agnes Szabo race the NZ K4 200m boat at the 2007 world champs in Germany. Photo: Getty Images.

Born and raised in Palmerston North, Cairns began her sporting journey as a swimmer and surf lifesaver before taking up paddling as a downriver racer aged 17.

She quickly developed into one of New Zealand’s finest downriver exponents, performing internationally and gaining top eight finishes at both the world junior and open world championships.

But she recalls it was “a hand-to-mouth” existence on the international circuit.

“I did all the travelling on my own and I never had a coach or a manager,” recalls Cairns. “I joined in with different teams; it might be Australia or the Czech Republic. I was always on a really tight budget, but I made the most of what I could.”

She first sat in a K1 at the age of 25 back in 2007 and was fast-tracked into the New Zealand K4 programme for the Beijing Olympics. Unfortunately, her hopes of making the 2008 Games didn’t work out and after “losing the enjoyment” for sprint paddling, she quit.

For several years she focused on waka ama and multisport racing. But then in 2012 – while on a course to be a trainee firefighter – she watched Lisa Carrington strike K1 200m gold at the London Olympics.

“Watching Lisa gave me the thought that the next time the Olympics comes around [in Rio 2016], I could race for Samoa and give qualification a crack through the Oceania spot,” says Cairns.

“My mum is Samoan, I’ve always had a huge connection with Samoa and to be able to represent Samoa is as important to me as racing for New Zealand.”

Anne Cairns' firefighter family give her a good luck cake before the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo: Stuff. 

Under the guidance of British coach, Richard Forbes, Cairns focused her efforts on qualifying in the K1 200m and K1 500m for the Rio Olympics. Dividing her time then between living in Palmerston North and Dannevirke - and training in the aforementioned ‘duck pond’ and a small lake in a farmer’s paddock - she reached Rio via the 2015 world championships in Milan.

The Olympic experience was a dream come true for Cairns – who finished seventh in her heat of both the K1 200m and K1 500m.

“Rio was amazing,” she says. “I guess everyone has that Olympic dream and it was my luck to have that chance to do it. The Games were everything I hoped and expected they would be.”

Yet one taste of the Olympics did not quite sate Cairns’ appetite, and believing she would forever regret not targeting the Tokyo Olympics, she went to North Shore Canoe Club coach, Gavin Elmiger, for guidance in 2017.

Juggling her time competing and training in a range of paddle sports - including surf ski (ocean racing), whitewater rafting (she's won the world title three times) and waka ama - Cairns believes her versatile background has provided ideal preparation for canoe sprint.  

Anne Cairns (left) in the NZ women's team who won silver at the 2017 world rafting champs in Japan. Photo: Stuff. 

At the 2020 Oceania championships she secured her spot on the Samoan team for the K1 500m in Tokyo.

Having to wait for a year following the postponement of the Olympics has been far from ideal. But Cairns continued to pursue other paddle sports, and in April, banked silver at the New Zealand surf ski championships in Whakatane over the 30km distance. She also won gold at the national waka ama long distance championships in Picton.

So why has she opted to pursue multiple paddling disciplines – many of them long distance in nature - to prepare for the shorter canoe sprint events at the Olympic Games?

“I get a lot of mental and physical stimulation from all the paddle disciplines and keeping a lot of variation has meant a high enjoyment factor,” she explains.

“I love the external and environmental factors of rafting. I enjoy catching the waves in the surf ski – which you just don’t get from flatwater.

“But when it comes to flatwater, I like the fact there are no real external factors and it’s just you racing the other boats and you just have to put it out there.”

Anne Cairns competing at this year's national canoe sprint champs. Photo: Georgia Schofield

Elmiger has been open to Cairns doing all different types of paddling, Cairns says.

“I've had periods during the long build-up to the Olympics where I’ve lost my enthusiasm,” she says. “But the last three or four months it’s really come back and a big part of this is my training and racing programme.”

Earlier this month she warmed up for the Olympics by finishing a respectable fourth in the K1 200m at the New Zealand canoe sprint champs on Lake Karapiro. Now she has her sights set on Tokyo where she will be competing in both the K1 200m and K1 500m (events where Carrington is the world champion).

“My preparation has gone well and in Tokyo I just want to put down some good races and be happy with my performance,” Cairns says. “I don’t have a set place or time in mind, because conditions can be so varying, I just hope to be in the right head space to go as fast as I can.”

Memory Games: gymnast's breathless sprint for bronze

In our first Memory Games Q&A with LockerRoom writers who've been to the Olympics, New Zealand's 1988 Seoul Games rhythmic gymnast Angela Walker recalls the moment John Walker became her hero, wearing Mark Todd's gold - and hopes for our first trampolining medal. 

What was your very first Olympic memory?

I was a primary school kid when the 1976 Olympics took place in Montreal. Our black and white television at home was on around the clock.

Mum and Dad circled around it day and night. I heard their whoops and cheers and was drawn to the collective excitement. I especially loved watching Nadia Comaneci bounce around the floor, her ponytail and perfect 10s kick-starting the dreams of gymnasts the world over - myself included.

My most exciting moment was watching a longhaired chap with the same surname as me run the 1500m. I was spellbound as John Walker charged down the home straight, clad in New Zealand’s distinctive black singlet. My parents’ cheers grew louder as he held off his rivals. Then he crossed the finish line in first place, his head tipping back and his arms swinging up. We all felt his elation in that moment, as he surrendered to Olympic immortality.

The unforgettable image of John Walker winning the 1500m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Photo: Getty Images.

It was during those 1976 Olympics I decided I wanted to go to the Olympics one day myself. I pinned a poster of John Walker to my bedroom wall and vowed to do everything in my power to make it happen. Years later, when I went to the 1988 Olympics, I bumped into Sir John Walker in the streets of Seoul. We had a chat. I hope I told him that he’d inspired my own Olympic dreams.

What were your favourite Olympic moments – from actually being there?

One of the best things about being an athlete at the Olympics is getting to watch world-class athletes compete in so many different sports. Amongst my highlights in 1988 was seeing Carl Lewis and Flo Jo (Florence Joyner) win gold medals in the atmospheric Seoul Olympic Stadium.

An even bigger thrill was seeing your teammates win medals for New Zealand. I cheered from the stands as canoeing greats Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald charged down the K2 500m course and took out gold. Another day I got to try on Mark Todd’s weighty gold medal at his after-party in the Games village. Every day brought another mind-blowing experience.

One unforgettable evening, I watched Paul Kingsman contest the 200m backstroke final. I was sitting in a TV lounge in the village with a bunch of Kiwis. Kingsman, having qualified second-slowest for the final, was in lane one, far from the expected action in the middle of the pool.

At the final turn he was well back. Against all odds, Paul accelerated down the last 50 metres, picking off his competitors one by one until he was bearing down on the leading three swimmers with a very real chance of claiming a medal. We Kiwis watching TV were screaming, and blinking rapidly, because what we were witnessing didn’t seem remotely possible. But Paul touched the wall in third place, earning himself an Olympic bronze, New Zealand’s first Olympic swimming medal since Jean Stewart’s bronze in 1952.

Paul Kingsman (right) with the Olympic bronze he won in the Seoul pool in 1988. Photo: Getty Images. 

Another athlete in the TV room said, “You know, the swimming venue is about a five-minute sprint from here. Let’s try and get there in time for the medal ceremony.” So we all took off, tearing through the village, out through security, across to the swimming venue, gasping for breath as we entered through the athletes-only door. With only seconds to spare, we joined the large Kiwi contingent in the audience and shared in the magic of our teammate’s unexpected medal, the New Zealand flag fluttering high.

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

Anyone who's been paying attention will know that New Zealand’s Olympic fortunes have been on an impressive upward trajectory. Back in Sydney 2000, Kiwis won four medals (including one gold), and languished in 46th position on the medal table. However those numbers have been steadily climbing ever since.

In London 2012, New Zealand won six gold and 13 medals in all, placing 14th on the medal table. It was an impressive improvement after only 12 years and a testament to the investment made in New Zealand high performance sport.

Four years on, in Rio 2016, New Zealand had its best ever Olympic haul, winning 18 medals.

Surely it's a big ask to keep improving at the extraordinary rate of the past 20 years. This is why my dream scenario to play out in Tokyo would see the New Zealand Team surpass everything they've achieved at the last two Olympics. 

Could shotput legend Dame Valerie Adams win her fourth Olympic medal in Tokyo? Photo: Getty Images. 

Amongst the plethora of Kiwi medallists, Dame Valerie Adams would win a third gold medal. So would kayaker Lisa Carrington, while sailors Alex Maloney and Molly Meech would go one better than Rio 2016 and win gold in the 49erFX event.

I’d also love to see someone completely unexpected win a medal, and match pole-vaulter Eliza McCartney’s irrepressible joy in Rio. There’s nothing like an athlete surpassing even their own expectations.

Finally, in my dream scenario, not a single Japanese citizen or person attending the Olympics would get Covid-19 as a result of the Games taking place. And television viewers everywhere would transcend the challenges of the pandemic, even if only for a moment, during an Olympic Games like no other.

What events are you most looking forward to?

When the Olympics Games are declared officially open in Tokyo in July, the time for debating whether they should or shouldn’t have taken place will have passed, and it will be a moot point.

If past Olympics are anything to go on, I’ll be glued to the screen. I won’t care what the sport is. When it’s the Olympics, everything is worth watching. While I’ll love every moment of it, I’ll be relieved when the Games end and I can catch up on sleep and stop welling up during the heady rollercoaster of victories, defeats, medal ceremonies and anthems.

Kiwi trampolinist Maddie Davidson competing at the 2021 Oceanias. Photo: WinkiPop Media. 

I won’t miss a minute of the gymnastics or trampolining events. I’m hoping to see New Zealand’s Misha Koudinov contest the men’s artistic gymnastics, and Maddie Davidson become the first New Zealand woman to compete in Olympic trampolining.

I hope to see American Simone Biles perform her history-making vault – the Yurchenko double pike.

I’m excited to watch my own sport – rhythmic gymnastics – which this year is expected to be a battle between identical Russian twins, Dina and Arina Averina.

Most of all, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for the talented Dylan Schmidt who, if the stars align, is capable of winning New Zealand’s first ever Olympic trampolining medal.

Signal lifts female awareness while waiting for Tokyo nod

While gutsy weightlifter Megan Signal waits to hear if she's off to her first Olympics, she's helping aspiring female athletes bridge the knowledge gap around wellness and support.

Megan Signal knows more than most what pushing your body to the limit can achieve.

The Olympic weightlifting hopeful will soon find out if she'll represent New Zealand in Tokyo next month - a tremendous feat for the 31-year-old, who only got into sport and being active in her twenties. And who's come back from a string of injuries and health issues, including being forced out two weeks before the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games by injury. 

Signal's health and fitness journey represents two extremes.

There’s her current life as an elite athlete, where she has ample opportunity and resources to learn how to be the best sports person she can be. And her former life as a regular member of the public who wasn't entirely sure how to get healthy and had preconceived ideas about what that looked like.

It’s for this reason, and a few others, Signal wants to share what she’s learnt through the years with others.

So in amongst her preparation for both Tokyo and next year's Commonwealth Games, she's bringing an event to life to address the gap in knowledge sharing for women and girls. 

Signal, who's lifting career has been plagued by injury and setbacks, knows firsthand how life-changing the wealth of experience, skills and research available to elite athletes are. But she also understands the same information isn’t always easily accessible to the general public. That’s where she's hoping to start changing things with the 'Girls Locker Room' event this Sunday.  

“It's just a really exciting opportunity to share that stuff we [athletes] get access to,” says Signal, who's been building up to compete in the 76kg weight class in Tokyo. “When I tell people about it, I can't get across how excited I am and how beneficial it is for girls.”

Signal has organised a panel of speakers who have the same passion around sharing knowledge, inspiration and motivation.

Former Black Fern and soon-to-be-mum Charmaine Smith, and entrepreneur Mimi Gilmour-Buckley will share the stage together at the gym Signal co-owns, to speak around the challenges of starting a business, how injuries can change lives and motherhood. 

Former Black Fern Charmaine Smith warming up. The soon-to-be-mum was forced to retire due to injury. Photo: supplied.

MMA champion Michelle Montague, Signal and Smith are happy to discuss the common stages they’ve dealt with through their own sporting endeavours, including body image challenges, nutrition practices and general health.

Signal hopes attendees will take away new tools to help them in their own sport or life journey. “I want every individual to walk away connecting with a story. Walking away going ‘Ok, I am not alone, I am inspired to do something with this',” she says. 

AUT PhD candidate Kimberly Santabarbara will also present on her research relating to menstrual cycles and how they correlate to training. Signal says the research is world-leading. 

Learning about RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) - where the body is under-fuelled for the amount of training someone is undertaking, and the internal damages people could be doing to their bodies without realising - is on the table, too. 

Signal had her own brush with energy deficiency when she was cutting weight to compete in the 64kg weight class, creating a hormone imbalance and she stopped having periods. Switching to the 76kg class, and seeing health experts, put her back on track. 

Having set countless records in snatch and clean and jerk as well as being a business owner, Signal has mentioned in several forums the difference in what information is available to people who are not elite athletes and those who are.  

“I train like an athlete because I am an athlete,” says Signal. “I then go and coach classes with the general population who train like athletes. They train just as hard as I do because they love it.

"But because they are not athletes, they don’t get told that ‘This is RED-S’, ‘This is the long-term damage you could be doing’, ‘This is what is healthy for the body’, ‘This is what's not healthy for the body’, ‘Look out for these red flags’.”

There are similarities in both realities, but the delivery of information just needs to be different. 

“The struggles we go through as an athlete are similar to the struggles that our members go through at the gym,” says Signal. “Different scenarios but really the same conversations.” 

Signal’s friend Jennifer Davies, a retail manager, is taking care of the event. She initiated the idea four weeks ago over coffee, suggesting making it a fundraiser to cover Signal's fulltime training in the final lead-up to the Games. Davies made things happen so Signal could concentrate on her training. 

Jennifer Davies is organising the 'Girls Locker Room' for her friend Megan Signal. Photo: supplied. 

Like many athletes, Signal's journey to these Olympics was interrupted by Covid-19's abrupt arrival early last year. She needed to compete in six international events to snatch the Oceania qualifying spot, but that has since been amended to the events that had already been held before the world went into lockdown (she'd completed five).

She hasn't been able to compete internationally in the last 15 months, but has had the national and Auckland championships, and an international online event and the North Island champs in the next two weeks to keep her in competition form. At nationals, Signal set an Oceania clean and jerk and total records in the 71kg division, while she won the snatch and clean and jerk at the Auckland champs in the 76kg weight class. 

So what motivates Signal to share her experiences? 

“It’s pretty simple, I get really excited that we’re going to be given a platform," she says. "I know the gem is going to be in the amount of really genuine, organic conversations we're going to be able to have.

“And I know people are going to be able to leave the gym and take that into wherever they’ve come from and that ripple effect is really exciting for me. That’s something I'm really passionate about because it just feels good.”

* The ‘Girls Locker Room’ event is on Sunday, June 20, from 10am at Functional Fit East Tamaki. 

Kamo Black Sticks factory turns out a bright new star

Just 19, Katie Doar has grabbed the attention of the hockey world with her silky skills, and is on her way to her first Olympics in Tokyo alongside her childhood idol, Stacey Michelsen. 

The latest Olympian to come out of Kamo’s Black Sticks factory, Katie Doar is already a bit of a legend.

To begin with, the 19-year-old is part of an incredible sporting legacy – the 15th Black Stick to have graduated from the small school of Kamo Intermediate, just north of Whangarei.

It stretches back to Neil McLeod, who was part of the 1976 New Zealand men’s team who won Olympic gold in Montreal, and includes 12 women who’ve played for the Black Sticks, including Doar’s elder sister, Madi and two others bound for the Tokyo Olympics - captain Stacey Michelsen and veteran Ella Gunson.

But Doar is not just any player. She’s already being compared to her original hockey idol Michelsen – for her magical first touch of the ball, her control and stick skills that belie her years.

Michelsen, the most capped Black Stick of all time who’s heading to her third Olympics, is blown away by the talented teenager, who she first guided when Doar was around nine years old.

But Doar holds a record that Michelsen and others can never better.

During her two years at Kamo Intermediate, Katie Doar became the most striped student in the school's history.

How do you earn your stripes? Through sports, academic and cultural achievements and services to the school.

Doar was so determined to beat sister Madi’s school record of 89 stripes she threw herself at everything the school had to offer. She collected 104 of them. 

A Year 8 Katie Doar wearing her record 104 school stripes. Photo: Kamo Intermediate

“I had them all down my sleeves and across the front of my shirt for things like cross country, debating and doing a fun run,” Doar says. “I was so proud of Madi, but I was always going to beat her.”

(They’ve since changed the rules for gathering stripes at Kamo, so the record looks safe with the younger Doar).

The sisters were later boarders at St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland (following Michelson there) and now share a house in the city with their two dogs, Kevin and Bill, and play club hockey together for Southern. 

Madi was the first to make the Black Sticks, debuting for New Zealand in 2017 at the age of 17. The following year she won gold at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. She’s now working and studying fulltime.

Then Katie followed in 2019, first wearing the silver fern when she, too, was 17. And now she’s bound for her first Olympics.

“I wasn’t with Madi when I got the email to say I was in the team, but when I got home there were flowers and stuff from her,” Katie Doar says. “She knows what it’s like to go to big events, so she’s pretty chuffed for me.

“I still didn’t think my first big event would be these Olympics, right up until I got the email. I was pretty chill about it all so it came as a shock.”

The shockwaves reverberated all the way to Kamo, where the Doars’ mother, Helen, was working in her physiotherapy clinic.

“When she heard, she said to her patient: ‘Sorry I have to go ring my daughter’ and she started crying,” Doar says. “I was laughing: ‘Oh my gosh you’re so weird, Mum’. But Mum and Dad were so happy, because they knew how much my sister and I have put into the sport.”

Another mum elated by the news would have been Michelsen’s mother, Barbara. She’s a common denominator in the stories of Michelsen, Gunson and the Doar sisters – as their hockey coach at Kamo Intermediate.

Third-time hockey Olympian Stacey Michelsen with first-timer, Katie Doar. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

“I was so fortunate to have Barb Michelson as my coach; it was insane how much I learned. It was probably the first real spark where I realised I loved hockey,” says Doar, who followed her sister into the game after being frustrated by her football games being cancelled by rain.

“I’ll never forget how much fun hockey was back then. I said to Mum the other day, I actually miss being that young.”

There was also the thrill for the Doar sisters of being invited to train with Stacey Michelsen whenever she’d return to Whangarei. Michelsen, crowned the World Young Player of the Year in 2011, wanted to help the talented young siblings build on their skills.

And that continues today – Michelsen, with 291 international caps to her name, still helping the 19-cap Doar.

“It’s still so nice to train alongside her and keep learning from her; she’s so helpful,” Doar says. “I’ve always loved Stacey, loved watching her play, and I still do.

“I remember lining up for the national anthem for the first time and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh I’m playing with Stacey - this is quite weird’. I thought it would never happen, especially because of the age difference [Michelsen is 30], I thought I’d never get in there in time to play alongside her.”

Michelsen says it’s been incredible to follow Doar’s rise in the game.

“When I first watched Katie as a youngster, I could tell she was a special kind of player.  She had a skillset that stood out amongst her peers,” Michelsen says. “And her trajectory has been a very steep curve – she’s developed so quickly. But that certainly hasn’t been a surprise to me. She’s a very special kind of player.”

And can Michelsen see herself in Doar?

“Obviously it’s difficult, because I want to flatter Katie, but I don’t want to talk about myself!” Michelsen laughs.  

“But I think we’re similar in terms of our ability on the ball. She has an incredible ability with the skills she has – particularly for someone of her age – and her control is so great. It’s always stood out through the levels she’s played at, but now it stands out internationally, too.”

Young Black Stick Katie Doar bamboozles her Hockeyroos opponent during the TransTasman series in Palmerston North 

Michelsen gives credit to the people in Northland hockey, like her mum, who’ve devoted so much time to helping develop a steady stream of Olympians.

“We’re really privileged to come from a region that has that community focus and my mum is certainly one of those people who has given back, coaching for years and years,” she says. Her mum still works and coaches at Kamo Intermediate.  “All the coaches up there are so willing to give extra time, which makes so much difference when you’re developing at that key age group of intermediate age kids.”

Doar is in her second year studying exercise and sports science part-time at Massey University. She has her final exam of the semester today, and flies out with the Black Sticks on Friday for Perth, where they will finally play the two Pro League games against the Hockeyroos that were postponed in March last year by the Covid pandemic.

“The study is great to have something else to focus on. It gives some balance and keeps me busy,” Doar says.

She’s looking at becoming a physio: “But I try not to say that to mum because she gets all excited”.

On the field, Doar revels in playing club hockey - especially alongside her sister. And she'd love to mirror the international longevity of Michelsen. It’s now up to her to stamp her mark on the Black Sticks - she just has to determine where she’ll do it.

“I often get asked ‘what position are you?’ and I have no idea,” she laughs. “I started off as a striker, and then I play midfield for club, but before that I played defender. I can play wherever, just chuck me in.

“I like midfield, but there’s a lot more running, which is hard. I’m a battler.”

Katie Doar at the announcement of the Black Sticks squads bound for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo Simon Watts/BW Media

Doar is prepared for her first Olympic experience to be unusual. Following the protocols in the Tokyo Olympics Playbook, she knows she can’t tuck her mouthguard in her sock anymore or grab her water bottle (her manager has to hand it to her). And she’ll constantly have to wear a mask unless she’s eating, sleeping, training or playing.

She’s disappointed her family, who’ve done so much for her throughout her hockey career, can’t be there. But she’s ready for the ride of her life.

Michelsen’s advice to Doar?

“Just to make sure she knows to treasure it and enjoy it. It’s an event like no other,” she says.

“You really feel for these young girls going to these Games in such a strange environment. But I’ve said this to them - and I do believe it - your first Games are so special that all of these strange protocols we’re going to have to adhere to won’t dampen that because it’s such a special experience.

“So I hope Katie lives in the moment and enjoys it as much as she can. And I think she will do great.”

* For the record, beyond their hockey internationals, Kamo Intermediate has also produced Football Ferns Hannah Wilkinson and Katie Rood, Black Fern Leanne Atkins, international triathlete Simone Ackermann, NZ beach volleyball player Suzy McAsey, All Black Ian Jones and Black Cap Bryan Young.

The Kiwi woman who changed basketball

For over four decades, Barbara Wheadon has helped to shape basketball - here and internationally - in her many roles, and has been recognised with the sport's highest honour. 

There aren't many who've impacted the sport of basketball in New Zealand, and around the world, like Barbara Wheadon.

A leader, player, volunteer and changemaker on the global stage, Wheadon has been involved at all levels of the game for over 40 years, diligently working in the background to help change the landscape to be fairer and more competitive. 

What started out as getting on the board of her local basketball association so the voices of the team she played for could be heard, ended up with Wheadon serving on FIBA - the  sport's international body - for over 10 years.

She spearheaded changes to structures set in stone for 75 years, when others told her she couldn't. "‘You'll never get NBA players to agree, Barbara’... Well guess what? We did,” she says.

And now the former New Zealand and Oceania president is back volunteering at the grassroots of basketball. 

Wheadon’s remarkable contribution to the game has now been recognised with her induction into Basketball New Zealand’s Hall of Fame. 

“When they wrote to me and said this is what they were going to do, I thought that was all a bit of a fuss really,” she says. 

“But then you do say to yourself ‘Oh yep, that’s nice’. Nice for all the people around me who I badgered to death about how we should get things done, and 'Can we have this money and that money?'”

Wheadon already has a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to basketball but the Hall of Fame recognition is very special, she says, because it's from her peers. 

Barbara Wheadon with her Basketball NZ Hall of Fame plaque at the sport's awards night in May 2021. Photo: Basketball New Zealand. 

It’s the icing on the cake in a career that has seen some major successes. The building of the North Shore Events Centre, now known as Eventfinda Centre and the home of North Harbour basketball, is one of them. Being a foundation trustee at the Millennium Institute of Sport, now known as AUT Millennium, and seeing that brought to life, is another. 

“Achieving those two facilities for the sporting community, first of all, on the North Shore but then nationally, have to be part of the highlights," Wheadon says.

"The other significant thing was the work we did on the FIBA central board to change the competition calendar." She served on the international board for 12 years. 

The changes in the competition calendar and qualification process for FIBA - which supervises basketball worldwide - was significant as it had been the same set-up throughout their 75-year history. 

Member used to be through five zones around the world, says Wheadon. “We moved it to a 'federation of federations' membership, so it was directly from each country to the international organisation,” explains Wheadon.

“People back here used to say, ‘How do we get to the Olympic Games?’, ‘How do we get to the world champs?’ Because back then, we only had to beat Australia to go anywhere. Well, that’s not a high performance pathway, coming second isn’t a pathway.”

It didn’t come overnight either. It was a 12-year campaign to ensure all countries had the opportunity to improve and succeed.  “We were able to put in place opportunities at all levels of our sport in New Zealand to compete on the world stage,” Wheadon says. “So what we've been able to do was really quite significant.”

For the sport’s future in New Zealand, Wheadon sees the need to focus on growing the coaching and refereeing pathways, and supporting smaller, local basketball centres and partnering with school programmes.

Because the players have opportunities now to go into the United States college system, she says, and some coaches have taken up roles overseas. 

Basketball's progression has been “phenomenal.” 

“In terms of the actual administration of the game, how things are done, why things are done, I mean it's night and day,” Wheadon says.

“But at the same time, there are still the core values, the core things that you need to do, but there's still heaps that could be done - and has to be done.” 

Wheadon has held many management and governance positions during her career. She’s been the chair, treasurer and interim CEO at Harbour Basketball. She was a BBNZ board member from 1998 to 2008 and served as president in the last six years of her tenure. 

In 2002, Wheadon was appointed to the FIBA Oceania board and became president from 2006 to 2010. She was the Oceania representative on the FIBA central board during that period.

She received a life membership award from Basketball New Zealand in 2006, and the NZOM.

"To be able to achieve change at the international boardroom table... They used to say to me, 'It's not possible, Barbara'. And I would say ‘Why?’" 

What’s served Wheadon well throughout her career has been the need to know and understand your community. 

Getting the NSEC across the line is a good example. Basketball were facing barriers they couldn't overcome on their own. In the end, a partnership with gymnastics proved necessary to get the facility built. 

“Sport North Harbour taught us to talk to each other, and find out about what everyone else is needing and thinking,” she says. “Because we were all facing the same challenges.”

Wheadon’s own basketball career started in her hometown of Te Awamutu in Waikato in the mid 1960s. She played throughout college, and represented Waikato schools and made the national schools' side. 

She eventually found a team to carry on playing when she moved to Auckland with her husband, Graeme.

Wheadon became a librarian as there weren’t many career options for women. “Back in those days you’d go to the career advisory evenings they had at school and all the girls were steered in the direction of either being teachers or nurses - neither of which struck me as anything exciting at all. Nobody else was going to be a librarian so I thought ‘Well I might like to do that’.” 

Nowadays, the career options are endless. Wheadon was encouraged at Basketball New Zealand’s recent AGM but the variety of opportunities in sport: CEOs of basketball associations to employees and volunteers in the sport. Especially for women. 

“Instead of it just being ‘Barbara’, half of the room are now females and they're all being paid in this sport,” she says.

Her own three daughters are testament to expanding career options for women. One has an honours degree in mathematics, another an honours degree in chemistry, and the last, a postgraduate degree in business management with a master in wine in progress. “I can't imagine what the next ones are going to do,” says Wheadon of her five grandchildren. 

While she admits a career in journalism would’ve been great, Wheadon ended up involved in the business she and Graeme bought in between raising their children and volunteering in basketball communities. 

It was at a local centre in Auckland where Wheadon got back on court, after meeting a group of mums playing in the basketball and netball competitions.

“I was also a new mum and they were playing in a basketball programme at the YMCA on a Monday morning,” says Wheadon. “There was a little creche there so I was able to leave my eldest daughter, Elizabeth, there and play.” 

Barbara Wheadon (front row, centre) with other award recipients for Basketball NZ's awards ceremony at Te Papa. Photo: BBNZ.

From there, Wheadon got onto the North Harbour committee because their team didn't like the way the grading system was carried out.

“If you want to change the system, you have to be there at the boardroom table,” Wheadon says. “And as I tell people, ‘I got onto the basketball committee and didn’t get off until I got on the international one.”

After retiring from FIBA in 2014, Wheadon decided it was time to step away from contributing at a governance level altogether. “I made a conscious effort to say 'enough is enough'. I thought I had done the part of what I wanted to do around legacy,” she says.

But she hasn’t slipped away completely. Her contribution to the sport has come full circle, with Wheadon back supporting at a grassroots level. 

Small associations in the Waikato area have Wheadon’s experience to call on now for budgeting advice, overseeing finances and volunteering. “I help them with a few things because I know the game. I know how to make the resources go a little bit further,” she laughs.

Wheadon feels like she’s achieved what she wanted in the sport... “And more.”

“There was the legacy of the facilities, but to be able to achieve change at the international boardroom table... They used to say to me, 'It's not possible, Barbara'. And I would say ‘Why?’,” she recalls.

“‘Oh, but we will have to talk to all these people’, ‘You'll never get NBA players to agree, Barbara’."  And of course, she did.  

They used the same philosophy she had used at a local level around getting to know your community. “To be able to do things, we had to work with the whole world to change the competition structure that had been there for 75 years. And it was very European-dominated,” Wheadon says. 

“So we had to get to know each other around the boardroom table. We had to share all the challenges we had, why we couldn’t do this, and why we didn’t have any money.”

Wheadon says that’s the greatest legacy. “Is that back home we made some changes in our little old country. It was really challenging,” she says. “But to achieve changes at an international board, that’s remarkable. As I said at the beginning, if you're not there, you can't change things.” 

 

Downhearted cyclist hits the road to get back on track

After agonisingly missing out on the Olympics, then getting Covid-19, a change of scene is helping Kiwi rider Michaela Drummond keep her cycling dream alive.

When the road to Tokyo closed off for good, Michaela Drummond was finished.

She'd poured everything into the New Zealand track cycling programme for the last four years, only to come up just short, named as a reserve for the 2021 Olympics. Her glass wasn't half-empty or half-full. It was shattered.

"I didn't think I would ever be happy again," the 23-year-old says.

Drummond had been trying to make the team pursuit team for the Games, with five spots available. She'd had enjoyed a lot of success in the past, including a bronze medal at the 2019 world championships in Poland. While she was a key member of the squad, competition for places was fierce, and every ride in the lead-up to the Olympics mattered.

That’s where she’d come unstuck. During a World Cup event in Brisbane, she’d only lasted one race after battling exhaustion and a rash on her leg.

Back home in Cambridge, a bout of food poisoning struck her down when she tried to compete in the madison, another one of her events. Her struggles were compounded by an auto-immune disease that took her out of training and racing for four months.

At the same time, the team pursuit outfit was firing on all cylinders. They produced a blistering ride in their home velodrome, which was just half a second off the world record set by Great Britain. Jamie Nielsen was also back in the mix after taking a break to have a child and was stronger than ever.

Deep down, Drummond knew she wouldn’t be able to get back in. Instead, she started planning out 2020 and a possible move to Europe. Of course, coronavirus soon scuppered that. But it did raise one big question: maybe if the Olympics were delayed, she’d have another chance to make it?

Michaela Drummond (centre) gets a slingshot into the madison from NZ team-mate Jesse Hodges. Photo: Cycling NZ.

When the Games were pushed back, emails from Cycling New Zealand hinted at a possible re-selection process. By now, Drummond had recovered from her auto-immune disease and was training hard. She was motivated and hopeful.

In the end though, the selections didn’t change. When the move to Europe firmed up, she decided she wanted to focus on road cycling for a bit to improve her strength and her endurance.

Just as she settled on her future, however, an extra bunch spot opened up in the New Zealand track team. There were now six endurance riders, not five, set to go to the Games. Tokyo was back on.

"I didn't actually know about this for a wee while, and I'd already planned to go over to the road,” she says. “When it opened up, I was hoping after racing the world championships for the last four years and competing in the omnium and a lot of madisons at the World Cups, that I'd be in good contention for the spot,” she says.

But in a now familiar cycle of hope and disappointment, Drummond wasn't picked.

"It was probably the lowest point for me because I really felt like I deserved that spot. That was a hard point to get through," she says.

While Drummond was still involved as a reserve, she couldn't face another year of watching on as the others prepared for Tokyo.

"I had a lot of pain going to the track every day and I just felt really hurt still in the environment," she remembers.

Turning up at the velodrome was suffocating her and she needed to get out.

"I just had a lot of fear in the environment that I was in. Mentally, I wasn't doing well seeing what I wanted to be doing and not being able to do it. I love my team-mates and they're amazing and my best friends, but they're also my competitors," she says.

Michaela Drummond leads the way for the New Zealand women's team pursuit quartet. Photo: Cycling NZ

Drummond talked a lot with a psychologist provided by Cycling NZ, who helped her understand what she was going through. It helped to change her perspective on missing out. While she didn't make the Games this time, she realised how much she'd enjoyed the journey, and didn't want to give up on it just yet.

To keep her dream alive though, she needed something different.

Her boyfriend lived in Portugal, and they'd been doing long-distance for a while. Now was the perfect opportunity to head over there and live with him, as well as getting in some racing on the road while the track events stalled around the world.

Leaving the relative sanctuary of New Zealand took her away from a largely Covid-free world, and into Europe’s ripe petri dish. It didn’t take long for her to be exposed.

Drummond and her boyfriend decided to get tested for Covid-19 before heading away on holiday, only for the results to come back positive. Lying on the beach was replaced with lying at home devouring Netflix.

While her boyfriend was quite sick, in bed with a fever and body aches, Drummond only had to overcome a bit of a headache. Fortunately, the virus didn’t linger and she hasn’t suffered any long-term effects either, with a range of scans declaring she was healthy again and ready to get back on the bike.

She had secured a deal with Italian team BePink, who are regularly invited to race at the highest level of women's cycling on the World Tour. They've taken on several Kiwis in the past and just recently signed Christchurch teenager Henrietta Christie.

Kiwis in the pink: Henrietta Christie (left) and Michaela Drummond ride for Italian road team BePink. Photo: Anton Vos

Drummond’s first race for the team was the mythical Strade-Bianche in March; a brutal ride over white gravel roads which whip up dust and drama like an electric beater. Her debut taste could have easily sent her sprinting back to the track in Cambridge, but she savoured every moment.

"That race made me fall in love with road cycling... I think it's my most fun race to date. Just riding with some of the best women in the world, it was something special for sure," she recalls.

She’d caught the road cycling buzz; fittingly summed up by a bee sting on her leg towards the end of the day. She went on to race some of the biggest events on the calendar, including Belgian blockbusters La Fleche Wallonne Feminin and Liege-Bastogne-Liege Femmes.

"I've managed to do every climber's race you could think of, so as a sprinter, it's been truly tough!” Drummond laughs. “But I think it's been these races that have been making me so strong, and I think once I get to a race that suits me, I'm going to be more than ready to do a good sprint.”

And bubbling away in the background is her desire to return to the velodrome. She wants to come back at the end of the year and compete at the track nationals, before hopefully making the team for the Commonwealth Games in 2022.

She’s confident the road is making her a stronger athlete and driving the endurance and fitness she needs to lift her levels on the boards.  

While the road to Tokyo might be closed, Drummond’s finding out there’s always another way to get where you want to go, even if you have to go off the beaten track.

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