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From Here to Maternity: Who loves ya, baby?

When athletes fall pregnant at the height of their careers, who helps take care of them? Suzanne McFadden finds out in part three of our series From Here to Maternity

Holly Stewart passes tennis racquet to a new generation

Young tennis star Holly Stewart's first year at a US college was cut short by the global pandemic, but she's making the most of her time back home in NZ, giving back to young women with less opportunity. 

1980 Moscow boycott: a hockey tale of two Sues

Sue Emerson and Sue McLeish were team-mates in the NZ hockey side who never went to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But their reactions to the boycott were quite different.

Schoolgirl cricket star overcomes fear of the ball

Once scared of a cricket ball, Palmerston North schoolgirl Ashtuti Kumar is now a young star of the game, who thrives on pressure and could follow in the footsteps of White Fern Amelia Kerr.

Longo bides her time to pull on Phoenix jersey

While Football Fern Annalie Longo continues to wait for her dream to play in a professional New Zealand club team, she's not sitting idle - building her coaching credentials and aiming for an historic national threepeat. 

Annalie Longo will probably be one of the first women in line to pull on a Wellington Phoenix shirt - when the time comes.

And while she’s disappointed it won’t be this season that the Phoenix debut in Australia’s W-League – their bid thwarted by a 'foreigners' rule – the vastly experienced Football Fern can see a silver lining.

“It’s obviously disappointing. It was the next step in a professional pathway for women footballers in New Zealand,” says Longo, who’s long been a vocal supporter of entering a professional New Zealand team in the league.

“But I think we've at least started the conversation, and although it’s not going to happen this year, I’m feeling positive it will happen.”

New Zealand came frustratingly close to having a team in Australia’s professional women’s football league for the 2020-21 season, after the Phoenix club put in a bid for a women’s side to follow in the footsteps of their men’s team in the A-League.

But Football Federation Australia said they wouldn’t adjust the W-League's player registration rules to allow Kiwis to not be considered imports (the same rule waived for the Phoenix men). They also made it clear they wanted to continue to "enhance and promote playing and development opportunities for women and girls playing football in Australia".

A place in the world's third longest-running women's league, which starts next month, would have no doubt helped to bolster New Zealand's young players looking ahead to next year’s Tokyo Olympics, and football’s holy grail, the FIFA World Cup, being held here and in Australia in 2023.

But Longo, a stalwart of the Football Ferns since making her debut as a 15-year-old, has a rational outlook on the decision.

“This gives us a little time to do it properly, get it right and get organised,” the 29-year-old says. “It was always going to be a tough challenge to get a team together in the space of a month. It would have disrupted some of the teams in our current national league.

“Although it’s a negative, I would love to play for the Phoenix one day. And it will happen, one day.”

In the meantime, she will still get to play in this season's league, having re-signed for a second season with the Melbourne Victory.

“It’s not in the Phoenix jersey, but I’m pretty happy to be back at a successful club,” the veteran midfielder says.  

Annalie Longo holds off Lindsay Horan in the Football Ferns v Team USA clash at the 2016 Olympics. Photo: FIFA via Getty Images

Longo will be joined at the Victory by fellow Football Fern Claudia Bunge - the 21-year-old taking up her first professional contract. Paige Satchell is the other Kiwi in the league, signed up with Canberra United.

First, Longo has to get over a groin injury she suffered early in the ISPS Handa Women’s Premiership playing for her Canterbury United Pride team.

Frustrating, after “a tough year” where the Olympics were put on hold and Longo wasn’t sure if the national premiership would even go ahead, or what it would look like.

She’s hoping it won’t be too long on the sidelines, as the Pride chase an historic threepeat.

No team in the national league has ever won the championship three times in a row. With two wins from three games, the Pride are sitting in second place behind the unbeaten Auckland Football side.

“The threepeat? Yeah, we’re all definitely aware of it,” Longo says with a laugh. “We have really high standards here, we all strive to be the best. With that comes expectation and pressure.

“With only one round this season [because of Covid] it’s very challenging – you can’t afford to make a mistake. We’ve already had one loss to a very good Auckland team, so we’re taking it one game at a time, and hopefully you’ll see us again in the final. A threepeat would be really nice.”

The pandemic has changed the face of the Pride, possibly for the better. Five of their players would have been in the United States right now - Gabi Rennie, Amelia Abbott and Tahlia Herman-Watt were to have taken up college scholarships, while Emma Clarke and Lily Bray have both returned from the University of Houston.

“Their lives have changed; they thought they were moving to the States in August. Mentally there are probably a lot of players who are struggling,” Longo says. “But they add real value in the league, and it’s great for the Pride that they’ve stayed here.”

Even on the sidelines, the knowledgeable Longo has much to add to her team. In fact, she could step in to coach if needed.

“I’m still at all the trainings, and if the game’s at home I look after the ball kids and all the logistics around the game,” she says. “If the coaching staff need a hand, I’ll pitch in.”

She has the credentials. Not only is she Mainland Football’s women’s development officer, Longo recently passed her Oceania and NZ Football B Licence, which she explains “means you can become a director of football, or I could choose to take a national women’s league side”.

She's discovered just how different coaching is from playing. “You definitely see a different side with everything that goes on behind stepping out on a pitch and playing. It’s the little bits behind football - I really enjoy it,” she says.

“Sometimes I find myself critiquing the coaches on how I would change the session or do it slightly different to make the practice a little better; what I like and don’t like. Sometimes you forget about just playing, so I have to take my coaching hat off.”

Longo’s new credentials help her working the Pride development and youth sides in her day job. The young women play in boys’ leagues through the winter. “There are definitely girls coming through who have real potential, which is exciting,” Longo says.  

But right now, she’s unsure of where she wants to take her coaching skills next.

“While I’m still playing that’s where my focus is. But I’m quite interested in coach development; maybe not coaching so much,” she says.

This week, she was in Auckland for a ‘Women in Leadership’ programme – part of an initiative funded by Oceania Football through FIFA to build up the expertise in women’s football here ahead of the 2023 World Cup.

Football Fern Annalie Longo attempts a slide tackle on Team USA's Julie Johnston at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo: FIFA via Getty Images

Longo is happy to see it becoming easier for women to get involved in coaching and leadership roles.

“They run a few female-only coaching courses and leadership programmes, so I think it’s definitely more accessible for females. You can now see a pathway coming though where you could potentially to go to an Olympics or a World Cup as a coach,” she says.  

“To take a national age-group team or a national women’s league team it’s not so far away for many females, which makes it an exciting time to be involved.”

For role models, Longo needs only to look to former Football Fern Emma Humphreys, who’s an assistant coach of the Liverpool women’s team, and her partner Bev Priestman – the former head of football at NZ Football who was assistant coach of the English women at the last World Cup and has now taken up the head coach role of Canada’s women’s side.

And even closer to home, there's the New Zealand U20 women’s head coach, Gemma Lewis, and Longo’s head coach at the Pride, Alana Gunn.

But for now, the 123-capped Football Fern wants to concentrate on continuing her playing career - for at least another three years. 

She’d like to go to her third Olympic Games next year - with the Football Ferns having already qualified for Tokyo - and then shift her focus to her fifth senior World Cup.

She'd love to replicate the euphoria of hitting the back of the net at a World Cup in front of a home crowd – when she scored New Zealand’s first goal at the inaugural FIFA U17 World Cup at North Harbour Stadium in 2008.

And she knows just what impact a World Cup at home will have on young Kiwi girls.

“In my role in girls’ development, it’s only going to grow and get bigger and bigger. I’m excited to see the programmes we can wrap around the World Cup, and the legacy and the impact we can create,” she says.

Longo could have her work cut out for her in the next three years. And, fingers crossed, a Phoenix shirt with her name on it.

Fertility, maternity and top sport

LockerRoom's Suzanne McFadden talks to The Detail's Sharon Brettkelly about getting top female athletes to open up about fertility and maternity.

Star weightlifter warns athletes: steer clear of drugs

Having competed against drug cheats throughout her weightlifting career, Olympian Tracey Lambrechs is now working on the frontline encouraging Kiwi athletes to stay clean. 

Tracey Lambrechs has always known she is more than her sport. She’s always planned on eventually having children, growing old and living pain-free - so she was never tempted to dope during her successful weightlifting career. 

“I’ve been drug tested, I’ve competed against drug cheats and I’ve had friends who have been in situations that have put them at risk,” says Lambrechs, a bronze medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. 

“Weightlifting is a horrific sport in regards to doping and drug cheats. People tend to think that it doesn't happen in New Zealand, and it does.”

When she first started in the sport at the age of 17, Lambrechs says she was “blasé ” about possible drug enhancement users because she loved the sport.

“Going into weightlifting you accept the way it is,"  she says. "I never thought I would be any good at it, but then as I started getting better, I started realising I can only control what I can control. I went through a period of a lot of self-doubt, and like 'what's the point?' almost.”

But after receiving guidance and adopting coping mechanisms from her coaches, Lambrechs continued doing what she enjoyed. She played all sorts of sports growing up - even representing New Zealand in athletics - but ended up settling with Olympic weightlifting in 2004.

“At the end of the day, I know what they were doing, and yeah they've got medals but it's not worth the health risks,” she says of those who took drugs. 

“I want to one day have babies, and I want to live to be old. Some of the stuff these people take, the way it changes your appearance, the way it messes with your insides - I'm ok with not having those issues.”

Lambrechs is now trying to help other athletes stay clean in her role as an anti-doping educator for Drug Free Sport New Zealand.

Tracey Lambrechs hoists her way to bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo: Getty Images

New Zealand is believed to be the first nation in the world to have an education team made up of former athletes. Silver Fern Jodi Brown and three-time Commonwealth Games athlete Kate McIlroy are among them. It’s a point of difference that makes Lambrechs' role a lot easier meeting new groups of sportspeople for the first time.

“I think I grab their attention instantly because I'm not just someone talking at them - I’m an athlete who's been there, done that,” she says. 

Working with high performance athletes right through to those at club level, Lambrechs' style of delivery is more educative than authoritative, which athletes seem to appreciate. 

“I’m not trying to be like, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’,” she says. “I’m trying to say think about what you’re doing, have a reason for using that supplement. Don’t just use it because some other elite athlete uses it. Use it because you need it. And you actually know what you’re putting in your body.”

Lambrechs says not many athletes in New Zealand dope on purpose. The majority accidentally take medication or supplements without realising some ingredients are prohibited.

“As an organisation we want to educate and support. We’re not the bad guys trying to go out there and catch them,” she says.

It’s been two years since Lambrechs walked away from weightlifting after the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. And she’s only just starting to find her groove again.

The now 35-year-old has been competing at an elite level for nearly 15 years and admits the transition into life after sport has been difficult.

“Finishing up as an athlete was really tough,” she says. “One day you're an athlete and everybody wants something from you and everyone is there supporting you, and next minute, you retire and it's almost as if people have forgotten who you are a little bit.”

The new reality of trying to find your footing without sport, coupled with finding a new career path, can be daunting. 

But the traits that kept her competing against the best in the world - her fighting spirit and high standards - have not wavered and kept her going through the rough period.

“Not many people want to hire someone who has had the elite athlete career. They're like ‘well what did you do’, and I’m like, ‘I was competing full time,” says Lambrechs, who has worked at AUT Millennium throughout her sporting career. She also has a bachelor of sport and recreation from AUT and a postgraduate qualification in event management.

Despite the difficult transition, the decision to retire after the Gold Coast Games in 2018 felt right, says Lambrechs. 

“I had my family there, my best friend flew over [from New Zealand], and my aunty surprised me from the UK. It kind of added to the feeling of knowing it was right. Having the family be there, after the whole journey. And finishing it off with them, that was pretty amazing,” she says. Lambrechs was born in South Africa but moved to New Zealand with her family when she was 13.

Some might say athletes would make great employees or employers as a lot of their skills can potentially be transferred across industries. The competitiveness, teamwork and commitment can be applied in most roles. 

And Lambrechs has all of those in spades having been to three Commonwealth Games, a couple of world champions and one Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, where she was 13th.

Over the years she's volunteered for organisations and clubs like the New Zealand Warriors, helping run their community zone, and is now volunteering at Canoe New Zealand, as a chaperone to their junior squads. 

The proudest moments in her career have been when Lambrechs knew she left everything out on the floor. The bronze medal in the +75kg division at the 2014 Commonwealth Games is one of them. She also went down a weight class for those Games and had to lose 18kgs in three months. 

“We had gone over to Finland beforehand for a training camp and I had gotten really sick so was put into a quarantine away from the rest of the team,” Lambrechs says. “And then my build up was just awful. So to pull it out on the day, and get that medal, all our hard work paid off." 

She gives a lot of credit to her coach Dr Adam Storey, and insists on sharing the bronze medal with him.

Lambrechs warned Storey what she would do to celebrate if she earned a place on the podium. "I said ‘If I medal, I’m going to run and jump off that stage and you better catch me’. Because I’ve seen a few of the lighter athletes do it, and it looked so cool... So that’s what I did. I ran and jumped on him, nearly killed him, but I’m sure he appreciated that moment."

The other memory that sticks out to her is the lead-up to the Rio Olympics, where she lifted her best total to qualify. 

“It was pretty much a do-or-die meet. And I just hit the numbers I had to hit and make the qualifying total for Rio, which was a relief after [narrowly] missing out on the London Olympics,” she says. “So yeah, the medal and qualifying for Rio was pretty spectacular.”

After we speak, Lambrechs mentions she's received news about gaining her first full-time employment in a role outside of sport. She’ll start training to be a fulfilment assistant and Edwards and Co, a Kiwi-owned baby products company, to begin early next year. 

Sometime down the track, she hopes to work in sport again.

“I would love to be working in managing high performance sports teams or just being an athlete mentor; one day hopefully, once I’ve broadened my box of skills. I’ve been through a lot, I’ve seen a lot. And definitely since retiring, I think I’ve grown a lot as a person," she says.

The advice Lambrechs would give athletes now after looking back on her own career?

“Listen to your coach. You need to trust your coach and trust they have the best intentions for you,” she says. “Make sure you do your extras in regard to warm up and downs to make sure your body is looked after. But at the end of the day remembers you're still a person.

“There's more to life than just being an athlete, so have fun, look after yourself mentally and physically, and make sure you have that support circle around you. 

“So that one day, whenever you feel that you’ve done your bit, you can retire and still have a support circle around you that’s not just based on sport.”

Loran Parker: softball's woman behind the mask

White Sox pitcher and nutrition student Loran Parker is taking special care of herself - and her softball team-mates - with the goal of playing for NZ at the 2028 Olympics.

When you see Loran Parker standing at the pitcher’s mound in Auckland this weekend, she’ll probably be wearing a face mask.

But it’s not the kind of protection now mandatory on public transport.

The White Sox pitcher has taken to wearing a steel face guard to help keep herself injury-free.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone else in the Auckland league that’s wearing a face mask at the moment,” says Parker, who’s playing for North-South in the Fastball 45 competition starting this weekend.

“I decided last season that I was going to start wearing it, because honestly the bats they’re making now have so much pop, I just can’t see the ball coming off fast enough to react to it anymore.”

Parker believes that wearing face masks in softball is the future. She’s seen while playing in the Netherlands, where most of their in-fielders wear masks, and she’d like to see it in New Zealand too.

And she wants to be fit and healthy for the future - as she looks ahead to qualifying for the 2028 Paris Olympics. 

In the meantime, Parker is looking forward to playing in the second season of the Fastball 45 – a higher-paced more intense version of softball.

“Honestly the F45 competition was a massive highlight last season so I've been really excited to play it again this year especially as there’s a chance to play the top teams from other regions,” she says. This season it’s expanded out of Auckland to include Hutt Valley-Wellington and Canterbury teams, with the top teams from each region playing in a national final next month.  

Parker once believed people only went to school to play softball. Today, the New Zealand pitcher and fulltime University of Auckland student manages to excel in both.

Parker began her softball journey at the age of five; watching her older brother play t-ball that sparked her interest. She remembers coming home from her first day of school, “quite annoyed because we didn’t even play t-ball,” she says.

She hasn’t always been a standout player. As a child, Parker’s mum would ask her every season if she was sure she wanted to play t-ball again.

Her mum later admitted “you were kind of the worst person on the team,” Parker recalls. Parker wasn’t fazed.

Loran Parker juggles study, work and softball. Photo: supplied. 

Her love for the sport and its community is still a driving factor that pushes her to exceed expectations.

“Even though no one else in my family still plays softball, I feel like I have my own little softball family,” she says. “I love the training. I would definitely be the person who turns up early and says ‘I need a catcher, someone please come and train with me’.”

“I don’t know why I like it so much, I think it's just fun, you can see improvements every training and I like that positive feedback.”

Some of Parker’s other notable achievements include a full ride scholarship, covering all her expenses to Eastern Arizona College straight after graduating from high school, a contract to play in Holland for a Dutch club UVV Utrecht and being a recipient of a Prime Minister’s athlete scholarship.

As Parker finishes her final semester in her Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in nutrition, she hopes to qualify to complete her Masters in clinical dietetics. Otherwise, she’d like to work with community groups like Diabetes NZ or the NZ Heart Foundation.

In her first year at university, Parker took population health papers that opened her eyes to ways in which poor health and disease can be prevented within communities. “I like the idea that you can prevent someone from getting something, before it turns their world upside down,” she says.

Parker also uses her knowledge to help her softball teammates, by providing ideas to try to improve their health through nutrition, or “just throwing out facts and whatever gets picked up, gets picked up.”

She’s just been added to a new initiative, the national female battery programme for pitchers and catchers who’ve been identified as potential contenders for the next Olympic Games qualifiers.

Each week, Parker has a total of three pitching training sessions, two team trainings, one White Sox training and a few strength and conditioning workouts. She also works as a physio receptionist for three hours Monday to Friday, and then has to fit in her fulltime university studies around all of that.

“I like trying to prioritise things. If I have an assignment due, I’m just going to have to skip training to get the assignment done. Or if it’s just a lecture in the afternoon I’ll probably just skip the lecture so I can train and catch up on it later,” says Parker.

Parker understands being a high performing student athlete can be tough. “I haven’t got a lot of time to do things outside of uni and training, so being social is sometimes a bit difficult,” she says.

“It’s mentally taxing too, because I feel like I’m stressed all the time. I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get this done, and this done, and I’ve got these things to achieve and I’ve got these deadlines’… I feel like mentally, it’s more tough than physically.”

But it’s her training that takes care of her mental stress. “No one in the team ever takes you super seriously, everyone is making fun of each other… it’s a really good vibe to be in, so it definitely takes you out of your head,” Parker says.

Loran Parker reckons she'll still be playing softball at 80. Photo: supplied.

Having studied in the United States and in New Zealand while playing softball, Parker has an appreciation for the support offered by her universities that have allowed her to continue playing at an elite level.

At Eastern Arizona College they had mandatory study hours and grade check-ups to make sure athletes were on track with their degrees. Back in New Zealand, Parker is part of the high performance support programme offered by the University of Auckland to help athletes manage their studies and sporting commitments.

“I had a situation a few weeks ago where I was absolutely freaking out. I had two midterms and five assignments, which were all due within two weeks of each other and I was going ‘I can’t do it!’” she says. “So they managed to get me a couple of extensions and honestly it saved my life.”

When Parker flew to Holland to play for seven weeks during one of her semesters, she needed to take her exams with her. “I just had to find a university over there that would let me sit my exams. Basically, Auckland Uni and the university in Holland communicated with each other, and all I had to do was turn up on the day, so it was really easy,” she says.

“If I wasn’t able to move those exams when I went to Holland, I just wouldn’t have been able to take up that contract. It allowed me to pursue something that I had wanted for a few years and to continue my degree, so that was really cool.”

At the moment, the White Sox are focused on preparing for the Olympic qualifiers in 2026, if softball makes it back into the Olympics for 2028. It’s their six-year plan, and it’s Parker’s goal to make that team.

There is no doubt that Parker will still be playing softball in six years time. “Honestly, I feel like I’m going to be that 80- year-old grandma who’s still out there like, ‘gimme the ball coach!’ ,” she laughs. “I don’t really imagine my life without softball.”

* The opening weekend of the Fastball 45 series will be shown on Sky Sport 9 on Friday and Saturday, with Sunday's games on Sky Sport 3. 

From Here to Maternity: The parent trap

Female athletes are at the peak of sporting performance in the same years they're most fertile. In part 2 of our series, From Here to Maternity, when is the best time for athletes to think about having kids? How are they helped to make that decision? And what's stopping them?

Les Elder runs up and down the neatly manicured turf of Mt Maunganui’s Blake Park, but tries to keep one eye trained on a house across the road.

The former Black Ferns captain throws herself into the Bay of Plenty Volcanix rugby training like she always has, but there's something else on her radar.

Then, like Morse code, the lights in the front window of the house begin to flash on and off. Elder stops what she’s doing, apologises to her team-mates, then makes a dash across the field towards home.

The flickering code spells out: Baby Mihiterena is hungry.

“It’s been really handy living straight across the road. My husband, Johnny, just flashes the lounge lights and then I run home, give her the boob, and then run back across the road. It works out pretty good,” Elder laughs.

Before trainings, Elder’s home is filled with the new “aunties”, the Volcanix players who pop in for a quick cuddle with the baby. It’s been a good return to rugby for Elder, the Volcanix captain, despite being injured at the end of the Farah Palmer Cup season, delaying her return to the Black Ferns.

 
 

Mihiterena Oromere Elder was born in May, a bonny 8lbs 8oz (3.85kg). The Elders’ first child. A long hoped-for baby.

For three years, the couple tried, and failed, to conceive. “We got all the tests done, and nothing was wrong,” Elder, who’s now 33, says. “I had no issues with my periods. In my later years I got menstrual cramps, but otherwise I was fit and healthy.”

So they decided to try IVF. “I remember going into the Fertility Associates office and they said: ‘You qualify, you’re on the list’ - and then they said it would be a minimum of two years. That really shook me,” Elder says.

Fortunately, they were bumped up the list. But just as treatment was about to start in March last year, Elder was offered the captaincy of the Black Ferns for the first time. “So, it was something I had to go away and really think about,” she says.

Elder was able to push out the IVF to once the rugby season ended. Then she injured her knee, so the treatment was brought forward. She fell pregnant with the first cycle.

 Elder with daughter, Mihiterena. Photo: Shannon Gray. 

She has an inkling as to why she couldn’t conceive naturally.

“I honestly think it was stress that was holding me back. I was just so on the go, working fulltime and being a fulltime athlete. I was training twice a day, six days a week. I wasn’t preparing my body to have a baby that’s for sure,” she says.

Elder is still on maternity leave from her job developing the women’s game at Bay of Plenty Rugby. But when she returns, she’s determined to educate more young women just being introduced to the rigours of first-class rugby about the importance of their menstrual cycles.

“I work with athletes who are 18 to 22 years old, and I know at that stage of your life you’re not thinking kids - well I definitely wasn’t at their age,” she says.

“I’m trying to educate them about how they need to understand their body and be aware of certain things happening in their menstrual cycle. We’re learning a lot more now that using the pill to skip periods isn’t ideal. I wish I’d known all that when I was younger, I may have looked after myself better.”

Ticking of the biological clock

In part one of our series, ‘From Here to Maternity’, Olympic legend Dame Valerie Adams shared the same desire to encourage young female athletes who may one day want to have a family to have medical tests early in their careers.

It wasn't that many decades ago that women were told sport wasn't good for them. Pioneering American runner Kathrine Switzer, who now lives in New Zealand, was warned by a doctor in the 1960s that her uterus would fall out if she tried to run a marathon (she ignored him, and all her internal organs remained intact). 

Now we encourage girls and women to play all sports and be active, without the fear of losing their uterus. But in some cases, there's still a lack of education around sport and female health. 

There are myriad reasons why female athletes may have problems with their fertility - among them low energy availability or RED-S, stress, age (waiting till the end of their sports careers to have children) or genetic conditions that aren't impacted by sport. Globally the knowledge around elite athletes and fertility problems is low. 

But as the risks becomes better recognised, more sportswomen are having children earlier, and then returning to top level sport. That rarely happened three decades ago - the growing professionalism in women's sport has helped. 

Some athletes need assisted reproduction to have children; some are freezing their eggs to be used once they retire from sport. Others are discovering they need to reset their menstrual cycles after years without a normal one.

So, when is it the right time for female athletes to start thinking about starting a family? And what help and information are young women being given by those in their sporting sphere to help them make that decision, and ensure they’re prepared for that day?

The postponement of the 2020 Olympics has complicated the issue for female athletes who were looking to start a family after the Tokyo Games and have now had those plans pushed out for at least another year. The global shutdown of sport by Covid-19 has concertinaed international sports calendars, leaving fewer opportunities for sportswomen to find a gap to have a child and return to the field or court.  

Most women find themselves at the peak of their sporting performance in their 20s, at the same time as they're in their most fertile years.

Dr Sarah Beable, a sports and exercise physician who’s worked with many of the country’s top sporting teams, says some athletes - like other professional career women - may not want to consider their fertility when they're at their prime. 

“It's almost intrinsic in females, even among lawyers, doctors or other professions, that we probably don't talk about whether we want to put our careers first. And we don't say to them, ‘Hey, you really should freeze your eggs at 26 if you want to have a family later’,” says Beable, a former doctor for the Silver Ferns, Cycling NZ and the Rio Olympics team, now working with our top snow sports athletes.

Over the years, Beable has seen female athletes not wanting to have their periods “because it's a hassle… there’s an undertone that it’s almost a badge of honour, meaning ‘I'm training hard enough’,” she says.

“When I see people in my RED-S clinics, that's the bit that I dive into – ‘why do you feel you need to lose what makes you healthy, to prove you’re training hard enough?’

“Try talking to a 21-year-old athlete, who isn't getting her periods, about babies. From our point of view, it’s about telling them regularly so that they don't get to 37 and go, ‘Why did no one tell me?’ Because not everyone will be able to have a baby at 37.”

Power of the period

Dr Stacy Sims - renowned for her “Women aren’t small men” message - works upstairs from Les Elder in Mt Maunganui, and advises her on educating young rugby women about their nutritional needs, dealing with stress and their ovulatory cycles.

US-born Sims is an environmental exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist, specialising in the differences between male and female athletes. She’s also trying to tell young girls playing sport that having a period is healthy.

Female athletes tread a fine line with their fertility health - balance training loads, the nutrition they’re taking in and the stress they’re under to perform. It’s common, Sims says, for female athletes to still have menstrual bleeding but in an anovulatory cycle – where no egg is released from the ovaries.

“The higher stress, the finer line is before you have a little bit of hormone disturbance,” says Sims, who can decipher from an athlete’s menstrual cycle data when they’ve been travelling or competing. “It's really normal for women in general to have an anovulatory cycle, but it becomes really common in female athletes.

“This is where some of the infertility issues come into play because they think they've had normal cycles, and they think: ‘Oh, well, I'll have a kid at some point’. And then they find out they've had all these anovulatory cycles, or they have a misstep between their estrogen-progesterone ratio so they can't develop the endometrial lining thick enough to support an egg.”

The year 2020 will have brought this to light for some athletes. “Women in Covid time are like, well, there's no competition, so this would be a good time to have a kid, but then they can't get pregnant. And then they have to go on IVF," says Sims.

“It’s heart-breaking, because no-one's told them up to this point that you really have to manage your menstrual cycle.”

Sims would like to see statistics on how many female athletes in their early 30s have looked to IVF. “Because it seems really common in the circles of endurance sportswomen that I've worked with, regardless if they're top tier amateur or professional,” she says.

There are, of course, female athletes who have no periods for long stretches in their sports careers, and who believe that’s a good thing.

It’s been found that many of those women suffer from RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport), where athletes don’t eat enough to balance the energy they’re expending in training or competing. Among the long-term effects of the RED-S syndrome are infertility and fragile bones.

PhD candidate Katie Schofield's diagram on the ongoing effects of RED-S. Graphic: Katie Schofield. 

Dr Megan Ogilvie, an endocrinologist with Fertility Associates in Auckland, says RED-S, or female athlete triad, is now the most common diagnosis their reproductive endocrine groups see in reproductive-aged women.

“It’s huge and it's only scratching the surface of what's out there,” she says.

“We see it from the schoolgirl athlete through to the elite high-performance athletes, right through to the recreational athletes. And the 30-year-old women who stopped their contraceptive pill wanting to get pregnant and don't get a period. You find they'd been on their pill since age 20 and then it takes a long time to get women healthy again, to a point where they're healthy enough to grow little fingers, little toes and a brain.

“I think in 20 years’ time, we're going to see a lift in our rates of osteoporosis and fragility fracture, because I think the prevalence of this [RED-S] condition is just escalating.”

Former New Zealand track cyclist Kate Schofield, who was diagnosed with RED-S, has been doing her PhD on the physiological aspects of energy availability in elite athletes. Around 40 percent of the Cycling NZ riders, male and female, she worked with were on the cusp of a low energy available state. 

Ogilvie says it can take on average around two years to get women having a period again and healthy enough to get pregnant. “It takes a long time to reverse the physiological changes to then achieve pregnancy," she says. 

“All of us, since we were very young, have been told that you should eat less, move more, be healthy. Now we’re trying to turn that around.”

Ogilvie, Sims and Beable are all part of the WHISPA project – Healthy Women in Sport: A Performance Advantage – brought together two years ago to ensure High Performance Sport NZ is providing the best clinical advice to female athletes and coaches. They’re trying to educate high performance athletes and hope it will filter down.

'You peak at 28 in netball, and that's when you're most fertile. So that's a real dilemma' - Steph Bond

They’re also targeting impressionable teens. Before New Zealand went into lockdown, Beable and Ogilvie spoke at Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland – first to teachers and coaches, then to students and their parents.

“You need to get parents on board, because these girls are too young to do it on their own,” Ogilvie says.  “Parents need to try to minimise their pressure.” They will continue to spread the message at other schools.

“There are so many young elite athletes around 18 or 19 and off to conquer the world who have no idea what a normal menstrual cycle is.

“The message we want to get out to these athletes is, actually, you should be having periods all the way through your career. Being healthy and energy balanced will make you a better athlete, but it will also make you healthier and more fertile when you decide that the time is right for you.

“We’re much better placed if we can get girls educated early around monitoring their cycles - having an app and knowing when their period is; actually understanding what is normal.”

Ice, ice baby

Freezing eggs is becoming more common for women in their 20s to improve their chances of having a baby later in life.

In the United States, players in the WNBA have pushed to have egg freezing in their latest collective bargaining agreement. Veteran basketballers are now eligible for up to US$60,000 in fertility treatment.

WNBA champion Sue Bird recently had 10 eggs frozen; she’s 40, engaged to FIFA World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe, and thinking about her future.

English goal keep Geva Mentor has frozen eggs in the hope of having a family after her netball career. Photo: Getty Images. 

English netball star Geva Mentor has also undergone an egg retrieval procedure - the 36-year-old telling Netball Scoop that while she’s single and wants to keep playing netball, she knows her odds of having a family are stacked against her.

“Your egg quality declines, the possibility of being able to get pregnant deteriorates, and there are associated health problems with age. Unfortunately, it’s not until now that I’m in this older stage that I’ve looked into it more,” Mentor says.

In New Zealand, netball is among the sports leading the way – with rugby and cricket – in having maternity policies for their elite players. The agreements ensure paid maternity leave and support for athletes through their pregnancy, and help to return to the sport after the baby is born.

Netball are trying to do more. Earlier this year, Netball NZ and the NZ Netball Players Association (NZNPA) worked with Ernst Young on a project around the personal development of top netballers. They spoke with 20 players and discovered they wanted more education on the effects playing has on their bodies, especially around the impact on their fertility.

“There are so many stories of high-performance athletes struggling to have kids after they finish playing,” NZNPA executive manager Steph Bond says.

“You peak at 28 in netball, and that's when you're most fertile. So that's a real dilemma - not just for the player, but for the sport, too, because how do you have those conversations if they're the best player in the team? It becomes really tricky, which is when you need someone independent to have that conversation.”

She’s also found education programmes need to have culture wrapped around them. “It's not easy for Pacific Island players to just start talking about a period in front of anyone, not even in front of their mum,” she says.

Bond was an elite netballer – she captained the Auckland Diamonds in the final season of the National Bank Cup – and is a mum of one. But she admits she went without her period for two years during her playing career.

“I think we’re lacking in the whole education around female health in sport, not just around pregnancy. Yes, it’s definitely improving. But a lot of high performance athletes in netball probably couldn't tell you what RED-S is, and how to recognise different symptoms from your body,” she says.

Tenille Burnside is a Kiwi who’s just completed her dissertation for her Master of Laws in sports law at De Mountfort University in Leceister around the maternity rights of elite athletes. She also found the need for more education for female athletes about the effects of high intensity exercise on fertility.

“It needs to be part of the induction process,” Burnside says. “Having a baby is not something that athletes need to think about when they’re 19, but you don't want them being blindsided or misinformed either.

“You just want to make them aware of what they're putting their bodies through. You can push so hard at that age and you don't really realise the effects that may have on you in your 30s.

“Sports governing bodies also need to realise they've invested so much time in a female athlete before she’s 30. If you could get another five years from her while she's still a household name, when she's got all that experience and can be a leader and a mentor for the younger generation, why wouldn't you give her a year off to have a child?”

Next week: Who looks after athletes while they’re pregnant and then become new mums?

Where is she now? Megan Compain

Outstanding Tall Fern Megan Compain remains the only Kiwi woman to have played in the women's NBA, and is just coming to realise how compelling her career in and around sport has been, she tells Ashley Stanley.

Megan Compain will never forget the day she first crossed paths with basketball GOAT Michael Jordan.

Compain was the first, and is still the only Kiwi woman to play in the WNBA in the United States. The now 45-year-old new mum-of-one was the youngest player in the league during the inaugural year of the women’s equivalent of the NBA in 1997. 

At the age of 21, the girl from Whanganui had defied the odds, playing in three open trials in the US before being selected by the Utah Starzz for their opening session. 

And it was one to remember for many reasons.  

Compain recalls walking past Jordan for the very first time in the early stages of the WNBA season. 

“Have you watched The Last Dance on Netflix?” she says. “That series between Utah and Chicago, the game where Michael Jordan claims to have been food poisoned, was really sick and won it at the buzzer for them? We were at that game. 

 
 

“We were presented at halftime as the new WNBA Utah Starzz team. We came out onto the court at that play-off finals game. It was one of those kind of surreal moments where you were like ‘This is the big stage’. 

“At the back of the stadium in the concourse area [Jordan] had two of his staff holding him up, he was so sick. Even though I don’t like him as an athlete, it still makes your heart sort of jump." 

Years later, when her playing career had ended, Compain spoke to Jordan - albeit briefly. She was at an All Stars game with her job in the Adidas sports marketing team, and talking on the phone to her boyfriend. 

“And this guy walks across this big empty courtyard towards me while I’m on the phone. It was one of those times where there's only two people around so you kind of have to acknowledge each other. So we smiled and said hello. And I said to my boyfriend, 'Michael Jordan just said hello to me',” she laughs. 

Megan Compain attempts a lay up under pressure from China at the 2004 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images.

Compain has a few stories to tell, but by choice, not a lot about her own achievements. She admits, though, she’s slowly coming around to realising how powerful her story can be for others. 

She's had quite a remarkable career. She left New Zealand at 16 to play basketball in the United States, signed a basketball scholarship with St Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, went on to play in the WNBA and in Europe, represented New Zealand at the Sydney and Athens Olympic Games, and then worked for global sport giant companies like AND1 and Adidas. 

She then found her way back home to New Zealand Rugby, where she was the head of the commercial partnerships department for the last 10 years. 

Compain has definitely made the most of many opportunities along the way.  Understanding the value of nurturing relationships with people wherever she was, coupled with her drive and sweet basketball shot, have taken her around the globe over the years. 

Two career highlights were winning the conference finals in her senior college year, against a team who had been undefeated all season, and the 2004 Olympic Games.

The Tall Ferns' goal at those Olympics in Athens was to make the quarter-finals.  "Everyone thought we were pretty crazy and that it would never happen,” says Compain. “But we targeted Korea and China to beat. China was ranked about eight in the world at the time and we beat them - I hit the buzzer-beater shot to win the game.”

Megan Compain waits on the subs bench at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Photo: supplied. 

The 2004 Olympics also stand out to Compain because it was where she ended her Tall Ferns basketball career with a group of women she'd started playing with in the New Zealand age-grades.

She recalls sitting with them afterwards reflecting on their careers. “That’s the memory I kind of come back to with all the different teams I'd played on. It was sitting at the Olympics, on our balcony, with that group of women because we were all basically done," she says.  

“It was awesome because it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Like any teams you have conflict, or you have personality clashes, or competitive rivalries. But it all kinda worked itself out. We got to that point, we were successful and then we were able to celebrate together. It was cool.” 

Compain transitioned from player into a role at AND1 - now an international basketball sports company, but when she joined, it was a small Philadelphia start-up.

“I ended up working in product development. I was developing basketball shoes and then I went over into sport marketing. So signing teams, and signing athletes, kind of running events and things with sports teams and athletes,” says Compain, who graduated from St Josephs University with a degree in sociology.

After two years with AND1 she got a role in sports marketing at Adidas and spent four years with them, two in Germany at their headquarters and two in Amsterdam, which is where most of the sport marketing team is based. She planned events with the NBA all around the world. 

“It's funny because that was always my ultimate dream role, to work in sports marketing for basketball at Adidas,” she says.

Compain got into basketball in her first year at high school in Whanganui, after playing netball and gymnastics in her earlier years. Her brother also played the game and she saw close family friends enjoying the sport, so decided to give it a go. 

She spent four years at St Josephs in Philadelphia, where she is still considered one of the most dynamic players in history of women's basketball at the college. She topped the scoring for the SJU Hawks in three straight seasons, and was inducted into the college's basketball hall of fame in 2015. 

Megan Compain is sad no other Kiwi player has cracked the WNBA in 23 years. Photo: supplied. 

The shooting guard thought towards the end of her college stint that she wouldn't be considered for the WNBA draft. But that did not deter her. 

She went to three open trials, in Charlotte, Utah and New York. It was at that last trial that she made it through to the second round from roughly 600 attendees - but that round fell on her graduation day.

“Cutting players was pretty brutal,” she says. “So I just went up to the [New York Liberty] selectors and coaches and said ‘Look, give it to me straight, do I have a legitimate shot at making the New York team? Otherwise I'm going to go home to Philadelphia and graduate because my family has flown from New Zealand to see me.’ And they said, 'Go to graduation'. So I did.” 

The night of her graduation, Compain received a call from Utah to confirm she had one of two roster spots from the open trial of about 350 people. 

No woman from New Zealand has been able to reach that level since. And for Compain, there's mixed emotions about that.

“I think it's really sad. It's been 23 years. There's been an incredible amount of talent that has come through since then. I know there's been a lot of girls who have come close, they’ve had trials but haven’t managed to crack it,”  Compain says.

“And then on the other hand, I wear it as a bit of a badge of honour. But it’s taken me awhile to think about it like that.” 

Would she like to compete in today's game?

“I'd absolutely love to. I was really lucky because in the inaugural season there was a huge amount of hype around that. And it was still quite in the infancy of women's sports being given a real platform,” she says. 

“We were playing in front of 10 to 15,000 people, and packing out arenas and that was really exciting. But where the game has gone from then to now with the advent of social media and  the broadcasting reach is much greater, and these athletes have real profile and value now so it would be pretty exciting to play there.

“I also love the fact a lot of the women are making stands about societal issues, and things that are really important. Athletes haven’t really been allowed to use platforms to do that. And I think that’s a big step for the NBA, for men and women.” 

The first graduates of the NZOC Women in Sports Leadership Academy (Megan Compain, back row, fifth from left). Photo: supplied. 

Compain was part of the first women's sport leadership academy sponsored by the New Zealand Olympic Committee.

The initiative broadened her thinking around women in sport and the challenges involved. The visibility of women in the media piqued Compain’s interest. 

“That's when I started to think, ‘Oh maybe my story is interesting’. I’ve always been, not dismissive, but not really putting myself out there for things like that,” Compain admits. 

“But now when the opportunities come along, I'm trying to be a little more conscious and cognisant of what telling my story can potentially do for other young athletes coming through so that’s probably where I hope to continue to be able to inspire in that speech.”

Compain has some time to evaluate the next opportunity after recently leaving New Zealand Rugby.

Her husband owns eighty one, an advertising agency in Wellington. She says there may be something there, in terms of working with creatives. 

“I feel like there's a little bit of a gap in the market with regards to really good sport and asset management in New Zealand. And I feel like it would be a little bit of a waste to walk away from relationships and brands,” she says.

“So there might be an opportunity to stay involved, but on the other side. It’s sort of a work in progress. It's still formulating in my head how it all comes together."

If her track record is anything to go by, Compain will find the sweet spot to suit her skills and reach her next goal. 

Extra Time: Why Honey's hung up her boots

LISTEN: In this week's Extra Time, one of New Zealand's greatest rugby-sevens-league players calls time on a stellar career.  

A seventh World Cup was just a bridge too far for Kiwi Ferns legend Honey Hireme-Smiler.

The cross-code star has laced up her boots for the last time after nearly 20 years as an elite athlete - playing at four rugby league World Cups, plus one rugby and one sevens world championship.

When her mum, Caryn, passed away last year, Hireme-Smiler almost ended her career then. But she made it back for the Kiwi Ferns only test of the year last weekend. 

She told RNZ's Felicity Reid that injuries, family and the uncertainty of the rugby league World Cup going ahead next October helped make her decision.

Also on Extra Time this week, former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains reckons red cards and sending offs are ruining rugby, and explains why and how things need to change if the game is to remain an attractive and entertaining sport.

And Sir Brian Williams from the Super Rugby side-in-waiting, Moana Pasifika, outlines how they're building towards Super Rugby in 2022. 

* Extra Time is brought to you by RNZ, LockerRoom and Stuff

Momoka masters the men on the golf course

Young amateur golfer Momoka Kobori is proving she's as good as her male counterparts in the mixed gender Charles Tour, with the help of some friendly rivalry from her younger brother. 

Momoka Kobori likes mixing it with the men on the golf course - and beating them too.

She did it most spectacularly at the Taranaki Open, a leg of the domestic Charles Tour, last month, when a fine final round of 66 enabled the 21-year-old from Rangiora to finish in a tie for second overall at 10-under. She was also the top amateur in the field.

It is the best result achieved by a woman on the new mixed gender format on the New Zealand golf circuit.

“I enjoy playing against the guys. There aren’t too many places in the world where women can test themselves against the guys in the same field in a competitive tournament,” Kobori says.

“I was quite happy with how I finished the tournament, and how I played in the final round. It was definitely nice to know I was able to play like I did.’’

As for the mixed gender format: “I think it’s a really positive thing for women’s golf. They tend to play a different game to what I play, and I think I can learn a lot from what they do.’’

 
 

New Zealand is among the leaders when it comes to promoting mixed gender events. The format was first sighted in the early 2000s on former leading professional Greg Turner’s GTNZ Tour.

That tour morphed into the Jennian Homes Charles Tour and it adopted the mixed format this year. 

Momoka Kobori won the women's title at this year's Muriwai Open. Photo: NZ Golf. 

The way it works is players compete for the same trophy, play alongside each other in the same field and courses are prepared to keep play as even as possible.

So, on a long par three for example, the women’s tee is set up so they should be playing a long iron onto the green – just as the men would from their tee positions further back.

NZG are diligent in the way they structure the course. You wouldn’t have a man hitting a mid iron, and a woman a long iron off their respective tees. That wouldn’t be fair and the idea, if the course has been set up in an optimum way, regardless of gender the better player should win with both genders hitting like-for-like shots around the course.

Put it this way: if Lydia Ko was playing leading New Zealand male professionals she should win, simply because, relatively speaking, she is a better player.

There remain separate Order of Merit tables; the only event with mixed gender fields is the Charles Tour.

Kobori had already won the women’s title at the Muriwai Open in July, was tied for 36th at the Carrus Open last month, and was top qualifier for the matchplay at the New Zealand Amateur (but surprisingly lost in the semifinals).

Victory in the final Charles Tour event, the Mount Open on December 10, would cap a top quality run of form for Kobori.

Her brother, Kazuma, 19, is also a gun golfing talent – second on the men’s Order of Merit in New Zealand this year.  The personal head-to-head challenge based on finishing placings on the Tour lies at two apiece, with the decider for family bragging rights looming at the Mount.

Momoka Kobori enjoys the rivalry with her younger brother, Kazuma. Photo: NZ Golf. 

There is, she quips, a healthy sparring sibling rivalry. They often practise together – “we’re always trying to beat each other’’ – and maybe that’s why squaring off against the men doesn’t hold any jitters for her.

Kobori is in the vanguard of the latest crop of distinctly promising young women golfers in New Zealand.

She moved with her family from Nagano in Japan’s mountainous north 13 years ago to north Canterbury. Parents Ryo and Junko preferred a quieter pace of life for the young family than what Momoka calls “city central’’.

Having dabbled in a few sports – “I was that kid who took on everything they could get their hands on’’ - she settled on golf early in her time at Rangiora High School, at the same time as her brother, mainly because she liked the challenges it presented.

She was on the New Zealand Golf radar from around 2014, and has won New Zealand selection for a handful of events - notably being part of the third-place finishing team at the Spirit International event at Whispering Pines in Texas last year.

Her form that week, according to New Zealand Golf high performance manager Gregg Thorpe, was “brilliant’’.

The NZ team who were third at the 2019 Spirit International, from left Matt McLean, Momoka Kobori, Wenyung Keh and Jared Edwards. Photo: Gregg Thorpe 

Kobori spent four years from the age of 17 at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, having scouted about for university possibilities in the United States. She graduated in sports medicine, made the college golf team, and her game grew significantly at the same time.

“We had to do all the study, go to classes and practice as well. It was pretty busy, but also good fun,’’ she recalls.

Thorpe has noticed the increased golfing maturity out of the college experience.

“When she was young, she was quite small and wasn’t hitting it a long way,’’ he says. “She was accurate and naturally had a great swing and good ball control. But she was struggling to get distance and therefore the flight into the green.’’

But Pepperdine accelerated her development. Along with fellow Canterbury player, Amelia Garvey (who attended the University of Southern California and finished second at the British Amateur last year), Kobori used her time in California wisely.

“They’ve done well through their college years,’’ Thorpe says. “Both have gone and improved their games and worked really hard on it.”

Add in Wellington 16-year-old Darae Chung – “she’s where Momoka was before she took off overseas,’’ Thorpe says of the current New Zealand Order of Merit No 1 player, one spot above Kobori – and there are encouraging signs.

Momoka Kobori, who has a degree in sports medicine, hopes to one day play on the LPGA Tour. Photo: NZ Golf

So what state is New Zealand women’s golf in? Playing numbers for girls 19 and under are up from about 1000 to 1255 since the start of last year. There are 22,700 women members of clubs.

Dave Mangan, NZG general manager of championships and golf operations, estimates there are between 60 and 80 serious women players with competitive ambitions in the country.

And Ko’s form worries over the last couple of years have not deterred those seeking to follow her illustrious footsteps. The Ko Factor remains hugely relevant.

“It is definitely in there. We have incredibly strong representation in the junior girls ranks of New Zealanders who have Asian heritage,’’ Mangan says.

Kobori is clear on her future. Covid-19 has put a brake on plans and ambitions but not, as Thorpe pointed out, a full stop.

“I do set myself goals and pathways. My hope is to end up playing on the LPGA Tour. That’s the point I’m looking for,” she says.

“I’m not going to play competitive golf for the rest of my life. It would be nice to do something else other than golf later in life.’’

Sports medicine anyone?

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