The Kamo Black Sticks factory
The fledgling hockey player Stacey Michelsen took under her wing seven years ago is now helping the Black Sticks captain in her pursuit of an elusive gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. Suzanne McFadden reports.
Stacey Michelsen, the leader of the Black Sticks, clearly remembers the moment she first saw the 11-year-old kid.
She was among a gaggle of pre-teen girls on a hockey turf in Whangarei, who were being coached by Michelsen’s mum, Barbara. Michelsen had come to help out. This one girl stood out from the pack.
Michelsen, then a young Black Stick, noticed that she possessed both skills and speed, a combination essential for a dynamic striker. She immediately picked her out as something special.
Whenever she returned home to Whangarei, Michelsen would text the girl and ask if she and her younger sister would like to have a hit-around at the turf. She wanted to help them build on their skills.
And then, as the girl grew older and stronger as a hockey player, their roles virtually reversed. “I’d text her and say, ‘Can you please come and do a training session with me?’” Michelsen says. “When we go back to our regions, we still have a programme to follow for the Black Sticks. So it was really nice to have Madi there to help me.”
“Madi” is Madison Doar – at 18, the youngest member of the Black Sticks women’s team seeking gold at next month’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Michelsen, now 27 and officially one of the global greats of the game, is her captain.
There is, of course, a marked difference in their experience - Michelsen has played 248 tests for New Zealand; Doar has played just 11. But their similarities are striking – even down to the “unique” way they dribble the ball.
Both women went to school at Kamo Intermediate. It’s one of those small town schools, with a current roll creeping up to 700, that’s famous for turning out an improbable number of New Zealand sports stars. In 2011, eight of the women’s Black Sticks squad had honed their hockey skills at Kamo; two of them, Michelsen and her fellow defender Ella Gunson, are still in the national side. Michelsen’s mum continues to coach the girls’ intermediate team.
Michelsen and Doar also spent the last two years of high school at St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland. “There’s a ‘wall of fame’ at school, and Stacey’s name is up there,” recalls Doar, whose own moniker inevitably will be added.
Doar was a boarder there until the end of last year, when her first XI won the national secondary school girls Federation Cup (and she scored the tournament-winning goal). She also won the Auckland Young Sportswoman of the Year. That year she made her debut for New Zealand in a series against India.
Michelsen was also a teen when she first became a Black Stick in 2009. Two years later she was named the world junior player of the year. Now she’s been a finalist for the best women’s player in the world for two seasons running.
Now that mentor and mentee are playing alongside each other for their country, there’s something that Michelsen has suddenly noticed about Doar. “It’s interesting, that even though I trained with her a bit through her high school years, I didn’t really pick up on her dribbling style back then. Now, I see real similarities in the way we carry the ball,” she says.
“The way I dribble is kind of unique - some people call it ‘inside-out’. I don’t even know how I started it. And it’s funny to see Madi does it quite often too.”
The stick skills and speed that once caught Michelsen’s eye are the attributes that Doar brings to the Black Sticks today. “It’s been so good to see her continue to develop those skills. She stepped up in a major way to earn a spot in the World League Final team last year,” her captain says.
“From a very young age, she was so eager to learn, willing to do extra training sessions to improve, and she’s still that kind of person. You can see her absorbing everything.”
Doar continues to learn from Michelsen. “And she’s been great at making sure that I’ve fitted in.”
Both women are studying part-time at the University of Auckland. Doar is in her first year of engineering, and her first year flatting. One of her flatmates, Tessa Jopp, is also in the Commonwealth Games-bound Black Sticks side.
Michelsen has almost completed her studies in law, but still has some way to go with the commerce degree she’s doing conjointly. She’s considering becoming a commercial lawyer when her hockey career is over. She can even picture herself moving home to Whangarei.
It’s a place she can see herself once day coaching young hockey players, as her mother does. But that will be when she’s achieved all she wants to as a player. There’s still plenty she can improve on, she reckons, and she still loves the game, so she doesn’t yet know when she will call time.
But there’s one thing Michelsen is desperate to do. Gold Coast will be her third Commonwealth Games, and she says, realistically, these could be last. She won silver at the 2010 games in Delhi, and bronze in Glasgow four years later.
“Not making the final in Glasgow was hugely disappointing,” she says.
“I don’t have any image in my mind this time other than a gold medal.
“I think this is the tournament where gold is definitely a realistic goal for us. Who knows whether I will get to go to another one. It could well be my last chance with the girls to win a gold medal, and it would be pretty special for us to achieve a first as a group.”
The Black Sticks women have never won gold at a major tournament before, but their current ranking of fourth in the world puts them second in the Commonwealth – two places behind England, one ahead of reigning gold medallists Australia.
“The most important thing for us as a team is ensuring we’re all performing as individuals. When we play best as a team is when everyone out there is doing their role and doing it really well. If we can do that, we can certainly win the gold medal,” says Michelsen, who’s been battling illness and a tender calf since returning home from the Black Sticks’ 4-1 series loss to Argentina last month.
Of course Doar would love to win gold, too. She has that unadulterated euphoria that comes with realising one of your dreams at 18 – “it’s unreal”, she keeps repeating - but she’s still wary not to get ahead of herself.
“I’ll keep taking each tour as it comes. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself; I’m still young. But you never know when it could be your last trip. So that’s my outlook – enjoy the challenge.”
They’re really not so different in that aspect either.