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The sportswomen taking the law into their own hands

Often we don't see much further into the personal lives of our professional athletes than an occasional Instagram post. If we are to truly understand the trials and tribulations our professional sports stars endure, that needs to change, writes Taylah Hodson-Tomokino. Here, she talks to three elite athletes who are pursuing sporting glory on the field, and law degrees off it.

Behind just about every successful athlete is a story of hard work, dedication and perseverance, on and off the field. And the reality is that a sports career can be fleeting, while life stretches well beyond the final whistle.

Newly contracted Black Fern Ruahei Demant is all too familiar with how fragile a sporting career is. The 23-year-old has had a whopping three ACL reconstructions in her short career.

When she isn’t at rugby training for her club side, College Rifles, or working full-time at an immigration consultancy firm, you’ll find her at the University of Auckland completing a bachelor of law and arts conjoint degree.

“It’s important for every athlete to engage in something outside of sport, whether it be studying, working or volunteering. The career of an athlete is so short and you’re only a game away from injury. Nothing is guaranteed,” she says.

Demant initially had no interest in law but, as she’s progressed through her degree, she’s “grown to enjoy the versatile nature of law, as it affects every person in society in a variety of ways”.

Time management is key to juggling full-time study, a full-time job, rugby commitments and time for her friends and family. “Most trainings are early morning and evening so the days are quite long. Once you’re in a routine it’s pretty easy to stick to it,” she says.

But the Auckland first five admits it can be overwhelming. “I’ve found it easier committing to trainings, as it’s a lot harder for me to let my team-mates down. Unfortunately it’s meant that, at times, I’m up doing all-nighters to complete assignments. I’m proud to say that I’m yet to do an all-nighter this year.

“There are only a handful of Maori at law school. So everyone is like whanau and always willing to help each other out with assessments and exams.”

I’ve always been a strong believer of continual personal development and upskilling, and it’s no different for our top athletes.

The physical nature of sport takes an eventual toll on the body, so preparation for life post-career is important, but it isn’t actively promoted to our adolescent athletes.

They see our top sportsmen and women performing on a world stage, but don’t always understand that their post-sporting careers will also be an integral part of their lives.

Law seems to be a popular choice of study among our top female athletes. Magic shooter Amorangi Malesala and recently retired Black Stick Pippa Hayward are both completing law degrees.

“Some athletes get so focused on chasing their dreams, which isn’t a bad thing, but you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. You need to be transparent, and have a backup plan when your sporting career ends,” says Malesala, who studies at Waikato University.

At only 19 years old, she is just as cool, calm and collected as she is on the netball court and displays maturity beyond her years. If you weren’t already impressed, Malesala is also fluent in both Te Reo Maori and Samoan.

Social justice is important to the former St Kentigern College netball captain. “I chose to study law because it was a pathway where I could engage with troubled youth, and find solutions to lower the crime rates in our prisons, assisting youth through my Pacific and Maori holistic knowledge,” she says.

Her netball schedule fits nicely with full-time university studies. In between morning and afternoon trainings, she goes to class. When there are games during the week, online recordings keep her up to date.

While Malesala is just beginning her netball career, Hayward has drawn the curtain on an illustrious hockey career spanning 158 tests caps and a gold medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Hayward, 27, has paced herself through her law and arts conjoint degree, doing two papers a semester.

She sometimes had to sit exams while on tour with the Black Sticks. “Last year we were playing Spain in Barcelona, which to most people sounds wonderful, but I spent all of my time in my hotel room studying or running around a hockey field,” she says.

Hayward chose to study such a demanding degree after being told she was good at arguing. “Almost 11 years later, I’m still at law school. Hopefully that might help a few people not stress about taking an extra half a semester,” she says.

Most professional sports teams have professional development officers, and contribute to their players’ university fees.

High Performance Sport New Zealand assigns athlete life coaches to ANZ Premiership netball teams, which has helped Malesala stay on track. They also offer psychologists and advice for our women’s national hockey team but Hayward would like to see changes.

“I think it’s an area that needs more resources put in, but also needs to be separate from HPSNZ, so the athlete feels comfortable talking about their future outside of sport,” she says.

Funding initiatives that don’t involve the physical development of athletes is always difficult, because, to be frank, a law degree doesn’t win games. But it’s important to take care of an athlete’s holistic health.

“There needs to be more mental support given to fringe players when there are injuries,” Demant says. “NZ Rugby and the unions can’t expect to have players in development programs, but toss them to the side and forget about them once they’re injured. I think a more integrated and collaborative approach between them and the unions may mitigate this.”

And she’s right. Injured athletes suddenly find themselves with a lot of free time, mulling over not playing an entire season, when they could be learning a vocational skill or studying.

Although support from sporting bodies is beneficial, nothing comes close to the emotional and often financial support that friends and family offer.

Malesala is grateful for the unwavering support she receives from her aiga. “[My family] are the reason I have got to where I am, because they have sacrificed time and money to contribute to my netball career, which I am very thankful for. I don’t know how I could ever pay them back for all they have done,” she says.

Hayward says that, when she wasn’t worried about her hockey performance, she worried about her study. “It can be very distracting. But fortunately the University of Auckland Law School has been incredibly helpful,” she says.

Demant doubts she would be where she is today without the support of both family and team-mates. “My family have constantly supported me throughout my degree and rugby. They are always there for me during the highs and the lows of sport especially,” she says.  

“My rugby family are just as supportive as my real family. When you see people every day at trainings and games, you develop a special bond - that creates an even better team culture.”

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