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Lucky break unearths a teen croquet queen

A netball court slick with rain. A broken ankle. An invitation from a savvy maths teacher.

It was this fortuitous sequence of events that led teenager Eleanor Ross to become the best female golf croquet player in New Zealand.

For two years running, Ross has won the national women’s open title, undefeated. Over the next week she will attempt to become the women’s world champion.

At the same time, her schoolmates at Nelson College for Girls will be back in class. That's right - Ross is just 16 years old.

She may find herself around half a century younger than some of her opponents at the women’s world champs in Hawke’s Bay, which start this weekend.

It was just three years ago that a nasty netball accident steered Ross to a new sporting code. But before going on, it may help to clarify exactly what golf croquet is. 

Most of us are familiar with the garden variety of croquet - the backyard game hitting coloured balls with wooden mallets though hoops, from sets that only come out at Christmas.

The serious sport of croquet, however, led the way globally in embracing gender equality. In the 1860s, croquet was the first sport women were allowed to play outdoors. It was also a game where women could compete equally with men - which is still the case today.

When it made its one-off appearance as an Olympic sport, at the 1900 Paris Games, three of the 10 competitors were women. The official report of the games declared: “One would be wrong to disdain croquet. It develops a combinative mind – one has only to see it transform young girls into reasoners, and from reasoners into reasonable people.”

The classic form of the game is association croquet, with its long breaks (like snooker) and complex tactics.

Golf croquet is a more recent variation - a faster and simpler form, where players take one shot per turn (compared with a long sequence of shots in association croquet) and all players aim for the same hoop at the same time. The first to seven points wins. And there are only 16 rules to learn.

It’s this version that appeals to younger players introduced to croquet, and the version that Ellie Ross became smitten with.

Ross was playing netball for her school team in the pouring rain when she slipped and fell, breaking her ankle. “It was a very painful experience,” she recalls.

While recuperating with her leg in plaster, Ross' maths teacher, Katherine Stahl, suggested she give golf croquet a go at her local Nelson Hinemoa club.

American Annie Henry, a former teacher, was trying to entice more young people into the sport in Nelson. Incidentally, Henry, now the president of Croquet NZ, is in the New Zealand women’s team alongside Ross. She’s 50 years her senior.

“To start with, I found it a bit slow,” Ross admits. “But once I learned to play it properly, and learned the tactics, it made a lot more sense. It’s actually quite addictive once you start.”

Ross, who has a penchant for mathematics and is considering a career as an accountant, revels in the tactics of the game.

“You can’t just think about your next move, you have to think a couple of moves ahead. If your opponent does one thing, what should you do? You need to think of all the different options,” the Year 13 student says.

In just her second year armed with a mallet, Ross won the New Zealand women’s open title. Even she admits “it was quite shocking”.

And then, proving it was no fluke, she defended her title last year without losing a match.  

The woman she beat in the final, Dallas Cooke, is a veteran of the sport. She’ll be playing in her sixth straight women’s world championships in Hawke’s Bay this weekend – along with her daughter, Ashley, and her mother Phyllis. (Apparently it’s not uncommon for multi-generations of families to play golf croquet).

One of the best in the game, Greg Bryant - the reigning New Zealand open champion of association croquet - is amazed at what he’s seen of Ross so far.

“Ellie’s progress is quite remarkable. She won New Zealand’s most improved golf croquet player last season, which is a fair indicator that she’s right on top of her game,” says Bryant, who is also Croquet NZ’s sport development officer.

“She’s very dedicated and focused. She plays and practises for hours." She's coming through the national youth development squad. 

Ross has also just made the New Zealand team for the world under-21 championships in England in July.  

The sole female in the 10-strong team, she's thrilled to get to play in the country where she was born. Her family – “me, Mum, Dad and a dog” – moved to New Zealand in 2010.

Bryant says New Zealand is leading the world in youth development in golf croquet, especially through programmes in secondary schools. “We have higher participation rates than any of the larger croquet nations in the world,” he says.

Each year, the national schools championships bring together the top 72 student players. Girls and boys play against each other, and often pair up in the teams event. “It’s great that this sport isn’t gender specific,” says Bryant.

Croquet NZ has a membership just shy of 4500 players, and 90 percent of those play golf croquet.

Its pace and simplicity are its major attractions, Bryant explains. “Golf croquet offers young people a chance to learn something that they can play competitively against their peers in a very short period of time. Within a visit to a croquet club, they’ve got the basics of the game, and they can compete,” he says.

It takes a little longer to become a national champion. Unless, of course, you’re Ellie Ross.

After these next two world championship tournaments, Ross isn’t certain where her future lies with croquet. But she knows it’s a sport that she could take a break from, to purse other interests, and always return to.

“There’s the opportunity to come back, because anyone can play it. No matter where you live, no matter how old you are,” she says.

As for netball, she’s played a few games since, but her ankle still gives way sometimes. Golf croquet, it seems, is the safer option – but Ross warns it has its own hazards.

“It’s actually quite easy to hit your foot while you’re swinging the mallet,” she says. “That can be very painful too.”

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