How a bus crash made Stacey Waaka unstoppable

The Unstoppables XV – a team of remarkable women who’ve overcome barriers to be part of rugby – features a special Black Fern, who’s faced her own trauma and sacrifices.   

Stacey Waaka has no recollection of that terrifying moment when a logging truck ploughed into the back of her school bus, shunting it into a paddock; leaving children bleeding and broken.

Waaka was 15 then, growing up in Ruatoki, a sleepy valley in the eastern Bay of Plenty. It was 2011, her first year playing rugby. And she loved it. 

She was on her way home from Trident High School in Whakatane, in a bus crammed with school kids, when it was slammed from behind by an unladen truck. Waaka was jettisoned from her seat, but she doesn't remember it.

“I must have blacked out,” she says.

When she came to, she was lying in the aisle of the bus, on a pile of children.

For some reason which she still can’t fathom, Waaka was still gripping her mobile phone. She called the police for help - there were injuries, a lot of blood, and chaos.  

“The scary thing was that I usually walked to the back of the bus, where the cool kids sit. But that day, I walked to the back and thought ‘nah I don’t want to sit here today’ and I went and sat in the middle,” Waaka remembers. “I was so very lucky, because those kids sitting in the back of the bus were lashed – they broke so many bones.”

Waaka helped some of the injured children off the bus, including her niece and nephew, before walking to a nearby childcare centre to phone her mum. The teenager was too scared to take a good look at her own bloodied legs. One was gashed through to the bone.  

Back at the wreckage, Waaka helped more kids. Twenty-eight were taken to hospitals when emergency services arrived.

“As soon as my Mum got there, and we looked at my legs covered in blood, I said: ‘Mum, am I ever going to play sport again?’” Waaka says.

“That was my first thought, that I’d never play again. Sport was my whole life.”

But after a few months recovering from her lacerations, Waaka was back out on the field. Within a few years, the quick, elusive back was playing for the Black Ferns, in both 15s and sevens.

Now 23, Waaka is part of an elite group of players to have won the World Cup in both forms of the game. The only time she’s been stopped in her tracks has been by injury.

Waaka’s bravery and tenacity after that horror bus crash played a significant part in her selection in the Unstoppables XV – a special team of women in rugby drawn from all corners of the globe. They’re women and girls who’ve overcome barriers in their lives to be involved in the game of rugby.

The Unstoppables are part of a landmark initiative from World Rugby to boost the profile of the women’s game globally. Launched in Dublin early Wednesday morning, the campaign is called Try and Stop Us, with the catch-line: ‘Start rugby. Be unstoppable’.

It’s a push to revolutionise women’s rugby worldwide, generate global exposure for the game and inspire participation. Among the influential women to endorse the campaign are tennis trailblazer Billie Jean King and former Prime Minister Helen Clark, now patron of Women in Sport Aotearoa.  

The three-year campaign leads into the 2021 Women’s World Cup in Auckland.

Katie Sadleir, the Kiwi Olympian who’s now World Rugby’s general manager of women’s rugby, says it’s come at exactly the right time.

“Last year we had an extra six million women join our World Rugby fan base – that was six times more than men,” Sadleir says.

“For the second year running, more young girls have got into rugby than boys. There's been a 28 percent increase in the number of women playing globally since 2017. And 40 percent of our 400 million fan base are female.

“We want to increase women’s presence in the game on and off the field even more. But we need to do something to provide the resources to really let people go to the next level, and hopefully this is the circuit breaker.”

The make-up of the Unstoppables XV had to be all-embracing. “They had to represent all shapes and sizes, ages and cultures, high performing athletes and club players; people whose challenges may have been physical, emotional or societal,” says Sadleir.  “We wanted them to share their stories of what they’ve had to overcome, and how rugby has helped them become who they are.”

The team includes 12-year-old Lucky Nirere – a rugby player and coach educator in Uganda - and Deb Griffin, a pioneer in women’s rugby in England, who organised the first Women’s World Cup in 1991.

Rugby has given Bianca Silva, Brazil’s sevens try-scoring rock star, a life outside of Sao Paulo's favelas (slums) and a way to provide for her family. Fijian captain Litia Naiqato would have to get up at 4am and run an hour through the mountains just to catch the bus to rugby training.

The team were flown to Dublin earlier in the year to meet each other. Sadleir called it “one of the most inspirational weekends of my career”.

Stacey Waaka doesn’t think about her bus crash often, but she still bears the physical scars and a changed mindset. Photo: World Rugby. 

Waaka, now back in Mount Maunganui training with the Black Ferns Sevens for the first time since wrist surgery, also loved the experience.

“Meeting the other women, hearing their stories and learning how rugby is so different in their countries, was mind-blowing,” she says.

“I was the only full-time paid professional player among them, and I told them about my experience and how it all works in New Zealand. Hopefully, it gives them a point to work towards in their country.”

Waaka says she was able to connect with other Unstoppable team-mates who’d made sacrifices to play rugby.

“Hearing their stories took me back to my upbringing. We weren’t the wealthiest family, so we had to sacrifice a lot. We lived in the country, and it was hard to get me to trainings, even though I wanted to play every sport,” says Waaka. Her older brother Beaudein also played for New Zealand in sevens.

“We had the support, but there were a lot of challenges. I had an uncle who went to every touch tournament around, and he let me go with him. Mum and Dad did a lot of fundraisers, and other family would pitch in. Otherwise we couldn’t afford the $500 fees to play.”

Waaka made a special connection with Nahid Biyarjomandi, a former Iranian rugby player who's now head of women’s rugby development in her country. She started the first women's rugby club in Iran, and grew the game from just two players to teams in 20 provinces.

“She played just three tests in 10 years, because there weren’t the opportunities,” Waaka says. “We really bonded, and I told her I would come and visit, and share what I know.”

Waaka doesn’t think about her bus accident often, but she still bears the physical scars as reminders. And it’s also had an enduring impact on her life and her sporting career.

“It definitely helped me realise that things are going to happen in your life, but dealing with them is all about your mindset,” she says. “It’s made me more confident, that although some things might happen, it’s not the end of the world.

“I’ve had so many injuries – a shoulder reconstruction, surgery on my knee and now my wrist. Now I know what I have to do to get back out there.”

Back in 2011, she had no real ambition to play rugby professionally. “I was playing sport for the fun of it, and I was playing everything – hockey, netball, touch and rugby. It wasn’t until the following year when I found out rugby was going to be in the Olympics, that it kind of hit me.

“And it also made me realise the accident could have stopped me from taking that opportunity.”

The Try and Stop Us campaign will help keep Waaka grounded, she believes. “I shared some of the stories with the [Black Ferns] girls, and I said ‘I don’t think we know how lucky, how privileged, we are to be paid to play, and live the dream’,” she says.

Right now, though, Waaka isn’t exactly living her dream.

Three weeks ago, she underwent surgery on her left wrist after the Japanese leg of the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series (the only tournament the Black Ferns haven’t won). She’s been recuperating at home in Hamilton, and she’s not sure when she’ll be back on the field.  

“Because it’s such a complex injury, they can’t put a time-frame on it. But I could be out for up to six months,” she says. “It’s so depressing, because it will run into next season. I’m trying to take the positives from it.”

She’s still able to run, so this week she’s back at Mount Maunganui with the rest of the Black Ferns sevens squad working with her team-mates for the next few weeks before they head off to the last series of the season in Biarritz, France.

But Waaka still lives by the saying, ‘everything happens for a reason’. The break has meant she’s been able to plan her wedding at the end of the year, and crack into her studies this semester for a post-graduate diploma in business. “I’m expanding my horizons for when my playing days are over,” she says.

She is unstoppable.

Here’s the manifesto that underpins the campaign.

“First rule: Try. Second rule: Try again. Life will hurt sometimes. This game will give you strength. To never give up, give in, or give an inch.

“Whatever your size, shape, or story. There’s nothing you can’t tackle. No line you can’t break. No obstacle you can’t get over. Or power straight through.

“There'll be judgers, disapprovers, non-believers. Fear less. Play more. Because once you’ve started, you can’t be stopped.

“Try and stop us. Start rugby. Become unstoppable.”

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