Elusive medal lures Whitelock out of retirement

Two of the big names in Black Sticks history have come out of retirement, trying to finally clinch an Olympic medal. In an exclusive interview, Kayla Whitelock tells Sarah Cowley Ross why she's returning for a fifth shot. 

It was the carrot that Kayla Whitelock simply couldn’t ignore.

After the devastation of two fourth places at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics, the 34-year-old former Black Sticks captain found the opportunity to be back in the national hockey squad - to “have another crack” at an Olympic medal - was something she ultimately couldn’t turn down.

It was Graham Shaw, the new head coach of the Black Sticks, who put the idea to Whitelock - now a mother of two children under five, and a gym owner, who had retired from hockey after the Rio Olympics.

“He dangled a carrot in front of me and I thought ‘Would I regret saying no?’” she says.

“It was a massive decision for our family, but ultimately the chance to try again to get a medal is something I have always dreamed about.”

If she makes it to Tokyo, it will be Whitelock's fifth Olympic Games - equalling boardsailor Barbara Kendall in Olympic appearances. 

Whitelock is not the only surprise comeback in the Black Sticks squad working towards next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

The other is Gemma McCaw - who’s been to three Olympics, and whose daughter Charlotte is almost a year old. McCaw (formerly Flynn) also bowed out of international hockey after Rio.

Both McCaw and Whitelock made their return to top-level domestic hockey at this year’s National Hockey League tournament in Tauranga. Together they add an astounding 501 test caps of experience to the Black Sticks squad.

“We have been lucky to welcome back Kayla and Gemma after they stepped away to start families," Shaw said in a statement, after naming his first national squad of 25. "We look forward to the invaluable experience that they will bring and the pivotal role they will play in helping our team towards our goal of medalling at the Olympic Games."

Kayla Whitelock makes a tackle during the Black Sticks' game against the Netherlands at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

Whitelock’s experience - 255 test caps since her international debut in 2003 - will be invaluable to the group, not only from a playing perspective bolstering the midfield, but also as a former captain of the team.

In discussions with Shaw, Whitelock was clear that she wanted her return to have a positive, rather than a disruptive, effect on the team.

“I reached out to a couple of the girls, including Stacey [Michelsen, the current captain] and she was very supportive. We’re on the same lines for the team and we both know what we want to leave Tokyo with,” she says.

A natural leader, Whitelock is keen to lead without the title and support Michelsen and the current leadership group in the way they best see fit.

“My aim is to help the team do the best that we can do,” she says.

There are no medal guarantees in sport and Whitelock says if the team is to break through the semifinal stages in Tokyo, then a shift in mindset is needed.

A core group of players from London in 2012 went on to the Rio Games, but the national squad now includes several athletes who have not been in the pressure cooker environment of an Olympic stadium before. But Whitelock doesn't see that as a bad thing.

“Mentally, individually and as a team we need to be stronger to cope with the pressure of the knock-out stages of the tournament. There’s work to be done,” she says.

The motivation to return to international hockey also lies in helping inspire others to not give up on their dreams - particularly mothers and older athletes.

“It took me a long time to make a decision as to whether I could come back, because of the impact on the kids,” Whitelock says. “I definitely had feelings of ‘Am I letting the kids and our family down by coming back?'

"It’s interesting to reflect on whether a male athlete would have the same level of hesitation." 

Being from a sporting family definitely helps, Whitelock reckons, as her parents and in-laws are hugely supportive of her hockey career.  

Whitelock will join the Black Sticks' centralised programme in Auckland next week, in the build-up to the international Pro League which starts in February. 

Her mother, Jan Sharland, will take leave from her job as a dental assistant to help care for Addison (4) and Maxwell (1), while her husband, former All Black George Whitelock, continues to run the family dairy farm, Galaxy Dairies, in Linton, near Palmerston North. 

“It’s a logistical nightmare, but we’ve got plans in place. We will just see how it goes throughout the campaign and we will juggle it,” says Kayla Whitelock. “The kids will come to Auckland at times and I’ll come back home, which will be nice.”

Inspired by other Kiwi sporting mums, Whitelock is quick to acknowledge Casey Kopua, Niall Williams and Dame Valerie Adams, who have all returned to the top of their fields after becoming mothers and, in the process, inspired others to do the same.

“It’s cool that there are quite a few women now who are coming back and giving it another crack. It’s inspiring for the next generation to know that once you have a child that it’s not over. You can still chase your dreams.”

Whitelock set the bar on juggling family and sporting commitments when she played in the 2015 NHL tournament just four months after her daughter’s birth. Addison will start school in May next year, during the Black Sticks’ Olympic campaign.

What was critical to Whitelock’s return was the support of Hockey NZ, which has been flexible with the players in their centralised programme who have children, allowing them to return home when possible.

“It’s great to see Cricket NZ recently announce their maternity conditions for players,” Whitelock says. “It’s about organisations having processes in place to support parents returning.”

For now, Whitelock is focused on putting plans in place for the family, helping with the family farm accounts and running the F45 gym in Palmerston North that she and George own. Then there’s putting in the required conditioning work for the national squad.

“I know I’ve got a long way to go fitness-wise, but that’s the hard work and I’ve got to just keep ticking along, doing a few extras here and there.”

At the recent national tournament, Whitelock joined her old Central teammates, including younger sister Verity Sharland, and was surprised how her body coped with the week of hockey.

Running around after two active kids is over and above the “extras”. Whitelock says they both love picking up a hockey stick and having a hit.

“Addison’s definitely a determined young girl and very competitive. Maxwell’s heading down the same track,” Whitelock says with a laugh.

“Addison’s a bit too aggressive with the hockey stick and she’s told us she wants to play rugby. If they play sports, which we hope they do, we will be on the sidelines cheering them on.”

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