Sevens speedster Kaka has whole new leash on life
A cruel string of injuries almost led Shiray Kaka to quit her sevens career and train dogs. But with determination and meditation, she's back in the Black Ferns, focused on finally playing at the Olympics.
This time last year, Shiray Kaka was living in Japan, studying to be a dog trainer and setting up a business in adventure dog walking.
It was during a quiet moment while out walking her two dogs in the city of Hino – where her husband, former All Black Sevens star Gillies Kaka, now plays – that Kaka thought there had to be more to her life.
Her own professional rugby sevens career had been cruelly stop-start - interrupted by three major injuries, followed by surgeries, over three consecutive years. The Black Ferns Sevens winger had seriously considered calling it quits.
But then, mulling it over as she walked, the 24-year-old Kaka decided that she hadn’t had enough.
So she called Black Ferns Sevens co-coach, Allan Bunting, to ask what she needed to do to get back in the team.
“At the time everyone was playing so well, so they didn’t need anyone,” Kaka recalls.
“That was another knock-back. But I’ve been told ‘no’ a lot, so I made the decision to move back to New Zealand on my own anyway.
“Being told no didn’t matter, because I knew it would happen if I stuck to my process and put in the work.”
And it did. She came home to the Waikato, trained and worked with their sevens squad, and after 18 months of not playing any rugby, Kaka got the call last November to say she had made the Black Ferns Sevens team to play in Dubai.
Now she’s played her way back into the Black Ferns squad – having been a part of the team’s World Series victories in Cape Town and Sydney this year – and she’s one step away from the Tokyo Olympics.
It’s a step Kaka is determined to make. Four years ago, she went with the Black Ferns to the Rio Olympics as the travelling reserve, and never made the field.
Not many elite athletes would keep pursuing a professional contract after a full shoulder reconstruction, two knee operations and several knock-backs while trying to get re-signed. But Kaka is not like most people.
“I’ve had major surgery three years in a row, so it’s been shit,” says Kaka, who started on a training contract with the Black Ferns Sevens team straight from Hamilton Girls High School at just 17 years old.
“I had surgery on my right shoulder after the Rio Olympics, but I was young and oblivious and was like, ‘Meh’. It was easy to mentally come back from that one.”
Bouncing back from the two operations on her left knee wasn’t so easy. Kaka ruptured her ACL for the first time while playing sevens in Japan in 2017; she admits that injury broke her a little bit.
Having made the decision to move to Japan after Rio with her then-fiancé Gillies (who’s currently playing for Hino Red Dolphins) meant Kaka – nee Tane - faced the nine-month recovery period overseas. That was the first time she contemplated calling it quits on her sevens career.
But, encouraged by her partner to give it another crack, she persevered and managed to get her spot back in the Black Ferns Sevens for the final round of the 2018 World Series in Paris.
In a cruel twist of events, Kaka then tore the same left ACL at a training session a few months later and was not re-contracted to the New Zealand side. That nearly pushed her over the edge.
“I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but I feel like if one more thing had happened to me, I probably could’ve been,” she says.
Kaka decided to seek help. She turned to an energy healer in Tauranga - who follows the practices of American researcher and author Joe Dispenza – and says she’s now reached a space of mental strength through meditation and guidance.
“I meditate every morning and over time I’ve managed to envision places where nothing can stop me,” says Kaka, who identifies as Māori and Samoan.
“I’ve only managed to get my mindset to this point after going through so many setbacks.”
That doesn’t mean, Kaka admits, she has perfect thoughts every single day. It just means the positive thoughts are a little louder than the negative ones.
She’s been able to use meditation to help visualise herself playing at the Tokyo Olympics, not watching from the sidelines as she did in Rio.
“I 100 percent want to make the playing team this time round, and in my meditation sessions, I’ve already experienced it,” says Kaka. “I’ve already felt all of those feelings on how it will happen, and I can feel them right now talking to you. I’m actually shaking thinking about it.”
Meditation hasn’t been the only lifeline for Kaka. When asked about her husband’s influence on her journey, she says she needs to stop talking as she’s about to cry.
“I can’t even tell you how much Gillies has done for me. He is absolutely amazing; he is the most supportive husband ever,” she says.
“It was really tough when I got told I wasn’t going to be re-signed. But it was also a blessing in disguise, because that’s the moment when I was forced to dig deep and try to find out who I was as a person, which is kind of the rainbow at the end of a shit-storm.”
Kaka describes herself as a fun, bubbly person who loves unconditionally. “So, whether someone is out to hurt or help me, whether I'm angry at somebody or not, I just try to step above the bullshit and look at the situation from a loving perspective.”
She’s also very driven. She poured in the work to earn her spot back in the Black Ferns Sevens, and she gives a lot of the credit to her Waikato Sevens team.
“Without the Waikato team and their support systems, I wouldn’t have been prepared for Dubai. I didn’t end up playing nationals with Waikato, so my first game back after a year and a half was in Dubai,” she says.
Returning to the sevens environment has been amazing, Kaka says, and she’s seen how they’ve worked on building a culture since the last Olympic campaign.
If a team’s culture is off, she explains, then it’s going to show on the field, so she’s excited about what this team can achieve.
“I think it comes down to [coaches] Cory [Sweeny] and Bunts, who are the heart of the team. We are all on the same page and if anyone isn’t, then there are respectful conversations to resolve situations, in line with our team values,” Kaka says.
Bunting says the return of Kaka and Kayla Ahki (nee McAlister, the 2013 World Series Sevens player of the year) adds to the depth and strong internal competition in the squad.
“Shiray has had some real challenges over the past couple of years with injuries, but she’s gone through that storm and shown some real growth,” he says.
Now that she’s back in the team, in an Olympic year, would she hang up the boots after Tokyo?
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I feel like I’ve never reached my potential, so if I play in the Olympics and I’m still enjoying it and playing to the best of my ability, then I would love to keep playing until I think I'm done.
“Because it’s a long time on the sidelines once you finish this great sport.”
* With the Hong Kong Sevens postponed because of the coronavirus, the Black Ferns Sevens have their next tournament in Langford, Canada, in the first weekend of May.
The squad towards Tokyo 2020: Kayla Ahki (Auckland), Shakira Baker (Waikato), Micheala Blyde (Bay of Plenty), Kelly Brazier (Bay of Plenty), Gayle Broughton (Taranaki), Dhys Faleafaga (Wellington), Theresa Fitzpatrick (Auckland), Stacey Fluhler (Waikato), Sarah Hirini (Manawatu), Jazmin Hotham (Waikato), Shiray Kaka (Waikato), Tyla Nathan Wong (Auckland), Mahina Paul (Bay of Plenty), Risaleaana Pouri Lane (Tasman), Cheyelle Robins (Reti Waikato), Alena Saili (Southland), Montessa Tairakena (Waikato), Terina Te Tamaki (Waikato), Ruby Tui (Bay of Plenty), Niall Williams (Auckland), Tenika Willison (Waikato), Portia Woodman (Counties Manukau).