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Whitelock honoured, but unsure of future

Black Sticks stalwart Kayla Whitelock, one of nine Kiwi women in sport recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours, is undecided on whether she will play at the delayed Tokyo Olympics. 

Now that the goal posts have shifted, outstanding Black Stick Kayla Whitelock says she’s not yet ready to commit to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

The former Black Sticks captain came out of retirement to rejoin the New Zealand hockey squad with the intention of playing in Tokyo - her fifth Olympics. But the 12-month postponement of the Games has her “flicking between yes and no”.

Whitelock, one of New Zealand’s most-capped hockey players, has been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to the sport in today’s Queen’s Birthday Honours.

The 34-year-old, who debuted in the New Zealand side in 2003, admits she was shocked to receive the honour – an individual recognition after a long career as a team player.

“This is a reflection of the years I’ve dedicated to hockey and it’s really nice for our sport to be acknowledged,” she says from her home in Palmerston North.

But she isn't on her own. Whitelock’s former team-mate and close friend, Emily Gaddum – who played 274 tests for the Black Sticks – also became an MNZM (see the list below).

Whitelock ended her retirement late last year to return to the Black Sticks for their 2020 Tokyo Olympics campaign. She’d stepped out of the international game after the 2016 Rio Games, but a final crack at an elusive Olympic medal was the carrot Whitelock couldn’t refuse.

When the mother-of-two made the decision to come back into the national team with the support and encouragement of her family, there were just nine months until the Olympics.

She returned to the FIH Pro League in February against Belgium in Auckland, adding another cap to her 255 total international appearances.

But when Covid-19 stopped the league in its tracks, and forced the unprecedented postponement of the Olympics, Whitelock had to reconsider her future.

“I was initially so gutted by the postponement because of all that hard work to get back to the level I was at,” she says. “It’s been tough, but it was totally the right call.”

When you’re entering your fifth Olympic campaign, you know the rigorous training and playing schedule ahead of you – but Covid-19 was the ‘what if’ situation no-one saw coming.

Whitelock wisely says she’s not going to rush into a decision whether to recommit for the next contractual period right now, with so much uncertainty around what the programme looks like.

“Initially, one week I was like ‘I’m going to do it’, and then the next week I’d be like ‘Nah I’m not going to do it’,” she says. “I’m just flicking between yes or no.”

Kayla Whitelock makes a tackle against The Netherlands at the 2016 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

Speaking with team-mates and the Black Sticks' sports psychologist has helped Whitelock realise she didn’t need to make a call immediately - especially when the decision affects not only her.

Whitelock’s mother, Jan Sharland, had taken the majority of this year off work to help look after Whitelock’s children – five-year-old Addison and Maxwell, who’s two this month.

“Hopefully by August we’ll have a fair idea of what the programme will look like, but I think it’s unlikely we’ll have any opposition to play against internationally in this contractual year that ends on October 31st,” Whitelock says.

“Obviously there's the huge question of will the Olympics go ahead? There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment so we just need to hold tight and control what we can control in our home environments.”

Focusing on her family and businesses – an F45 gym in Palmerston North and the family dairy farm - helped Whitelock take her mind off the absence of sport during lockdown.

She admits she had to move quickly once the government announced New Zealand was moving to Level 4, closing the gym doors. “We flew home from Auckland when the National Hockey Stadium was shut the next day,” she says.  

During lockdown, Whitelock stuck to a Black Sticks training programme which she tried to do when her husband George - a former All Black and Crusaders captain – took the kids out on the farm. Otherwise, the kids would run alongside her as she did shuttle runs on the driveway.

The Black Sticks squad stayed connected via Zoom; Whitelock doing online pilates with team-mates and learning to bake sourdough with team-mate and nutritionist, Sam Charlton.

The national squad will play club hockey when it resumes, with Whitelock turning out for College Hockey in Palmerston North.

As for her Queen’s Birthday honour, Whitelock acknowledges the support of her family – from driving her to hockey trainings from the age of seven, to cheering her on in Olympic stadiums.

“It’s a huge honour for my family and amongst the impact of Covid-19, it’s been nice to reflect on my career to date and all the people who are part of my journey.”

She’s stayed connected to all her coaches, who she credits with having a “huge influence” on her life. And she also pays credit to pivotal support people in her career – especially the late Brad Conza, the Black Sticks strength and conditioning coach from 2007 until his sudden death in January. “Brad kept me on the field for many years. I’m very grateful for the incredible energy he brought to me and to our team,” she says.

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Whitelock was one of nine women in New Zealand sport to be recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours. The others are: 

Jeanne Begej, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit

Wanaka’s Jeanne Begej has made a significant contribution to ice figure skating in New Zealand since the 1960s. The former national ice skating champion has been a competitor, administrator and judge – at national and international level – and helped introduce the ‘Kiwi Skate’ learn to skate programme.  

Joan Harnett, left, with other iconic Silver Ferns at Netball NZ's 75th anniversary dinner in 1999. Photo: Getty Images.

Joan Harnett-Kindley, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit

The ‘belle of the court’, former Silver Fern Joan Harnett-Kindley played 26 netball tests for New Zealand and starred at three World Cups – named the outstanding player of the 1967 world tournament. A match-winning goal attack, Harnett-Kindley also captained Canterbury, where she became a coach and administrator. Now in Wanaka, her honour also recognises her long career in real estate in New Zealand, including being the first woman appointed to the Real Estate Council.

Beverley May, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit

In 1960, Bev May became the first woman cyclist to get a licence to race competitively against men. Her name has been synonymous with the sport ever since, as a pioneer of women’s cycling in New Zealand. She’s been an administrator, women’s advocate and race promoter - the Bev May Women’s Only Tour is in its fourth decade.

Patricia Broad, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit

For 56 years, Patricia Broad has been head coach of the St Bernadette’s Gymnastic Club, which she founded in Dunedin. She coaches five days a week on a voluntary basis, and holds weekly lunchtime classes to help junior school pupils experience gymnastics. She is also an international judge, who received a Queen’s Service Medal in 1991.

Emily Gaddum, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit

Up until last year, Emily Gaddum was New Zealand’s most capped women’s hockey player. A Black Stick from 2004 to 2016, she played at three Olympics and three Commonwealth Games, winning silver in Delhi 2010 and bronze in Glasgow 2014. She still plays and coaches at club level in Hawkes Bay and helped establish a new hockey club in Havelock North.

Sharon Kearney, left, working with Silver Fern Casey Kopua. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Sharon Kearney, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit

A netball physiotherapist since the 1990s, Sharon Kearney has played a major hand in revolutionising injury prevention in sport. Kearney has been to five world championships, three World Youth Cups and two Commonwealth Games with New Zealand netball sides. She’s now the injury prevention manager for Netball NZ, developing injury prevention, physio and management programmes to help prevent sports injuries, and is regarded as one of the country’s top experts in the field.  

Dr Sarah Leberman, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit

A professor of leadership at Massey University, Dr Sarah Leberman has been recognised for services to women, sport and tertiary education. Leberman is the co-founder and co-chair of Women in Sport Aotearoa, and helped develop the recent $10 million government strategy for women and girls in sport.  She has also managed the Junior Black Sticks and Black Sticks women; served on hockey, netball and volleyball boards; and still coaches taekwondo.  

Mary Thompson, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit

Mary Thompson has been a netball leader in the Bay of Plenty for more than 40 years. She’s been Netball Rotorua’s secretary for over three decades and convened the Kurangaituku tournament – one of the country’s largest recreational netball events. Thompson is a past manager of the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic, and has been event co-ordinator of the Magic’s home games for the past 20 years.

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