Chosen sport not always a priority as life catches up

School days are long gone for the rising sporting stars profiled by the Otago Daily Times in its Fast Lane series in 2011. A decade on, Jeff Cheshire catches up with some of the athletes to find out where life has taken them.

Blair Grant trains in Auckland for his return to sprinting this year.  PHOTOS: SUPPLIED/ODT FILES
Blair Grant trains in Auckland for his return to sprinting this year. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED/ODT FILES
Blair Grant

Waitaki Boys’ High School

Athletics

Grant in 2011.
Grant in 2011.
Breaking the 11sec 100m barrier had always been a goal for Blair Grant.

It was a mark he had his sights on when he spoke to the Otago Daily Times in 2011.

And, despite eight years passing since he last ran competitively, the desire to break that mark has not left him.

Grant is intending to return to the track this summer, not so much on a competitive basis, but to give that personal milestone one last crack.

"I never got there in high school, but was agonisingly close for a long time," he said.

"Just crossing my fingers now we can have a normal season and do some races around the country."

Agonisingly close is an apt description.

The former Waitaki Boys’ High School pupil ran below 11.20sec 22 times, seven times breaking the 11.10sec mark although some of those were wind-assisted.

In February 2012, he ran a wind-assisted 11.01sec 100m, while his wind-legal personal best was 11.06sec a month later at the national championships.

Those performances were part of a career that included national representation at the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games.

But by 2013, the year he began university, his times were not improving.

It was then Grant decided to focus on other things following a "disappointing" result at that year’s national championships.

He has lived in Auckland for the past four years and worked "a few jobs" in marketing, but was made redundant during last year’s first lockdown. This year, he has decided to return to study, choosing to do a masters at Auckland University in politics and international relations.

Laura Bridger races at Rangituhi Trail Park in Porirua last year. PHOTOS: LISA NG/ODT FILES
Laura Bridger races at Rangituhi Trail Park in Porirua last year. PHOTOS: LISA NG/ODT FILES
Laura Bridger

Columba College

Mountain biking

Bridger in 2011
Bridger in 2011
Laura Bridger appreciates the contrast mountain biking gives her these days.

The 2011 New Zealand under-17 cross-country champion remains active in the sport and finds it complements her day job well.

She now lives in Wellington, initially working as a dental health surgeon at Wellington Hospital and now as a dentist at a private practice.

While that would seem a full-on job for most, Bridger finds getting on her bike to be a good chance to get away.

"It’s a pretty good work-life balance," the former Columba College pupil said.

"I work a 40-hour week so it’s just finding time after work or before work and things.

"It’s pretty good contrasting, I guess. Dentistry is tiny, precise work. Mountain biking is more big picture — you can have a real break from it."

While her focus is on fun and fitness these days, she keeps a full training schedule and still fares well in competition.

Bridger tries to go on three shorter rides during the week on local tracks, while at the weekend will go out for a five to seven-hour ride.

She competes in plenty of local events, which she said where of a "pretty high standard".

Her training is geared towards the Whaka 100, a 100km race in Rotorua.

It was an event at which she won her age-group title in the 50km race last year.

She was also an accomplished singer at school — as her Otago Daily Times story from 10 years ago points out — something she chuckled at when asked if she still sings.

"I get teased so much because of that story.

"I’ve had to sing at a couple of weddings and things, but I’m not really doing anything too much with that."

Lachie McGregor takes a break at a building site in Perth. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Lachie McGregor takes a break at a building site in Perth. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Lachie McGregor

Otago Boys’ High School

Cycling

Six months ago, Lachie McGregor bought a bike again.

It had been six years since the former Otago Boys’ High School pupil gave up cycling in a competitive capacity.

A decade ago, he claimed silver at the South Island championships as a year 9 pupil.

It was the first of several accomplishments, which included New Zealand representation, several junior titles and a win in the Hastie Memorial.

After six years away, he returned to find the "it’s just like riding a bike" phrase may not be entirely accurate.

"It’s totally different," McGregor, who has returned to cycling purely for leisure and fitness, said.

"You sort of half expect to get back on the bike and it to just be the way it used to be. But it’s not. There’s a bit of readjusting, but you know, that’s just how things go."

McGregor has lived in Perth for the past two years and works as a builder, having tripled his wage from when he was in New Zealand.

He followed his family, which sold its Central Otago farm in 2014, after completing his building apprenticeship.

McGregor last cycled competitively in 2015, his final year of school.

He had been away with a New Zealand team to a track cycling meet in Adelaide. That had been a great experience, but it also proved to be his final one.

"Coming home from that was sort of the tipping point," he said.

"That was basically my last event as a junior. From there, it was basically you’re in the Olympic squad or you’re not. For me, it was a big call to ... what am I going to do for the rest of my life?

"Coming up to finishing high school, you need to start asking the questions. For me, a call was never really made.

"Usually, when you fly somewhere with your bike, the first thing you do when you land is to rebuild them to make sure they’ll all sweet.

"But when I got home from Adelaide, I didn’t even look at my bike for a month. I was a bit lost, a bit confused, didn’t really know what I was doing.

"From there, I never really rode a bike again. Life just took me a different way and here I am today."

Han Zhang prefers to stay out of water in the sun rather than swim these days. PHOTO: SUPPLIED...
Han Zhang prefers to stay out of water in the sun rather than swim these days. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/ODT FILES
Han Zhang

John McGlashan College

Swimming

Zhang in 2011.
Zhang in 2011.
Han Zhang does not miss the early starts of competitive swimming.

The former John McGlashan pupil has not swum competitively since leaving school.

A former Neptune swimmer, he shot to prominence as a 13-year-old a decade ago when he won seven medals — four gold — at the national short-course championships.

He continued to swim until he began at the University of Otago, where he is set to graduate from medical school and will relocate to Wellington for his first year as a doctor.

Zhang said he missed the adrenaline rush of a race and the competitions, alongside pushing himself to "actual exhaustion"’.

However, it was good not having to get up at 4am for training.

He does not play many sports any more, predominantly playing social basketball and going on "the occasional tramp". He also picked up golf and surfing recently.

Zhang has not lost touch with the sport, though, and was enjoying seeing the success Neptune swimmers were having nationally and internationally.

Dean Rusbatch
Dean Rusbatch
Dean Rusbatch

Otago Boys’ High School

Athletics

Had circumstances been different, Dean Rusbatch may still be letting the hammer fly.

The former Otago Boys’ High School pupil did not give up athletics by choice.

He still has the occasional throw and admits sometimes he thinks it would be worth getting back into the sport.

Brazilian jiu jitsu keeps him busy these days, around his job as an engineer.

Rusbatch in 2011. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED/ODT FILES
Rusbatch in 2011. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED/ODT FILES
It was not something on his radar when he says he was pushed into giving up throwing "a couple of years" after leaving school.

He had won multiple national medals at that stage and appeared set to take that to a senior level.

"I had a bit of pressure from my boss at the time," he said.

"He wanted me to give it up so I could focus on work.

"It really sucked. Obviously, it had been such a huge part of my life for such a long time.

"At the time, I was working as a butcher’s labourer at New World. It wasn’t my career goal. I just gave in, eventually."

Rusbatch has moved around in recent years, but has returned to Dunedin to be closer to family and friends.

Jiu jitsu is now a major passion and he does five sessions a week.

He initially got into it through doing some mixed martial arts and enjoying the grappling side of it, calling it "addictive".

"It’s a very technical sport. It’s got so many different elements to it.

"You have to do it so many times per week to master it, if that’s at all possible."

Rusbatch has been doing the sport for five years and is a purple belt.

He said it took about 10 years to reach a black belt — two belts away.

He also does competitions and has won a South Island title.

Aleisha Ruske dribbles the ball for the Otago Gold Rush in 2019 as Quaye Walker-Eketone of the...
Aleisha Ruske dribbles the ball for the Otago Gold Rush in 2019 as Quaye Walker-Eketone of the Waikato Wizards guards her during a national league game at the Edgar Centre. PHOTOS: PETER MCINTOSH/ODT FILES
Aleisha Ruske

St Hilda’s Collegiate

Swimming/basketball

Hindsight shows more than anything what Aleisha Ruske would have sacrificed to continue swimming.

The former St Hilda’s Collegiate pupil had already made a strong impression in the pool as a 13-year-old when she spoke to the Otago Daily Times in 2011.

That continued as she forged an impressive list of national titles, mainly in the 100m butterfly but also reaching the top in the 200m.

It had been going "really well". But in her final year of school, she realised the full-time commitment would detract too much from other areas in her life.

"Swimming’s the sort of sport you have to commit to full time if you set lofty goals of Commonwealth Games and Olympics and stuff like that," she said.

Ruske in the pool in 2011.
Ruske in the pool in 2011.
"I just didn’t think I wanted to make the sacrifice for that at the expense of going to uni and having that full experience. It would have taken a lot longer and probably led to a different career.

"People do it, but I think it would have felt like I was not giving my best to both things."

She put that extra time to good use.

Ruske graduated with a double degree in commerce and law, the latter with honours.

In February, she moved to Auckland, although returned to Dunedin just before the recent lockdown, and works as a corporate finance analyst for PWC.

She also continued to show her talent on the basketball court.

Ruske played 64 national league games for the Otago Gold Rush, winning the title in 2018.

She had also played at last year’s NBL 3x3 tournament, while her family’s involvement — notably an under-23 tournament in which her whole family had a role in — had been a highlight.

Without a club league in Auckland, she had been unable to play this year, although she hoped to get back involved with one of the city’s NBL teams next year.

She was also still swimming as much as she could on a more recreational basis.

Earlier this year, she did the bridge swim in Auckland, a longer distance open-water event.

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