Bond as females empowering achievers

High Performance Sport New Zealand athletes (from left) Holly Robinson, Caitlin Deans, Anna...
High Performance Sport New Zealand athletes (from left) Holly Robinson, Caitlin Deans, Anna Grimaldi and Erika Fairweather could not be happier to be in Dunedin. They are holding a photo of Courtney Duncan so the motocross star does not feel left out. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
There is something special brewing at Dunedin’s High Performance Sport New Zealand centre. All five athletes, plus the majority of the centre’s support staff, are women, and helping push each other to reach their dreams.

Kayla Hodge finds out what can happen when women lift each other up.

Laughter bounces off the walls of the high performance centre.

Anna Grimaldi fixes herself lunch in the corner, while Holly Robinson, Erika Fairweather and Caitlin Deans pile into the small room and pull up a chair.

Casual conversations among the group engulf the room, and soon enough, they all erupt in a fit of laughter again as they settle in for their break.

All their chatter, constant banter and warmth speaks to the relaxed friendships that have been established at the centre.

Grimaldi, Robinson, Fairweather and Deans - alongside Courtney Duncan, who is competing overseas - are the all-female athlete crew at Dunedin’s high performance centre.

Adding another layer is the centre’s support staff, who - apart from strength and conditioning practitioner Michael Jacobs - are all women as well, in Sara Richardson, Yvette Latta, Helen Littleworth and Nat Fraser.

It has created a unique culture, and with all the athletes reaching the pinnacle of their sports, they are proof of what can happen when women empower each other to get to the world stage.

Duncan was caught off guard when asked about the female-dominated environment when the Otago Daily Times caught up with her in the Netherlands.

"I didn’t even know that," Duncan said.

"It’s always cool to see the girls doing good. Everyone in there is just trying to be the best at what they do. I think that’s what’s cool about it as well.

"It’s motivating because everyone’s working hard. It’s really uplifting."

Robinson, who has been a high performance athlete since 2011, has been with the centre the longest, and many spoke of her paving the way for others.

"When I first started, I didn’t really know any individual female athletes at the time that had come out of the centre," Grimaldi said.

"Being able to see Holly doing the job that I wanted to do, achieving the things that I wanted to achieve, was really motivating and just showing the pathway that was possible from down in Dunedin, because I often think that potentially we’re forgotten about down south."

Naturally, as they were all women, they formed a close bond, which played a big part in their enjoyment of the programme.

"It does feel like a family down here and I think that is the really special thing about being in Dunedin versus somewhere like Auckland," Deans said.

"It is a smaller, closeknit group and you do get to know other athletes from other sports, which is really cool."

Being an all-female centre was not a necessity but it gave them a unique chance to lean on each other, and they fundamentally understood what every one was going through.

Not all the athletes use all the centre’s support staff as part of their team, but they appreciate the roles they play.

"I just want the best people, I guess, and the fact that they are the best is really cool," Grimaldi said.

"They’ve all earned their spot as the Dunedin providers and the fact that they are female is just really cool."

The support staff had a lived experience of what their bodies went through - mentally and physically, including their menstrual cycles and hormones - which was invaluable.

More could be done to understand the impact periods had on female athletes, but they all agreed that conversation was in its infancy and was not discussed when their careers began.

"I think across the board, the lack of understanding about it - which is fine, it’s still in the early days - is probably its inhibiting factor," Fairweather said.

"The guys on our [swim] team would have no clue and they don’t understand, and that’s fine, because they don’t have the same experiences as us.

"I think just being able to have conversations likes this is important. We don’t want to use it as an excuse."

Robinson felt it was crucial for young athlete to talk about topics, such as their menstrual cycle, to fully comprehend the impact it could have.

Those conversations played a part in visibility, and if the Dunedin athletes could be role models for younger athletes, they had done their job.

Robinson acknowledged she and Grimaldi grew up differently from others, through living with a disability, but sport helped them feel accepted.

"I didn’t have, or meet, anyone with a disability until I was quite old," Robinson said.

"I felt like I was in a world where no-one was like me. When I saw that first person with a prosthetic I was, like, there’s actually someone that’s like me.

"Visibility is a really crucial part of influencing the future of our sports and in our country as well."

Grimaldi agreed visibility was vital and credited watching Robinson compete with helping her believe sport could be a fulltime gig.

"It made it safe to be able to have a dream of it being my career," Grimaldi said.

They found another supportive base at the high performance centre, and while Grimaldi could have moved away, she acknowledged the support the Dunedin staff and community gave her.

"The support from the people here, in my opinion, is some of the best in the country," Grimaldi said.

"It’s hugely important ... the fact I can do it from here, where I live, with my family and friends still here, but then also have world-class providers."

Robinson, who grew up on the West Coast but moved to Dunedin early in her career, was thankful for the team she had found to guide her.

"When we get to those pinnacle events, it’s a big team behind us to get us there and everyone playing their crucial roles helps us succeed," Robinson said.

"I would say it’s not just my medal, it’s our medal, because everyone pulled their end to help me get there."

Robinson is brutally honest when she says she never really watches swimming. But she makes an exception for Fairweather and Deans.

Fairweather lights up when talking about Grimaldi racing with her space-bun hair style - even if she cannot remember in which event Grimaldi was competing.

What sport, or event, is almost irrelevant, but what matters is the deep sense of pride they get watching each other reach the top of their careers.

"I feel like you feed off one another’s success as well. You get hyped for each other," Deans said.

"You see someone doing so well and you’re, like, ‘well I train at the same places and do the same things as them, that means I am able to do that too’.

"You’ve got a lot of mutual respect for each other."

It speaks to how important sport can be as a vehicle for connection - even when you want to be the best in the world.

"I feel like that’s the thing about an environment like this," Grimaldi said.

"I’ve always loved watching sport, but when you actually get to see, or know, the people that are doing the sport, you start paying attention to sports you might not have watched before just because you know the person behind the sport.

"We’ve bought into each other’s story."

High Performance Sport

Dunedin athletes

• Anna Grimaldi: Paralympic long jump champion and para athletics world championship 100m bronze medallist

• Holly Robinson: Paralympic javelin champion and para athletics world championships shot put silver medallist

• Caitlin Deans: Olympic swimmer

• Erika Fairweather: World champion and Olympic swimmer

• Courtney Duncan: Four-time WMX motocross winner

The Dunedin athletes with support staff (from left) Helen Littleworth, Yvette Latta and Sara...
The Dunedin athletes with support staff (from left) Helen Littleworth, Yvette Latta and Sara Richardson. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON

Support staff proud to see their charges reach top

They are the backbone of every athlete’s journey.

For over 15 years, Sara Richardson, Helen Littleworth and Yvette Latta have been the support network for athletes at Dunedin’s high performance sport centre.

Richardson (performance nutritionist), Littleworth (performance physiotherapist) and Latta (performance massage therapist) - alongside Nat Fraser (athlete life) - work with Anna Grimaldi, Holly Robinson, Erika Fairweather, Caitlin Deans and Courtney Duncan in an all-female centre.

While not all support staff work with every athlete, they still follow their journeys to becoming world champions and Paralympic gold medallists.

They are proud, and privileged, to watch the athletes reach the pinnacle of their sport.

"We’ve seen them from a much younger age as well and we’ve seen how they’ve progressed and matured," Latta said.

"It’s pretty cool to see them hit the top."

Littleworth agreed, but noted no two athletes were the same in their venture for success.

"It’s lovely to take them through a journey," Littleworth said.

"That might be a four-year cycle, or a three-year cycle, or some of the journeys don’t go the way they want them to go.

"These guys are lucky it’s going the way they want, but not everyone at [high performance] level will get to that."

All athletes spoke about the intricacies of having female support staff at the centre - more empathy and the finer details - and Latta, Richardson, and Littleworth concurred they knew the pressures of what female athletes went through.

"We think the same. We’ve got the same psyche," Littleworth said.

Women’s sport had come on in leaps in recent years - even if it was still "run by men", Littleworth said - but they all agreed there needed to be more opportunities and support in the sector from the grassroots to elite across the board.

"These guys have got good support, but they’re elite," Littleworth said.

"When you’ve got women’s cricketers, or women’s footballers ... that are playing at a national level and they don’t have a physio, or a nutritionist, or access to a doctor - from a community point of view, women need to be supported more.

"We get the hand-downs, so to speak, and it’s still happening."

Richardson, who recently stood down from her role with Women in Sport Otago, said there was plenty more that could be done.

"If I think from my point of view from nutrition ... we’d be creating positive environments around body weight, body image and those kind of things in sport," Richardson said.

"I know that is starting, but then when I go to kids’ sport, we’ve still got a long way to go."