She’s represented her country in three sports, and has been a rugby sevens world champion. But Honey Hireme, a legend with the oval ball, rates one of her greatest achievements as helping a teenager in a wheelchair to play basketball.

Hireme has switched between playing league, rugby and sevens for New Zealand over the last 15 years, and is regarded as a try-scoring machine – with a fantastic offload – in whichever code she turns out for.

But she’s not as well-known for the day job that inspires her, and the victories she helps others achieve when she’s off the field.

Hireme works as community support manager for Life Unlimited, a charitable trust in Hamilton, where part of her job involves getting young people with disabilities into the workforce, study or on to the sports fields and courts.

“I love to see people, whether they are a person with a disability or not, just achieve something that they thought they couldn’t do,” Hireme, 37, says.

Like the teenage boy in a wheelchair who never imagined he could play basketball. Now he regularly attends Life Unlimited’s “Sport Opportunity After School” programme, and shoots goals from everywhere around the court.

“It’s like the highlight of his week to come along and participate in the basketball team. We’ve sort of adapted the game to accommodate him, but that doesn’t really matter. He still loves it,” Hireme says.

“It’s lifted his confidence so much more, and now he’s out there trying other sports. It’s really opened the door to what he can do.”

Then there’s the 64-year-old woman with an intellectual disability who rarely, if ever, left her home. Now, through a programme that Hireme manages, the woman walks every day down to one set of lights and then back to another, before returning home. “That’s huge for her,” says Hireme, who often walks alongside her.

Putaruru-born Hireme, of Ngāti Raukawa, Tainui descent, was a star of the women’s Rugby League Cup in Australia last year, scoring 13 tries for the Kiwi Ferns, including two in the 23-16 loss to Australia’s Jillaroos in the final. It was her fourth World Cup as a Kiwi Fern.

She’s played for the Black Ferns women’s rugby side since 2014, but missed last year’s triumphant Rugby World Cup victory in Ireland with a shoulder injury, suffered during the women’s Lions series in June.

Back in 2013, she starred for the New Zealand rugby sevens team as they stormed to win the World Cup in Moscow.

Hireme manages her work around motherhood – she has a “strapping” 14-year-old son – and around her training for another season of sport at international level. She’s voiced her interest in playing in the new women’s NRL premiership.

“I’m lucky, I’m still fit and sport still plays a huge part in my life,” she says.

But her long-term goal is to move into elite coaching, of both women’s and men’s teams. 

She’s full of praise for Sport and Recreation Minister Grant Robertson’s four key priorities – growing the participation in sport of girls and women, improving participation by people with a disability, strengthening the long-term opportunities for those with disabilities, and ensuring young people continue to participate in sport after they leave school.

Making sure people with disabilities have the same opportunities is critical, she says. “Quite often they are overlooked because they’re seen as not capable of competing at high levels, so then they don’t get the opportunity to give something a go,” she says.

“Obviously with a lot of the programmes we run, we see it really does motivate our young children, specifically those with disabilities. They love sport just as much as any able-bodied person.”

Integrating able-bodied athletes with those who have a disability can be problematic.

“Often you see in schools a whole class goes out and does whatever they do for PE, and then the child with a disability is just sat to the side. Or maybe they get them to do something. like keeping the score,” she says.

“It’s often maybe that’s all they are capable of doing, but it’s making sure they’ve got a role within that. So long as they are feeling involved and being a part of that, it’s really important.”

Hireme wants to see more resources placed around teachers so they can give all students the opportunity to participate in sports together. She’s found that it’s team sports like basketball, or low impact sports like bowls, which appeal to the disabled people she works with.

Honey Hireme and Krystle Callaghan prepare for a Life Fit session. Photo: Life Unlimited Charitable Trust.

For the last six years, Hireme has been primarily based in the community with Life Unlimited. The community services team she works in supports 300 people, and reaches half of them with sporting programmes.

New Zealand wheelchair basketball representative and disability advocate Maioro Barton is the organiser of the after school sports programme. Hireme says the programme couldn’t be delivered without the support of clubs, volunteer coaches, sporting clubs, organisations like Methodist City Action, and Waikato University, which gives free use of their facilities.

And are the results as satisfying as scoring a try for New Zealand?

“The same sort of satisfaction; it’s nice,” Hireme says. “You kind of feel you’re inspiring people to get involved, get moving. And I get inspiration from them. It makes you grateful for the gifts you have.”

– This story was published with the permission of the Life Unlimited Charitable Trust.

Mary Anne Gill is a former award-winning sports journalist, and is now communications manager at Life Unlimited Charitable Trust.

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