When you hear the name ESPN, you immediately think the pinnacle of international sports broadcasting. And, as women continue to forge a path in New Zealand sports media and sports leadership, one of our own is reaching new heights with the help of the American media giant.

Former Black Fern now rugby commentator Vania Wolfgramm is in Washington DC taking part in the global sports mentoring programme run by the US Department of State and espnW (the network’s platform for women’s sport).  

It’s a five-week programme focusing on developing female leaders in sport around the world, especially in the areas of advancing gender equality and disability rights.

Wolfgramm will also come under the wing of Stacey Allaster, one of the most powerful leaders in world tennis.

It’s Wolfgramm’s work in rugby – helping to lift the number of female rugby players, particularly Pacific Island and Māori girls – that saw her nominated for the highly-regarded programme.

She works to develop the women’s game at New Zealand Rugby, is a Sky commentator and a mother of two young children.

She is following in the footsteps of fellow former rugby international Melodie Robinson, who attended the programme back in 2016. The result of Robinson’s trip was the birth of “The Wonderful Group”, to strengthen the female presence in New Zealand sports media. Wolfgramm is a foundation member of that group.

It’s Wolfgramm’s vision is to create a professional training facility for athletes in south Auckland.

Less than 24 hours before Wolfgramm left for the US, I enticed her with coffee and breakfast to tell me what she intends to take from this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Wolfgramm is proud of her Samoan heritage and is the first generation of her family born in New Zealand. She was raised in a household enriched in Samoan culture, language and beliefs.

Here is where her focus lies, with culture at the forefront.

“My parents migrated here and our generation get it,” the 38-year-old says. “The culture, the language – though it is starting to dilute a bit now.

“There was no sport for me at high school and it was a gender thing; I’m the eldest and I’m a girl. It [rugby] wasn’t appropriate. Even now, girls tell their parents ‘we are going to the library’, when they’re going to rugby training.”

She started playing rugby after finishing high school for the Auckland Marist club, and when she was finally selected to play for New Zealand in 2003, Wolfgramm (nee Lavea) says there was “a strong community vibe around us at the Black Ferns, immersed in our culture”.

Reminiscing on her time as a Black Fern, Wolfgramm believes the foundation she and former captain Fiao’o Faamausili helped build hasn’t changed, and the success of the environment still depends on it today. 

“The Black Ferns are given song books when they go into camp and they’re the same songs we sung,” she says.

“Te Kura [Ngata-Aerengamate, the Black Ferns hooker] is on the guitar, and she amplifies what it means to be Māori. When you look at them do the haka – they’re one.”

While the Black Ferns still hold on to those traditions, she’s concerned there’s “no real culture drive” in rugby today.

“We worked so hard for our chance, but it’s not like that anymore. TJ Perenara impresses me, but he does it alone [in the All Blacks],” she says. “But in the Black Ferns, it’s embedded.”

A successful rugby career has led Wolfgramm to become a women’s rugby development manager, focusing on growing rugby in the Blues region. She became a Sky commentator for the Farah Palmer Cup after she started live-streaming games to her Facebook page.

“No one cared. Seven years ago, no one did media, no one did comms for women’s rugby,” she says.

Wolfgramm also created the Pasifika Aotearoa Cup tournament which was used to help win the bid to host the 2021 Rugby World Cup. What began with four teams – Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands and Māori – in 2013, has evolved to 50 teams from schools, clubs and culture groups.

It’s these achievements that helped Wolfgramm win one of 16 international spots in the annual global mentoring programme.

It’s second time lucky for Wolfgramm. She was originally accepted into the programme last year when she was 32 weeks pregnant. When she told the organisers her situation, she was told she could no longer attend.

Angry and disappointed, an email was sent expressing her outrage. Then she learned that due to the political situation of immigrants being detained at the US southern border, it was safer for her to attend after giving birth.

Nine months after having her second child, Wolfgramm is ready for her golden opportunity.

Initially, Wolfgramm wanted to pursue the idea of creating a women’s sports TV channel. But now she’s identified that more needs to be done laying down a foundation to better prepare athletes to reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport. 

She’s seen first-hand athletes based in south Auckland who are missing opportunities before reaching that stage, and she’s recognised that a big part of the problem is accessing professional training facilities.

Her idea is to create a facility in south Auckland, where a large majority of talent is identified, and she wants it implemented with the “it takes a village” philosophy.

Physically, our Māori and Pacific Island athletes are rich in talent, but understanding them socially and culturally, Wolfgramm believes, could help athletes to reach their full potential.

“When one makes it, a whole lot of girls don’t – so what happens to them?” Wolfgramm asks.

“One Tongan girl I knew from Mangere was scouted through the ‘Go For Gold’ sevens programme, but when she couldn’t make it to the AUT Millennium on Auckland’s North Shore, she was deemed lazy. She’s one of six kids with a single mother – it wasn’t possible to attend.

“This girl was selected but never capped – lost in translation – and that can’t happen.”

After a week of orientation in Washington DC, Wolfgramm heads to Los Angeles to attend a women’s summit at ESPN. She then flies to Orlando, Florida, to work with her mentor, Stacey Allaster, who is the CEO of the professional tennis at the US Tennis Association.

Until 2015, Allaster was chair and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association for almost a decade; Forbes Magazine named her one of the “most powerful women in sports”.

Wolfgramm can’t wait.

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