Lee Turrell is a rarity: a woman coaching a men’s sports team at international level. But the volleyball coach has never let gender barriers stand in her way – even in Iran.
As Lee Turrell walked into the volleyball stadium in the northwest Iranian city of Tabriz, security guards tried to steer her to the ‘women only’ section of the crowd. She politely declined.
It was 2018 and one of the first times women had been allowed to watch men play volleyball in Iran.
Just four years before, British Iranian woman Ghoncheh Ghavami had spent five months in prison after she tried to attend a men’s international match between Iran and Italy.
But Turrell wasn’t there to simply watch. It took a little time convincing the guards that the Wellington woman was, in fact, the coach of the New Zealand U18 men’s team, and she would be sitting on the sideline guiding her team as they played in the Asian youth championships.
“There were a few confrontations during the tournament,” says Turrell, the only woman coach at the event. Her photo was excluded from the programme because she wasn’t wearing a headscarf.
“The scorekeepers were all female, and every time I walked into the stadium, I got a little applause from the score bench. It made me smile and realise what a challenge it was for women to even be there.”
She wasn’t alone, with former New Zealand captain and Volley Ferns manager Mary Edmondson always at her side.
Turrell had talked to her players about the cultural differences they would encounter in Iran; how she would have to be the “broken link” in the team’s close huddles in time outs, because she couldn’t be seen to have physical contact with men.
“But these 17-year-old boys forgot and put their arms around my shoulders. The first time, there would have been about 300 people in the crowd, and there was one huge inhale of breath,” Turrell recalls.
“Then nothing else happened. So we said ‘Cool, let’s just keep doing it’ and we did.
“There was some pressure on us not to go, but I’m so happy we went. It gave me the first inkling of what an influential position I’m in.”
Turrell has never let gender stand in her way. She’s been coaching national men’s teams since 2015 and is about to take the New Zealand U20 men to a tournament in Thailand.
She’s made of sterner stuff – keeping testosterone-charged young men in line and focused, and also surviving a brain aneurysm while coaching at a tournament six years ago. (Having coached a Wellington boys rep team to the semi-finals of a tournament in Auckland, an unwell Turrell excused herself from the court. She was rushed to hospital where she underwent seven hours of brain surgery).
But Turrell, a mum of four, also has a soft, emotional side that she brings to her teams.
“I’m a female, I speak softly; I dress like a girl. I’m really happy to be emotional, I see it as a strength,” she says.
“I feel women are stronger, and we’re equal. The players just see me as their coach.”
Turrell grew up in a well-known Bay of Plenty rugby family, the Bidois. “I only had brothers, and most of my cousins were boys too, so there was a lot of influence from them. My dad was a rugby coach and I learned a lot from him,” she says.
A strong basketball and tennis player, Turrell was roped into playing volleyball by her PE teacher in her first year at Tauranga Girls High School. She went on to play US high school volleyball in Maryland on a scholarship, captained the New Zealand junior women’s team and made the national women’s squad.
But she stopped playing when she got a job in IT. “I wanted to focus on my career. I don’t regret that at all,” she says.
After years of travelling and working overseas, Turrell, her husband Al and their children settled back in New Zealand.
She started coaching her daughter Lauren’s school volleyball team in Wellington, but became involved in coaching boys when her then 14-year-old son Jacob came home from school with a request.
“He said ‘Mum, me and my rugby mates need to do something different over summer, and we’re pretty keen on playing volleyball. You know something about volleyball, right?’” Turrell says.
“I said ‘Nice idea, hun. When do you start?’ And he said: ‘When can you come and coach us?’
“St Patricks College hadn’t had a team for 10 years. Some of the boys did very well, and all of a sudden, they gave me the keys to the gym and asked ‘Can you keep coming back?’”
Under Turrell’s guidance, three of the St Pats players reached New Zealand honours. Her team won the Wellington schools’ regional title twice, and finished in the top 10 in the country.
“They are all men now, and quite a few have come back to play in my club team [the Capital Wolves]. They want to because we make it fun. I encourage them to put family first, and know where their priorities lie,” she says.
In 2015, Turrell was coaching club volleyball alongside German Satafan Maske, who was also coach of the New Zealand youth boys team. He encouraged Turrell to apply for the role of North Island youth men’s coach.
“I wasn’t sure I had the background. I had the technical know-how, but [Maske] also saw the team building and the connectedness in the group,” she says.
Since then, she’s regularly coached national men’s youth sides at tournaments overseas. Next week she goes into camp with the U20 team to prepare for Thailand.
It’s a voluntary job – the national teams are mostly self-funded – and she admits there have been sacrifices. “But I made sure I was really clear on that with my family – I had to have their support in whatever I was doing,” she says.
“I wanted to be good at what I did, and this was an opportunity to learn more.”
As well as the national coach roles, Turrell splits her time developing and coaching trainers for both Sport Wellington and Sport New Zealand in the central region, and helps the Wellington Regional Volleyball Association to develop athletes.
Another endeavour she’s passionate about is playing a leading role in a trial programme for Special Olympics NZ, encouraging movement and co-ordination in four to seven-year-olds with intellectual disabilities.
After a couple of knee operations, Turrell still plays volleyball “with a bunch of girlfriends” and has even won a silver medal at the 2017 World Masters Games.
And she’s still coaching club and school teams, this year focusing on the Year 9-10 girls at Queen Margaret College.
Turrell would coach a national women’s side “in a heartbeat,” if the opportunity arose, she says. “I enjoy coaching both boys and girls. There are significantly different challenges with both, but the majority of their challenges are the same.
“It’s so cool to watch people grow and change. Kids from all different walks of life, but once they get into that gym, they’re all on the same playing field. Sport takes away the cultural, social and gender biases.”