After a tough year, Francesca Kirwan has won her third New Zealand beach volleyball title in five years. She tells Ashley Stanley how she manages sport and her wine business with dad, Sir John Kirwan.
At 3am every Monday, Francesca Kirwan and her family wake up to watch her brother Niko play football on the other side of the world. There’s her mum Fiorella and dad Sir John Kirwan, younger brother Luca and her new fiancé, also named Luca.
“Because he plays at three on a Sunday afternoon in Italy, we all wake up. That’s why he better appreciate it because it’s bloody hard work,” laughs Kirwan, who’s no stranger to making sacrifices in the name of sport.
She turned her focus from her day job, importing Italian wine, to winning the New Zealand beach volleyball championships – her third time in five years.
“And then we obviously support Luca with his rowing.” Luca Kirwan was a member of the New Zealand coxed four who finished fourth at the world U23 rowing championships in 2019. “We’re definitely supportive of each other.”
Three siblings, three different codes. But the same drive to compete at an elite level for the sporty Kirwans.
“Obviously a dream as a family would be all three making it, but it’s kind of fun just having everyone be so competitive in sport,” says Kirwan. “Because we can all relate and when things aren’t going well for one of us, things are going well for another so there’s always something going on. And that’s a lot of fun.”
Sir John agrees: “I think having three competitive kids in sport probably came from both Fiorella and I believing that sport is an important part of education. We never really said to our kids that they had to be successful at it, but we felt that sport was something you shouldn’t worry about failure. You should just get to be as good as you can be.”
Francesca, 26, has represented New Zealand in beach volleyball and taken out the national titles with three different partners. After winning the latest title at the end of January, Kirwan says it’s not just her. “I have had three great partners for all three tournaments.”
When she’s not working on her moves in the sand, Kirwan is managing JK.14 Wines – a family venture she set up with her dad to import their favourite products from Italy.
Kirwan has big goals for the business – she wants to be the biggest wine importer in New Zealand. “And be known for great quality and great stories,” she says.
On the sporting side, she’s not too sure what the future holds after going through a rough patch last year. But she says the Commonwealth Games in 2022 are a realistic goal.
“Last year was a tough one,” she says. “To be honest with you, I was a bit lost. I felt like I needed a big break to sort of reassess what I wanted to do, what my goals were, just because it was all over the place.
“But after the break, I started training again and taking it day by day. And actually enjoying the game again more than thinking about, you know, the future goals.”
At the moment, like many codes, beach volleyball and the female athletes vying for a spot on the Olympic team for Tokyo in July are in a little bit of a lull. New Zealand was in the middle of the Olympic qualification process when Covid-19 hit. So they’re unsure how it’s going to work out in terms of travelling, Kirwan says.
There’s a handful of top contenders in the local scene and New Zealand selectors have opted to try something different and change up partners for the domestic Beach Tour circuit over the summer.
“It’s definitely been good to switch around and it’s a lot of fun because you get to play with different girls,” says Kirwan. “This was definitely the best time to switch partners.
“It’s so everybody can improve on something in particular according to who they are playing with, so it’s worked out really well.”
During her tough times, Kirwan says she questioned why she stays in the sport.
“Last year I was like ‘why am I doing this?’” she says. “Because honestly, there are certain times where you’re paying everything yourself and putting in all that hard work and you’re getting nothing back. But now for me, it’s just the game itself.
“I enjoy it so much that I told myself, ‘I’m going to play it until my body allows me to play it,’ just because I do love it so much. And there’s that competitiveness in me.”
It would seem Kirwan is in one of the best households to be in during testing times. After years of mental health advocacy and education, her father co-founded Mentemia, an app to help coach mental wellbeing.
“Totally, Mum and Dad were so supportive,” she says. “They were just like ‘You have to embrace how you’re feeling. And if you’re feeling like you don’t want to play anymore, then don’t. If in six months time you want to come back, come back.’
“I think that really helped me throughout the whole process. And then they also tell me, which is so true, it’s always going to work out.”
Sir John Kirwan is also a big supporter of beach volleyball, although his daughter says, he doesn’t know a lot about it. Her mother, on the other hand, played professional volleyball in Italy.
“He doesn’t really understand a thing about beach volleyball, which is kind of nice. But he can definitely tell if I’m playing well or not, which is still ok,” Francesca says. “As long as I’m enjoying it and I’m giving 100 percent, then he’s happy with me.”
Some say it’s not a good idea to mix family and business but it made sense for the tight-knit Kirwan clan. They found a gap in the market which led to an 18-month labour of love for Kirwan to set up the business.
She explains the backstory of JK.14 Wines. “Dad went over to Italy when he was about 20 to play rugby and he fell in love with the food and wine over there,” she says.
“He obviously met mum and spent a lot of years there. It completely changed his way of seeing food and wine and the way you eat together with your family and friends. It’s all about enjoying the moment and actually understanding what you’re having to drink with your food.”
Taking that philosophy, each wine is named after someone they love and care about.
“If you only want to pay $20 for an easy red to drink at home with your family, then go with my grandfather’s wine,” Kirwan says. “Whereas if you want to be a bit more special and pay a bit more to give a friend on their birthday then we’ll offer another wine.”
It’s the personal stories and connection to family and friends that makes the difference. “And that’s a lot of fun with Dad because we can totally relate to all of the wines we have,” says Kirwan. “The stories we tell are all true. His ideas and passion are awesome.”
With Sir John focusing on rugby and his mental health initiatives, he wasn’t able to get something together in the food and wine space – something they’ve always wanted to do – until Francesca finished university and moved back to New Zealand in 2015.
Although there are a lot of Italian products available in New Zealand, “people don’t really know what to buy,” Kirwan says. “So our whole idea was to do the same but explain a bit more, what is behind each product? And tell a bit of a story.”
The business allows Kirwan to have a flexible work-life balance as she fits her commitments around one another. “It’s pretty awesome because my days are always changing, they’re never the same,” she says.
Italians believe in family businesses, Sir John Kirwan says, “so the most important thing for Francesca and I is to try and build a family business that our kids can enjoy, but also be able to do something that continues – especially now to let Francesca do her sport.”
During the summer beach volleyball season, Kirwan can give more time to her sport. But pre-Christmas was another story, cutting back on her training schedule to meet the silly season shopping demands.
“If I give more to training, my game improves, and as soon as I push the wines a bit more, the sales increase. It’s incredible how you can tell the time that I give to each,” she says.
Kirwan got into the sport when the family moved to Italy when she was 10. “I basically found out that volleyball was the main sport for women,” Kirwan says. “Like every single girl in Italy plays volleyball so I decided to give it a go and I loved it.”
She reached the heights of professionalism in Italy but decided to change formats when she moved back to New Zealand at 21 – a few years after her parents had already moved back for her father to take on the Blues’ rugby head coach role. A coach approached her to give beach volleyball a shot.
“It was so hard because the transition from indoor to the sand is just crazy. It’s completely different but I really fell in love with the game,” she says.
It’s been “a bit of a rollercoaster” as the set-up is different here than in Italy – where she was surrounded by a team who looked after the athletes. The sport is self-funded in New Zealand.
“But it’s actually more rewarding like that because at least you know you’re doing it all by yourself,” she says.
Kirwan was thrilled to take her third New Zealand title after having a “really good” lead-up to the event during the week. “I was really determined and just super focused,” she says. “I trained a lot, I went to the gym and I took care of my recovery. I ate really well, slept really well.
“Normally I feel a bit nervous especially before finals but I was feeling so focused, I just really wanted to win it.
“I wanted to reward myself after last year, when I had a bit of a hard time. I was just really stoked and it felt really good. I felt more aware of what it takes to win. And so that’s why it felt even better than the other two times”.
Kirwan has had plenty of happy playing moments throughout her career. But she’s come to learn and appreciate the overall ride along the way.
“There isn’t a highlight, there are moments,” she says. “I really enjoy playing overseas, winning New Zealand champs or the time in Italy I won the championship to go to the top level was great.
“But I think the beauty about beach volleyball is just the ride… the ability to travel the world in summer and play on different beaches. So I definitely love the process, the whole journey.”