Kiwi Fern Christyl Stowers has faced some tough times – from depression to crippling arthritis. Now she’s part of a bold initiative with her league club giving women tools for on and off the field.
Sport saved Christyl Stowers’ life.
When she needed to escape periods of her childhood, the now 28-year-old found peace on the footy field.
Stowers says she witnessed domestic violence growing up. “That was hard for me. But I found a safe place in sport,” she says. “The only reason why I played footy was because it was the only time I felt clear-minded. It gave me something really positive to focus on.
“I had some stuff happen to me which was really challenging and I always found that when I had sport in my life, I was just happy.”
Stowers, now a Kiwi Fern, is at a stage where she wants to help others in similar situations. Admittedly, she wasn’t one for paying attention at school, but she’s committed to studying online for a certificate in life coaching.
“I’m doing it because I want to be able to help others who may have had a difficult time in their childhood,” says Stowers, more commonly known as Sharky. “I just want to help people because I know you can get into some dark places.”
She’s overcome a fair few barriers in her lifetime. Last year her father died from bowel cancer – he had been living with the illness for four years. And at the same time, Stowers was battling with depression.
“It was just from a lot of things that I hadn’t dealt with when I was younger,” says Stowers.
And then just after her dad’s death, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
“It’s an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks the healthy joints in your body causing chronic inflammation. So I’m dealing with that at the moment and still trying to play footy,” she says.
Stowers is wanting to fulfil her “big dreams” of playing for New Zealand at the Rugby League World Cup at the end of this year in England.
She’s in the wider training squad after making her Kiwi Ferns debut late last year against the Fetu Samoa Invitational side, and has also represented the Māori All Stars over the last two years.
Her parents and siblings are the motivation to push through the pain and keep playing. “I guess I learned it from my dad. Seeing his struggles with cancer was really bad and he was in so much pain,” Stowers says.
“But he always smiled, he just never gave up really. I just keep showing up every day, just to make them proud and I guess I just want to keep doing better.”
It’s painful, says Stowers. Some days she can’t get out of bed without assistance. But other days she can get through a training session. “It’s just all about training my mind to block the pain out really,” she says. “But I found the less I do, the more sore I am. It’s strange, a catch-22 really.”
Stowers has an injection in her stomach every week to help manage the arthritis, but the side effects include nausea, fatigue, acne breakouts, weight gain, breathing issues and longer recovery times.
She’s been back on the footy field since February as part of her club’s new Māreikura girls and women’s rugby league development programme.
As a senior player at the Manurewa Marlins, Stowers plays an important role in mentoring and training alongside the young players coming through.
“We just train with the girls and try to encourage them. We never really had that when I was younger; I definitely wish I had it, I may have been better when I started,” she laughs.
She used to play rugby but gave league a go about five years ago and has been a member of the Marlins’ grand final champions in 2017 and 2018. She also won the inaugural Sky Sports New Zealand Rugby League national women’s premiership title with Counties Manukau last year.
“It’s really beneficial because if you grab the talent when they’re young, they learn all the right things to do early and will probably have longer careers,” Stowers says. Off-field she will start working in a learning support role, teaching different sporting skills to children at Māngere Central School in May.
Former provincial rugby representative and local sporting legend Karla Matua created the programme from scratch after seeing a need to do things differently.
“I just got frustrated knocking on doors and thought ‘Oh well, we just have to make it happen ourselves’. If we come up with something that’s good then we can share it with other clubs too,” says Matua, who wears a number of hats in the community. In her day job she works for Aktive – Auckland Sport & Recreation, in a role focused on Māori communities staying active.
She then volunteers at the Marlins, coaching and sitting on their committee, overseeing the women’s and girls’ grades. She also serves on Auckland Rugby League’s advisory committee, encouraging women and girls to stay in the sport.
Matua grew up in a “leaguie” household in west Auckland but went onto rack up over 100 senior games in rugby for Manurewa. Her brothers played the 13-man code, parents were involved in the local league club, and her husband, Rusty, is a player and coach, who used to coach the Kiwi Ferns and Māori sides. And their children also play. It’s a real family affair.
The Māreikura programme was built over time and was informed by what Matua has seen, what the coaches know, and input from families and players. “It’s really reflective of the girls in front of us,” she says. “It’s purpose-built, not just to them, but to the needs of their family and the needs of our community.
“There’s an amazing pathway now with NRLW, so it’s about strengthening what we’ve got at club level.”
There’s a nationwide push to to strengthen and widen the female talent pool in rugby league both on and off the field, with the NZRL recently launching the ‘Aspiring Her’ programme.
A key difference with the Māreikura development programme is the foundations are not based around on-field performances. “I think most programmes are about winning games, winning grades, becoming this, becoming that, and that’s not even on our landscape,” Matua says.
“Not at any stage have we talked about winning our grade or winning games. That’s not what drives this. I think that’s really important because that’s not the end game.”
Matua says it’s about the development of young women as individuals. “Just giving them tools that they can take into life. Whether it’s in sport, whether it’s a leader within their whānau or their school, whether it’s in confidence or body awareness,” she says.
“It’s this overall holistic wellbeing. Because when you have strong confident girls, there’s just a natural alignment that carries over into their sport and into other aspects of their life.”
The eight-week programme started in February and has focused on conditioning. “The biggest thing that came from our girls was they wanted to be fitter. They wanted to be better prepared because that was probably one of the work-on areas after playing a season.”
A small amount of funding allowed Matua to approach a local Māori woman to help run the fitness component of the programme. The three sessions each week did not deter players. Up to 50 women were attending each pre-season training.
The funding also meant equipment could be purchased specifically for the women’s teams. Up until then, tackle bags and training resources were being used from the men’s teams which are usually bigger.
The programme also includes education around hydration, nutrition and how to look after themselves. “It’s real simple nutrition because the reality is we have to work with what kai [food] is inside their cupboards. So we’ve stripped that right back to make it real practical,” says Matua.
“We’re sharing information around how to stretch because they’re not getting this education anywhere else. They don’t know about lactic acid, they don’t know how to keep their bodies in tip top shape, so we’re trying to load them with information and tools.”
The programme wraps up with a two-day camp focusing on team building, leadership activities, goal-setting and mentor-matching. Training for the mentors is also being explored.
Camp activities will be based in Manurewa so the team can learn the history of their community. “We’re going to learn about the maunga, the moana; we’re going to try and lock in that sense of connectivity to our area,” says Matua, who’s lived in Manurewa for 20 years and spent most of her working career with youth in south Auckland. “Then we’ll finish with a big kai with all our families to launch our season.”
To extend the players’ development and stay connected with the community, Matua has also organised senior members to go into local schools and hold training sessions for young girls.
Even if players switch codes or clubs, Matua will be happy knowing they have tools to assist whatever pathway they choose. They’re building layers of education and knowledge.
“And then maybe at the end of the season we might get some results. But if we don’t, we don’t,” she says. “I just still believe whatever we do is of value, it’s going to benefit them and it’s going to make an impact.”