Since Black Stick Tessa Jopp’s heart stopped her playing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she’s found her happy place farming. But a chance to play at the Tokyo Olympics has come out of the blue.
When Tessa Jopp got the unexpected phone call from Black Sticks coach Graham Shaw, she had to stop and weigh it all up.
Could she give up mustering thousands of sheep on her hill country station, Maritanga, with its stunning 360 degree views across the Maniototo Plain, and return to life in the big smoke?
Could she leave behind her partner and her new huntaway dog, Joey, to have a shot at playing hockey at the Tokyo Olympics?
Was her heart – the defective organ which had robbed her a chance of winning Commonwealth Games gold – really in it?
“I was 50:50,” Jopp admits. “I had to think about it a little bit.”
The 25-year-old Black Stick loved working on the Central Otago family farm where she’d grown up, and she’d just moved in with her boyfriend, Sam, after years of “doing the long-distance thing.”
“I was finally settling down. I’d just got myself a dog,” Jopp says. “But Sam said: ‘You can’t not have a crack at the Olympics; it’s only for six months of your life’. In the end, it was a no-brainer.” Jopp says.
So earlier this year, Jopp packed up and moved back to Auckland to train with the Black Sticks squad working towards the Olympics in July. And she’ll finally make her return to the black dress this week after a two-year absence, in the long-awaited test series against Australia in Palmerston North which starts today.
The four-test series – the first Black Sticks v Hockeyroos encounters since September 2019 – doubles as a trial for the team who will go to Tokyo. And if Jopp makes the final cut, it will go a long way to assuaging her disappointment at being ruled out of the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast just a week before they began.
Jopp was all set to play in her first major tournament for the Black Sticks when a routine medical check before the team left New Zealand turned up something unusual.
It showed Jopp had an enlarged heart. A cardiologist put her through more tests, which revealed her heart had “poor pump function”.
“Initially he thought it could have been acute, and I could have died if I’d exercised,” Jopp says. “But after we made the call about pulling out of the Games, he decided it was a ‘grey zone’.”
Jopp hadn’t had any symptoms before the diagnosis – and hasn’t since. But she’s now taking blood pressure medication every day to protect her heart.
“When I’m in the high performance environment, and putting extra stress on my heart, I get it checked every six months,” she says. “But if it got worse, I would pull myself out straight away. My health is way more important – it’s my heart.”
You could say Jopp was heartbroken by having to withdraw from the team nine days before their first game on the Gold Coast.
“Gutted is the word I use for it all the time,” the 23-cap defender says. “Up until then, I’d been a fringe player and I’d finally got chosen for a major tournament. It was my big chance.”
Her parents, Maree and Dave, already had their tickets to the Games, and so they paid for their daughter to join them as a spectator, and watch the Black Sticks win their first gold medal.
“Some people wouldn’t cope with it that way, they probably wouldn’t want to be around hockey,” Jopp says. “But I really enjoyed it.”
New Zealand’s chef de mission, Rob Waddell – whose own sporting career was beset by heart problems – got her into the Games village to spend a day with the team.
So how much pressure is Jopp putting on herself to make these Olympics?
“You could get really caught up in that stuff and it could bring you down,” she says. “But my friend said to me: ‘After this, you’re either going to be an Olympian or you’re going to be a farmer. And both are awesome.’ And that’s so true. Both things would make me super happy. So it will be okay either way.”
Jopp admits she fell out of love with hockey a couple of years ago. Then a North Harbour team-mate, Hannah Williamson, was heading back to play club hockey in Belgium at the end of 2019.
“She saw that I was in a bit of a rut, and said ‘Hey we have a spot in our team, do you want to come play?’” Jopp recalls. “It was honestly the best thing I ever did – for me and for my hockey. It gave me that real purpose to get out, keep playing hockey and do it differently.”
Jopp came home for Christmas then returned to Belgium in January to play out the rest of the season. But by mid-March she was on her way home again as the coronavirus pandemic swept across Europe.
“We were just starting to hit our straps – we were winning games. It was such a shame. We trained on a Wednesday night and by Thursday morning everything was cancelled. We flew back to New Zealand on the Sunday just before the borders closed,” she says.
Despite the brief stints, Jopp says she gained so much – and got her love of hockey back.
“Belgium made me more confident on the field and not so flustered. If you love what you do, then you want to be involved and do everything. And when you’re not super-happy, you tend to hide a bit. It even affects your energy in trainings,” she says.
Jopp went straight back to work on the farm at Kokonga, in the Maniototo, rekindling another passion. Although she has a marketing degree from her years studying at Massey University while playing hockey in Auckland, Jopp has always wanted to be a farmer.
“You do the same thing every year but it’s always different because of the weather. I love being outdoors and active, and I love stock,” she says.
Every day she would make the 20-minute drive on dusty roads from Sam’s family farm to Maritanga Station – made up of steep hill country and flat land. The Jopps farm around 10,000 sheep and cows.
“I really enjoy the big musters. Out on the motorbike with your dog on the front, going out mustering sheep or cattle off the hill. At the top, we have 360 degree views of the Maniototo right down to Middlemarch,” Jopp says.
“Just being up there is awesome. I feel very lucky.”
When the hockey season sparked up again after Covid-19 lockdowns, Jopp played for the Southern Alpiners in the Premier Hockey League. That’s when the Black Sticks coach saw her refreshed attitude and sharpened skills on the field and called her up. She was in the farmhouse when he phoned.
Of course, Jopp would be thrilled if she makes the final 18 Black Sticks bound for Tokyo. And she knows she will have to be adaptable to cope with whatever these extraordinary Olympic Games throw at her.
But she’s already proved her heart can withstand setbacks and change, many times over.
* The Black Sticks women play four tests against the Hockeyroos in the Sentinel Homes TransTasman Series on the new Massey University turf at Palmerston North: Thursday and Friday, 7.30pm; Sunday 1pm; Tuesday 5.30pm. All games are live on Sky Sport.