* The Black Ferns have won Olympic gold in the women’s ruby sevens final in Tokyo.*
Sevens try-scoring legend Portia Woodman is thankful for the impression her partner, fellow Black Ferns star Renee Wickliffe, has made on her life. Especially during her comeback from injury to play at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I’ve loved her from when I first met her – it wasn’t the same sort of love that I have for her now. The love I have for her is unreal.”
Days out from her second Olympics, rugby sevens superstar Portia Woodman reflects on the significant influence her fiancée, Renee Wickliffe, has had on her pursuit for greatness.
“She keeps me grounded. She understands my life, and I’m heading to Tokyo in the best shape of my life,” the Olympic silver medallist says.
“I’ve learnt a lot from her – as an athlete, as a mum and as a person.”
As Woodman has travelled a long and frustrating route back from injury on top of injury over the past two-and-a-half years, Wickliffe has been right beside her.
A two-time World Cup champion in her own right, Wickliffe too has been going through her own painful return from injury.
But that’s part of what Woodman says has helped her get to Tokyo. Wickliffe understands just what she’s gone through and been sympathetic to what she’s needed to get back on track. They’ve helped each other through some “dark places”.
“It’s huge,” Woodman, who turned 30 this week, says. “Anytime I’m straying from my path to be the best athlete I can be, she pulls me in and helps point me back in the right direction.”
They’ve trained together, especially through the disruptions of 2020. During Level 4 lockdown, they had ‘whānau work-outs’ in the driveway of their Mt Maunganui home (with a household bubble of nine including Woodman’s parents), and practised their side-steps in the empty street.
And Woodman is grateful that Wickliffe has taught her there’s more to life than professional sport, as she gets to play an important role in Wickliffe’s eight-year-old daughter Kaia’s life.
Woodman and Wickliffe first met when Kaia was just eight weeks old, both invited to a national women’s sevens camp back in 2012.
The fleet-footed winger Wickliffe came to sevens from a rugby 15s and touch rugby background, representing New Zealand in all three, and already had a World Cup in 15s under her belt
Woodman had recently converted from netball, as a contracted Northern Mystics player, and was starting on her rugby journey – which would lead her to become the World Rugby’s sevens player of the decade.
The pair clicked immediately and Woodman remembers coming home and telling her mum: “You just have to meet Pango [Wickliffe], she’s so funny. She’s got a brother like me and she’s just so funny.”
Both athletes didn’t think their relationship was any more than a great friendship through sport, but a year later they got together, connected through a love of rugby and laughter.
In those early days, it was difficult for them both entering a new relationship with a toddler in tow.
“Far out it was hard. She was my first child – she’s precious,” says Wickliffe, now 34. “I didn’t like Portia growling her – I just wasn’t used to it.”
They discovered they needed to take home the communication skills they’d developed on the field.
“I was coming into a family trying to figure out where I stood and how I should interact with Kaia,” shares Woodman.
“From the start I’ve always said to her – ‘I’m not your mum, I’m not your aunty, I’m not your step-mum.
“’I’m your Portia’.”
In 2016, Wickliffe and Kaia moved in with Woodman in Mount Maunganui, the base for the national sevens programme, where both women were able to pursue their love for sport together as professionals.
“All the different dynamics that come with parenting and trying to be an Olympic athlete – it was hard”, admits Woodman.
“At that point she was three, and it was like we’re trying to make sure she’s potty trained. Now we’re trying to mold her into a really good human being.”
Simple things, like having their teammates on the pick-up list for Kaia’s kindergarten just down the road from the Blake Park training base, helped navigate the demands of their hectic schedules.
Now they’ve found the time to coach Kaia’s all-girls rugby team, the Arataki U9s, playing in the open grade of their local Mount competition.
They both smile and say they’re living their dreams.
Woodman grew up wanting to go to the Olympics in athletics, catching three buses from Mt Albert Grammar School in Auckland to get to sprint training at AUT Millennium on the North Shore.
While she was fast on the track, she saw netball as a way to play sport professionally. Then she stumbled on a Facebook ad for the 2012 “Go for Gold” sevens programme, searching for talent to join the sevens squad leading into the 2016 Olympics.
Woodman is now the leading try scorer on the world sevens circuit, and was a member of the World Cup-winning Black Ferns – with Wickliffe – in 2017. That was Wickliffe’s second World Cup victory, along with 2010, after first making the Black Ferns in 2009.
Their success hasn’t come without a cost to their bodies – both women suffering major injuries in recent times and going through some dark places mentally.
Woodman tore her Achilles tendon in 2019 and Wickliffe is still recovering from an ankle joint reconstruction that’s gone askew. At the start of the year, one of the screws inserted in her ankle to maintain the join integrity snapped.
“She’s had more injuries than I’ve had, and we have an understanding of what it feels like,” says Woodman, recognising how special it is to know what to say and more importantly, what not to say, to each other.
“Sometimes she’ll try and give me a solution and I’m like ‘That’s not what I want right now, I want pity. I just want to have my own pity party right now’… and she’s great like that, too.
“When I go quiet, she knows there’s something wrong, because I’m never quiet.” Woodman laughs.
Learning the differences in their communication styles took time but figuring out the ways in which they could best cope with adversity has made them stronger as a couple.
“I tend to keep quiet, build a wall and deal with it my own way,” reflects Wickliffe. “But now, Porsh can sense it, she tries to encourage me to talk about it a bit more and I’m getting better at being able to do that.”
The postponement of the Olympic Games and then this year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand has been a blessing for them both.
Just before the country plunged into Level 4 lockdown last year, Woodman had just hit a personal best in the bronco (a key fitness test for the Black Fern Sevens) and was allowed to start back at team training. But she says she wasn’t in the physical or mental condition she knows she needed to be at with the 2020 Olympics so close.
“I remember thinking ‘Thank goodness [the Games were postponed] because I’m nowhere I should be’. I could have pushed it but I wasn’t going to be the best I could be,” says Woodman.
Wickliffe, meanwhile, has returned to running recently after her surgeon was able to remove one half of the broken screw. But the other half had shattered and she still has metal fragments in her ankle.
“Running is painful, but I’m grateful I’ve still got legs and can still run,” says Wickliffe. “It’s not as sore as having a baby, so that’s what I’m thinking when I’m running!”
Wickliffe reflects that for the first time in her sporting career, she questioned her involvement in the game, asking “Why am I still doing this to myself?”
Despite the pain, the passion is still there. When Wickliffe turns up to training, she quickly realises she wants to be there. Not that it’s in her nature to complain.
Having her dad pass away when she was nine, she says she grew up with parties and drinking at home. It was just normal.
“Then I met my whāngai [adopted] sister when I was 12, she was a bit older than me and we played rugby together,” Wickliffe says. “She used to take me round to her home in Paeroa.
“I didn’t want to go home. I just really loved being in a warm home and feeling loved.” So, Wickliffe packed her bag and moved in with her whāngai whānau, the Tissinghs.
Not that she didn’t feel loved by her birth mother, who was at Kaia’s birth but who passed away in 2013. But Wickliffe says it was a different kind of love at the Tissinghs – who now look after Kaia when her mums are travelling overseas together for rugby.
As a mum, it’s Wickliffe’s hope for Kaia that she’s respectful, is who she is and that she’s grateful for what she has.
“We try and show her the normal is changing. There is no normal,” Wickliffe says. “There are so many different families out there and we’re just one.”
After the Tokyo Olympics, the wāhine toa feel ready to expand their family unit. Woodman says Wickliffe is a great rugby coach and would be happy to look after Kaia’s siblings.
“My mum was 30 when she had me and we’ve got a great connection,” Woodman says. “We look after everyone else’s kids – we love it and want more of our own.”
But first there’s a job to do in Tokyo. Alongside her ‘Sevens Sisters’, Woodman will line up in her second Olympics to avenge the silver medal they won in Rio four years ago.
The goal is simple. Gold.
“I think I am – mentally, physically and emotionally – in a way better place than the last Olympics,” she says.
“I know when I get to the tunnel to run out at the Games, I’ve done everything possible. I’m not scared anymore – I’m ready to go.”
While Wickliffe is not physically ready right now for the World Cup in October 2022, she says she’s keen to honor the legacy of the Black Ferns in New Zealand in front of Kaia and other whānau next year.
“Every time I go to training, I think about the ladies who didn’t have anything; who had massive tee shirts, who weren’t paid and their trainings were really tough,” Wickliffe says.
“I want to leave my own flair on the environment – be remembered not just as a rugby player but as a mum, as a great person. That’s my ‘why’.”
Central to Wickliffe and Woodman’s desire to pursue their dreams on the rugby field is wanting to set an example for their daughter.
“We want her to chase her dreams,” Wickliffe says. “Hopefully we’re showing her that you can.”