Risi Pouri-Lane has represented NZ in three sports, but she’s found her true calling in sevens. As the Black Ferns prepare to rejoin the World Series, the young playmaker from Motueka has already made sevens history.
She’s just 21, but Risaleaana Pouri-Lane already holds a rare Olympic record.
Risi, as she’s best known, captained the New Zealand sevens team to gold at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.
And in August this year, she was a valuable team member of the Black Ferns Sevens at the Tokyo Olympics, who also won gold.
This outstanding accomplishment makes Pouri-Lane, Olympian #1477, the only New Zealander to have won a gold medal at both a youth and summer Olympics.
And this young woman, with her humble confidence and calm presence, takes it all in her stride. “For me, winning these accolades are bonuses to what I do. I play rugby because I love playing it. I feel like the rewards are when that little kid comes up to me and is inspired in some way,” she says.
“Knowing that someone has just decided to play rugby for the first time in their life because of me, or the Black Ferns Sevens as a whole, that’s what fills my heart.”
And that’s not all that makes Pouri-Lane so exceptional. The professional sevens player has also represented New Zealand in two other sports – judo and touch.
Sport is in her blood. Her father, Kevin, was a New Zealand age-group wrestler, and her mother, Lealofi, was a body sculptor.
Her older sister, Keilamarita, has represented Samoa in rugby sevens, as well as playing rugby for Canterbury before being contracted to play in Japan for three years.
Born in Auburn, Sydney, Pouri-Lane left with her family when they decided to return to New Zealand when she was three years old, settling in the small South Island town of Motueka.
Pouri-Lane was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when she sat on her bed and devised a plan to get to the Olympics to play sevens. It was a driving force for her, and she documented her thoughts in colourful word bubbles with clear goals and inspirational affirmations, which she proudly shows me.
The goals, along with her academic pursuits, included making the Black Ferns development squad by 2018 and the Black Ferns Sevens for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics.
She also wrote in her plan: “Do heaps of speed, agility, fitness and power work”. And in bright red large writing, the ultimate sacrifice: “No Maccas for as long as possible.”
Her first goal was soon realised, selected for the New Zealand sevens development squad in 2017 when she was just 16, playing in Japan and Australia.
“I was still in school during that time, so I had to juggle my schoolwork and make sure I was still passing my tests. But at the same time, training and performing to the best of my ability,” she says.
Joining the Black Ferns Sevens for their Commonwealth Games debut on the Gold Coast in April 2018 was a highlight. On finals day, as 13th player, she was doing her duty laying out the game jerseys for the team, when she got told to pull on a jersey herself.
She sat on the bench for most of the historic game against Australia but ran onto the field for the last moments of the game to be part the celebrations as the team won gold. She says she made the most of that “unreal experience”, soaking up every moment in the team environment.
Pouri-Lane was smashing through her goals, feeling things were all going according to her elaborate plan.
But she remembers being at the national sevens tournament in Rotorua later that year, when a teammate got a call-up to join the sevens development squad. “I didn’t get a call, and I was thinking, ‘Oh no, I’ve been dropped’,” she says.
Within an hour, Black Ferns Sevens coach Allan Bunting phoned to offer her a player contract. “I went from thinking I wasn’t good enough, to being offered a spot in the Black Ferns Sevens,” she says.
At the age of 17, Pouri-Lane was the youngest fully-contracted sevens player for the Black Ferns.
For as long as she can remember, Pouri-Lane has been playing sport. She began judo training at a local club when she was five, and went on to win a few national competitions; by 2016, she’d represented New Zealand at the Oceania championships.
Pouri-Lane says many of the skills she learnt in this disciplined martial art have helped her on the rugby field, in particular the ability to defend and tackle.
At 10, she started playing touch rugby as a social player, but it wasn’t long before she became competitive. She played in the transTasman tournament in the New Zealand U18 women’s team when she was 17.
Pouri-Lane speaks highly of her two Motueka High School coaches, Mark Kelly and Bevan Thomas, who she says had a significant impact on her sporting career. From 2015 to 2017, Thomas coached her in the school’s girls rugby team, the mixed touch team he took to the national secondary school tournament in 2016, and the Tasman women’s sevens at nationals.
“Risi was very committed to training as well as being a great listener and a very fast learner,” Thomas says. “Because of the other sports she played, like judo, her physical and technical application was huge. Even though most girls were twice her size in the early days, she had no fear of the physical nature of the game.”
Another important quality he recalls is her ability to stay calm under pressure. “She never got rattled in times when others did and she was great with younger players in our squad, nurturing and mentoring them. Whenever we finished training, tournaments or games, she always, without fail, would thank managers and coaches,” he says.
“It takes a village to raise a child, and Risi has had many coaches, and I’m sure she has taken gems from all of them. Every sport she’s played – judo, athletics, touch, rugby, netball – have all helped her get to where she is now. She loves the challenge and the battle.”
Although Pouri-Lane is a natural talent in so many sports, rugby was always her favourite.
“I started playing when I was 11 as the only girl in the boys’ team, and from that first game, I knew it was the one for me. I just loved being in the environment,” she says.
“I loved the contact, the team spirit, just everything about playing and being able to get out there and have fun.”
She played both rugby 15s and sevens for Motueka High School right through her school years.
It wasn’t always simple. In 2015, she had to decide between three big national secondary school sports events – for touch, athletics and sevens – all on the same weekend. “That was, I think, the stepping-stone towards my genuine interest in sevens, because I ended up choosing the Condor nationals,” she says.
Clearly, it was a good decision and the last three years have been exceptional, despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the numerous sacrifices she’s made to reach her goals.
Pouri-Lane left home to be closer to the sport she loved, moving first to Hamilton and then to Mt Maunganui, where she now lives as part of the terms of her contract with the Black Ferns Sevens.
As we’re talking, she names many of the Black Ferns’ teammates who’ve supported her, including Kelly Brazier, Ruby Tui and captain Sarah Hirini, the Kel Tremain New Zealand rugby player of the year. “I just try to learn and observe as much as I can from the older girls, because the reality is they’re not going to be here forever,” Pouri-Lane says.
She’s about to trial for the Black Ferns Sevens team, who will rejoin the World Series on leg three in Malaga, Spain, in late January. She’s hopeful she’ll make it, she says, if she keeps working hard.
Another situation which required Pouri-Lane to draw on her inner strength was when all team members had to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
“I have never been vaccinated in my life, even as a baby. It was one of the biggest decisions I’ve had to make so I could continue to pursue my goals,” she says.
She felt like she was going against all the values and beliefs she’d been brought up with, and it was a very long and difficult process that affected her mindset and her training.
“Probably the hardest thing was telling my parents that I had to be vaccinated, because I knew they were strongly against it and that’s just how we’ve been brought up. It was hard, but I know they still love me. I’m still their daughter and nothing’s changed,” she says.
Asked how it feels to have the honour of being the only New Zealander to win Olympic gold at the youth and summer Games, she answers in her usual humble way.
“My faith is a huge part of my life and I feel that any talents I have are God-given gifts that I am able to express on the world stage,” says Pouri-Lane, who has just been named Sportswoman of the Year at the Nelson Sports Awards.
“I always think back to everyone who’s helped me because there is no way that I could have accomplished any of those things without the help of so many people.
“My family are very, very quick to keep me humble and grounded, which I love about them. They don’t see me as any different, although I know they are proud of me. But you know, when I go back home, I’m still the same Risi and I’ve still got to do my chores.”
What does the future hold for this incredible young athlete, who has already achieved so much by the age of 21?
“I feel like my journey has only just begun, which in a way seems crazy, when I’ve already achieved so much. But when I think about what I can still give to the team, and for the jersey I wear, I want more – in terms of the legacy I want to leave behind.
“I think I have a few more years in me yet and I definitely feel like I haven’t shown my full potential. But I know it’s coming.”