One of the Black Sticks’ goalkeeping greats, Helen Clarke, has been facing her greatest adversary yet – with her keeper husband repaying the love and support she gave through his own cancer journey. 

In the past three decades, Black Sticks goalkeeper Helen Clarke and her husband, Glyn, have been through a hell of a lot together. 

After first meeting as young goalkeepers playing hockey at the Somerville club in Auckland back in 1989, they both went on to wear the silver fern. 

She would become the Black Sticks captain, and when she retired after a stellar 13-year international career, she was New Zealand’s most capped women’s hockey player.

He would be her greatest supporter, counsellor and analyst throughout her career.

“It was really fantastic because we bounced ideas off each other,” Helen says. “There were things he did in the men’s games that I’d then try in the women’s game. If you had a bad game, he’d analyse it and I could trust him because he knew what he was talking about.

“He was always on your side, and you knew it was only to try to get you better.”

That care and encouragement has continued away from the hockey turf. They married 28 years ago, and together, they’ve raised two teenagers, Nick and Sophie, who are both keen hockey players.

And for the past five years, Helen and Glyn Clarke have had to fend off their biggest challenge yet – both facing their own cancer diagnoses, and helping each other through their invasive treatments.

Both goalkeepers say it was their sports backgrounds – especially being part of a team – that best prepared them to take on the disease.  

A different kind of team

At the age of 50, Helen Clarke has a head of tight curls she never had before. “My chemo curls,” she says, smiling. “Though maybe I’ll get to keep them, because there are curls in my family.”

Helen and Glyn Clarke are both back playing sport following cancer treatments. Photo: supplied. 

In the past two years, she’s been through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation for breast cancer. But her treatment continues – she’s now on the Herceptin drug after her cancer was found to be HER2 positive (more aggressive and more likely to return).

Around 20 percent of the 3300 Kiwis diagnosed with breast cancer each year have HER2-positive cancer.

“That’s up to a year-and-a-half of extra drugs. And then there are hormone drugs, too,” says Helen. She’s also wearing a glove and sleeve for lymphedema; the swelling in her right arm a side effect of her treatment.

And yet, she’s still her usual upbeat self. They’ve just celebrated Glyn receiving the all-clear from his oncologist, five years after he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. He needed a bone marrow transplant, and stints of up to 45 days in hospital.

“He’s their poster boy – he hit all the milestones,” Helen says of her husband, who works in land surveying. 

She’s doing well, too. She took this year off teaching at Ficino School in Mt Eden, but will return part-time next year while her treatment continues.

“To be fair, there are people out there who are doing it a hell of a lot tougher than I am. It’s not stopping me from doing anything,” she says.

“I’ve just started playing golf again – it’s good for keeping my arm moving.”

Sport remains a staple in their lives, and they have no doubt it prepared them for their health challenges.

“Sport teaches you to take one little step at a time. You don’t get results by jumping to them,” Helen says. “Sometimes you’re going to have to take a step backwards or sideways, it’s not always going to be straightforward.

“There were games where we lost by big scores – and goalies don’t like that – but you learned to deal with it, not dwell on it, and move on because you had a game tomorrow. It’s the same with this. I can’t change what happened to me, I can’t wish it away. But I can control how I focus on it and how I deal with it.”

The Clarke family: son Nick, dad Glyn, daughter Sophie and mum Helen at the end of her chemo treatment in February. Photo: supplied. 

Glyn, who played in goal for the New Zealand U21 side, agrees: “In a team, you can only control what you can control. It’s the same with cancer.”

Helen continues: “This is what the oncologist says I have to do, and I’m going to do it. I have all my experts in a team around me. I used to have my fullbacks – now I have my oncologist and surgeons. They’re all professional at their job and I have to play my part.”

And those who’ve played hockey with the Clarkes for decades (Glyn’s still playing, and Helen last pulled on the pads two seasons ago), gathered around them again during their toughest days.

“We’ve had lots of messages, help and support” Helen says. “That’s the amazing thing about team-mates, you can lose touch – have children, become immersed in your own lives. But when something happens, suddenly they’re there asking: ‘What do you need? What can we do?’ It’s been really cool.”

Halcyon days

The Tokyo Olympics opened the floodgates in the Clarke household.  

“For ages, when there was a Comm Games or the Olympics, you’d talk about the experience to the kids, and they’d go, ‘Oh yeah’, but it didn’t really click,” says Helen, who played at three Olympics and two Commonwealth Games, where she won a bronze medal in 1998.

“Now they’re at an age where they understand and appreciate my medal. They asked a lot of questions watching this year’s Olympics.”

That sparked many memories for Clarke, who feels her long international hockey career happened in “a different lifetime”.

Memories like the 1998 World Cup in Utrecht in the Netherlands – a joint men’s and women’s tournament for the top 12 nations. “We stayed in ‘Camp Hi-de-Hi’ out in the wops and all bussed to the hockey venue,” she recalls. The Black Sticks finished sixth.

“But you can’t beat the Olympics for an event – surrounded by athletes you’d normally watch on TV. It was absolutely phenomenal.”

Black Sticks goalkeeper Helen Clarke walks off the Sydney turf after losing 7-1 to Argentina at the 2000 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images. 

She warmed the bench at her first Games, Barcelona 1992, but was the No.1 keeper at the 2000 Games in Sydney – where a strong Black Sticks side came close to making the semifinals, but ended up sixth. “The stadium was packed – so loud you couldn’t talk to your players,” she says. “We got the rough end of the stick with some calls.”

Four years later, she played her final international at the Athens Olympics, where the bus was checked for bombs daily. New Zealand were once again sixth.

Clarke became New Zealand’s first female goalkeeper to play 100 tests, and when she retired from international hockey in 2002, she was the most capped Black Sticks woman on 166 tests.  

From her debut in 1991 to the 1998 World Cup she played her first 50 games. “We just didn’t play very often,” she says. “Then it took me only two years to get the next 50.”

Today the list is topped by recently retired Black Sticks captain Stacey Michelsen, who played 296 tests over her 12 years.

Clarke believes her international longevity came from playing in goal. “Your body doesn’t take quite the same hammering as a field player’s. Well, it’s a different hammering. I didn’t have to do all that running on the turf,” she laughs.

“It’s funny because while you’re in it, you’re striving to stay in and keep up with other keepers around the world, and you don’t take the time to step back and realise what you’re actually doing.

“It’s not until you’re finished and you’re talking to other people, and they say: ‘That’s amazing’. You hadn’t really thought about it in those terms.”

In sickness and in health

Near the end of 2016, Glyn wasn’t feeling like himself – constantly tired; struggling to run with son, Nick, to the summit of Mt Eden; with small cuts that wouldn’t heal.  Helen convinced him to ask his doctor for blood tests.

The following Friday evening, the couple – dressed to the nines – were at a hockey function in Auckland’s city centre. “Glyn’s phone started ringing during the entrée,” Helen says.

Glyn Clarke (left) and wife, Helen (second from right), the night Glyn was given his cancer diagnosis. Photo: supplied. 

He took the call, then told Helen he had to go to hospital. “He gave me a taxi chit to get home and set off walking across Grafton Bridge to Auckland Hospital,” she recalls.  A stunned Helen was put in a taxi by a friend and met Glyn at the emergency department.

“We were dressed in our finest and the young doctor had to tell us the bad news: ‘You’ve got acute myeloid leukaemia and you won’t be going home for a couple of weeks’,” Helen remembers.

“He was in and out of hospital from October till his bone marrow transplant in March.”

Once Glyn’s treatment was finished, there was more anguish: Helen’s mum was diagnosed with dementia in 2018 and died the following year.

Then 2020 brought Covid and more personal heartbreak and worry. Helen was due for her routine breast screening in April, but the nationwide lockdown meant her mammogram was delayed until September. “That’s when they found the cancer,” Helen says. “My first chemo was less than a month later.”

“It was quite freaky when Helen got sick, too,” says Glyn. “Our ability to stand relatively strong was so important, and we stood strong for each other. We always tried to take a positive approach and it made things so much easier.”

Throughout their treatments, the couple made sure they kept their children informed.

“The kids have been unbelievable through the whole thing,” Helen says. “You have to be honest with them, or they’ll stress from not knowing. Sometimes they could only FaceTime Dad in hospital when he was having a bad day.

“Some days I’d been struggling to get out of bed, and they’d ask if I was okay. It’s been massive for them to have a grounding in coping and resilience.”

Kicking back

Glyn has played for the Somerville club for over 30 years, and defended goal and coached their division one side this season.

In 2017, he ‘volunteered’ his wife to play for Somerville’s premier women’s side again, when their regular keeper snapped her achilles. Helen played for three seasons.

“I hadn’t put my gear on for 14 years,” she says. “It was fun – I didn’t train, I just rocked up on the weekend and played hockey.

“I told them ‘If I go down, I won’t be getting back up, so you have to gather round and help me’. What they really liked was the calling – they found it easy playing in front of me because I’d tell them where they should be.”

She was surprised, she says, by how little the game has changed for keepers, other than the penalty shoot-outs to decide drawn matches. “In terms of technique, keeping is still keeping. The kit hasn’t changed either,” she says.  

Helen is keen to get kitted-up again for the Grey Sticks – a team of her old Black Sticks mates. They played at the World Masters in Auckland in 2017, but Helen was supporting Glyn through his treatment at the time.

They’re looking at playing in the Pan Pacific Masters next year. By then, Helen reckons, she’ll be ready and willing.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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