Olympic champion rowers Emma Twigg, Grace Prendergast and Kerri Williams (nee Gowler) and Paralympic gold medallist javelin thrower Holly Robinson are the athletes honoured, as well as a host of administrators who’ve given unstintingly to sport.
Dame Ruth Aitken may no longer be deeply immersed in netball, but she’s making her impact on a court of a different kind.
Monday to Friday, you’ll now find the former New Zealand netballer and Silver Ferns coach at the Hamilton District Court.
Sport’s latest dame, acknowledged in today’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, Aitken works as service manager to the specialist courts – responsible for the team of court registrars supporting the judges at the youth court and the new alcohol and other drug treatment court.
“It’s a hard space to be in sometimes, but it’s very worthwhile mahi. I’m pleased I’ve done something really different,” the 65-year-old says.
But at the same time, there’s a lot of similarities to her old role – coaching the Silver Ferns for 112 tests, and winning a World Cup and two Commonwealth Games titles during her nine-year tenure.
“The people management is very similar, I’m helping them to be the best they can be,” Aitken says. “The drug court reminds me of our Silver Ferns support services meetings – team meetings to discuss a young person, what wraparound support we can provide to help them.”
Paeroa’s most famous daughter (her grandfather owned the old Fathers Tavern in the centre of town) is now a grandmother of three, with another on the way. She’s still patroness of Paeroa Netball, and supports them whenever she can.
But otherwise the 2003 Halberg Coach of the Year watches netball on TV, “which suits me very well,” she says.
“The reality post-Covid is it’s a very challenging time for sport, especially financially. I have to pay for a boat sitting out the back, so I need to have a job. And I need to give this job my full attention – there’s no more of me to give at the moment.
“I love netball and I’m sure my involvement with it isn’t over. We’ll see how it pans out.”
Over the past week, spent at home in Paeroa recovering from Covid, Aitken has been flooded with netball nostalgia.
Silver Fern #65, Aitken played three tests in the black dress and was part of the New Zealand team who won the 1979 world championships. The English teacher and mother of two then took up coaching, handed the Silver Ferns role in 2002 – then winning the 2003 World Cup, back-to-back Commonwealth Games gold medals, and the 2009 World Netball Series.
A meticulous and caring coach, you’d see Aitken in the quarter-time breaks handing out drink bottles to the Ferns, laughing with her players or beaming proudly from the bench. But all the while, she was ruling with a firm hand.
She was taken aback when she received the letter from Government House inviting her to accept the damehood. “I had to read it a couple of times. Oh my lord, I went through such a phenomenal range of emotions – from really honoured, to very humbled and embarrassed – because there are a lot of people who contributed to the success I had with the Ferns,” Aitken says. “But it’s pretty awesome when you stop and think about it.”
It wasn’t an easy role – bearing the brunt of losses, away from home around 100 days of the year. “You want to do it to the very best you can, leave no stone unturned. And unfortunately, that means hard work. But because you love it, it doesn’t matter,” Aitken says. “Luckily I had a husband who could cook, and two boys who learned to cook.”
Aitken pays tribute to her parents, Phil and Dorothy Fathers, for allowing her to become the Silver Ferns coach. Her family moved from Auckland to her hometown Paeroa when their boys were toddlers, when husband Grant became deputy principal of Paeroa College.
“Coaching New Zealand wasn’t even on my pathway. But I couldn’t have put my hand up to be Silver Ferns coach if I hadn’t had the support of Mum and Dad, who looked after the boys during the week,” she says.
She later became Netball NZ’s coaching director, and spent three years coaching Singapore, who became the top netball side in Asia. She’s still on the NZ Sports Tribunal, that rules on a range of sporting disputes.
When asked to reflect on the highlights of her netball career, Aitken won’t be drawn to naming specific moments.
“Winning the world champs and two Commonwealth Games was amazing. But even if I hadn’t had those – well, I wouldn’t have had my job for as long – but I would have still felt I’d been part of something so worthwhile,” she says. “The highlight of my career was seeing people grow and develop, continue to contribute and be awesome people.
“The Silver Ferns come in as wide-eyed teenagers, and grow up to be absolutely kick-arse women who can do whatever they want to, in whatever field they choose.”
Aitken is the fourth netballer to be made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Dame Lois Muir, a former Silver Fern and successful coach, was honoured in 2004. Dame June Mariu, captain of the 1960 Silver Ferns and a stalwart of Māori netball, was recognised for her services to Māori and the community in 2006.
And current Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua was recognised straight after the Silver Ferns’ victory at the 2019 World Cup. At the start of her coaching career, Taurua was Aitken’s assistant coach with Waikato at the national championships, and she was her assistant again for the Silver Ferns at the end of Aitken’s incredible stint.
Other sportswomen and administrators honoured today:
Pam Elgar, Officer of the NZ Order of Merit
For more than two decades, Pam Elgar has given to hockey and women in sport. From 2004-10 she served on the Hockey NZ board, advocating for women in sport, and helped develop a high performance programme which lifted the Black Sticks women to fourth in the world. She was also president of Oceania Hockey.
Elgar is also a founding member of Women in Sport Aotearoa, an independent member of Gymnastics NZ’s sports integrity unit, and CEO of Make a Wish Foundation NZ.
Lynda Hagen, Officer of the NZ Order of Merit
While Lynda Hagen is honoured for her services to law and the community as executive director of the NZ Law Foundation, she was also the secretary-general of the NZ Handball Federation from 2017 to 2019, and has managed New Zealand teams competing overseas.
Elizabeth Forgie, Member of the NZ Order of Merit
As well as being the long-time principal of Kerikeri High School, Elizabeth Forgie pioneered the school’s famous sailing academy, which has won national and international titles in team racing. The school also produced Olympians and America’s Cup champions, like Blair Tuke and Andrew Murdoch.
Sharon Morgan, Member of the NZ Order of Merit
A stronger promoter of the Whangarei community, Sharon Morgan became the first female president of the Northland Rugby Union, holding the role from 2017 to 2020. She’s been an ambassador for Rugby For Life and secretary for the NZ Vikings Rugby Club.
Neta Peau, Member of the NZ Order of Merit
A prominent leader in the Tokelau community in Auckland, Neta Peau has had a passion for sport since migrating to New Zealand at 15. She played rugby league, representing both Samoa and Tokelau, and played tag for Tokelau at the 2012 World Cup (later becoming coach and trainer). She also played for the Richmond Rugby Club for 10 years, rallying Tokelauan women to join. Peau has played and coached the Tokelau kilikiti team to win the Pacific National Cup several times.
Grace Prendergast, Member of the NZ Order of Merit
Olympic and world rowing champion Grace Prendergast has represented New Zealand since 2010, when she won gold in the four at the world junior championships. When she paired up with Kerri Gowler to win gold at the 2014 world U23 championships, it would be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.
The were unbeaten in the pair through 2017, winning the world title, and were part of the historic women’s eight who won gold at the 2019 world champs. At the Tokyo Olympics, Prendergast and Gowler won two medals – gold in the pair and silver in the eight – becoming the first Kiwi rowers to multiple medals at one Olympics. Prendergast is now studying and rowing for Cambridge University.
Holly Robinson, Member of the NZ Order of Merit
Dunedin javelin thrower Holly Robinson is an inspiration – a Paralympic champion, she became the first para athlete to win a medal at an open event, bringing home bronze from last year’s national track and field champs.
Having represented New Zealand in para athletics since 2011, the three-time Paralympian was flagbearer at the 2016 Rio Games, where she won silver in the javelin F46 event. She’s won three more silvers – at the 2017 and 2019 world championships and the 2018 Commonwealth Games – and finally won gold at last year’s Tokyo Olympics.
Ann Tod, Member of the NZ Order of Merit
For 20 years, Ann Tod has given so much to the game of netball. With a career in accounting and auditing, Tod has been the finance director of World Netball since 2011, and she’s encouraged the growth of the game globally. Tod is also hands-on in New Zealand netball, coaching umpires in North Harbour. She’s on the boards of various not-for-profit organisations, including Make-A-Wish NZ and the chair of Harbour Hospice.
Emma Twigg, Member of the NZ Order of Merit
Rower Emma Twigg’s gold medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics was one of the most unforgettable moments for the New Zealand team. Tokyo was her fourth Olympic Games, coming out of retirement to compete, but it was her first time on the podium – becoming the first Kiwi women to win the single sculls at an Olympics. In 2014 she was world champion and World Rowing’s female rower of the year. Twigg is also an active advocate for LGBTQIA+ athletes.
Kerri Williams (nee Gowler), Member of the NZ Order of Merit
Williams, who’s recently married, had a similar path to rowing greatness as her partner in the pair boat, Grace Prendergast. The young rower from Whanganui first made the New Zealand team in 2013, competing in the elite eight, and paired up with Prendergast at the world U23 champs to win gold. They were also part of the women’s four who won the world elite title in 2014, setting a record that still stands. The pair have been inseparable since – multiple world champions, world record holders and Olympic gold and silver medallists.
Kate Leebody, Queen’s Service Medal
For over half a century, Kate Leebody has dedicated herself to education and netball. Her teaching career took her to Niue and Gore, and it was in Southland that she made her impact on netball. She’s coached and managed teams through her teaching years, and was president of Eastern Southland Netball. She played an integral part in establishing the Southern Sting franchise in the 1998 Coca Cola Cup, and was on the board of Netball South.
Vivien Morton, Queen’s Service Medal
Voted one of Porirua’s most influential wāhine, Vivien Morton has been involved with Porirua City Aquatics for 38 years, coaching club swimmers, running ‘learn to swim’ sessions and serving as club president since 2004. She has been acknowledged with a string of awards including a special honours award from Swimming New Zealand.