Kelsey Smith holds a wriggly seven-month-old Zac while she explains why she’s returning to the hockey world stage.
The two-time Olympian felt she hadn’t ended her playing career on a high note in 2021, after the Black Sticks bowed out of the Tokyo Olympics in the quarter-finals, beaten by the eventual gold medallists, the Netherlands.
“I didn’t enjoy that last year of it,” the 29-year-old Smith says.
The speedy, tenacious striker had just come back from anterior cruciate ligament surgery and was battling a nagging lower back injury. There was disappointment when the Olympics were postponed for a year, too.
So when Smith and her partner, Connor, decided to start a family after the Tokyo Games, she didn’t really picture herself playing international hockey. But following the arrival of Zachary (Zac), Smith got the itch to pick up her stick.
“I was just going to play club hockey this year and enjoy it,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d be able to play a lot as my back was really bad.
“But I ended up getting a cortisone injection and that’s made it way better. I didn’t think it would last long, but it’s been really good – the best I’ve felt with my back in three years.
“So I just thought I’d see what I could do.”
And now the 107 test-capped Smith is back in black, playing for her country in the FIH Pro League this weekend against Great Britain, and then Australia on Anzac Day.
Zac, who’s now army crawling his way around, will be in the crowd at the Ngā Puna Wai Sports Hub in Christchurch with his own support team – Smith’s parents and her partner. It’s important to Smith he’s close by as she returns to the turf.
“I don’t call it a comeback, because I was by no means thinking I’d be playing for New Zealand right now,” Smith says. “It’s been a bit of a surprise really.
“To be honest, right now I just want to have fun – and try to trap a ball.”
Smith loves being a mum to Zac, a happy and determined little boy who already has seven teeth. She’s still on maternity leave from her job in customer communication with The Energy Collective, and so far, she says, balancing motherhood and sport hasn’t been too testing.
The previous night, though, had been a bit frantic: “Connor was coming home from work in the city, he missed the first ferry, and the second one broke down, so I was late to training.”
Fortunately, Smith lives just a 10-minute drive from the National Hockey Centre in Albany, and the team are happy to give her a little slack.
Her parents live in Nelson, where Smith grew up, and Connor’s family are in England, so that makes babysitting that bit harder. The couple both had club hockey matches at the same time last weekend, but there were plenty of willing “aunties” on hand to watch Zac.
“It’s those little things that are new,” she says. “But it’s good to have my own thing again.”
Initially, Smith had messaged a former Takapuna team-mate and asked if she could try out for the club again.
“I did one or two trainings, but I’m not a huge fan of running for fitness,” Smith says.
So she messaged Black Sticks assistant coach Bryce Collins and asked if she could attend some training sessions with the national squad hub.
“I thought it would be easier getting hockey-fit by doing hockey-training. So I went along to a couple of the sessions,” Smith says. “And then they asked if I wanted to come to a Black Sticks camp, and I said ‘Sure if you need numbers, I’ll be around’. Then they asked if I wanted to come and play in the Pro League games.”
The Black Sticks have been depleted, with a dozen players – including co-captain Megan Hull, Frances Davies, Tarryn Davey, and Alia Jaques – all with clubs in Europe. So Smith is joined by five debutants in the squad to play four tests in eight days.
The veteran, who made her international debut in 2015, admits she still has a way to go to get back to prime fitness.
“Going to training is a nice break for a little bit, but you still train hard as. And my muscles have never burned so much in my life because I’m not fit yet. But I’ll get there,” she says. “I probably haven’t eaten very well, because Zac’s the one who needs to eat most.
“But I’m enjoying being back. It’s very different. I feel like I have a little bit more of a say in how everything works at my end, and they’ve been really good about it, too.
“Before Zac, hockey wasn’t exactly all of my life, but I was more selfish. Now it’s the opposite.”
Smith’s last games for New Zealand were at the Tokyo Olympics, and they were followed by an even more challenging time.
“When I got back to MIQ, it was pretty tough and I actually found out I was pregnant then. I wasn’t trying to start a family, it just kind of happened,” she says. Sadly, the pregnancy wasn’t viable.
“It was a hard time, mostly because we were stuck in lockdown in Auckland and I couldn’t leave the house. Then I thought, ‘You know what, maybe I do want to have a baby’. A couple of months later, I was pregnant again.”
Smith admits she didn’t do a lot of exercise while carrying Zac: “I’ve probably lost some muscle. I’m struggling to get running fast again, I don’t have the same power I used to.
“My knees are a bit of a hassle, they always have been. But I’m enjoying being part of the team again and I’ll sort out my strength and fitness.”
The Black Sticks head to Europe for a month in June, but Smith is unlikely to go with them. She’d like to make a real comeback for the Oceania Cup in Whangarei in August, where the winner qualifies for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
A third Olympics is something Smith has thought about. “Not like thinking Paris will be a gold medal, or anything,” she says. “I’d just want to enjoy it.
“But first, I want to see how everything goes, how the body holds up, and how Connor feels being left with two dogs and a baby – it’s a bit of a juggling act.”
* The Black Sticks play Great Britain on Sunday at 4.30pm, then Australia on Anzac Day at 2pm. They then meet those two rivals again the following weekend. All games are live on Spark Sport.