The Black Ferns skipper discusses balancing motherhood with rugby

Les Elder: “I trained the day I went into labour”

Les Elder always planned to return to rugby after becoming a mother; she just hadn’t realised how tough it would be. It wasn’t simply the physical side – she trained throughout her pregnancy in preparation, even doing a CrossFit session the day she went into labour – but the tiredness of being a new parent and the guilt of being away from her daughter, Mihiterena.

“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says the New Zealand back-row of getting back to rugby three months after giving birth. “I was pretty naïve about what your body goes through. I had a good pregnancy and was able to train – I trained the morning I went into labour – but then I had to have a C-section.

“The physical side I knew would be hard, it was the other stuff. I was used to getting up to train and feeling refreshed having slept well; that’s hard to do as a new mum when you’re up and down all night feeding and changing.

“Then there is the emotional battle of leaving my daughter to go training, that bit of guilt. When I look back on it, I’m really proud of what I was able to achieve.”

Elder hopes that her return to the international fold as a mother will be an inspiration to others, as the likes of Carla Hohepa, Kayla McAlister and Renee Wickliffe have inspired her, but there is also a need for more awareness and support for elite sportswomen around the world who want to have children.

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Elder and her husband had been trying to conceive for a few years but it was only after their first round of IVF that she fell pregnant, in August 2019. It was later than she had hoped, with the 2021 Rugby World Cup looming, but she is now finding the positives in that tournament being postponed due to the pandemic.

“At the time of the announcement I’d have liked it to be reconsidered. I took the postponement hard and it rocked me mentally. Now, when I think about my readiness to play, and not just to play but play at a level where I’d be happy with how I perform, I would have hated to go into the World Cup underdone. So it’s probably a good thing.”

Elder grew up playing netball and rugby but hit a dead end in the oval-ball game aged 17 and didn’t make her Black Ferns debut until she was 28, having returned to the sport in her early twenties by playing club rugby while in Australia.

“Four Black Ferns came to my secondary school and I thought, ‘I’d love to be a Black Fern, that’s the goal’. Then rugby died in the Waikato, there was no one to play for, so it was hard to see that goal come to life.

“I didn’t see the Black Ferns on TV or hear about women’s rugby. Girls don’t have those problems now. There are opportunities to play and so many people are exposed to it.”

Elder may have been a latecomer to Test rugby but there’s no doubt she’s a leader. She talks of taking a collaborative approach to captaincy and of the positive influence the team can have.

“I see my role as leading in rugby but also making sure we’re proud of who we are and what we represent. We’re proud of our Maori culture and incorporate that in our environment. It’s part of our responsibility to celebrate the culture of this country so the people who support us see that.”

This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s November 2021 edition.

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