Her father Charlie had a successful career in league and union while her brother Luke is a former all Black now plying his trade in toulouse, but Kayla McAlister only started playing rugby four years ago. The carrot that persuaded her to pick up an oval ball was the chance to represent New Zealand in sevens at the Rio Olympics. Here she talks through her journey...
Netball is my background. In New Zealand netball is the predominant game for girls and the Silver Ferns was always my goal. I played for 16 years and had one season with the Northern Mystics, when we made the Grand final in 2011, but I was dropped the next year. If that hadn’t happened I probably wouldn’t be playing rugby. I went to a sevens camp with Portia Woodman, who I’d played with at the Mystics, as they were looking for women from other sports going into the Olympics cycle.
My first tournament was in Dubai in 2012. We won and as we did a lap of honour I was thinking, ‘Oh my God!’. The men play at the tournament, too, so it was a huge crowd and I’d never experienced an environment like that or a crowd that big in netball. It was really cool.
We have our own haka, which is special. We only do it when we win, although in Brazil they kept chanting “haka”, so we did it even though we’d lost. It shows the effect of the black jersey worldwide – that comes from what the men’s team have done in history. I obviously knew New Zealand rugby is huge, but it’s only since playing that I’ve learnt what the black jersey means.
“I’m more of a power athlete. I’m a pitbull, not a greyhound!”
I’m very competitive. Even if I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll still go 100 miles an hour. I sometimes train with my fiancé, Pita Ahki. he’s part of the New Zealand men’s sevens programme and I’m nowhere near the targets he has but I’ll still try to keep up with him.
You can never be fit enough for sevens. Netball has nothing on it. You have to train harder than you play, so it’s brutal. That’s the hardest adjustment – fitness. I looked so different four years ago with my skin folds compared to where I am now. I’ll never be super-fit, I’m more of a power athlete. I’m a pitbull, not a greyhound!
My dad, my brother and my fiancé all give me advice. My dad is all about work-ons, my brother gives positive vibes and Pita is in between – positive and work-ons. Pita’s been a big rock, especially through my recent injuries. We push each other to work hard. I don’t think I could be with someone who wasn’t a sportsman.
I spent seven years in the UK as a child. My dad played rugby league for Oldham, so we lived in Manchester from when I was two months until I was eight. I remember playing in the street every night with kids from the neighbourhood and getting 50p to buy lollies. It took me six months to get rid of the accent!
The Olympics has always been the goal. That’s why I came across to rugby. The first two years of the programme were great, but over the past 18 months I’ve had a few injuries because the game demands a lot of your body. I played in Clermont (on the last leg of the Women’s World Series) and didn’t have to make an appointment with the physio afterwards, so that was great. I needed a tournament under my belt before Rio.
New Zealand are going for gold. We didn’t win the World Series this year, but gold is the big one. In saying that, all 12 teams are on the same page as you can’t prepare for the Olympics. We play six games over three days instead of six in two days. The series is about quick turnarounds – who’s fittest and fastest – but everyone will have six hours’ rest in Rio. It’ll come down to who is mentally prepared for the occasion.
We’ve been told your first Olympics can be overwhelming. We train alongside other Olympians, like Valerie Adams, at the high Performance Sport Centre in Auckland. They’ve been there and done it so have given talks about not getting too caught up in things and sticking to your processes.
I used to work at the Ministry of Justice. For the first two years we’d train from 6-8am, go to work for eight hours and then train again. In 2014 we were given contracts and that’s huge for women’s rugby in New Zealand. The Olympics is about us being the best we can be and that’s a full-time job. I’ve started studying early childhood – U5s – and passed the first year, but put it on hold because of the Olympics. I love kids.
There’s a wedding on the cards. Pita and I are contracted to New Zealand until 2017 but in the next four-year cycle we’d like to get married and have a baby. But there’s the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and another World Cup…