New Zealand Women’s Sevens player Niall Williams, along with George Whitelock’s wife Kayla, are among a small group of mums in the 200-strong New Zealand team heading off to compete at the Rio Olympics this year. The 28-year-old mother of Tatum-Lee, 4, and Rema-Rae, 2, shares her story about her road to the Olympics and finding the balancing act between being an athlete and a mum.
Niall is the younger of twins. Her sister, who lives in Australia is a mere 10 minutes older but it is something she teased about frequently by her twin.
She grew up in a sporting family and represented New Zealand in the Open Women’s touch team for a decade, but it was the Auckland Sevens coach Peter Walters who planted the sevens seed in her head. In 2014 Walters said to her: “You need to look into the sevens Olympic opportunity coming up.”
At the time her daughter Rema-Rae was just three months old.
“I thought it was out of my reach but I had been following the sevens girls and thought they were amazing and what a privilege it would be,” Niall says.
“I had just come back from shoulder surgery and was really keen to have a go, but I knew I needed a solid support network to help me. My partner’s sister, her partner and our families all jumped on board to help.”
Niall talked to her partner Tama, who she describes as incredibly supportive and wonderful, and they discussed the steps she would have to take to play in the Auckland Sevens team.
She had to go to training at 5.45am, so that meant everyone had to get up to help with the girls.
“I was trying to crack it so I knew I had to put in the extra yards. Then I would train again at night. It was quite a logistical operation to fit it all in,” she says.
“For me personally it was a huge motivator because I didn’t want to let all of those people down who were making sacrifices to help me get there.”
Niall went to her first sevens tournament representing Auckland in Japan when Rema was six months old.
“My body bounced back into shape after Tatum-Lee’s birth but I had to work harder after Rema-Rae and it was quite frustrating that it didn’t come back physically as quickly as it had done with Tatum-Lee,” she says.
“I put Rema-Rae on the bottle three weeks before I went to Japan but I had to express before training through the Japanese trip so I would not be in pain in the chest during contact.”
Unfortunately, Niall injured her shoulder again (a 360-degree labral tear) during the 1st Super Series in Taupo a few months after the Japanese tournament so she had to have open surgery.
She started to think about giving the whole journey up but some words of encouragement from her brother Sonny Bill Williams really helped.
“He told me I was really lucky to be a mum and that I had everything I needed and this was a bonus. It was this perspective that has really helped me through.”
Niall worked hard and managed to recover in time to be considered for the Olympic sevens programme.
But she says being an athlete is an emotional rollercoaster and the family rides the highs and the lows with you.
“Being a mum, I always feel guilty leaving the girls but everyone has been so supportive and they really encouraged me not to feel guilty,” says Niall.
“When I am in camp I Skype the girls every night and I do that at their bed time to tuck them in remotely!
“When I miss out on the girls’ milestones that really hurts. When you’re away and you come back and they are saying new words or doing different things, you feel a bit sad about missing out on those things.”
Before Niall goes on camp she does the family food shop and food plan. While she is away she continues to fulfil her responsibilities like paying the registration on her car. She has found modern technology is handy for helping her to keep on top of things.
“I want to keep contributing to the household as much as I can while I am away to share the load,” she says.
“When I get home from camp it is straight back into mum mode which I love. It keeps me balanced and puts everything in perspective.”
Tama and the girls are always at the airport to greet Niall, which she loves.
“It is just priceless to see their eyes light up. I cried when I first came home from Dubai when I saw them at the airport, but now I just get excited,” she says.
“On the flipside the highlight of being in camp is the sleep I get and I don’t have to cook dinner!”
Being a mum is the most important job in the world and one that Niall believes adds to her strength. “It builds resilience and drives you because you have so many people supporting you and depending on you, so you don’t want to let anyone down” she says.
“I am having time away from my girls so it’s got to count. Who am I to waste it?
“So I train as hard as I can. It is a privilege to be able to do this so I have to do it justice for all those people who are behind me and making sacrifices.”
Niall also believes that it is good for her girls to see her training hard and working on dreams and aspirations.
“If you can get a good support network, don’t give up on your dreams. If there is a will there is a way.
“You are in charge of your own destiny, no one is going to do it for you so you have to try as hard as you can. It takes a lot of planning, help and commitment. If you throw everything at it then you know you did your best.”
Niall’s kids have come to watch the team in camp which she thinks is great.
“Even though they are little it is good for them to see female athletes in action. It shows them that there are options for them” she says.
“Our team has a vision - to grow a women's sevens legacy that honours the black jersey and inspires the world.
“Women still have a fair way to go in sports for equality but with the right people like the NZRPA and other athletes helping us, we are constantly improving it and that is what we want to do.”
Niall says being a parent gives you great balance in sport.
“When you get home you are just Mum or Dad it doesn’t matter what happened on the field, so it is a great leveller. Kids have a natural ability to keep it real.”
The humble player believes it is not just she who has made the team – it is her whole network who has helped her get there. She is incredibly grateful for that.
And she is very excited about going to Rio.
“I am not usually one to ask for selfies, but I will be taking any opportunity I can at Rio and I look forward to rubbing shoulders with the best athletes in the world.
“I really hope Usain Bolt is fit to compete!”
Sevens Draw at Rio
Women's - August 6-8 (seeding in brackets)
Pool A: Australia (1), USA (6), Fiji (7), Colombia (12)
Pool B: New Zealand (2), France (5), Spain (8), Kenya (11)
Pool C: Canada (3), Great Britain (4), Brazil (9), Japan (10)
Men's - August 9-11 (seeding in brackets)
Pool A: Fiji (1), USA (6), Argentina (7), Brazil (12)
Pool B: South Africa (2), Australia (5), France (8), Spain (11)
Pool C: New Zealand (3), Great Britain (4), Kenya (9), Japan (10)
You are in charge of your own destiny, no one is going to do it for you so you have to try as hard as you can. It takes a lot of planning, help and commitment. If you throw everything at it then you know you did your best. - Nial Williams