Leading into the Hong Kong 7s weekend. We were lucky to catch up with the New Zealand 7s star Kayla Ahki (nee McAlister) who gave us an insight into achieving her dream of playing in the 2016 Olympics.
Born in Waitara, New Zealand raised in Manchester, UK from 2 months old until she was 7, then Auckland, New Zealand. Now based in France where her rugby star husband Pita Ahki plays for the European giants Toulouse. The sporting pair have 2 daughters Stella and Camille. Not bad genes to have a grandfather Charlie who was a New Zealand professional rugby league player and uncle Luke played for the All Blacks.
Look out for what advice she has for players wanting to make a career out of 7s.
When did you start playing Rugby 7s?
I started playing Rugby 7s in 2012 as it was confirmed that 7s was going to be at the 2016 Olympics.
You didn’t start getting paid to play full-time until 2014, How did you get by until then? Could you give us a rough insight of your weekly schedule during that time and when you were on the 7s circuit.
I was currently working full-time as a receptionist at the Ministry of Justice in Auckland and I was lucky enough to have their support for a few years. I would train from 6am to 730am, then make my way into work in the City until 5pm, where sometimes I would then have evenings sessions after work too. They were really supportive of my rugby aspirations, trainings and tournaments (which were always overseas), but I had to make the decision to resign when the 7s program became full-time, with more hours required, more overseas trips/tournaments and camps which meant I could not commit to 40hrs a week with work. It was not an easy decision financially, but the 7s Olympics was a dream and it all worked out in the end.
You went to the 2016 Olympics, what an experience that would have been. What was it like to be apart of that? (Village, opening/closing ceremony, atmosphere etc)
The 2016 olympics was an amazing experience, one that I will never forget. As an athlete, you train so hard for 4 years, commit and sacrifice so much, that when I finally got into the Village in Rio it was a dream come true. The village was basically a CITY on it’s own, the first few days we had to ourselves basically to ride bikes around and get amongst the atmosphere, it was crazy. Everyone you saw in the village was an athlete competing on the worlds biggest sporting stage, so that aspect was pretty cool. We tried to find the odd famous person here and there which was pretty funny. The cool thing was most counties had a “Pin or Badge” and the aim was to try and swap our NZ pin and try and collect as many other countries as possible, so that was rather eventful haha. We weren’t able to attend the opening ceremony as our Day 1 was on the first day of the olympic games, but we managed to watch it on TV in the New Zealand team room, so that was pretty cool. Our New Zealand Olympic Committee were amazing, in our Tower, they tried to make it like home as much as possible, with a large shared lounge downstairs with a few TV’s going so we could watch other NZ athletes competing, a coffee machine, NZ treats (pineapple lumps etc) haha. It was also really cool to meet and chat with other NZ athletes too throughout the duration of the games and hear their stories/experiences and how their sport works to. We weren’t in our own bubble, we were apart of a bigger team, the NZ Olympic Team which was very special and humbling.
You played a bit of Netball professionally and Touch Rugby leading into 7s career?
I played a bit of Touch Rugby in my teenage years, from Intermediate in Auckland, and then I moved to Palmerston North for my 6th & 7th Form, where Touch is pretty popular down there, so I managed to join a few teams (mixed & womens) which was a cool way to meet new people and make new friends. I also played Netball from a young age (primary school) up until I made the transition to 7s in 2012. I played netball professionally in my later years, making the Northern Mystics for 1 season, which was awesome. It taught me a few things, like time management, professionalism and work ethic. But I then got dropped after 1 season, which is when the 7s came about, so when one door closes, another one opens, and for me, that was my case.
From them sports, what skill set were transferable to 7s?
The skill sets I took from both touch and netball that could be transferred to 7s were vision, speed, catching & passing and of course determination.
What advice can you give others wanting to make a career in womens 7s?
You have to want to TRAIN hard, with 7’s, or any professional sport, you go to many “dark places” mentally, but the rewards far outweigh the hard work. Advice would be to get amongst a rugby club/school team to learn the basics of rugby, especially the contact area, and then to pursue a career, would be to put in the hard yards, so lots of fitness, skill based training and also the holistic side, nutrition and the most important thing your “MIND”
Who is the most skilful player you have played with?
Huriana Carpenter (nee Manuel). When I first started playing 7s she was our Captain at the time and also my First 5 when I was playing Centre. She is an amazing leader on and off the field. Her support in my first few seasons was vital, and having her inside me talking on attack and defence helped my game grow immensely. She has so much experience in both 15s and 7s so I picked her brains as much as possible and followed her demands as the best Captain I have came across in my Sporting History. She is also an awesome down to earth woman too off the field!
Who is the toughest opponent you have played against?
Emilee Cherry – Australia are a tuff outfit and she has always been their Centre, so the player I was always up against. NZ and Aussie have fierce history as it is, so I was always trying to find ways to combat her and her skills as she is one of the best attackers and defenders in 7s as well as being one of the Aussie’s most experienced players.
A young player to watch out for in the future?
Jazmin Hotham from Hamilton Girls High School. Hamilton Girls is known for producing awesome touch and rugby 7s players. Jazmin has represented NZ in Touch and was also selected for the NZ Un18s 7s that competed at the Youth Olympics 2018 in Argentina recently (although she was ruled out with an injury). She has already been introduced into the Black ferns 7s environment, so I know she has a big future ahead of her.