Sarah Goss — The Captain

The Black Ferns Sevens team have dominated the Women’s Sevens Series, claiming three of the four World Series crowns since its inception in 2012. Cam Neate meets the captain, Sarah Goss, and looks into the background of this world class athlete.

WORDS AND PHOTOS CAM NEATE

Sarah Goss led her team to take sil­ver at the Rio Olympics last year, which also hap­pened to be the sport’s debut appear­ance at a sum­mer Olympics. From the frozen fields of Man­awatu to an Olympic grand final on the oth­er side of the world. For the major­i­ty of young Kiwi sports­peo­ple, the idea of suc­cess is often found at the post-match tuck­shop. The vic­to­ri­ous mince and cheese pie or per­haps the play­er-of-the-day Moro bar. In con­ver­sa­tion, it seems our cov­er sto­ry sub­ject knew from a young age there was suc­cess to be had far beyond the walls of the tuck shop.

Armed with the excit­ing task of writ­ing this fea­ture on Sarah I found myself trac­ing my own steps back to the cold win­ter morn­ings in Blake Park, Mount Maun­ganui (the loca­tion for our cov­er shoot), search­ing for inspi­ra­tion. Rug­by, the great New Zealand sport, is for me rich in nos­tal­gia: Wednes­day after-school prac­tices, freez­ing cold feet on game day, thick jer­seys, mouth guards and half-time oranges. The nerves, the burn­ing feel­ing in your throat as you sprint down the wing and the sweet vic­to­ry of that very first try. It appears, despite my youth­ful obses­sion of the sport, my knowl­edge of the game, and the sta­tus quo of women’s rug­by in New Zealand is today, rather lack­ing. Or was, until I sat down with Sarah.

Grow­ing up in rural Man­awatu, Sarah and her two sib­lings spent any spare time they had out­side of school help­ing mum and dad on the fam­i­ly farm. A mod­est upbring­ing accord­ing to Sarah and a house­hold that has not seen a lot of change since, with both par­ents still grind­ing out the farm work every day. “My par­ents would be work­ing on the farm from 5am until some­times 8pm. I remem­ber get­ting home from school and we’d have to do our chores. We’d bring in the fire­wood in and cook din­ner whilst my par­ents worked. We’d have din­ner, watch the news and go to bed.”

It was in the frosty win­ter fields sur­round­ing their home that Sarah began to dream of her future: an aero­plane pilot, a cham­pi­on hock­ey play­er, Big Macs, hot chips and fizzy. Quite the ban­quet of ambi­tion, but any­thing is pos­si­ble when you are a kid. Once high school rolled around Sarah was off to board­ing school, which not only saved her par­ents an hour dai­ly return trip but it was there at Field­ing High where Sarah was able to ful­ly immerse her­self in sports.

It meant I was able to play what­ev­er sport I want­ed with­out my par­ents hav­ing to dri­ve me around every­where. It was all just there”. Gym­nas­tics and net­ball tran­si­tioned into com­pet­i­tive hock­ey, and ulti­mate­ly rug­by in her final year at school. At the time, Sarah’s coach had rec­om­mend­ed tak­ing up rug­by to help improve her fit­ness for hock­ey but she soon found the full con­tact and com­pet­i­tive­ness of 15-aside rug­by much more stim­u­lat­ing than hock­ey and as a result, trad­ed her hock­ey stick for a pair of rug­by boots. How­ev­er, it was not a com­plete­ly smooth tran­si­tion into her new­found pas­sion.

I hid it from my par­ents for about three months, think­ing they were going to tell me off for play­ing rug­by. I felt like back then, there wasn’t much sup­port for women’s rug­by despite my fam­i­ly being mas­sive rug­by sup­port­ers.” But once Sarah decid­ed to tell her par­ents of her new secret love, they were only dis­ap­point­ed they had missed watch­ing her games and accord­ing to Sarah, “they’ve watched me ever since. I remem­ber telling my par­ents back in sev­en­th form when they asked what I was going to do fol­low­ing year and I remem­ber say­ing I’m going to become a pro­fes­sion­al rug­by play­er and back then they kind of laughed, but I am some­one who will just go after it and I will do every­thing I can to prove peo­ple wrong. I’m stub­born, and it end­ed up hap­pen­ing.”

In 2010, the Black Ferns won their fourth con­sec­u­tive World Cup again­st Eng­land on Eng­lish soil. The live final on Sky Sports was some­thing Sarah recounts as piv­otal to women’s rug­by, and it was a key moment that tru­ly sparked the flame for her own com­pet­i­tive cam­paign. That same year, aged 17, Sarah was select­ed to rep­re­sent New Zealand in the New Zealand Maori sev­ens rug­by team, trav­el­ling to Italy.

Despite play­ing at an inter­na­tion­al lev­el, the­se were still ear­ly days for women’s rug­by in New Zealand and play­ers were hav­ing to hold down full-time jobs to sup­port their rug­by careers.

Finally, in 2013 the New Zealand Rugby Union were able to offer full time contracts to the women’s teams, which Sarah simply says was “massive” and a transitional period she is certainly proud to have been through. “It makes you really appreciate what you get now”.

Through­out that peri­od, Sarah stud­ied at Massey Uni­ver­si­ty (she has been the recip­i­ent of the pres­ti­gious Prime Minister’s Ath­lete Schol­ar­ship for a num­ber of years), and has worked hard to fit her stud­ies around train­ing. It’s clear that Sarah feels that edu­ca­tion is the key to a life after rug­by.

Sarah would train in a makeshift garage gym with local police offi­cer and fel­low team­mate, Sel­i­ca Wini­ata. The 5:30am train­ing ses­sions were fol­lowed by extra­mu­ral study and then back to the garage at 6pm once Sel­i­ca had fin­ished her shift.

Allan Bunting, coach of the Black Ferns Sev­ens teams says Sarah has an “unbe­liev­able work ethic, a relent­less desire to learn, grow and look for every oppor­tu­ni­ty to bet­ter her­self.” There was no fund­ing or fan­cy recre­ation cen­tres in those ear­lier years of Sarah’s career, but her con­cen­trat­ed self-moti­va­tion and gru­elling hours of train­ing would soon begin to pay off.

Goss mod­est­ly accepts that lead­ing New Zealand to vic­to­ry in the World Sev­ens tour­na­ment in 2016, and win­ning sil­ver in Rio, were par­tic­u­lar­ly proud moments. It is evi­dent how­ev­er that the­se awards and acco­lades are some­what triv­ial to her true per­son­al pil­lars of suc­cess; being able to fly her par­ents to inter­na­tion­al games, work­ing with local school chil­dren and donat­ing spon­sored gear to those who need it is. Sarah says “Being suc­cess­ful to me is about know­ing I’ve done every­thing I pos­si­bly can to achieve my goals, this hope­ful­ly means I’m inspir­ing oth­ers to do the same.” Fel­low Kiwi Olympian, Rose Ked­dell from the Black Sticks, acknowl­edges Goss’s unique jour­ney in women’s rug­by, the mile­stones and the suc­cess it has had under the guid­ance of Goss. “Sarah has been through all the major changes in New Zealand women’s rug­by. From gain­ing con­tracts and fund­ing, see­ing women’s rug­by become a pro­fes­sion­al sport and of course being in the Olympics last year. The sport is in a real­ly good place.”

Com­pared to Sarah’s fierce and pow­er­ful on field per­for­mance, there is a very soft and warm side to her demeanour. Sarah’s eyes are teary when she speaks of pride and fam­i­ly, the per­son­al tri­als and tribu­la­tions of a clos­et rug­by play­er to one who per­forms now on the world stage. At twen­ty-four years young, you could say Sarah Goss is killing it, though con­tent­ment is not a word used often in her vocab­u­lary. Sarah is con­scious about keep­ing every­thing her life fresh and excit­ing and not allow­ing rug­by to be her only pas­sion.

If there’s something in my mind that I want to do, I have to do it. I was in 6th form and called the local aerodrome and said I wanted to join the flight school. They sent me out a package and all of a sudden I was going up in a two-seater Cessna before school, watching the sunrise around the Manawatu ranges.”

I like to stay busy. If I didn’t have some­thing out­side of rug­by then I’d feel stale and I would wor­ry about rug­by all the time and that’s not healthy for any­one. For me, hav­ing that rush of being in an aero­plane, it gives you per­spec­tive. This is a the­me we often return to in con­ver­sa­tion. Sarah recounts one time she was up in the air on a prac­tice flight and her door swung wide open. “All I could see was the ground below me. I got such a rush, I wasn’t real­ly scared, it just made me feel alive. It’s impor­tant to have the­se moments, and life out­side rug­by to give bal­ance. I did 12 hours towards my PPA and then had to stop because rug­by took over. Once I get my degree then I will get back into it.” Sarah has also near­ly com­plet­ed her bach­e­lor of arts degree, major­ing in Maori stud­ies and a minor in sports sci­ence. It has tak­en her about sev­en years so far, fit­ting in papers between tours and train­ing, but the end is in site.

I’m doing a full immer­sion Maori paper at the moment which I’m find­ing very dif­fi­cult because I’m not flu­ent in Te Reo”, she laughs, “then I only have one oth­er paper to get my degree. My sis­ter was the first per­son in my fam­i­ly to get a degree and now I can’t wait to get mine.” It all comes back to those words from her rug­by coach, Allan Bunting, that Sarah “has a relent­less desire to learn, grow and look for every oppor­tu­ni­ty to get bet­ter. She is a nat­u­ral lead­er who inspires by her actions and words. She will be suc­cess­ful with what­ev­er she puts her mind to.”

And the rest of those child­hood ambi­tions? “Before Rio, I didn’t have hot chips and fizzy for a whole year. The nutri­tion­ist was like ‘what are you even doing?’ I didn’t have to give them up total­ly, but it was my inner com­pet­i­tive­ness. I con­vinced myself that if I gave in, I wouldn’t make the Olympics. The night after win­ning sil­ver I went straight out for hot chips and fizzy and it was all I ate for a mon­th”.

Pho­tograph­ing and speak­ing with Sarah on the exact rug­by field I once played on was quite sur­re­al. I prob­a­bly would have thought back then that I would be the one being inter­viewed as a rug­by star, not the dude with the cam­era around his neck. But there we were. A pro­fes­sion­al rug­by play­er stand­ing on my old patch of grass look­ing amaz­ing and strong and ele­gant and deter­mined. And me, well deter­mined to cap­ture all that.

This was a new adven­ture for me, not a job or a task or work but more an oppor­tu­ni­ty and a chal­lenge to do some­thing new. I find peo­ple fas­ci­nat­ing, it is almost a hob­by of mine to hear new sto­ries and gain knowl­edge from all walks of life. Sarah’s sto­ry is intrigu­ing on so many lev­els and it was hum­bling to spend the day get­ting to know her. I am proud of what she has achieved so far in what is only the begin­ning of her career and in par­tic­u­lar her stance on suc­cess and the impor­tance of being a pos­i­tive role mod­el. Per­haps once the bat­tery dies for good on my cam­era career, I’ll make a late come­back for num­ber 12 in the black jer­sey. After all, it’s a game of two halves.

Play­er of the Year 2014 + 2016 Black Ferns Sev­ens.

Rio 2016 Olympic Sil­ver Medal­ist.

135 match­es played on World Series Sev­ens.

29 World Sev­ens tour­na­ments.