Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Olympics: Battle to return to NZ team was not child's play

Alana Millington. Photo / APN
Alana Millington. Photo / APN

New Zealand Olympians face plenty of challenges but Alana Millington deals with more than most - the Black Sticks defender is the only mother in the team and spends long periods of the year away from her infant son Jordan.

The hockey side, along with their male counterparts, are arguably New Zealand's most travelled outfit and the Olympics means more than a month away.

There was a three-week trip to Argentina at the start of the year and the team also flew to South Korea and Japan during May and June. Before today's game against Australia, the Black Sticks women have already racked up a staggering 32 matches this year.

Unfortunately, as most parents know, enforced separation only gets more difficult with time.

"When he was younger, it was a bit easier," says Millington of Jordan, who will turn three in October. "He was out of sight, out of mind and, if I knew he was okay, then I was fine."

Millington takes advantage of modern technology like Skype to stay in touch but it can be a mixed blessing.

"Lately, it has been harder. I can't Skype him as much because he gets really crabby afterwards. He tries to take the computer away from my Mum - he thinks if he's got the computer, then I can't go. He seems to think he is the only one that can shut it down.

"Sometimes I feel like I am upsetting him when I Skype, which makes it worse because I feel bad enough as it is."

Motherhood is fairly common in netball - around 20 per cent of New Zealand players across the ANZ Championship have children - but it is a big challenge to return to the court.

It is even more difficult in hockey, now one of the most non-stop, intensely demanding sports in the world since the rules changed.

Millington, who has 39 caps, had made her debut in 2007 but missed the cut for the Beijing Olympics. After she gave birth in October 2009, she started the long road back the following year, via the New Zealand development squad.

"Trying to come back into it was horrible," remembers Millington. "Our trainer didn't care that I was way behind everyone and I just had to do what they were doing. In the end, I would run till I spewed. It was horrible but looking back, it was good - he had no mercy and made me run. It took a few months to get fit enough and drop all the weight."

The biggest challenge was building up her muscles again, especially her core strength.

"I lost my abdominals. It was so hard to just hold a bridge or do a plank - I had nothing there. I couldn't even do one push-up. As Jordan got older, I actually got stronger arms from lifting him all the time but even [now] in some areas, I'm not as strong as I used to be."

Her experience provoked a lot of interest among her team-mates, who have an average age of just over 23.

"It can escalate into a big conversation," laughs Millington. "Half the team is clucky and I think they are all quite intrigued by it all. Mark [Hager] would say 'stop, we are not talking about this'.

"When Jordan was a baby being passed around [I think] Mark [Hager] used to get a bit worried. He would say 'don't get any ideas - one mum is enough for this team'."

The 24-year-old Millington has no regrets but is quick to emphasise what her advice would be to fellow players contemplating children mid-career: "Don't do it. It is so hard to come back and it is hard on everyone that helps me and Jordan. You get torn; I would love to be rich enough to pay someone to bring him everywhere."

Millington works in a day care centre in Whangarei, allowing precious time with her son at work. It's a busy schedule, as she also drives to Auckland up to four times a week for training and helps her partner on their dairy farm with milking on her days off and weekends.

Hockey runs in the family - mother Angeline is the assistant coach of the New Zealand under-21 team - so Millington was always likely to follow in those footsteps. She ranks a win over Australia on debut as her career highlight so far, a result that would be eagerly welcomed this evening.

- Herald on Sunday

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