Tyla Nathan-Wong was told being small and part-Chinese meant she should flag her rugby dream. Neil Reid reports how she has sensationally proved the doubters wrong
Black Ferns Sevens star Tyla Nathan-Wong has run rings around her opponents during her stunning playing career.
The 26-year has accumulated a trophy cabinet the envy of any rugby player; an Olympic silver medal, a Commonwealth Games gold medal, a New Zealand Sevens Player of the Year award, two Sevens World Cup gold medals and a staggering six Sevens World Series titles.
She also features in a series of NZ Post stamps for the Tokyo Olympics.
But to make it to the top she has had to defy no shortage of critics who believed earlier in her career that being part-Chinese and small – she weighs just 56kg and is 1.64m tall – meant she wouldn't be able to cut it at the top.
"I am a little bit stubborn to stuff like that. When people tell me I can't do something I am a little bit like, 'Well let me show you'," Nathan-Wong tells the Herald on Sunday.
"I didn't make rugby teams and basketball teams because I was told I was too short, too small, and can't tackle. Even the New Zealand Sevens coach when I first started thought I was too small to make the team.
"But again . . . I went out and showed them what I can do. It is about turning that negative into a positive and using it as a bit of fuel and inspiration to go out and push myself."
Being Part-Chinese, Nathan-Wong was regularly reminded that rugby was not a sport that people of Chinese heritage excelled in.
"You don't see many Chinese people, especially females, playing a contact sport like rugby," she says.
Her inspiration was close to home; her beloved grandfather, David Wong, was a cultural trailblazer two generations earlier.
In 1967, Wong became the first full-blooded Chinese person to play for the dominant Auckland rugby league provincial team.
He made the representative side after defying racial stereotypes in New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, and even his parents' protests to him playing the sport.
"He had to get rides to and from training and games, he had to wash his own laundry and boots just because they [his parents] didn't believe at the time that it was something he should be doing," Nathan-Wong says.
"It was not a cultural norm, I guess."
His cultural makeup was also the source of many racist comments at a time when New Zealand wasn't as ethnically diverse as it is now.
"He had racial slurs thrown at him all the time, whether that be on the field or just in everyday life," she says.
Nathan-Wong said she had thankfully never been targeted by racist comments on the field.
But many of the stereotypes that Chinese people couldn't excel at contact sports such as league and rugby were still a factor when she was coming through the playing grades.
"For me to hear about him, it inspired me to go against those societal norms of the stereotypes that are placed on people.
"I take huge pride in being able to say I have achieved some of these things. It is something that I have always dreamed of doing and I am not going to let certain people's opinions stop me from achieving my dream.
"It shows especially young Chinese boys and girls that it [rugby] is an option for a sport."
At the same time, Nathan-Wong battled preconceptions about her size - particularly when she became a teenager.
She says she missed selection in several age-group rugby, basketball and soccer teams because "some people thought I was too small".
But whatever she may lack in size, she makes up for in speed, strength, skill and determination.
"You don't need to be the strongest or the fastest," Nathan-Wong said. "But ... utilise the talent that you have, work hard and not let other people's opinions put you down or stop you achieving your dreams.
"That is what I push hard to do every single day."
Nathan-Wong – who now proudly calls herself a fulltime professional sevens player - had become a sporting pathfinder well before first wearing the silver fern in 2012.
At the age of 6 she was playing contact rugby league in what was an all-boys grade due to a lack of competitions for girls. The team included her male cousin and was coached by her father and her uncle.
"I wanted to do everything my boy cousins were doing, and one of them was league. So that is why I jumped into league and thoroughly enjoyed it," she said.
She later was allowed to able to gain dispensation to play rugby alongside boys at her Auckland primary school.
"[At the time] it just wasn't normal to see girls playing alongside boys," she says. "Now it is, which is cool."
Sport played a huge part in Nathan-Wong's upbringing.
She also took up tae kwon do, which she initially believed would be her pathway to realising her childhood dream of becoming an Olympian.
"My dream since I was a kid was to make it to the Olympics. I had no idea what sport it would be growing up, I was playing a whole bunch of different sports and had no clue.
"I ended up doing tae kwon do when I was around 13 ... and that was when I thought, 'OK, this is how I am going to get there'. I enjoyed it and kept doing the work to get to the Olympics."
But Nathan-Wong's sporting world changed when she was 15 when the International Olympic Committee voted in late 2009 to introduce sevens at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Within two years, while still attending Auckland's Lynfield College, she was a member of the Black Ferns Sevens squad.
She has since gone on to play 189 matches for the Black Ferns Sevens, scoring a staggering 1016 points - becoming only the second woman to break the 1000-point mark on World Rugby's Sevens World Series circuit.
When she ran out onto Rio de Janeiro's Deodoro Stadium with her team-mates at the 2016 Olympics her mum, dad and younger brother and sister were all in the stands; the first time they had seen her play in the flesh for the national team.
"I can still see it and visualise it so vividly today," Nathan-Wong recalls.
She also vividly recalls the heartbreak of the 24-17 loss to Australia in the final, a result that left many members of the pre-tournament gold medal favourites in tears.
That devastation was eased after former world champion rower Emma Twigg – who finished fourth in her event in Rio – told the team: "Firstly, only a small portion of athletes get selected to the Olympics and an even smaller portion of athletes get to come away with a medal. So, what you have done is pretty incredible".
"That flipped that switch and it was like, 'You know what, an Olympic silver medal is pretty amazing'," Nathan-Wong says.
That said, the heart-breaking loss in the final was still "the fuel to the fire" to win gold when the Olympics in Tokyo take place.
The Olympics had been scheduled for mid-2020 but were delayed due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. They have been rescheduled to hopefully take place between July 23-August 8.
Despite the uncertainty, Nathan-Wong and other members of the national women's and men's sevens squads continue to train fulltime at their Mount Maunganui base.
The Black Ferns Sevens squad trains four days a week.
"It is high-intensity training and you come away knackered every day," Nathan-Wong says. "You are knackered after that day and you are just looking forward to coming home, lying down, having something to eat and going to bed."
Wednesday is a non-rugby "personal development day", with Nathan-Wong dedicating much of that time to continue her study towards a sport and science bachelor's degree.
She has been studying part-time towards the qualification since leaving high school. Earlier thoughts of studying medicine or physiotherapy were shelved because she would have to study full time; something not possible around her rugby commitments.
Nathan-Wong has three papers to complete and will then look at taking on further post-grad and masters studies "and see where that world can take me".
"If I am not playing sport, I want to be involved in it somehow," she says.
"You can only be an athlete for so long, especially at the top level. We all have an expiry date. Being able to grow yourself outside of your chosen sport is massive."
Off the field she has also linked with talent management, brand partnership and content creator company talent management agency WeARETenzing.
Connections she had gained since signing with the company – which has on its book a raft of New Zealand's biggest sporting stars and social media influencers - had allowed her to build her own house.
Nathan-Wong's rise to the top – and on the way defying her doubters – is another inspirational chapter in rugby's rich story in New Zealand.
And as she continues to chase her dreams of Olympic success and making the Black Ferns 15-a-side team - she had hoped to break into the team for the recently postponed 2021 Rugby World Cup - Nathan-Wong said she will continue to proudly share her own personal story; something that has her give talks at schools and Chinese community groups.
"If I can inspire even one person in that room to pursue their dreams then I feel that that is a major positive."