Hannah Wilkinson is one of the finest footballers this country has produced. In a sport where goals are currency, only three players have scored more times for the Football Ferns - but her most important contribution may come off the field.
Football Ferns striker Hannah Wilkinson has always been a trailblazer.
Wilkinson, a key attacking weapon for the Ferns at the 2019 Fifa Women's World Cup, cracked the national side at 17 years old after playing her junior football in Whangarei.
She scored at the 2011 World Cup as a teenager, then became one of the first of her generation to secure a scholarship to a top American college.
She's also openly gay.
The 27-year-old is a poster girl for Belgium-based non-government organisation 'Out for the Win' and has become a vocal advocate and inspiration for gay athletes worldwide.
It hasn't always been easy — especially during five years living in an ultra-conservative 'Bible belt' state in the US — but she's proud of her journey.
"We have come a long way in that it is a lot more accepting and people are more open," says Wilkinson. "Sexuality is a lot more fluid than it has ever been before, it's improving. Especially in women's sports, there is a subculture that normalises same-sex relationships. Men's sports are quite different — there is so much homophobia used in the banter — and that might take a while [to break down]."
By subculture, Wilkinson is referring to the fact that in certain sports in this country there has long been a percentage of lesbian athletes among their playing population and on national teams.
This is in stark contrast to male sports, where openly gay athletes remain a rarity, particularly at national representative level.
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Sexuality can be a highly private and personal matter, but Wilkinson is happy to share her story. For those struggling with their sexuality, it is both empathetic and inspirational.
"Back then, it was the scariest possible step I could take. I was petrified," says Wilkinson of coming out. "But that process would feel the same for anyone, at any time. You do end up being in denial for so long because you are conditioned so strongly that it is not the norm, and you don't know how people will react to you."
It was 2012, and Wilkinson, who had made her international debut two years earlier, was on tour with the Ferns, ahead of the London Olympics.
She had decided she wanted to come out to her teammates but wasn't sure how. She texted a fellow player for a late-night chat.
"I talked to a teammate first and opened up to her, then another player on the squad. They were people that I knew would not see me differently."
That gave her the confidence to tell the rest of the team who were, in her words "incredibly" supportive.
"They were like 'Why are you making it such a big deal. That is not a big deal. Stop being silly'," recalls Wilkinson. "It gave me the confidence and the courage to openly talk about it. I told my teammates, my family and that was when I accepted myself."
Bigger personal challenges were yet to come, as Wilkinson gained a scholarship to the University of Tennessee later that year.
She had been pursued by many US colleges — "it helps when you score a goal at a World Cup" — and had also contemplated an offer from a German club, but prioritised getting a degree.
"The facilities were mind blowing," said Wilkinson. "It was the most insane campus and [the football] was like a professional environment, state of the art. It was a top 20 football team in a strong conference, and I respected the coach."
But it was a long way from home for Whangarei-raised Wilkinson and some attitudes in the American south were troubling.
"I was moving to the conservative Bible belt — I was petrified," says Wilkinson. "I didn't know what to expect. One thing that was on my mind was hate crimes. Because that is a real thing, that happens over there. Thankfully nothing like that ever came close to happening."
Campus was a liberal, inclusive environment, as were parts of Knoxville and the football programme.
"There was another gay girl on the team and we instantly became really good friends. The team was very welcoming and each year I became more and more comfortable and confident within myself.
"But it was an ongoing process. Someone once told me, 'You are not out until you are out to absolutely everyone. Every time you get to know someone new, you have to come out'.
"That's what I felt. If you got to know someone a bit better, you had to go through that similar uncomfortable process, because it was still uncomfortable, because it was so fresh for me."
That journey was mostly positive, but living in Knoxville presented some eye-opening moments. Wilkinson says that racism was "alive and well" on the outskirts of the city, and she saw confederate flags flying on houses, in backyards and even plastered across dorm rooms.
She didn't experience much homophobia, but occasionally received reminders of where she was in the world.
"One of my best friends there had been disowned by her family. Her family was like 'get out'."
Wilkinson was circumspect in public with her then-girlfriend.
"Like holding hands, it's difficult," she says. "We would think, 'Well should we be doing this here?' For the most part, we didn't."
Wilkinson has overwhelmingly positive memories of her time there. She made lifelong friends, loved campus life, improved as a footballer and gained a new appreciation for the vibrant music culture in Tennessee.
After graduating, she signed professional terms with Swedish club Vittsjo GIK in March 2017.
"It was so different. It's a progressive country and everything is so fluid. It certainly made things easier."
There were still awkward moments though, especially after Wilkinson started dating one of her teammates Clara Markstedt, who has since become her long-term partner.
"We kept it professional — it's a work situation," explains Wilkinson. "You are not going to hold hands with someone at the photocopier and it was the same for us. Sometimes it was tricky, but most of the time fine."
Markstedt and Wilkinson are still a couple, but no longer at the same club, as the New Zealander had to return to this country for a prolonged rehabilitation period after rupturing her anterior cruciate ligament last October in a Swedish cup match.
Wilkinson was always a sporty type. Her two older brothers were sources of inspiration – "I wanted to do whatever they did and was quite a competitor" and she tried surfing, rugby sevens, netball and cricket.
She was 8 years old when she first played football – her father was coach - and it stuck. As a teenager she travelled to Auckland twice a week to get exposure to national team coaches, and opted to study at AUT rather than follow her brothers to Otago University to be near the "football hub".
That plan worked. She made the national Under-20 squad, then was fast tracked into the Ferns by coach John Herdman as a 17-year-old, making her debut in February 2010.
"It was pretty intimidating," recalls Wilkinson. "I looked up to Amber Hearn, Bec Smith, Abby Erceg, all these big guns were in there. But it was a welcoming environment."
Wilkinson was quick to make her mark, with seven goals in her first 11 games. She grabbed a dramatic equaliser against Mexico to earn New Zealand's first point at a Women's World Cup (in 2011) and hasn't stopped getting important goals since, with 25 to her name from 91 internationals.
She's scored on four separate occasions against perennial power houses the United States, with Rebecca Smith (once) the only other Kiwi to find the net against the Americans this century.
Wilkinson has notched winning goals against Italy and Switzerland, as well as important strikes versus Spain, Denmark, North Korea and Ireland and is the last New Zealander to find the net at a World Cup, with her equaliser against China in 2015.
Wilkinson says she is more experienced and confident on the international stage now.
Her time has a professional has sharpened her technique and decision making, though she has been cruelled by injuries.
She has twice ruptured her ACL, most recently last October (which led to fears she would miss this World Cup but she returned well ahead of schedule) as well as suffering meniscus problems.
"I'm nowhere near where I want to be as a player," says Wilkinson. "There's a lot more to come I hope."
As a senior member of the squad, Wilkinson was also central to the mass player-led protests in 2017 that eventually led to the resignation of Andreas Heraf.
"That guy ... I've tried to repress him," says Wilkinson. "That whole thing was a very difficult time, we definitely needed a change and the change happened. I wish it could have happened under different circumstances [but] it was one of those moments where it was pretty rough so we had to rally together and do something about it."
The team has moved on swiftly, and remains a united bunch. For a time Wilkinson, a keen musician who has released songs on Spotify and always travels with her mini-guitar, was the leader of 'Wilkie and the Uku-ladies', with captain Ali Riley, Betsy Hassett and Erin Nayler prominent in group sing-a-longs.
There's been swift progress under new coach Tom Sermanni, though the team waits on the breakthrough to define this talented generation, after the last gasp loss to Holland in their opening World Cup group game last Wednesday.
"We have been on the brink of our potential for so long," said Wilkinson. "But it's tough; you have to get the success to get the funding. In order to get the success you need the funding. But I've seen a big growth in [New Zealand] and it would be amazing to get that success and show that football is going to be a big deal. It's very exciting to be a women's footballer at the moment."