Portia Woodman traded netball for rugby
First woman to score 50 tries in sevens season
Now aiming for Olympic gold at Rio 2016
“Have you ever dreamed of representing New Zealand and winning an Olympic gold medal?”
It was something straight out of a talent contest – an advert offering the chance to become a hero in the nation’s favorite sport.
For Portia Woodman, it was an opportunity to continue a family legacy of wearing the famous black rugby jersey.
“Never, never in my dreams would I have thought I’d be sitting here with the Olympics just around the corner,” the 24-year-old tells CNN.
“We’re really close. We’ve still got a lot of work to get there, but the dream is right around the corner.”
Three years ago Woodman was playing top-level netball, but decided to have a go at rugby after seeing a promotion for the Go4Gold grassroots initiative aimed at finding future stars for the Rio 2016 Olympics, where the shortened sevens format will make its debut.
Quickly changing out of her netball gear after a long session on court, she went along to the rugby trials – one of more than 1,000 nationwide hopefuls with nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was the sporting equivalent of “Pop Idol,” in the country that spawned the template for the TV talent show.
Along with her friend, Northern Mystics netball teammate Kayla McAlister, the girl from Kaikohe was embarking on a journey of a lifetime.
The dream around the corner
New Zealand sevens coach Sean Horan was in attendance at the Go4Gold trials, and recognized Woodman’s talent immediately.
“She’s one of the few players that I took aside early on and said, ‘You’re pretty special’,” he told the New Zealand Northern News in November 2015, after Woodman was named World Rugby’s Women’s Sevens Player of the Year.
“We screened 1,100 athletes and she was one of the standouts.”
From a non-contact sport like netball to the frenetic pace and power of sevens, it’s been quite a transition.
Woodman was top try and points scorer in her first full Sevens World Series, as well as the top scorer in her first Sevens World Cup, in 2013.
A scintillating runner, she follows in the footsteps of her father Kawhena (who she calls “my inspiration”) and uncle Fred, both of whom played in the wing position for the All Blacks in the 1980s.
Nonetheless, the sheer physicality of rugby required some adjustment.
An altogether different conversion
“I think the most shocking part for me was having to get into the rucks,” Woodman says. “I wasn’t quite used to getting my head banged around.
“Over the last few years I think I’ve gotten used to it … practiced at it, trained, and I really love the contact side of things now. I’m loving rugby so far.”
No wonder. In the 2014-15 season, Woodman scored an astonishing 52 tries – just the fifth sevens player to break the half-century milestone in one series, and the first woman.
She certainly has the moves – and on her official Black Ferns profile she reveals she’d want to be a backing dancer for Nicki Minaj if she wasn’t a rugby player.
“I’ve taken a lot of my footwork from netball,” she says, “and I’m really thankful for that.”
The lure of the Olympics has enticed many athletes to switch sports, such as sprinter Carlin Isles and his U.S. Sevens teammates Nate Ebner and Perry Baker – the former a Super Bowl winner and the latter an ex-American footballer.
Woodman recalls her coach Horan “scoping out the athletics tracks, looking for people like Carlin Isles; heading to the hockey girls, because they’re really fast and fit.”
But it’s the two netballers who’ve made the biggest impact for the Black Ferns.
The sister of former All Black Luke McAlister, Kayla was named the 2013 Women’s Sevens Player of the Year.
“We’ve had a friendship for a long time,” Woodman says of McAlister, who also went along to the trials “for a crack.”
“Having started the program together, it’s made us really close. We’re just loving the whole experience together.”
Woodman received her 2015 award the night after the men’s All Blacks XV had won the Rugby World Cup.
“Oh, it was huge!” she exclaims. “We were there the day before the World Cup final, went along to the game, and had the awards the next night. It was just such an awesome experience. Part of me still looks at the photos and is like, ‘God!’
“When I received my award the All Blacks gave me a standing ovation, and that gave me goosebumps – even more than getting the award itself! It was an awesome experience I can really look back on.”
All Blacks legacy
Woodman feels the historic resonance of the famous silver fern badge every time she pulls on the black jersey.
“There’s that legacy that comes along,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what sport, what country – wherever you are, they see the badge and they just know. It’s huge.”
While the past weighs heavy, the future excites her.
“We’re fully professional now. The girls are living off the wages we get from sevens and that’s created a career path for ourselves and the young girls to look forward to,” Woodman says.
“Now, with the World Series getting bigger and the Olympics as the ultimate goal at the end of every four years, it’s definitely a path young people can try for.”
The next stop on Woodman’s path is the third round of the series in Atlanta on Friday and Saturday, when New Zealand will defend its title without the injured McAlister.
Just as many talent show winners struggle to continue their initial success, the 2015-16 season has so far been more challenging for the duo.
Woodman was injured in Sao Paulo in February as New Zealand finished third, while rival Australia made it back-to-back wins to top the standings.
Still, according to coach Horan, it’s all about the Olympics this time around.
“Australia have jumped ahead pretty dramatically,” Horan said on World Rugby’s website, “but we believe 2016 is not going to be remembered for the series – it’s going to be remembered for Rio.
“Our focus is to get a quality squad with depth that can do the job in August.”
Woodman, if fit, will certainly be among the first on the plane to Brazil.