Why this athlete switched the volleyball court for the rugby field
Wintec master’s graduate and volleyball star-cum-rugby player, Stacey Niao has made this year’s Farah Palmer Cup Canterbury squad.
A volleyball star from Kawerau has switched the volleyball court for the rugby field. Stacey Niao (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa), a Wintec Master of Science (Human Performance Science) graduate, is now a rising talent in the Canterbury women’s rugby scene who was selected for this year’s Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) Canterbury squad.
This is a change of scene for Niao, who has spent much of her sporting career playing volleyball both in New Zealand and in the United States.
Niao’s introduction to playing rugby was almost by chance. During her master’s studies at Wintec, she worked with university rugby players in strength and conditioning. When a coach she was working with encouraged her to head along to the next Waikato women’s university team training session to observe what they were doing, she joined in there and then.
“I went along to watch their fitness and see how they move. I ended up joining in at training and then I played a few games for them during my studies,” she says.
After moving to Christchurch for work, Niao played club rugby for the university and this year made the Canterbury squad for the Farah Palmer Cup, which is the highest-level domestic women’s rugby union competition in New Zealand. This year the team are pursuing their fifth straight title.
The achievement is an amazing feat for an amateur player, who now calls some of the Black Ferns her teammate.
“It’s pretty massive. There’s a bunch of Black Ferns in the squad. We’ve got Chelsea Bremner, Kendra Cocksedge – for me to play alongside them is pretty cool,” Niao says.
Niao, who completed her undergraduate degree with a volleyball scholarship at Illinois State University, returned to New Zealand to complete her master’s study at Wintec in 2018 after her US visa ran out.
A self-confessed ‘competitive’ person, Niao has spent most of her life playing volleyball and other sports at a professional level, but after completing a Master of Science (Human Performance Science) in exercise physiology and strength and conditioning at Wintec, she developed a love for coaching and youth development.
“My master’s study was based around youth athlete development. I started in the master’s programme not really knowing what I wanted to do, just knowing I had a strong interest in strength and conditioning,” says Niao.
Her supervisor, Dr Peter Maulder, a Wintec academic at the Centre for Sport Science and Human Performance, guided her in the direction of youth athlete development, a space he said was growing, especially for female athletes.
“I hadn’t really given back to sports, and sports has given lots to me over my career, so I thought it was a good space to be in, to research in and a way for me to give back to female athletes. I’ve become quite passionate about coaching younger age groups,” says Niao.
Niao’s thirst for competitive sports began as a child, where she was always in constant, but friendly, competition with her older sister Melissa.
“She’s one year older than me and ever since we were young, we have competed against each other. I didn’t care about trying to beat anyone but her, and she played a big part in giving me that competitive edge,” contemplates Niao.
“You want athletes to be competitive, gritty and to get after it. She was always better than me, and she taught me all of that. She taught me the most about being resilient and trying to win. She was an absolute athlete. I think she made me the athlete that I am, purely because she beat me all the time!”
Heading to Illinois, United States, straight after finishing high school at Kawerau College, Niao experienced an “epic” level of sports, unlike anything she had experienced in New Zealand.
“It’s a huge step up. College sport over there is just next level. We played in a stadium that seated over 10,000 people, and was used for just volleyball and basketball alone,” she says.
“The programme was insane. Strength and conditioning was part of your programme. You’d wake up, do weights, go to school, do volleyball training, then go to sleep.”
Although the programme was intense, there was a lot of support for the athletes, and in Niao’s words “you’re a student first, and then an athlete,” so good grades were of high importance.
A career highlight for Niao in the US was when their team, Illinois State University (ISU), won the Missouri Valley Conference. They also made it to the second round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Tournament, something ISU had not achieved since the 1990s.
Niao then worked for a couple of years in high performance sport in San Diego, returning to New Zealand with the hopes of attaining her master’s degree here then returning to the US.
After she finished writing her thesis however, a job opportunity came up at University of Canterbury (UC), running their high-performance centre sports academy. The role was only part-time, but the opportunity was right up Niao’s alley, and she bit the bullet, accepting the role and moving down to Christchurch.
“I figured I’d go down there with a part-time job and just figure out how to pick up extra hours doing work with high schools. I ended up talking to my boss at the time who presented an opportunity to do some part-time work in the wellbeing space, so I ended up accepting that offer and gaining full-time employment at UC,” Niao says.
If there’s one thing that’s obvious, it is that Niao loves sports and competing, and the pursuit of those has opened doors for her throughout her career.
“If you really enjoy something, stay around that area. I just love sports, I enjoy all aspects of it, and I don’t silo myself to one sport, or one thing,” she says.
“If I had only ever said I wanted to do volleyball, I would never have given rugby a go. If you love something and love being in that zone, then take up the opportunities in that area that come your way and just give it a go.”
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