A Golden Glow

Rikki Swannell
Written by
Rikki Swannell

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

The medal is the tangible reward but as Rikki Swannell explains, there was so much that went into the rebuilding of Portia Woodman - and a lot more to come.

Portia Woodman had to tackle the booze before she got back to tackling on the field

Every Olympic medal comes with a story.  

Often, we throw around words like “sacrifice” and “fairytale” but when Portia Woodman looks at her medal, that hard earned Tokyo gold, she thinks of pride and growth.  

The pride for what she overcame to even be on the Olympic start line after two years of injuries and rehabilitation. Growth for the person she has become and for what she still wants to achieve.  

While having the hottest property in world rugby sitting on the sidelines for two years may have had promoters of the women’s game in despair, little changed from a results perspective for the Black Ferns Sevens. As they continued to fashion an enviable record and an almost invincible aura, the woman who had lit up the game found herself at times lacking the motivation to join them again, even as the Tokyo Olympics loomed.  

Her story of triumph through adversity is well known, but the graft behind how Woodman made her way back from a ruptured Achilles and a torn hamstring, is not.  

Woodman sought motivation in little milestones along the way and celebrated even the tiniest bits of progress; from getting out of a moon boot and slowly seeing her foot flatten out with the Achilles, to being at 70% and then 80% running speed with the hamstring.  

But when those markers dried up and the improvements weren’t as dramatic, when she didn’t want to get out of bed and questioned her want to play, she had to dig deeper.  

Woodman had started drinking a bit; nothing excessive, just a couple of glasses a night. But it had become every night. While she’d begun to think it didn’t matter because she wasn’t playing, her mum and her fiancée, Black Fern Renee Wickliffe, had noticed, and the electric winger could feel her motivation levels falling. She says she realized she needed to regain her desire.  

“I ended up watching footage, including a bit of the Rio final to bring back the heartbreak. But also, Cory (Sweeney) clipped up footage of me not necessarily scoring tries but doing the things I do; getting the ball on the outside, fending off a player, using my footwork and going down the side,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be able to do that; I love that feeling, I love being able to manipulate people, run away from people, run over people and that’s what got me through, because I knew then I still wanted it.”

A couple of Woodman’s early sporting passions also played a key role in her rehab. She’d competed in athletics throughout her teens which had made her a fast and technically sound sprinter, while her former career as a semi-professional netballer had given her agility and vision. Woodman wanted to get back to basics.  

“Cory, Bunts (Allan Bunting) and the medical staff really fought for me to do those things - sprint training four times a week for six weeks and then four weeks of netball. It’s a huge deal for contracted rugby players, who’re not really supposed to do any other sports, but they knew it was something I needed.”  

Woodman sums up those 10 weeks as “wicked” and her joy is clear to hear.  

Woodman showed at the Olympics she is as elusive as ever

“I loved getting back into sprinting. I was with Kerry Hill, who’s a national sprint coach, perfect eye for it, and trained alongside up-and-coming sprinters. It really made me happy again. Netball was like riding a bike, even if I couldn’t quite do some of the things I used to,” she laughs.

Woodman says the mental gains from getting on the track and the court were a game changer. Progressing from one quarter at a time to full matches of premier club netball, a sport where a player almost contorts themself with many short, sharp movements, gave her back the most important thing: trust in her body.  

“The fact that I couldn’t trust my body was the scary thing. With the hamstring, I would feel good and then I’d feel it again or I’d go to take off and tweak it again, and that built in the doubt that I can’t trust my body, it can’t do what I want it to do, I’m screwed,” Woodman reflects. “My one job was to run fast and I couldn’t do that because my body was holding me back, so with sprinting I learnt to run properly, then with netball to move fast and be agile. Those 10 weeks helped me trust it – that was the biggest thing I had to work on – it was good, I just needed to know it could do what I wanted it to do.”

Woodman had never experienced anything longer than a three-month injury layoff before and says it gave her new respect for team-mates Shiray Kaka and Shakira Baker who have endured numerous long-term injuries and lost years of their careers to surgeries and rehab. A building apprenticeship and some TV commentary may have given her a taste of life beyond rugby, but the five-year rollercoaster of Rio devastation, 24 months of injuries, lockdown and eventually Olympic gold means there is a flame that burns brightly and there’s plenty more she wants to do.  

Woodman is keen to be involved in next year’s women’s Super Rugby competition and thinks it’s feasible to play the Commonwealth Games at the end of July, the Sevens World Cup at the start of September and then the 15s World Cup, beginning early October. She and Renee also have to try to get married this year if Covid will let them.  

“There’s nothing major happening in 2023, so I can have a rest then,” she laughs.  

Coaches Cory Sweeney and Allan Bunting, physios Nicole Armstrong and Kate Niederer, mum and dad Kathryn and Kawhena, her team-mates and Renee who Woodman says “kicked her up the bum pretty much every day”, were all part of the team that helped her back on the field and to become an Olympic champion.

But in the end, it came down to one person.  

“I can still see myself crying underneath the goal posts in Rio and I can still feel the heartbreak of that moment so the Tokyo medal shows the work that I had to do,” Woodman says. “Usually, I give credit to the support people around us, but I had to do it this time and I’m so proud of myself for getting through those injuries mentally, getting through everything that has happened the last five years; I made decisions that I’m proud of.”

Woodman laughs readily and oozes enthusiasm every time she speaks. There’s a positivity in all she does and she seems to be comfortable enough wearing the title that the rest of us have designated for her as the face of women’s rugby.  

However, it says something that the player who could well end her career as our greatest ever wing is searching for more.

“Mentally I realized I have a lot to work on; I don’t think much and I’m quite la-de-da, but I need to keep digging into my core values and how I want to live day-to-day. This has taught me a lot, but I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

Rikki Swannell
Written by
Rikki Swannell

Sports broadcaster extraordinaire

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