Saturday, November 24, 2012

Quite Possibly the Best Job On Earth

The New Zealand All Black Sevens - Gold Medal Winners
Last year I was lucky enough to get a call from the New Zealand All Black Sevens physiotherapist, Matt Wenham (aka Chalky).  He'd heard about me and asked if I'd be interested in working on the team during training camps here in Mount Maunganui.

At the time my wrist was really playing up and I was having treatment on it.  I wasn't sure I'd be able to handle the physicality of working on rugby players, particularly at that level.  I asked Matt if I could think about it and get back to him.

Looking back, it makes me chuckle.  Who in their right mind says "maybe" to the All Blacks Sevens? 

It was an honour being asked.  I didn't have to chase this, they found me and asked ME if I could come work for THEM.  Of course I had to say yes... and I did.

At STOMP - really giving it to him in the gluteus maximus
It's been a long time since I've worked on a team.  The last "team" experience I had was just before I moved to New Zealand and I'd been asked to join the North American tour with STOMP.  I loved being on the road, it was a great social scene.  But the work is hard and the hours are crazy.  I'd work late into the night, often until 3am and then sleep in late.  Working on athletes is physically demanding.  You've got to be pretty fit to keep up.

Mostly I work alone.  I've had my own business for such a long time that I don't know what it's like to get a regular pay check or to work with other people in an office. It's just me and the cats.

On the Set of STOMP
I don't know a lot about rugby.  I've been to a few All Black games and I was a volunteer for the IRB Rugby World Cup in 2011 which was hosted here in New Zealand.  I've even been to the Wellington Sevens.  But I go for the excitement of the game - I don't follow any of the players.

I know the body.  I know how it works.  I understand the mechanics and physiology and how to treat injuries.  I'm a Neuromuscular Therapist and have been doing it for 18 years.  What does it matter if I know nothing about rugby.

I think this was an advantage because I wasn't star struck or nervous about going to work.  I had no idea who any of these guys were.

We are set up in a big common area in the hotel where they stay during their training camps.  There's three of us in there - Chalky, me and Annette, the other therapist who has been with them for years.  It's very relaxed.

I was just thrown into it. I wasn't given the scoop on any of the players - what position they play or what injuries they had.  I didn't even know any of their names.  They all call each other by nicknames.  I was just expected to figure it all out.  I guess most people would know who they were - but not this Canadian girl!  Gradually I got to know the guys and it didn't take long to feel comfortable (but I still don't know most of their full names).  It's a real team environment - I forgot how much I missed it.

Our shift starts in the evening after 7pm and usually finishes around 10:30, sometimes later.  The guys hang out watching television, chatting to each other, having late snacks and waiting for their turn on the table with one of us.  It's a good vibe.  Very relaxed and easy.  We have a lot of laughs.

Their coach Gordon Tietjens comes in from time to time if he's not off playing tennis.  That man works so hard coaching all day and then he plays tennis for hours in the evening or early morning.  He'll usually pop in for a massage when the last guy has finished (hence the late nights).  Titch is a real  Roger Federer fan.  If Federer doesn't do well, he takes it out on the players at training the next day.

Gordon Tietjens - Coach of the All Black Sevens and hater of cheese
I thoroughly enjoy working with Titch.  He's just an amazing man.  He has presence.  There is a twinkle in his eye and he's always smiling at the end of the day.  You can see that he loves his job.  This past year he was given the great honour of being inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame.  But to me, he's a local who happens to coach the world's best rugby team. We have some great chats on the table.  Titch always asks questions and wants to know everything there is to know about you.  He's genuinely interested in people.  We often talk about public speaking - he does a lot of it.  He gets asked to talk about Team Building - understandably.  This guy knows a thing or two about building winning teams.

The reason the All Black Sevens are so successful is because Titch knows how to choose the right players.  He looks for guys who have high integrity, who have strong morals and values and who are willing to work hard to achieve their goals.  As Titch says, "We are a team, there is no 'I', only 'We'..."  He doesn't tolerate ego and he practices what he preaches.  He's an amazing role model for his players and you can see and feel the respect they all feel for him.

Because of Gordon Tietjens, the team are a bunch of really cool, down to earth guys.  They are fun to work with, easy to talk to and it all helps to make my job pretty awesome.

It all sounds glamorous - massaging hunky rugby guys for a living - but it's bloody hard work!  If these guys weren't as awesome as they are, I might have walked away after the first season.  I don't have time for big egos or to feel like I'm hired help.  Physically it's demanding and hard on my body.  I want to be useful as a healer right up into old age so I have to look after myself.  When you are acknowledged and appreciated by the people you are "healing", then there is an exchange of energy.  If that energy wasn't there, I couldn't do it.  You have to get what you give.

A Sevens Player cooling his muscles after a hard training
One of my friends left a cheeky comment on my facebook saying how lucky I was to be working on the rugby boys.  I replied by saying, "You try softening tree trunks with your bare hands, it's bloody hard work!"  There's a lot of muscle to get through.  It's not about rubbing them down - but helping them through to the next round of training.  This is serious business for these guys.  Their career depends on how they perform from one day to the next.  No matter what I say, people tease.  They're right, it's a great job but not because of the bodies... a leg is a leg is a leg.  I get to be a part of this team as one of their therapists.  In a small way that makes me a part of the family (even if it makes me a distant cousin, I don't care).

Chalky and Annette are equally laid back and awesome colleagues to work with.  Annette and I are the only two women but we are respected, and even feared by the players because of our strength.  Neither of us are very big (Annette is only about 5') but we are strong!  The other day one of the players asked me if I could go easy on him.  I asked if he was feeling fragile.  "Like tissue paper."  He said.

I didn't need this contract for my CV.   After 18 years as a therapist, I've done my hard time working on athletes.  I was enjoying my quiet little studio in my garden by the beach.  I was trying to stay under the radar, enjoying semi-retirement.  But the Sevens found me and I'm grateful they did.  It can be lonely in the secret garden.  It's nice having the best of both worlds.

So at the moment I'm just working with the team when they are here training between tournaments which suits me.  But as things heat up with the 2014 Commonwealth Games approaching, I imagine it could get busier.  I'd love to go with them.

Loving how Sammy is hugging his new shoe in this shot.
RWC 2011
I'm also proud to report that I am learning more about rugby.  The guys have been gracious enough to teach me a thing or two and to answer my dumbass girly questions.  Plus, we watch a lot of games when we're working.  It's finally starting to hit me that I am actually working on celebrities in the sports world.  These guys are a big deal - but to me they are just my patients and ordinary people.  Take Tomasi Cama for example, I've just learned that he has been named IRB player of the year.  That's a big achievement!  I just knew him by his nickname!  I'm shaking my own head.   Next time I see him I should bring him a present.  What do you get a rugby player these days?  Do you think flowers are too much?

I'm learning more and I realize how little they probably know about the therapist who is working on them.  This is a girl who has come a long way from starting her own business in Toronto at the age of 20.  I have treated a few celebrities, actors, athletes, entertainers, very successful business people, most of them Canadian and American.  But now I have one of the most talked about Rugby teams in my brag book... and they found ME.  

The team is off to Dubai tomorrow and then South Africa the following week.  Good luck guys!  I'll be watching with new respect and admiration... and most of all pride.  I can say, I had a hand in your success.  That's amazing.

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