New research shows a majority of young girls don't have a sporting role model, but a new campaign is aiming to change that - with a very famous face. 

For someone who’s inspired countless Kiwis to pursue their sporting dreams, Dame Valerie Adams never had a sporting role model of her own. 

Adams has won four Olympic shot put medals - two of them gold - but the bronze she claimed in Tokyo, as a mother of two, inspired mums to return to elite sport. 

She’s had to pave her own way to ensure people like her are represented in the media, and visible for girls to look up to. 

New research, by digital youth engagement platform Year13 and Visa, shows 64 percent of girls don’t have a sportswoman they look up to. 

For Adams, now 38, the Kiwi sports stars she recalls watching were boxer David Tua and rugby star Jonah Lomu. She felt there were no sportswomen who looked like her. 


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As a Polynesian woman from south Auckland, Adams found refuge in sport growing up. 

“I lost my mum when I was 15 and, yes, I could have stopped sports quite easily,” the Tongan legend says. 

“But I found sports as a way out for me, and a way to express my grief in a positive way, as opposed to a negative way. Because the normal thing to do if you’re from the community I’m from is to have babies, go on the dole and c’est la vie. 

“But because I had these trauma experiences as a youngster, sport was a way out for me; it was a way to be able to deal with the situation I was in.” 

She finds the results of the research concerning, especially with 15 being the age where most girls are dropping out of sports - for reasons like lack of role models, prioritising study and social activities, and body confidence. 

“Fifteen is such a very tough age for a lot of these young women. There’s a lot of pressure, with things like social media. Society has changed,” Adams explains. 

“The way we were brought up is not the way we’re going to be teaching our kids how to be today. They’re two very different upbringings and we have to acknowledge that and the pressures they’re under as youngsters in this day and age.” 

Adams feels privileged that a broad range of people have been inspired by her journey - even if it’s just to get off their couch and go out for a walk. She retired from shot put last year, but continues to coach younger sister Lisa. 

A “struggling mum” with two young children - daughter Kimoana (5) and son Kepaleli (4) - Adams’ upbringing as a Pasifika woman in south Auckland, losing her parents at a young age and struggling financially as a family was tough. 

“All these life experiences are very real and people on the ground, normal people, can relate to,” she says. 

“That’s what I continue to want to showcase and continue to share that story, but talk to people more in-depth about certain things that, maybe, concern them.” 

Adams didn’t have anyone to turn to with advice on how to be a professional athlete after having children, but has now seen multiple mums return to elite competitions. 

“That just goes to show society has changed, the way we think about women in general has changed, their ability to be able to have a child and come back to the sporting world has changed,” Adams says. 

“There was a time when if you were pregnant, all sponsorships would be cut. Where today, that’s all changing. Our respect for women has risen, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in that space. 

“To be able to do that makes me even more comfortable for the future and any other athletes who want to come through the ranks and have a child.”

Returning to sports as a mum is not only beneficial for the athlete, but also for her children. 

The Visa PlayOn research showed the biggest influence on girls to play sport were their friends, followed by family. But 71 percent of girls had no parents who currently played sport. 

Coming from a very sporty family, that was never a concern for Adams - the financial burden of sports was the biggest struggle for her and her whānau. 

Adams has been with Team Visa since 2007, but feels fortunate to be part of this PlayOn campaign during another huge event for women’s sport in Aotearoa, when the FIFA Women’s World Cup takes place in July. 

“It’s a very exciting time for everyone, but I’m hoping we can really see it’s out there, people buy the tickets to go to the games, and they are there, present, to support our girls,” Adams says. 

“They deserve to have Kiwis there supporting them.” 

The Rugby World Cup at the end of last year was an incredible experience for Adams, who presented the Black Ferns with their jerseys for the final. 

“It was such a positive atmosphere, everybody was on a high,” she says. “They were all vibing and it was actually wonderful to be part of it, just for that very short time.”

“To be able to come out and succeed on the world stage here at home was such an exceptional time for us as a country, but also for every female out there - these girls created history here in Aotearoa and it was amazing.” 

It’s Adams’ hope New Zealand can keep momentum going into football’s World Cup, and show some of the Football Ferns stars to the billions around the world watching. The 2019 women’s tournament in France had more than one billion viewers, and FIFA are hoping to double that for this event. 

“New Zealand has a responsibility to take the opportunity that’s been presented to us and do something with it,” Adams says. 

“We have the pleasure of having the US team come down here to New Zealand, and they’re a big team - they’re like badasses - so we need to capitalise on these things. 

“With Visa’s PlayOn campaign, it’s the best time to roll it out, to actually bring light to it, do something about it. And let people know the importance of this and how this could really change that age group of girls and the way they think about sports in general.” 

New Zealand leads the way in visibility of women’s sport in the media, but Adams believes social media also has a big part in how athletes are perceived. 

“There we can share our own journeys and stories and we have control over that, it’s not all done by the media anymore, which makes it better and more powerful because it’s more authentic,” she explains. 

“Those are platforms where you’re able to connect with society, and with young women in particular, about certain issues. That gives us sportspeople and role models out there more control about what we want to share and how we want to share it, and engaging with people all around Aotearoa.” 

Adams says girls look for role models they share qualities with. 

“It’s human nature to see someone in your likeness who you have some things in common with, and then relate to them that way. Then you’re more likely to believe what they say or are interested in what they have to say, it’s just the way humans are. 

There’s a variety of Kiwi sportswomen who girls can look up to from various codes - something Adams is proud of. 

“Whether you’re a team sportsperson or an individual sportsperson, there are a lot of amazing role models out there who set the bar high,” she says. 

“It showcases that you can make it, or this could be a career if you wanted to continue with that, it is possible.” 

Sport changed Adams’ life, and it’s her hope it could do the same for other girls. 

“Find what you love to do, and once you do that, it’s easy to turn up to training, and to participate in sport. If you love what you do, it’s not actually forcing you to do sport,” she says.

"There are a lot of opportunities available out there, you’ve just got to make the first move. But know there are a lot of female sportswomen out there who want you and value you as a person, as young woman of this country.” 

But it’s not just sports, it’s being active and having all the benefits of a healthy lifestyle that’s important to Adams. 

“Sports is one thing, but my view on it is bigger than that,” she says. “It’s actually movement and health and mental health - and how can we get girls to continue to be active for the sake of themselves and how they feel about themselves.” 

2023-05-30T17:13:02Z dg43tfdfdgfd