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Silver Fern Laura Langman

One of the country’s top sportswomen, Laura Langman will be key to New Zealand's success at netball. Suzanne McFadden meets the hugely dedicated, determined and energised player.

Victory and defeat have come and gone, but for the past 10 years, one thing has remained the same for the Silver Ferns. Clutching a netball in the centre of the court is a woman with a bobbing blonde ponytail, incisive blue eyes, and long white socks.
Like a coiled spring, she waits for the shrill of the umpire’s whistle before blasting the ball down court into the hands of her loftier shooters – without a second glance, she senses exactly where they will be.
In every game New Zealand’s national netball team has played since 2005, Laura Langman has been the constant.
Yes, you read that right. Since she first donned the Silver Ferns’ black dress as an eager, athletic teenager straight off a Waikato dairy farm, Laura has never missed a game for her country. Never been dropped, and never been sidelined by injury (mention this to her and she will try to ‘touch wood’, such is her superstitious streak). She’s played 116 tests in a row – and some of those as New Zealand’s captain.
You could call her a phenomenon in the sport of netball, and beyond. It would be difficult to find another Kiwi athlete – woman or man – to rival her astonishing performance record. And she has done it all before turning 30. Only her long-time friend, Irene van Dyk, surpasses her for the most internationals played by a New Zealand netballer.
An accountant by profession – when her intensive netball career allows – the ever-modest and unpretentious Laura suspects the accuracy of the numbers: “Have they tripled-checked that?” she asks, with a wry smile.
Laura hopes to have kids some time in the future. “My husband is so patient. I’m more of an animal person, but we’ll get there one day!”
But statistics don’t lie, and neither do her friends. Irene, who retired this time last year, believes ‘Lauz’ is one of the greatest netballers to wear the silver fern. She considers herself the 29-year-old’s biggest fan – after Laura’s parents and her husband, Adrian.
“I’ve seen her grow from a shy 17-year-old to the dynamic leader she is today,” Irene says. “Lauz brings leadership, an amazing sense of humour and a whole lot of pride to the team. She’s super-competitive, and a perfectionist – in her studies, training and playing. And she would do anything for her friends.”
And now, on the eve of one of Laura’s greatest challenges, her friends and others closest to her are repaying her in kind. Even when it’s freezing cold outside.
It’s minus three degrees Celsius in Hamilton, just on dawn, and Laura is following in Jack Frost’s icy wake. As she runs, the frozen grass crackles underfoot, and she puffs out plumes of crisp white breath.
Some would see it as a cruel form of punishment. But for the Silver Ferns legend, it is a necessary evil. She’s relieved not to be enduring this on her own: a faithful band of girlfriends from Laura’s university netball club are right there beside her, braving the frost and matching her strides.
“They’re a fantastic bunch of girls who religiously train with me. For most of my career, I’ve done it on my own, but with them by my side this winter I can easily forget just how tough it is,” says Laura. She even completed her first triathlon, Mt Maunganui’s Tinman, last summer with her crew alongside.
At other times, it might be Laura’s husband, Adrian Pooley, 35, who is shadowing her.
“He rides his old pushbike next to me as I run the streets,” Laura laughs as she pictures it. “But I’m so grateful that he’s there.”
It has been this unswerving devotion from a troupe of family and friends that has pushed Laura through this year’s glacial winter. But the anticipated reward will make it all worthwhile – the Netball World Cup’s glittering crown, which is up for grabs in Sydney this month.
The world title is the ultimate prize for any netballer, yet it has eluded Laura through her decade-long international career. It would have to be the highlight of her netballing days if the Silver Ferns were to win gold – with Laura’s gang of seven loyal training buddies, her husband and her parents cheering from the stands.
Although they may be drowned out by Irene. “I’m going to be the biggest cheerer in the crowd,” the netball great promises.
While she relishes the encouragement, no one could say Laura has ever lacked commitment or get-up-and-go.
Laura in action, wearing her trademark calf-length white socks.
She has always been a player New Zealand has looked to in those crunch moments (usually against the Australians): directing play from the middle of the court like a little general; ingeniously threading the ball through her rivals; barely pausing for breath in 60 furious minutes.
All these years later, she still possesses that fresh air of youth and vitality, springing up and down the court as one of the fittest Ferns, and continues to burst with exuberance when she talks about the game she loves.
There’s plenty more about Laura that hasn’t changed. She’s still superstitious, going through the same pre-game rituals she’s had since that very first test against England: a meal of crumpets or a muffin split with peanut butter, jam and banana, and a cup of cereal and yoghurt. And she still wears her calf-high white socks (apparently, an old custom from growing up on a dairy farm, where she’d tuck her trouser legs into her socks).
The family farm, south-west of Hamilton, still looms large. It’s where she heads for her most gruelling training regimen of all – ‘The Farm Run’.
It’s an exhilarating, draining marathon across the pastures of Te Pahu, a small, close-knit community at the foot of Mt Pirongia – which also claims former Prime Minister Helen Clark as a famous daughter. Laura negotiates her way through the land still owned by her parents, Greg and Christine, and across into the neighbour’s property.
“It’s still the toughest thing I do; running over hills, jumping ditches, climbing through fences. It’s pretty much a mud run without excessive mud. I love it – I always maintain the air is a lot fresher out there than in town,” she says.
Laura and Adrian, who were married on the farm last year, visit at least once a fortnight. Knowing her daughter’s partiality to a roast dinner, Christine puts on a “great feast” for Laura once she’s finished her gut-busting run. It’s “guilt-free feasting” Laura laughs.
The farm also provides a change of pace for the couple – the mobile phone reception is lousy, and Laura sometimes mucks in and milks the cows, giving her parents a break.
Naturally, Greg and Christine are her longest-serving devotees, and will be in Sydney for the entire world tournament. “Dad’s already found himself a tennis club to play at,” says Laura with a grin.
A Waikato girl through and through, Laura made the monumental decision last year to cut ties with her Magic team in the ANZ trans-Tasman championship, to play for the Auckland-based Mystics. Her parents loyally travel north to watch her play every home game, “even though they have to milk the cows the next morning,” Laura says.
“It’s nice to know they don’t care what happens on the court, they just love you for you. Their support is massive.”
She is also eternally grateful for the support she receives from Adrian – both emotionally and physically. Adrian is a sports science technician at the Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec); they met in 2009 when he ran Laura through a fitness test. She continues to work out at Wintec, where Adrian helps her in the gym with weight training.
“Adrian does a great job taking care of me. In a pinnacle year like this, I’m in danger of getting tunnel vision – I focus on what I need to do, what I want to do, for this part of my life. But he’s really good at opening up my vision, keeping me rounded and balanced,” Laura says.
To take her mind off netball, Adrian takes Laura surfing – usually at Raglan – in the summer, and snowboarding in winter. But Laura has promised Silver Ferns coach Wai Taumaunu she will stay off the ski slopes until after the World Cup – a snowboard mishap would be catastrophic.
Laura has yet to decide whether these world championships will be her international netball swansong.
She’s never liked to plan too far ahead – living for the moment is one of her philosophies – so she will play out the rest of the year before pondering her future. But if she does call it a day, Laura has other endeavours to pursue. She would like to have children: “My husband is so patient. I’m more of an animal person, but we’ll get there one day!”
She’s been training towards becoming a Pilates instructor, and describes the core-strength exercise as transformational, helping her to better understand her body’s biomechanics, especially as she gets older.
Laura is also well on her way to becoming a fully-fledged chartered accountant. After years of university study, she now works ‘some-time’ (her version of part-time) as a consultant for Deloitte in Hamilton, ideally fitting 20 hours a week around her netball commitments. But with training and playing dominating most of her waking hours for much of the year, there are weeks when Laura might only squeeze in one day at the office.
Her employers fortunately understand the demands faced by a semi-professional netballer. Having forged a career outside of sport is something she is extremely proud of.
“I stuck with my university studies, kept pushing and progressing even if it was at a very slow rate! What I really like about it is when you’ve had a bad day on the court, you can go to work the next day and your mind is absorbed in something else. It’s so refreshing. You don’t harbour hang-ups about what happened in the last game. Life keeps going,” she says.
Her goal, to specialise in farm accountancy, will take her back to her roots. “It’s taken me a while to come to that realisation, but I now know where I want to go.”
It’s hard to imagine that at any time in her stellar career, Laura Langman hasn’t known exactly where she’s headed.
Laura and Adrian, a sports science technician, met in 2009 when he took the netball player through a fitness test.
With six players in the Silver Ferns side who have never played at a world champs, Laura’s experience – including two Commonwealth Games gold and two world championship silver medals – is invaluable. She also captained New Zealand to victory in the world youth cup in 2005, and led the Magic to win the 2012 ANZ championship (the only New Zealand team ever to do so).
Yet, with all the knowledge and wisdom she’s amassed, Laura was still anxious before the naming of this year’s team for Sydney. “Every year you have to get bigger, stronger, better. To be able to sustain, if not lift, your game is a massive challenge for a mature player.
So as you get older and wiser, the excitement of getting tapped on the shoulder morphs into relief,” she says, having witnessed fellow senior Ferns Joline Henry and Liana Leota miss out.
Now, on the eve of her third shot at the world crown, Laura admits this one is “a biggie”. Her first attempt in Auckland in 2007 was overshadowed by injury – a stress fracture in her foot meant she wasn’t cleared to play until hours before the Silver Ferns’ first game.
The 2011 tournament in Singapore was a heartbreaker – Australia snatched the title in an extra-time thriller, which could have swung either way. “I feel it’s really time for me to stand up, front up and show what I’ve learned. You only have one shot once every four years, so I have to make it count,” she says.
So what has she learned? “That it’s all about the journey,” she says. Laura has come to realise that it’s not about focusing on the final outcome; that will take care of itself if everyone makes the most of the passage there.
“I really admired the Black Caps at the Cricket World Cup this year. It struck a chord with me when [captain] Brendon McCullum said before the final: ‘Regardless if we win or lose, we’ve had the most amazing journey,’” Laura recalls. “To me, at the end of the day, that’s what really matters.”
Maybe it’s the Pollyanna in Laura, who will see a bright side in the most dire situations. Like the 2012 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where misfortune haunted the Silver Ferns and they had three shooters sidelined with injuries, including hotshot Maria Tutaia.
“Although it was disappointing, I was happy to stand on the podium with the silver medal," says Laura, of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
After fighting their way into the final, the Ferns were soundly beaten by their Australian arch-rivals. But while Kiwi tears flowed, vice-captain Laura valiantly smiled.
“Although it was disappointing, I was happy to stand on the podium with the silver medal, because of the journey we’d endured as a team. I was waving out to Mum and Dad, and yelling out, ‘Thank you Glasgow, it’s been great!’” she laughs at her own positivity.
“There were people crying next to me, and I was like, ‘Guys, seriously! We just survived the biggest storm we could have as a team, we made the final, and we played our hearts out until the bitter end. It will be our day, our moment of perfection, again.’”
Sunday August 16 could be that day. The team’s conviction has already been strengthened by the return of captain Casey Kopua, who’s battled back from a severe knee injury. Laura, who stepped into the captaincy role in Casey’s absence, is in awe of her friend; they first met as rivals at Waikato interschool volleyball and athletics competitions.
“Casey’s had an incredibly hard time to get here. She’s sailed above it all; it’s very inspirational. Her presence on court is massive – she’s a very big and important piece of our puzzle,” Laura says.
But there is another large piece of the Silver Ferns puzzle who’s no longer in the frame – Irene van Dyk. When Irene, a 145-test veteran, retired last year, Laura admits to finding it “very difficult” playing without the shooter she had continuously looked to, both on and off the court, for most of her career.
“She’s another one of those people whose presence and spirit is very, very strong. I think the team has evolved since then, and we’ve been able to move forward. But she’s still a strength behind the team,” Laura says with obvious emotion.
While they may not see Irene on court at Sydney Olympic Park, the Ferns will no doubt hear her. In her new role as Netball New Zealand’s official ambassador, Irene will be in the stands leading the ‘Silver Fans’ supporters.
“Watch out Sydney, this big chick is on her way with her cheering voice on,” Irene says. “It will be epic!”
Photography by: Jackie Meiring
Hair and make-up by: Claudia Rodrigues
Styling by: Victoria Bell

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