If there was a phrase that sums up the past 12 months for Black Ferns star Stacey Waaka, it would be this: “It is what it is.”
Laughing, the rugby legend tells Woman’s Day, “I love that saying – it’s one of my favourites at the moment.”
It’s been a year of change and growth for Tauranga-based Stacey, 28, who separated from her husband Ricky Fluhler early in 2023.
And with so many gold medals tucked away in her trophy cabinet – two from Rugby World Cups, one from the Olympics, one from the Commonwealth Games and yet another from the Rugby World Cup Sevens – this year saw Stacey ask, “What next?”
The answer? A break away from the sport for her own mental health and to recharge her batteries for the next round of rugby, including 2024’s Olympic Games in Paris. It was a chance to expand her horizons and see the world.
“I’ve been in professional rugby in New Zealand for so long, winning nearly everything,” says Stacey, who made her Black Ferns debut in 2015. “I needed to explore, so I signed with the New York Locals team in the Premier Rugby Sevens, which was amazing. I went to 10 different states in two months!”
For three months Stacey, along with fellow rugby icon Ruby Tui and other members of the star-studded Ferns teams, played in the new professional competition in the States, an experience she describes as “refreshing”.
Stacey explains, “It was the mental and physical break I needed. I’ve always been about enjoying the journey and making sure that whatever I do is fun. Once I came back, I was like, ‘OK, my cup is full again – let’s go!'”
If 2023 was a year of change and recharging for the star back, 2024 will be a year of pushing go with both sevens and 15-a-side rugby.
“Having that ‘go year’ and having those goals will be great,” smiles Stacey. “Sometimes I have my moments and think, ‘Gosh, I’m tired,’ but I’m a pretty positive, bubbly person. If I’m loving what I’m doing, I’m good!”
However, Papakura-born, Ruatoki-raised Stacey, who is of Ngāi Tūhoe descent, does acknowledge she’s recently been doing a bit more reflection and that she’s now on a different path to the one she thought.
“I’m trying to plan the next three years – like when am I going to retire, what am I going to do afterwards and am I going to play another sport? Right now, the full focus is on the Olympics. But it’s weird to think about life after rugby. I’d love to stay and do this for as long as I can, but I also know that it takes a toll on the body and the older you get, the harder it is, especially in our sport.”
Also somewhere in the planning is carving out some time to have a baby at some point – a consideration that Stacey calls the “downside of being a female athlete”.
She says, “You can plan to try to achieve a specific goal to have a baby and settle down at a certain time, but life doesn’t really work that way. Being a female athlete and being a little bit older, I know a lot of us have struggled to build families with their partners. I’ve thought about it and I’d love to be a mum one day, but trying to plan it is hard… It is what it is!”
Until the pitter-patter of tiny feet comes along, travel is a huge passion for Stacey and although she’s super-lucky her job necessitates jetting around the globe – in fact, she’s chatting to us from Abu Dhabi – she’d love to pack her bags as a “normal tourist” to see the sights that rugby doesn’t travel to.
“An actual holiday would be great!” she laughs. “But I’d also love to experience playing or coaching overseas one day. That would be amazing.”
And if she ever managed to let the black jersey go – “it would be hard because I love it so much!” – Stacey also harbours a dream to switch codes and play league in Australia’s women’s NRL competition.
“It’s massive at the moment and there’s so much money being thrown at it – it’d be so exciting to give it a go! I’d also love to keep my work in the media going too. I really loved hosting Te Ao Toa on Whakaata Māori and it’s become a real passion.”
Whatever the future holds, Stacey says she’s excited for it and plans to take all of the opportunities.
“I know I need to be in sport. It’ll fill my heart if I’m able to give back to the sport that has given me so much in life and has shaped me into the person I am today. Whatever comes, I’m ready for the journey and the challenge!”