At 17, when most of her friends were going off to uni to embark on a new life of fun and freedom, Gemma McCaw packed up her bedroom at her family home in Tauranga to head to Auckland to join the Black Sticks hockey team.
It was the start of a decade-long dedication, with every ounce of focus and energy directed into her sport. There were enormous highs and crushing lows, but through it all, she gave it absolutely everything. Now, though, the star – who married All Black legend Richie McCaw in January – has found herself at something of a crossroads.
After narrowly missing out on a medal at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last year – four years after coming fourth at the London Olympics too – the crestfallen athlete decided to take a break from the sport she loves.
Planning her stunning Wanaka wedding and focusing on her health-coaching business has kept her busy, but Gemma, 27, tells us the decision about whether to return to professional hockey is beginning to loom large.
“I’ve managed pretty well to put it out of my mind, but it is something that I need to decide soon,” she admits.
“It’s a huge decision. There’s definitely a feeling of unfinished business because an Olympic medal is the ultimate dream for any athlete, but it’s a matter of whether I still have that drive. It’s a huge commitment and I need to be absolutely sure about it.”
In an attempt to help his wife with her decision, Richie, 36, came up with a novel solution. “He pulled out a coin and said, ‘Heads or tails – heads being hockey and tails being retirement.’ Then he wouldn’t show me the coin and asked ‘What do you want it to be?’ But I still couldn’t decide!”
Fortunately for Gemma, who studied for her Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science at Massey University throughout her hockey career, she has another impressive string to her bow. As a health coach, her services are in hot demand – and Woman’s Day is lucky enough to have her as our newest columnist.
Each week, Gemma will share her advice and tips on health and wellbeing for Kiwi women, and she can’t wait to help inspire us with suggestions for how we could all improve our lives with simple changes.
“I love the idea of helping people live healthier lives,” she tells us just days after jetting back to NZ from a tropical holiday. “I feel really passionate about the fact that everyone could make these very small but meaningful changes and see huge benefits.”
She hopes her weekly column will touch “good Kiwi women”, and make a difference to their health and happiness.
“I always say to people that they have no idea just how much better they could feel. And I’m not talking major changes – it’s more about introducing new habits. Like taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator, for example. It’s the same with food – just switching out a chocolate bar in the afternoon for a carrot or an apple can make a huge difference to how you feel.”
Gemma says she has no interest in preaching to people – she just loves the idea of helping women feel their best.
“Some people might think, ‘What does she know?’ but I’ve worked with amazing nutritionists, psychologists and fitness experts, and I’ve learnt so much.”
She might not have children of her own yet, but with three nieces and nephews, Gemma has a good idea of just how busy family life can be for many parents.
“Being up in the night with babies is obviously incredibly tough and I’m sure I’ll find out for myself if we are lucky enough to have a family!” laughs Gemma.
“But I also see how women tend to put everyone else first and I’d love to encourage mums to look after themselves a bit more too. Taking time to go for a walk can be so restorative.”
Christchurch-based Gemma and All Black-turned-helicopter pilot Richie start their days at around 6am, when they head out for a jog together in a nearby park.
Breakfast is usually an omelette or a green smoothie if she’s in a hurry – and Gemma has managed to convince Richie to switch out his beloved tinned Black Doris plums for fresh fruit on his Weet-Bix instead. “There’s a lot of sugar hidden in tinned fruit!” she tells.
While Richie heads off to work at Christchurch Helicopters, Gemma either consults from home, visits clients of her 100 Percent Project or speaks to schools in her role as Olympic Ambassador. A couple of weeks a month, she commutes to Auckland.
She does the majority of the cooking at home, serving her husband meat or chicken most nights, with vegetables or a salad on the side. She’ll happily make Richie some spuds, but she tends to opt for kumara or brown rice. “They keep me fuller for longer,” she says.
While Gemma is admirably committed to her healthy diet, she’s not averse to the odd treat. “You can’t be perfect all the time!”
She admits she can even slip up. In the lead-up to her wedding, she was having a post-workout smoothie at her local café most days. It was only after a month or so that she asked the waitress what was in it and discovered her healthy snack wasn’t quite so healthy!
“It turned out that along with the berries, bananas and yoghurt, there were two-and-a-half scoops of ice cream!” she laughs.
Down-to-earth Gemma is at pains to point out she and Richie, who retired from the sport last year after 15 years in the All Blacks, are no different to any other young Kiwi couple.
“There’s a tendency to look at high-profile people and think, ‘Gee, they’ve got it all,’ but everyone is dealing with the pressures of life and we’re no different.”
Even finding the motivation to stay fit doesn’t always come easy, she insists.
“Sometimes the alarm goes off in the morning and heading out for a run in the cold is the last thing I feel like doing! But I always say, you never regret it once you’ve done it.”
Going to bed early is also a habit Gemma swears by.
“We don’t watch much TV – maybe just the six o’clock news if we’re home. We try to get to bed by about 9.30 and it’s something I’m quite strict about because sleep makes such a difference to how I feel. I’m no good when I’m tired!”
While the future is still uncertain for Gemma and her hockey career, one thing’s for sure – she has a huge amount to give.
“I’m just really passionate about helping people lead the best life they can. It’s all about vitality – eating, sleeping and moving. But it’s also about having healthy relationships and celebrating our achievements. I’m so excited to be joining the Woman’s Day team and sharing my passion.”