When Black Ferns star Kelly Brazier was a young girl, she had two big dreams – to play for the All Blacks and win gold at the Olympic Games.
However, as a female, she figured she'd never pull on a black jersey to represent Aotearoa in rugby. "It wasn't until I was about 10 that I realised there was a Black Ferns team!" she laughs. "From then on, I wanted to make that team. I followed every game, watching late in the night while pretending I was asleep."
At just 20, Kelly debuted for the Black Ferns in 2009, going on to win four World Cup titles. She scooped up a silver medal at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and scored the winning try in extra time to take gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
And this year, in Tokyo, her Olympic dream came true when the Black Ferns sevens team brought home the gold for the very first time.
Now 31, Kelly describes this achievement as "undoubtedly the highlight of my career" – and her personal life is also at a peak, with the rugby star having recently married the love of her life, real estate agent Tahlia Brazier (née Tahau), and started a family.
Chatting to Woman's Day in the kitchen of their Papamoa home while their 19-month-old son Oakley sits at their feet, sharing his popcorn with their black Pomeranian pup Mila, Tahlia laughs when we mention her wife is the most decorated women's rugby player in the history of the game.
"To me, she's just Kelly," the 28-year-old insists. And despite the fact their household is brimming with trophies and medals, the humble athlete does indeed seem like any Kiwi mum as she scoops up her little boy and puts him on her shoulders.
The couple, who met through mutual friends at a rugby match and married in 2019, share a love of sport but are otherwise quite different. Tahlia tells, "We work well as a team because our personalities complement each other. I get quite anxious about things, whereas Kelly is always calm and manages stress well. She never gets freaked out. I guess that's from the discipline of the game, but it's also really helpful when you're new parents!"
"Tahlia is more bubbly and social than me," adds Kelly, "The only bad habit she's got is if we're going out, she'll try on 50 outfits, asking me which one looks best – and then she always goes back to the first one!"
Their baby boy Oakley was born on February 17, 2020, and although New Zealand's first lockdown followed shortly after, Kelly was unfazed. "It was certainly interesting learning to be new parents in the midst of a global pandemic, but the lockdown turned out to be a blessing because I got to be with him for those precious first months, rather than travelling around.
"We kind of just fell into parenting, learning as we go. We don't have split roles – I say that as, for some reason, people ask that about two mums! It's a lot of teamwork."
Having a child has changed her perspective, continues Kelly. "Before, I would be so wrapped up in rugby that I'd come home and be analysing the game. Now when I come through the door, it is all about Tahlia and Oakley. Oakley doesn't want to hear about this angle or that move – he just wants me."
The couple used a sperm donor to conceive their son, with Tahlia giving birth. She explains, "We decided I'd carry him as it made practical sense with Kelly's rugby commitments, but he has the same tight bond with us both."
The couple are keen to have more children with the same donor – the only question is, how many? Tahia says, "If you ask Kelly, she'll say five! I was thinking two originally, but now I'm thinking three."
Laughing, Kelly replies, "Really? OK, done!"
The couple are used to constant questions about how Oakley was conceived. "We're pretty open about our relationship and family," says Kelly. "There are people in different types of situations wanting children and we're happy to share our experience if it helps. Even if people are just curious, that's fine."
Fortunately, she has never experienced any homophobic comments on or off the field. "I'm very transparent about my sexuality," says Kelly. "There are other gay women in the team and we get messages from young women needing support. We're all different women who can just be ourselves. In sport and in life, when you're yourself, accept yourself and are accepted, that's when you play your best game and live your best life."
Excellent leadership and teamwork are key to the success of the Black Ferns, adds Kelly. "We went to Tokyo believing in ourselves. There was pressure, but we have each other's backs. I face games like I have a job to do, and I just go out there and do it."
Yet however cool, calm and collected they were on the field, when the team finally stood up on the podium to receive their medals, it was overwhelming.
Kelly remembers, "It was unreal. To achieve our dream together just made me so happy. I was crying with relief, happiness and every other emotion.
"Over the years, you go through all sorts with your teammates. Portia [Woodman] and Sara [Hirini] are my two closest friends. They were bridesmaids at our wedding, and Sara and I are bridesmaids at Portia's wedding later this year. We're family."
Forced to watch the Olympics from back home in the Bay of Plenty, Tahlia shares, "We were all going crazy. Oakley could tell there was a lot of excitement. He sees his mum on the TV, but he has no concept of the significance. He just knows she plays a game with a ball!
"When Kelly plays here, we're at the sidelines, but often Oakley is more interested in the drone filming the game than watching his mum. He's definitely not starstruck!"
However, the locals in Papamoa are certainly impressed. Kelly smiles, "We've been stopped a few times in the streets and people want to see if I'm wearing the medal! If people visit, they always ask to see it and it's funny because always the next thing they want to do is put it round their neck. I love that."
When Woman's Day visits, Kelly and her gold medal have just returned from a trip to Dunedin, where she grew up, to visit her mum, older brother and her grandmother, the latter being Kelly's biggest fan.
"She has years of newspaper cuttings," says Kelly. "Wherever I'm playing in the world, she stays up to watch me. She hasn't been too well recently, so it was special to show her the medal. Then, of course, she took it around her retirement village to show it off."
Her family have always been supportive of her love of rugby, Kelly adds. "There was never any comment that it was a boys' game, even if there were few girls playing rugby in Otago, if any.I tagged along with my brother Tony to the rugby club and just joined in their games.
"I never met another female in the teams we played against. Sometimes there'd be a bit of ribbing from the opposition, but I always just stepped forward and got stuck into the game. I was never afraid of the roughness of the game – that's what appealed!
"I remember one team we played, one of the boys commented that girls were too soft for rugby. At that time, I was the kicker for the team. I stitched up the game and we beat them!"
Now in Europe for the Black Ferns tour of England and France, Kelly doesn't
As for her next big dream after that? "I would love to be the first female Black Ferns coach. Along with a houseful of kids, that's my ultimate goal – to raise the next generation of Black Ferns. I have so much more I want to give to rugby and to New Zealand."
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