Tall Ferns star Ashleigh Udesike is one of those people who firmly believes women can do anything. But even she was pushed to her limits this year when top-level sport, motherhood and a tragic accident all came at once.
The 31-year-old basketball player (née Kelman-Poto) from Auckland's North Shore had been married a little more than a year and was focused on her newborn daughter Nauvoo when she was unexpectedly selected to join the Ferns on their European tour in June.
Despite having dreamed and trained for this since first picking up a basketball at age eight, the Northern K¯ahu player hadn't expected the international call-up to come so soon after giving birth.
"It was a pinch-myself moment to have finally made it after so many training camps," Ashleigh admits.
Feeling daunted but determined, she and husband Meka worked out a plan that allowed him to stay at home to care for new baby Nauvoo and her six-year-old brother Jai. Everything was slotting into place – until tragedy struck.
While enjoying a family day out trail biking in March, Meka decided to do a couple of laps on a motocross track and didn't land a jump right.
"I was waiting with the kids and when he didn't come around the track after 30 minutes, I thought he might have hurt himself, but I didn't realise how bad it was until the ambulance came," recalls Ashleigh.
"I called his cousin who was with him and he told me everything was fine, but I didn't have a good feeling. I insisted he told me and he said Meka was on the ground unconscious.
"I packed up the kids and tried to keep my son calm as we followed the ambulance. I was on a mission to be there for Meka."
At Waikato Hospital, she soon learnt Meka had a head injury, a punctured lung, a broken collarbone and 11 breaks across nine ribs.
"We spent a week in Waikato and were then transferred to North Shore Hospital. But it didn't click how bad the injuries were until he came home because I had just been trying to manage the kids and training. Then I realised he was really broken and the baby would have to come with me to Europe."
A five-month-old isn't the typical mascot for international-level sport, but Basketball New Zealand stepped up and supported Ashleigh, who took her mother Julie to care for Nauvoo.
"My mum is more organised than I am, so she made it easy," says Ashleigh. "It was the first time to Europe for both of us, so we were excited."
And though babies and long-haul flights don't usually mix, Nauvoo represented the Ferns like a true champion, sleeping most of the way and enjoying a few cuddles from the team between naps.
While Ashleigh had initially considered giving up her basketball dream to care for her husband and, at times during the tour, she questioned if she'd made the right decision, the support from both Meka and the team spurred her on.
"Basketball New Zealand and the girls were so supportive," she enthuses. "My husband is a give-no-excuses kind of guy and just said, 'Don't be silly, baby. You'll be fine.' It actually was a lot easier than it should have been."
With Meka's mother moving in to care for him and Jai, Ashleigh was able to focus instead on the not-insignificant challenge of representing her country.
"The moment I slipped on the Tall Ferns shirt for the first time was like an out-of-body experience. I was just focused and determined to do my best. It was hard because I was four months postpartum and not as fit or strong as I usually am, but I still gave it everything I could."
While the Ferns lost their games against Serbia and Turkey, they closed the tour with a win against Poland.
Ashleigh wasn't selected for the FIBA Women's Asia Cup in June but is working hard on securing a spot as the Ferns look towards the Olympic Games next year.
Helping Northern Kāhu take out the title at the 2023 Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa Championships in mid-September certainly helps with that prospect.
Ashleigh says the newly formed Women's League competition has lifted the standard of women's basketball, with players now being imported from across the world, and Kiwi players getting more opportunities to pursue their sport in universities across the US and Europe.
As the recipient of a basketball scholarship to Oklahoma and a former NBL1 player in Australia, Ashleigh knows the benefits that can flow from hard work and pursuing a passion.
"I never dreamed I would make it to the national team, but once I got a taste of it, I knew I wanted to make it. I love the process of trying to be selected."
And while Ashleigh admits that process has made life more stressful than it could have been, especially given the challenges faced by her family this year, she wouldn't have it any other way. The accident has made the couple stronger, and taught her to have more compassion and empathy.
Now that Meka is almost fully recovered, Ashleigh is learning to laugh about her crazy year. And like any loyal wife and mother, if you ask her who is harder to look after – a newborn or a broken husband – she won't play favourites.
"They were equally hard!" she says with a grin.
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