Les Elder has spent the majority of her life pushing herself to the limit. With dogged determination, she rose to the top of her field – the rugby field, to be exact – and became captain of the Black Ferns in 2019, after showcasing her uncompromising resilience with a World Cup win two years earlier. So it's surprising when she admits she feels like she has cheated in her life off the field.
"I felt like a fraud," she says, referring to the birth of her second child, a boy they named Arapati, now five months old. "We walked into the theatre and it was so relaxing. There was music playing and everything was calm. I was trying not to show that I was worried. Johnny was really worried too. We talked about it afterwards and he was like, 'I guess that was because the last time we were at the hospital, I watched you nearly die.'"
Les, 36, and her husband Johnny, 40, were put through their paces while planning to have a family, with a long journey trying to conceive.
They spent four years trying for a baby before going down the IVF route. After one round, they were rewarded with their first child, daughter Mihiterena, now three. Both being from large families, there was no question they'd immediately try for a second. And being no stranger to hard work, Les decided another go with IVF was worth it. Luckily, she became pregnant on the second round.
What followed was a terrifying ectopic pregnancy, which saw Les end up on the operating table while pregnant with Arapati, her second ectopic pregnancy since her journey began. It turned out she had conceived two babies – one naturally and one through IVF – and one had sadly passed away. During the ordeal, Les had her second fallopian tube removed. The first was removed during the first ectopic pregnancy.
After all the challenges that came with creating their perfect little family, a surprisingly "easy" birth the second time round came as quite a shock to the tenacious sportswoman.
"Getting pregnant has never been easy for us, so to have something go smoothly felt very strange," explains Les, who needed a Caesarean with Arapati due to the ectopic pregnancy.
Reflecting on her journey, Les realises she was being incredibly hard on herself. "I remember feeling like I cheated the first time round with Mihiterena too, which is crazy to even think about – it's ridiculous! I just thought, 'I can't get pregnant naturally. I can't even have a baby naturally!' I was having all these kinds of thoughts, but eventually I just came to accept that this is how it is."
These days, Les – who was part of the World Cup-winning Black Ferns squad in 2017 – looks happy, healthy and relaxed, but ever the humble team player, she puts it down to her support network.
"We're really fortunate," she explains. "Over the last five years, we've had a number of Black Ferns Sevens girls live with us – Jazmin Hotham, Tenika Willison, Cheyelle Robins-Reti and Theresa Fitzpatrick. They've all been a part of our lives and have helped us out massively."
None of the four women are still staying under Les and Johnny's roof, but they take their roles as family seriously. For example, every Thursday, Mihiterena stays at Tenika's home while the couple go to te reo Māori classes.
"Tineka's her godmother and she's so comfortable with her," she says.
Les and Johnny's immediate whānau also help out where they can. Les explains that Mihiterena is going with her brother, who lives down the road, to Les' hometown of Taumarunui, to stay with her grandparents that weekend. "She's so excited to go back to the farm with all the cousins," shares Les.
Software developer Johnny mainly works from home, but Les says it helps to have such a large network of friends and family around. It will definitely help once they expand their brood, a revelation that has left the rest of their family a little confused and bewildered.
"We told them recently that we're probably going to try for a third," laughs Les. "Like, as soon as possible. I don't even have fallopian tubes!"
As with her first two pregnancies, Les will undergo an embryo implant and "hope for the best".
Due to the C-section, it's recommended to wait at least nine months before trying to conceive again.
"As soon as Arapati turns nine months, I'll be going straight into IVF again," says Les excitedly.
She admits having three children close together in age won't be easy, but Les has never been one to shy away from a challenge. And it helps knowing Mihiterena is at the stage where she'd love to help with her siblings.
"She's old enough where she can follow instructions and knows how to help, without making it harder. She's just such a cool kid and loves her little brother. We thought she'd struggle, especially sharing Johnny, but it's gone the other way – she's come back to me because I've got her baby all the time!"
Mihiterena has spent the past two years glued to Johnny's side. "It's so cool watching her love and protect Arapati as an older sister," smiles Les. "She'll definitely be ready for another one soon."
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