After a year of uncertainty, disappointment, mourning and what felt like defeat, former Black Ferns captain Les Elder is looking forward to sunny days ahead.
At 32 weeks pregnant, Les is cleaning up after daughter Mihiterena’s third birthday party when Woman’s Day visits her Mount Maunganui home. “Would you like some cake? I made it myself, which is probably why no one has eaten it,” she laughs.
The past year has been tough for Les, 36, and her husband Johnny, 40. But you wouldn’t know it from their joyful energy. Les says it’s thanks to the hard times that they’ve realised they have a lot to be grateful for.
“I’ve always believed in keeping things in perspective,” says Taumarunui-born Les (née Ketu), who was part of the World Cup-winning Black Ferns squad of 2017. “I like to remind myself there’s always someone going through way worse than I am. I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it, but it’s always helped me.”
Not having made the Black Ferns team in 2022, Les felt it was the perfect time to focus on her family and try for another baby. “I knew I was retiring and I was doing the commentary for the World Cup at the time,” she explains. “The timing just felt right.”
Les – who is of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Hāua ki Taumarunui descent – and Johnny went through IVF with the first pregnancy, so knew what to expect. Les still had eggs left from the first round, which made things easier, but she still had to get regular blood tests.
“You have to get blood tests done between 7am and 8.30am on specific days,” explains Les. “They would often fall on World Cup game days, so I’d have to mission it back to Auckland [from Whangārei, where she was commentating] at really weird times. At one stage, I was hitching midnight rides with strangers. One time, I shared a car with a Welsh reporter I met through the World Cup, an Irish couple, a Tongan man and a Kiwi girl. It was an experience!”
But it was all worth it when, two weeks after the Black Ferns won the World Cup, they discovered Les had become pregnant on their second try. The couple was over the moon. But it wasn’t long before they had to deal with two of their greatest challenges yet.
Just a week after hearing the good news, Johnny’s mum passed away. Then, only a week after burying her, they found themselves at an extended family member’s funeral, where Les began to notice something was wrong.
“I started getting pains at the funeral,” says Les. “I’ve had an ectopic pregnancy before when I was younger and I’d felt the same feeling. I remember leaning over and telling John, ‘I think something’s wrong with the baby.'”
After rushing to the hospital, Les spent four hours waiting to be seen. When she finally had tests, she was told her unborn child was fine. “They said they could hear the baby’s heartbeat and everything seemed okay. They went around in circles trying to work it out. Eventually, they told me they’d found a burst cyst.”
Worried that Les was bleeding internally, doctors attempted to remove the suspected cyst, but in the process, they discovered Les had been carrying two babies – one conceived through IVF and one through natural conception.
However, one was an ectopic pregnancy and the fertilised egg had implanted itself in her fallopian tube, which was what had burst.
“They had to remove the fallopian tube,” says Les. “I’ll never conceive naturally, but I don’t think that was ever on the cards for me anyway.”
On the day Les left the hospital, her body desperately trying to recover from the trauma of surgery and losing one of her precious babies, morning sickness hit hard.
“I managed to get it 10 times worse this time around,” says Les. “It was so bad. For 14 weeks, I was in absolute agony. It was so hard to recover and go through sickness like that while trying to look after another child.”
When Les was pregnant with Mihiterena, she was working out twice a day, every day.
“I trained the day I gave birth to my daughter,” she laughs. “This time, I reckon I’ve trained five times in almost nine months. But I’ve had a different purpose. Last time, I always intended to return to rugby, but this time, I have no intention of playing again.”
Before her personal troubles, Les was struggling to deal with the public scrutiny that came after four losses with the Black Ferns.
“Arriving home to a public review into our environment and the controversy that came with that was tough,” she admits. “I think I played a big role in terms of progressing our team forward because we were just stuck in limbo. But it was an emotional time for everyone. You just ride those sorts of things out and we were lucky that there was light on the other side.”
Indeed, with new management and the nation throwing its support behind the home side at the Rugby World Cup in 2022, the Black Ferns turned it around within a year.
Meanwhile, Les has now officially retired from rugby, but she hasn’t turned her back on the Ferns. In fact, she has a player living with her – Tenika Willison, 25, who debuted for the Sevens squad in 2016 and was part of the gold medal-winning team in Tokyo.
Les tells, “We met through my best friend Hollie Graham, who coached and taught Tenika at Hamilton Girls’ High School. We then played rugby together for Waikato. She was 16 at the time and I sort of took her under my wing. When the Black Ferns Sevens were centralised to Tauranga, she moved in with us. That was five years ago now and she’s part of our whānau – she’s my daughter’s godmother and very special to all of us.”
Asked if that whānau may still grow after the arrival of her little one, Les says, “We’ve got three more eggs on ice, and Johnny and I’ve always wanted a big family. I have four siblings and Johnny’s got five, so we wanted five. But having been through this last pregnancy, we might just go for three!”