Profile: Portia Woodman
With a body sometimes so fatigued from the demands of training that she describes it as “so sore, it hurts”, Portia Woodman is frequently pushed to the edge of her physical and mental reserves.
“Even when I bend down to pick something up the whole body is sore, the quads, shoulders, hamstrings, everything,” explains Portia, a leading player in the women’s New Zealand Rugby Sevens squad.
But striving for excellence demands an uncompromising attitude. In the pursuit of gold at the Rio Olympics there is little room for an off-day.
“No matter how sore or drained I feel, I have to wake up every day and be prepared to put my body on the line,” she explains. “People think it is the perfect job, and in many ways it is, but it doesn't mean it is easy.”
Training twice a day, six days a week combining a mix of gym sessions, conditioning and skills work is gruelling. Training can be “relentless” with one particular session – a 20m, 40m and 60m out and back sprint repeated five times continuously followed by a rest and then repeated again – pushing Portia to the limit.
“It is like death,” she says. “It's horrible. You want to vomit, curl in a ball and just die,” she candidly admits.
Yet even when pushed to the brink she refuses to quit, motivated by a combination of her own personal ambitions and the unfailing support of her team-mates, who are also experiencing the same level of pain.
“For a millisecond you think about stopping but you can't because your team-mates are next to you, and they are dying too,” she says. “I then think of the team and of working together. If we do that, I know we can outdo our opponents. Then I think of chasing that Olympic gold and the opportunity to win that historic first Olympic Rugby Sevens tournament.”
The sacrifices are huge. Based out of the New Zealand Women's Sevens training centre in Tauranga with eight other squad members, the Aucklander spends large chunks of time away from her family and that can take a toll.
“It is hard because I really miss not being around my mum, dad, sister and wider whanau,” she explains. “I remember when my auntie turned 98, I missed her birthday and later her funeral. It was big deal to me. I knew after I missed her birthday she wouldn't be around much longer. To miss the funeral as well was upsetting.”
Describing her mum and dad as her “rocks” of support and cherishing every moment spent with her family, Portia is also fortunate to have the total backing of her fellow squad members, whom she insists act as the surrogate whanau during the lengthy training periods spent away from her home city.
“We have an awesome environment in Tauranga and we love being around each other,” she says. “If someone is feeling down we try to lift up their spirits. We try to amp each other up in training. They are like my sisters and we are there to help each other.”
Yet there are times when the family and the squad are just not enough to carry Portia through the dark moments. When expertise and support from elsewhere is required to help the try-hungry player reach peak performance, that assistance is provided by the team from High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ).
Describing their help as “awesome” the 24-year-old pinpoints the work of the HPSNZ medical specialists as critical in helping her overcome a torn disc in her back.
“I thought I would be injured forever and I would never play again but the team were all really positive, kept my back aligned and on track,” she explains. “They have also given me exercises to help strengthen the back and whenever it is sore they are on call and constantly act as a support.”
Psychologically the sport of sevens can be an unforgiving environment. With the game played at such a fast and furious pace and tournaments relatively infrequent this means every time Portia steps on the field the stakes are high.
She admits having experienced terrible pre-match nerves in the tunnel before a game in the past and this is where HPSNZ mental skills coach David Galbraith has played a key part in helping alleviate the problem.
“He is awesome in that he has given me some key mental skills to cope with this,” she says. “He has advised me to focus on times when I have performed at my best,” she says. “He has also introduced some breathing techniques, which has helped a lot.”
A detailed nutritional programme has also been put in place by HPSNZ nutritionist Dane Baker to help accelerate the recovery process and Portia fully acknowledges the critical role that all the HPSNZ staff play in her development on the road to Rio.
“They've been amazing,” she adds. “They've helped me back on the field and helped me overcome a number of challenges. I couldn't be where I am today without them.”