Wednesday, July 6, 2022

High country to high performance

Neal Wallace
Tessa Jopp considers herself fortunate to be able to combine her love of hockey and farming. The Central Otago farmer and New Zealand representative spoke to Neal Wallace on the eve of flying to Europe to the Women’s Hockey World Cup and Commonwealth Games.

It wasn’t the packing or the looming challenge of test match hockey that was top of Tessa Jopp’s mind last week. 

Rather it was how to adjust to the temperature change she is about to experience.

It snowed on her family’s Maniototo farm in Central Otago the previous night and she woke the next morning to a sharp frost.

This week she will be training and playing in Spain, a member of the Black Sticks NZ women’s hockey team, where daytime temperatures are close to 30C.

“It is going to be a bit of a shock, but I guess my muscles will be warm,” she says philosophically.

For the next two months Jopp will be living and breathing hockey.

After warm-up matches in Spain the team heads to the Netherlands for the Women’s World Cup.

Then in late July they transfer to Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games.

Jopp, 26, who is contracted to Hockey NZ, has 33 international caps to her name since debuting against Argentina in 2017.

The midfielder is an anomaly within the squad.

“Some athletes struggle when they return home having worked for four years for an event like the Olympics. But I didn’t find that because I was coming home to my other passion.”

Tessa Jopp
Black Stick

Contracted players are required to live in Auckland so they can be available for training and matches.

She lived in Auckland for five years while studying and playing, but a year or so ago negotiated to be able to live and work on her family’s farm while still contracted to Hockey NZ.

When not in Auckland attending block coaching and training sessions or playing club hockey in Dunedin, Jopp is working on her family’s 4000ha Maritanga Station near Kokonga, combining her love of hockey, farming and family.

“It allows me to have a life balance which translates into my performance on the field.

“I play well when my life is going well,” she says.

Part of the agreement to live outside Auckland is that Jopp will play for a Dunedin men’s club hockey side.

Each week she travels two hours to Dunedin to play for Kings United, which she says puts her game and fitness under pressure, which is a real benefit.

Men tend to have quicker reflexes, are faster and more physical, plus the side is coached by former men’s Black Stick James Nation, who has helped Jopp with her skills and preparation.

“It has been really awesome and good for my hockey,” she says.

“The team has really made me feel valued.”

While she pursues specific hockey training, Jopp says farm work also helps her fitness, especially mustering on the hills.

The Maniototo has a long and proud history of producing sporting champions, especially hockey players, including Mandy Smith who played 150 tests for NZ.

Jopp’s mother Maree played hockey and when aged five or six, Tessa was given her first hockey stick.

She was hooked.

Central Otago farmer and international hockey rep Tessa Jopp in action against Australia. Photo: Hockey NZ.
Central Otago farmer and international hockey rep Tessa Jopp in action against Australia. Photo: Hockey NZ

Her secondary education started as a boarder at St Kevin’s College in Oamaru, but the necessity to regularly travel to Dunedin for hockey meant a shift.

For her later high school years she moved to St Hilda’s Collegiate in Dunedin.

By now she was playing for representative sides and found herself in the national Under-18 squad.

A year or so later she was selected for the NZ Under-21 squad for the junior World Cup, requiring a move to Auckland to train.

She studied marketing at Massey University, but hockey was her priority.

“Clearly, I haven’t used my qualification since graduating,” she notes.

In 2020 she travelled to Belgium to play professionally for a club, where the quality of hockey was vastly superior to anything in NZ.

She was paid, given a flat and in return helped with coaching.

“I got to experience another culture and it certainly took me out of my comfort zone.

“I gained a lot of confidence playing over there.”

The arrival of covid-19 forced an early return home to the farm, but any inkling she had on retiring evaporated when she played in a tournament and was subsequently selected for the Tokyo Olympics.

“It was an opportunity to play in my first Olympic Games and my partner said I had to give it a go.”

Jopp was a travelling reserve but still played in three of the side’s six matches. 

Although the Black Sticks struggled, Jopp says the experience, and mixing with sporting superstars in the games village, was memorable.

On returning home after two weeks isolation, the family farm provided an environment to refresh.

“Some athletes struggle when they return home having worked for four years for an event like the Olympics,” she says.

“But I didn’t find that because I was coming home to my other passion.”

Covid meant her parents, David and Maree, could not attend the Olympic Games to watch their daughter but they are making the journey to Birmingham where she will catch up with a brother and cousin living in Europe.

First up is the World Cup in the Netherlands and the need to survive their pool, which includes China, India and England, to advance to the next round.

The top qualifier is automatically into the quarterfinals while the next two highest finishers face playoffs.

After the cup they will relocate to Birmingham where Jopp will be mixing in the athlete’s village with another Maniototo born and bred international representative and farmer, cricketer Eden Carson.

She is playing for the Black Ferns. (See story Farmers Weekly 26 April).

A veteran of 33 tests, Jopp says she still gets goose bumps and a feeling of pride when singing the national anthem before a test.

“I stand there thinking this is ‘pretty cool’ and ‘how lucky I am to be here’.”

The 2022 squad is young and that youth could work in their favour.

“Even though we lack some experience it helps when you have players with a big heart and are willing to fight for each other.”

Jopp says her sporting career has only been possible because of the support of her family, who have taken her to tournaments and given her opportunities, but also the security and grounding of being raised on a farm.

“I am very lucky.”

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