Football Fern Hannah Wilkinson wants to see your passion – Stuff

From the team at Ensemble
Football Ferns striker Hannah Wilkinson is a busy over-achiever. With three Olympic Games and three FIFA World Cups behind her, she’s spent the last few years kicking around Europe in Sweden and Germany before settling in Australia, where she also plays for the Melbourne City team.
I’m catching a rare moment with Wilkinson on home turf in Auckland, stealing 20 minutes with the athlete between a Nike photoshoot and her intense training schedule in preparation for the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup in June.
Meeting Wilkinson, I’m struck by her patience, which I (a fashion/beauty enthusiast writing about sports for the first time) appreciate, as I need to ask a few dumb questions off the bat to understand the realities of being a professional footballer in this country.
Despite soccer being the most popular sport among young women, in New Zealand there’s no professional league, Wilkinson explains.
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“That already puts football behind the likes of cricket and the likes of rugby, even netball sometimes. We’re a sport that’s grown slowly but surely over time, and hopefully after this home World Cup things will start to change.
“At the moment if you want to succeed, you’ve got to get out of the country and you’ve got to play professionally,” she says, mentioning the Wellington Phoenix as “a huge step in the right direction.”
Like Wilkinson, most of the women in our national team play elsewhere, so it’s unusual for the Football Ferns to be in one place together. A competition like this unites them, and coming back home to do it makes it even more special.
“It can be tough when you’re not playing consistently with the same group for a long time. We have a few days to prepare and then we have to play which is always hard. But I guess going out there knowing what you can control and taking excitement in the fact that these are games in front of home crowds, which is really rare for us, kind of outweighs the nerves,” she says.
“You’re so used to being like, man, we have no support. So coming home and having that cheer anytime you go in towards the goal is just contagious. It changes you in the best way.”
Growing up in Whangarei with two brothers, Wilkinson had her first taste of football fever at an early age. “I kind of did whatever they did, so I just followed them into the sport. And then I really loved it, my family really loved it. My dad started to coach and it just became this big family affair.”
As Wilkinson shares stories of being the only girl on the team, I have flashbacks to my own primary school days in Wellington playing soccer with the boys, where the rule was if a girl scored, your team got double points. It was meant to make it ‘fair’ but really, it was a back-handed compliment.
Wilkinson laughs when I ask if she got the same sexist treatment in the North.
“No, and I’m pleased they didn’t because I like to know I can compete with these guys and not need a free point. It’s kind of like the competitive side of me with two brothers growing up. I think it really did wonders for my development as a footballer. Just the competitiveness and the standard and the speed of play as well.”
Along with her natural talent, training with the boys when she was young (something she encourages other girls to do) gave her an edge when she later moved to Auckland to continue to grow her career professionally.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice with this sport. And to get to the top, it starts to turn something that you originally really loved and enjoyed into a pressure filled nightmare at times. Injuries can help you kind of build those negative thoughts and wonder why you keep doing this, but you’ve always got to keep going and just remember why you started.”
Possibly the reason she’s handled the pressures of being an athlete so well (not to mention having a good chunk of her 20s taken out with ACL injuries) was by prioritising her creative outlets that serve no agenda other than making her happy.
“I have been an artist longer than a footballer, I started drawing before I started playing. My brother was also an artist and my grandma, so it runs in the family as well. I’ve always kind of used it as an escape when things are getting a lot in football.
“Representing my country has always been my number one, what I want to do best and then I think the creative stuff just came organically because it made me feel better. You know, when things get overwhelming, it’s kind of a nice way to balance my life.”
Wilkinson downplays making art and music as “a nice way to fill the downtime”, but she happens to be very good with both a paintbrush and a guitar – a classic overachiever.
Recently, she was asked to paint a huge mural for Eden Park, a “challenging” first big project but something she has always wanted to get into and wants to pursue. “I just love the idea of my art being blown up.”
“I’m getting some new opportunities on that side as well, with more illustrations and starting to really do some freelancing work on the side.”
And what about music? She seems like someone who becomes too good at things to stay a hobbyist for long.
“I was getting quite serious with that [my music] from my early professional days playing in Sweden, I recorded some songs but lately, I’ve found it’s just a nice way to unwind and use it purely for my enjoyment. And you know, with the New Zealand team, we sing along together all the time as a nice way to connect the team.”
Before she heads back to set, I ask Wilkinson what she wishes to see more of from our country when it comes to women’s sports.
She leans back in her chair, searching for the word until her eyes light up. “Passion. Yeah. I think the big one with that is the Women’s Rugby World Cup, and how it just shows the public love to watch women’s sport, in the same way that they love to watch men’s sport.
“As long as it’s available and we’re able to watch it, and it’s being streamed on the same platform as men’s sport, then it proves that you can sell out Eden Park for the Women’s Rugby World Cup final, you know? People like sport in general. It’s cool to be able to spread and develop more of a fan base and get people excited about football in the way that Europe gets excited.”
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