In the 1950s she was one of New Zealand’s greatest athletes, representing the country in three different sports – but even then, few knew her name.
Jane Tehira’s great-grandchildren are admiring old photos taken during her playing days. Her great-grandson spots her in one image showing a group of hockey players, airborne at the end of a haka, which Tehira led at Eden Park. “Found her,” he says. “She’s so recognisable.”
“Yep. I’m number four,” Tehira adds. It’s the same number her grandson, former Tall Black Lindsay Tait, wore. Tehira may be instantly recognisable to her family, but sadly not to many others.
In the 1950s the now 92-year-old was one of New Zealand’s greatest athletes, dominating the national scene and becoming the first woman to represent the country in three sports – basketball, softball and hockey.
Growing up on a farm in Maungatapere, north of Whangarei, Tehira and her siblings spent hours looking for manuka branches with the right shape to make hockey sticks. “We used to climb up the tree and get the right angle or we’d go into the bush.”
When she was 17, Tehira and her family moved down to Auckland. In the city she honed her basketball and softball skills at the Akarana Sports Association, based in the Māori Community Centre opposite Victoria Park. She also played netball and rugby for Akarana, juggling all her sporting commitments with her job at a shoe factory.
Akarana dominated the regional competitions and when Tehira represented Auckland, the results were much the same. “We always won. Auckland always beat most of the teams,” she says from her daughter’s home in New Lynn. Playing for the Auckland basketball side, Tehira won North Island championships in six consecutive seasons from 1951-1956. They were crowned national champions in 1954. Tehira also went on to clinch national titles in 1953 and 1954 for the Auckland women’s hockey team.
Tehira was always on the go. When the opportunity arose to compete in any game, she was there despite her many responsibilities. “I was always the captain of the different teams,” she remembers. “But I’d say to them ‘I don’t want to be captain for every team because I haven’t got the time to’. I had to do other things too.”
There weren’t many women playing sports in those days. But one thing that stood out was Tehira’s natural ability in all sports. Her daughter Moana can attest to this. “I can remember going to hockey and we would watch her play, she used to play fullback. You just couldn’t get past her no matter what. She had a nose for the ball. She was like a big blockade that used to be down the back of the field.”
While Tehira’s achievements, which include winning seven national titles across her three respective codes, are impressive, she doesn’t consider them anything special. “Well, it was just something to do I suppose,” she says. “Something to do other than just sit at home.”
Tehira’s flair for sports flows through the branches of her family tree. She’s part of a sporting legacy that spans three generations – her brother Henry played league for the Kiwis, New Zealand Māori, and Auckland, and her sister Sylvia played for Akarana Basketball and represented Australia in athletics and basketball. Sylvia was at one point a world record holder in the javelin.
Carrying on the family tradition, Tehira’s grandson Lindsay was part of the Tall Blacks team that won a silver medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. He is also a seven-time NZNBL champion and three-time MVP.
For Tehira, family was the only thing more important than sports. “She would cook, clean and so she would buy material and make us all the same shorts and tops,” says daughter Tui. She did all those things, but she still played sport.”
As Lindsay shares memories of his grandmother, he remarks that there is “lots of fuss today”. Neither Tehira nor her family are used to the attention. For her entire career, and long after, Tehira didn’t get the recognition she deserved. It wasn’t until 2006 that she was inducted into the Māori Sports Hall of Fame. She is still not in the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s a shame that maybe she didn’t get some of [this] earlier when it could’ve all been taken in, but knowing my grandma, the trophy would be sitting under a bed somewhere,” says Lindsay.
Tehira is now old enough to watch her great-grandchildren play basketball together. Inside at the dinner table, the children crowd around her, mesmerised by the old photos. Soon, with any justice, it won’t just be Jane Tehira’s family that recognise her.
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