It’s been a crazy few days for teenager Jazmin Hotham.
At the weekend, she was sitting among the supportive 20,000-strong crowd at Waikato Stadium, dressed as a zookeeper and screaming herself hoarse as the Black Ferns Sevens notched up an historic victory in their first-ever home tournament in the World Rugby Sevens Series.
Then 24 hours later, 19-year-old Hotham - the youngest Black Ferns Sevens player on contract with the New Zealand team - was called up to join the side for the next leg of the world series in Sydney this weekend.
“Please excuse my voice, it’s a little croaky,” she tells LockerRoom at Auckland Airport. “Two days ago, I was screaming my heart out cheering on the girls in the stands and now I’m on my way to Sydney with them, which is unreal.
“They obviously left so much mana in Hamilton and to now be able to jump on board with them and hopefully do it again in Sydney is pretty incredible.”
It’s likely the young centre will make her World Sevens Series debut in Sydney. It may be the start of much more as the Black Ferns build up to the Tokyo Olympics in July, yet Hotham is not getting ahead of herself.
“This year is special because of the Olympics. But obviously being 19, my goal is to be a sponge, just try to absorb as much as I can to help me grow as a player and person,” says Hotham.
Hotham has already represented New Zealand at age-grade level, playing a starring role as the NZ U17 side clinched the world schools title in 2017. That was also the year she captained Hamilton Girls’ High to a national Condors sevens title. She was still at school – the deputy head girl - when she got a development contract with the Black Ferns.
But she admits the transition into the professional environment has seen her ride a rollercoaster of emotions.
“The girls understand how hard it is when new people come into the environment, so they always emphasise there is a honeymoon period,” Hotham explains.
“You come in and get used to everything but I’m at the stage now where I need to work hard to stay in the team.”
Outside encouragement from family has also played a major role in Hotham’s journey so far. Her dad, Nigel, is coach of the Hamilton Boys High 1st XV.
“There is a whole list of people who have influenced me to get to this point, including Honey Hireme-Smiler,” says Hotham. The former Black Ferns Sevens star, now Kiwi Ferns captain, is a close family friend.
“Honey has always taken me under her wing and showed me the way. She said I could wear the black jersey one day, if I wanted it and if I worked hard enough.”
Black Ferns Sevens teammate Stacey Fluhler (nee Waaka) says Hotham is mature for her age and a welcome member of the sevens set-up.
Fluhler may have a new surname but her famous smile, speed and step were still obvious in Hamilton – a lethal combo which helped her bag the HSBC Player of the Final award. She’s another example of an inspirational figure Hotham can call on to keep her on track towards her goals.
“There’s no guarantee I’m going to get on the plane to other tournaments or to Tokyo,” Hotham says. “But I’m going to give it everything each time. I’ll also remember there are future opportunities like the Olympics in 2024 and 2028.”
Hotham is from a generation where women’s rugby sevens is a viable career pathway, since the format became an Olympic sport in 2016.
Having seen first-hand from a young age what was possible, she’s been working hard ever since she took up the sport in Year 10 to get where she is now.
“I was lucky that I went to Hamilton Girls’ High because the likes of Shiray Kaka [nee Tane], Terina Te Tamaki and Tenika Willison, were all at the school. So when I started there in Year 9, they were people I looked up to straight away. I wanted to be just like them,” Hotham says.
Now she’s in the New Zealand squad with all three. To add to the mix, Hotham is also alongside her former maths teacher and Black Fern Sevens veteran Shakira Baker (who is currently recovering from knee surgery).
“I always say to Shakira that Year 10 was my best year in math, when she was my teacher, and after that it went downhill,” laughs Hotham.
Although initially, she says, it was “a bit weird” joking around with her former schoolteacher, Hotham now feels that she’s just one of the ‘sisters’.
“A special thing you find in the team is that there really is no age gap, everyone is equally part of the team - whether you’ve never played a game before or you’re Sarah Hirini, the captain,” she says.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing and celebrations for the promising youngster. She’s been tested with a few bumps along the way.
Coming out of reconstructive shoulder surgery in late 2018 meant she had to pull out of captaining New Zealand at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires to concentrate on her recovery.
“You have these big highs where you’re loving what you’re doing and then there are obviously the lows,” says Hotham.
It wasn’t long after the surgery that she was invited into the Black Ferns Sevens squad to train with them at the High Performance Sevens centre in Mt Maunganui while she built herself up to take the field again.
When she’s not training, Hotham returns home to Hamilton on the weekends to spend time with her family – her parents and five siblings. She also loves going to the beach and travelling in her spare time.
“Last year I was fortunate to take my nana, who is from Fiji, back to Fiji and spend time with her there. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be heading to Australia to spend some more time with her. Family is huge to me,” she says.
Hotham jokes she got her father’s skin colour (he is Pakeha) and not her mum’s (Fijian and Samoan). But she only has one colour jersey in mind ahead of this weekend.
“To put on the black jersey is pretty huge, it’s an unreal feeling. I’m so grateful I get to put on a training jersey every single day with the fern on it, but to actually represent all those players who have gone before me, my family, friends, and New Zealand, it’s massive,” she says.
“It’s been a dream of mine since I was a little girl, so this opportunity in front of me is surreal.”
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