Whenever Black Ferns Sevens veteran Shakira Baker runs out onto the rugby field, there’s a defibrillator on the sideline with her name on it. Just in case.
Baker is in her rugby prime, an established member of the New Zealand sevens squad, who played in the very first Black Ferns Sevens team back in 2012, at the Oceania Sevens.
The powerhouse prop is a largely unsung star of the team and a try-scoring machine – at the Biarritz Sevens in June, she scored five tries on the first day.
But what sevens fans – and her opponents - don’t know about Baker, who also moonlights as a maths tutor, is that she has a rare heart condition which once threatened to end her rugby career almost as soon as it had started.
The 27-year-old from the Wairarapa has long QT syndrome (LQTS), a rare disorder of the heart’s electrical system that can lead to dangerous heart rhythms, fainting and sudden cardiac arrest.
There are three types of the disorder, and unfortunately for Baker, she has the type where physical activity can trigger an abnormal heart beat. Hardly ideal, given she’s always loved to run, dive and tackle.
It was discovered in 2013, in an electrocardiogram, during a routine medical.
“It was around the time someone with long QT syndrome had just passed away while playing,” Baker recalls. “The doctors decided there were all these things I needed to do if I wanted to keep playing rugby.”
The first was surgery. “I had a sympathectomy, where they burned the nerve that controls the heart rate so it can’t get over a certain rate,” she says.
The key-hole surgery, cutting the nerve supply to her heart, meant she missed most of the 2013 rugby season while her heart recovered. She returned to the field in the searing heat of the Dubai Sevens at the end of that year, with no problems.
“I was also put on heart medication, and I needed to have a defibrillator with me at all times that I was training and playing. I had to do all those things if I wanted to continue playing rugby,” Baker says.
“And I’m still here. I’m so grateful for that, and that I can keep playing.”
Baker is also relieved to have been finally signed off her beta blocker drugs. “I hadn’t shown any symptoms,” she says. “But I still need the defib with me at all times.”
“Sometimes I forget that I even have a heart condition. But if I feel faint, I have to go back to the cardiologist.”
In the meantime, she has maybe the busiest season of her career ahead.
After a long pre-season build-up, Baker and the rest of the Black Ferns Sevens are now in Colorado for their first tournament of the season, the Glendale Sevens, this weekend. That kicks off the World Rugby Sevens Series, which this season has swelled from six tournaments to eight. On top of that, there’s the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in July.
“It’s going to be an exciting year. Last season was the first where I’ve played at every tournament, so hopefully this year I get to go to a few more,” Baker says. “It’s going to be a pretty competitive year as well, with players coming back from injury.”
Competitive especially in Baker’s position at prop, where she’s up against two other legends of the game, Portia Woodman and Stacey Waaka. Both are returning from injury – Waaka (who had wrist surgery) returns in this tournament, with Woodman (Achilles) likely to rejoin the team for the next, the Oceania Sevens in Fiji.
“Having Portia and Stacey back and the young ones coming through – Alena [Saili] and Dhys [Faleafaga] – the competition for that position keeps you on your toes,” Baker says. “You can’t slack off, you have to keep your body in the best condition you can. And you need to stay motivated to keep going and be better.”
Baker, who is of Ngāti Kahungunu descent, has had her fair share of injuries through her eight years on the international rugby scene.
The worst was an ACL rupture that required surgery. She returned just in time to play at the 2016 Rio Olympics and win a silver medal.
“There’s unfinished business there,” she says of next year’s Games.
But that break in her rugby career had its own silver lining. Taken off contract while she recovered, Baker applied for a teaching role at Hamilton Girls’ High School.
She had a science degree, majoring in marine biology, from Victoria University. “I really love the ocean, it’s a whole other world that I wanted to know more about,” Baker says. “But then I realised that to go further with that, I needed to study more. But I wanted to keep playing rugby.”
So she trained as a high school teacher, specialising in maths, and taught at Hamilton Girls for two years.
In her first year teaching, a young girl named Jazmin Hotham was in her Year 10 maths class. Now Hotham is in the Black Ferns Sevens alongside her old teacher.
“To be playing with her now is so funny,” Baker says. “She was playing soccer and touch back in Year 10. It wasn’t until the next year that she picked up sevens.”
Baker takes no credit for her student's sevens success.
In 2017, Hotham starred in the New Zealand U17 team, scoring the decisive try that clinched the World Schools Sevens title. Now 19, she’s one of four young players in the Black Ferns Sevens squad who all went to Hamilton Girls – with Terina Te Tamaki, Tenika Willison and rookie Montessa Tairakena.
Baker hasn’t cut her ties with teaching. Every Thursday evening she works as a maths tutor helping college students with their homework. And she’s happy to help her Black Ferns team-mates with a little algebra, too.
“I’ve picked up maths tutoring to manage my time better, so I’m not putting all my efforts into rugby. Throughout the week, I’ll prep for that, as well as train,” she says. “It’s so important to have something outside of rugby - just to take your mind off my rugby job, and keep your mind ticking along, too.
“Some of the girls have been asking me to help them out with their uni work too – like Tenika and Gayle [Broughton] – whenever they have a maths problem. I’m more than happy to help because I enjoy it.”
Baker made her international rugby debut in the 15-a-side game, playing for the Black Ferns in a 2011 test against England. At the 2014 World Cup, she was the top try scorer of the tournament, alongside team-mate Selica Winiata, with six tries.
Now Baker is keen to return to her original love.
“Last time I played 15s was in 2015, but I’m looking to put my hand up again. I miss it,” she says.
“I love watching the Farah Palmer Cup growing, seeing the Black Ferns doing so well, and the 2021 World Cup is just around the corner. I’m definitely getting itchy feet to get my 15s boots on again.
“I’ll get back to playing club rugby and see what happens from there.”
Baker accepts that she may have yet another challenge on her hands. “There’s a lot of young talent coming through. Such tall, talented girls,” she says. “Wherever they go - 15s or sevens - the future is bright for women’s rugby.”
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