From establishing a life-changing disability programme in Tauranga to removing unexpected barriers across the Pacific, Gill Gemming has dedicated her life to giving everyone an opportunity through hockey. As she prepares to coach at the National Masters, she shares some moving stories of those she has helped.
If Gill Gemming was to pen an autobiography it would probably be titled It’s not just about hockey which might seem strange for someone who has dedicated her life to the sport.
But if you chat to Gemming about what she’s achieved in hockey, which would make that autobiography a weight tome, you soon find what drives the Tauranga hockey stalwart.
“It’s about giving everyone an opportunity.”
“When people ask what I do – I say it’s about hockey but it’s actually more about providing opportunities for individuals to grow and develop on top of the benefits of being physically active.”
One of her favourite tales is of Jack, a young guy who would only come to the turf to watch his brother play. He never spoke, never interacted with anyone – he just stood at the top of steps watching.
Fast forward several years and Jack is now fully engaged and chomping at the bit to get a stick in his hand.
“He shakes your hand, has a big smile on his face, he talks to everyone and he can’t wait to get through the gates and onto the turf.”
“That sort of impact is pretty hard to put a number on, but they gain a huge boost in confidence from being involved.”
So why the turnaround? A brainchild of Gemming’s called Hockey without Limits.
What is Hockey without Limits?
Gemming, together with Tauranga Hockey Development Officer Emma Phelps, came up with the idea for the life-changing programme in 2017 when one day a parent asked if she could find a way for her daughter with a disability to be involved in hockey.
After a bit of head scratching – with no resources or guidelines to help them out – and a few helpful conversations with Sport Bay of Plenty and special needs teachers, Hockey without Limits was born. They had 22 registrations to start, within a couple of months that had nearly tripled and by the following year they were almost hitting the 100 mark. Participants ranged in age from eight to 22.
Hockey without Limits is essentially a skills programme designed for youngsters with a disability – intellectual or physical. They run two-hour sessions at the Mount Maunganui turf with different activity zones that accommodate the challenges these youngsters face.
Gemming says they firstly had to create hockey balls and sticks suitable for disabled players.
“A hockey ball is simply too heavy and it would get caught under the wheelchairs. The sticks were also too heavy to carry around. We got the ball modified so it’s lighter and easier to move. It’s been a great innovation and it’s now widely used in our junior programmes.”
Gemming is always thinking of new developments for the programme such as how they could take part in a more formal competition.
“And what’s exciting is the Special Olympics has just accepted hockey on their calendar for the World Games in 2023.”
In the fifth year of the programme, Gemming is pleased to hear other Associations such as Counties Manukau are running similar initiatives.
“If you saw the immediate impact it has – the smiles on their faces and the fact that they can’t wait to get on the pitch and get going. Their level of confidence and their ability to communicate and open up with our volunteers is just amazing to witness.”
Removing the barriers to play in the Pacific
The driver for Gemming’s work in her role as Continental Development Officer at Oceania Hockey is no different – it’s about giving everyone an opportunity to pick up a stick.
With no sports shops in the islands, having enough sticks and even sports shoes for the largely jandal-wearing islanders was an ever-present challenge.
After she witnessed teams in Samoa having to swap sticks with the team following them onto the field, the Champions Give Back programme rolled into action. It started at a Champions Trophy in Sydney where the teams were asked to leave something behind and the result was overwhelming.
“And since then our New Zealand Associations have been outstanding, particularly the Masters group.”
She recalls Tonga playing at an Oceania Cup in a recycled red and black Canterbury strip, made even more special by the fact Canterbury coaching guru Pat Barwick acted as the team’s mentor.
While the donated sticks and kit make the playing of hockey possible, it’s the wider benefits of her work in the Pacific that delights Gemming. It’s the free health checks offered at training camps, and the employment opportunities that follow the publicity of players being selected in Oceania teams.
One of her most special memories is of a young woman in the Solomon Islands who didn’t think she could play because she had her period. The talented 15–year-old was absent from training because she was said to be unwell.
“When I next saw her she told me ‘I wasn’t ill in that sense Gill, I had my period. We have an area in the village that we go to when that happens.’ Which got me thinking.”
Working with health agencies and two Australian Olympians who were health professionals, Gemming ran sessions with these young girls about how they can continue to play.
“But we had to very mindful of the cultural traditions so we didn’t over-step the mark.”
The youngster went on to play in three Oceania championships, proudly claiming that it was “no barrier for me to play.”
Giving is what drives her
Being a trained teacher, Gemming has always seen coaching hockey as an opportunity to provide a pathway for growth.
“It’s not just about hockey, but using hockey for development of the individual – to provide education, health benefits and opportunities for women and girls and those with disabilities.”
Gemming often arrives home from her Pacific Island visits without her trainers. Amusingly she tells us her own shoes are often mistakenly picked up off the side of the field by the locals along with the pile of donated shoes she brings over.
But anyone who knows Gemming would suggest otherwise. She just wants those shoes to ensure no one misses out – and that hockey gives everyone an opportunity.
- Oceania Hockey Continental Development Officer
- Tauranga Hockey Association President
- Tauranga Boys’ College Director of Hockey
- ONZM for Services to Hockey and Education in 2018
- FIH Education and Development Committee Member
- Former Hockey NZ National Coaching and Development Manager