Sports broad­cast­ers: meet the top fe­male Kiwi pre­sen­ters bring­ing the sto­ries of Rio home

Among the me­dia en­tourage at­tend­ing the Olympic Games in Rio this month are four of New Zealand’s top women sports broad­cast­ers – be­fore depart­ing for Brazil they spoke to Suzanne McFad­den about what it’s like to be a woman work­ing in a male dom­i­nated fie


MICHELLE PICK­LES Sports re­porter and pre­sen­ter for TV3’s New­shub

Michelle Pick­les re­mem­bers it as the finest live mo­ment in her tele­vi­sion ca­reer: when newly-crowned world row­ing cham­pion Eric Mur­ray sprayed her with Cham­pagne dur­ing a live cross on 3 News. How did Michelle – with wet hair and wine-drenched clothes – col­lect her­self to con­tinue de­liv­er­ing the news?

“While it wasn’t ideal, it turned out all right – the Cham­pagne didn’t get into the cam­era,” the 49-year-old sports all-rounder laughs. “But it was an amazing mo­ment.”

Michelle could re­late to the eu­pho­ria of Mur­ray and his row­ing part­ner Hamish Bond. She’s also worn the sil­ver fern, com­pet­ing at five world roller-skat­ing cham­pi­onships be­fore her on­screen ca­reer be­gan. At the age of four, Michelle strapped on her first pair of skates and cruised to the shops; at five she com­peted in her first na­tional cham­pi­onships, and skated at her first world cham­pi­onships at 16.

After re­tir­ing at 21, she spent five years over­seas – much of that in Canada, where she met her Kiwi hus­band, en­gi­neer Trevor Swan. There she re­alised she needed a new as­pi­ra­tion.

With her child­hood dream of be­com­ing a nurse foiled by a fear of blood, she was de­ter­mined to get a de­gree. “I loved watch­ing the TV news – the whole con­cept of pic­tures telling a story.” So she did a com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­gree back in Auck­land.

Grad­u­at­ing at 30, she worked on com­mu­nity news­pa­pers be­fore break­ing into tele­vi­sion, do­ing the grave­yard shift in the TVNZ news­room. “It was a very tough gig – overnights on my own for nine months,” says Michelle, who then pro­gressed to pro­duc­ing, work­ing on al­most ev­ery TVNZ news show.

She got her break as a re­porter on ONE News Sport. “Work­ing in sport is a bit more fun. The sto­ries are usu­ally a lit­tle more up­lift­ing.” Although she worked along­side fe­male sports news­read­ers Ber­na­dine Oliver Kerby and April Ieremia, she was still in the mi­nor­ity. “When I started, I felt I had to work very hard to be a cred­i­ble sports jour­nal­ist be­cause I was a fe­male. I felt I had to prove my­self a bit more than the men.”

Her 2002 Christ­mas present was a new job pre­sent­ing the sports news at TV3. The role has taken her around the world, cov­er­ing two sum­mer and one win­ter Olympics, three Com­mon­wealth Games, two Rugby World Cups, an Amer­ica’s Cup and three world row­ing cham­pi­onships. “I feel very priv­i­leged do­ing what I’ve done.” SHE’S ALSO BE­COME an adept or­gan­iser and plan­ner – pro­duc­ing TV3’s Rugby World Cup cov­er­age last year. In Rio, she will re­port, present and co-pro­duce the Olympic cov­er­age with Mike McRoberts.

The over­seas as­sign­ments are ex­haust­ing, but she’s grate­ful for her hus­band’s un­wa­ver­ing sup­port. Off screen, she shares Trevor’s love of Amer­i­can mus­cle cars, and is work­ing on restor­ing her own bright red 1959 El Camino.

Michelle hasn’t for­got­ten her roots, and proudly cham­pi­ons the lit­tle guy. “I have a spe­cial affin­ity with sports that don’t get the pub­lic­ity they de­serve. Those ath­letes have worked just as hard to get there.” Spo­ken like a true roller-skat­ing cham­pion.


MELODIE ROBIN­SON Sports broad­caster for SKY TV.

Thrown in at the deep end at the start of her sports broad­cast­ing ca­reer, Melodie Robin­son could have let her­self sink.

Planted straight on the side­line of a su­per rugby match in her first as­sign­ment at SKY Sport, the for­mer New Zealand women’s rugby star made a faux pas in her commentary. By Mon­day morn­ing, ra­dio talk­back call­ers were de­mand­ing her head. Her crime? Get­ting the ‘quick throw-ins’ rule wrong.

“Peo­ple were ask­ing, ‘Why is there a woman talk­ing about rugby?’ It was aw­ful,” Melodie re­calls. “I wasn’t ready for it.”

For­tu­nately, the two-time Rugby World Cup win­ner was made of sterner stuff. Thir­teen years on, she’s es­tab­lished as a ver­sa­tile pre­sen­ter, re­porter and com­men­ta­tor on a whole gamut of sports.

She took an in­valu­able les­son from that first night on the side­line: “It’s tough when most sports have a male-dom­i­nated au­di­ence, so I know I have to pre­pare twice as much as any­one else. I’m not some sexy bimbo. I write, com­mu­ni­cate, an­a­lyse and de­liver. My phi­los­o­phy has be­come ‘Don’t get over­sen­si­tive when you get crit­i­cised’. The only time it’s a prob­lem is when you get judged for what you look like. It’s horrible when they crit­i­cise you for your hair.”

But Melodie grew up learn­ing to take the knocks – as a tomboy, then a rugby flanker… and a Miss Can­ter­bury pageant win­ner. The girl who’d al­ways wanted to be a vet was se­duced by rugby after “fall­ing in love” with All Blacks cap­tain David Kirk while watch­ing the 1987 Rugby World Cup. It wasn’t un­til she was at Otago Univer­sity study­ing phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion that she fi­nally played the game. “I turned up to trial with 60 other girls, and I heard one of them say, ‘Which one is Miss Can­ter­bury? I want to smash her.’ I didn’t own up.”

Melodie trained with All Blacks Josh Kron­feld and Marc

El­lis, and went on to play 18 tests for the Black Ferns.

While do­ing a univer­sity as­sign­ment on women’s sport she dis­cov­ered the mea­gre per­cent­age of me­dia cov­er­age given to fe­male ath­letes, and re­solved to right that wrong as a jour­nal­ist.

After grad­u­at­ing from jour­nal­ism school in Welling­ton, her first job was re­port­ing pol­i­tics for Mana News Ra­dio. With a week­day job, she could keep play­ing rugby, but re­tired from the field when she started in sports broad­cast­ing at SKY. WHILE MELODIE, NOW 43, is thrilled to be head­ing to the Rio Olympics, she will miss her fam­ily – her hus­band, for­mer pro­fes­sional golfer Mar­cus Wheel­house, and sons Jen­son, six, and Fred­die, five. “I don’t en­joy the travel as much any more.” If she’s live pre­sent­ing a rugby or net­ball match away from Auck­land, she catches the first flight home – es­pe­cially now she’s coach­ing Jen­son’s un­der-eights rugby team.

Sport isn’t the en­tire sum of Melodie – she’s also work­ing to­wards her Mas­ter’s de­gree in Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Univer­sity of Auck­land.

She sees the gen­der bal­ance in sports me­dia im­prov­ing. “We were the first coun­try to give a woman a role on the side­lines of rugby. I think that says some­thing.”

KIM­BER­LEE DOWNS ONE News sports re­porter.

If Kim­ber­lee Downs could turn back time a frac­tion, she’d be­rate her 18-year-old self for be­ing “such an id­iot”.

A promis­ing hockey player, the teenager was too “ter­ri­fied” to con­sider a ca­reer in sports re­port­ing, in case it sti­fled her love of sport. Nev­er­the­less, it lured her in, and at 25 the

ONE News re­porter is al­ready recog­nised as one of the coun­try’s top jour­nal­ists in the sports field.

“I never have a day when I don’t love my job. I’ll cover a one-day cricket in­ter­na­tional and can’t be­lieve I am watch­ing cricket and get­ting paid for it,” Kim­ber­lee ad­mits.

Her role model has been Toni Street, a fel­low prod­uct of New Ply­mouth. Hav­ing played hockey with Toni’s younger sis­ter, Kim­ber­lee re­calls be­ing in awe watch­ing Toni re­port­ing sport on ONE News. “Mum and I would say, ‘How does that hap­pen to a girl from Taranaki?’ It seemed so out of reach!”

Like many young girls, Kim­ber­lee had a suc­ces­sion of ca­reer as­pi­ra­tions be­fore a love of storytelling con­vinced her to be a jour­nal­ist. After winning a TVNZ diver­sity schol­ar­ship to study jour­nal­ism at the Auck­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, she started on the as­sign­ments desk at ONE News, where she was ab­sorbed in news jour­nal­ism. “I was very much about ideals, stick­ing up for the dis­en­fran­chised. But op­por­tu­ni­ties to work in sport just nat­u­rally crept in,” she says.

Sport is in her blood. Kim­ber­lee’s great-grand­fa­ther, Chan Sheen Chong, em­i­grated from China to New Zealand in 1894, and played club cricket and rugby in Taranaki. Her own en­deav­ours were in­flu­enced by her older brother. “I wanted to do ev­ery­thing he did.” So she took up cricket and basketball, but ex­celled at hockey, rep­re­sent­ing Taranaki at age-group level.

Kim­ber­lee moved to the sports desk for the 6pm news in 2012 and last year she won tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist of the year at the Sir Terry McLean Na­tional Sports Jour­nal­ism Awards. SHE WILL RE­PORT on triathlon and hockey in Rio – a cov­eted op­por­tu­nity she knows she won’t take for granted.

While her ca­reer high­light so far has been cov­er­ing the

2014 Cricket World Cup, it was also the scene of an awk­ward mo­ment, when a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent mis­took her for a press con­fer­ence tran­scriber. “I ac­tu­ally took it as a good sign that I was too shocked to re­ply. I guess it speaks for the rar­ity of the sit­u­a­tion,” she says. “You’re often only one of three women in a room with 70 men, but I’ve never felt ex­cluded be­cause of it. I’m very lucky that in­cred­i­ble women have blazed a trail ahead of me.” Re­porters and pre­sen­ters like

Jane Dent, April Ieremia, Ber­na­dine Oliver-Kerby, Jenny-May Cof­fin and the late Cathy Camp­bell.

“I’m very aware of what fe­male sports jour­nal­ists have had to go through, and I feel I have a re­spon­si­bil­ity not to mess it up for the fu­ture,” she says. “I’m aware of that po­ten­tial ex­tra scru­tiny if you are a fe­male talk­ing about sport. Ev­ery now and then you get feed­back which is well-in­ten­tioned: ‘You know so much about sport… for a girl.’ But there still needs to be an at­ti­tude and cul­ture shift.”


RIKKI SWANNELL Sports edi­tor of Ra­dio Sport.

Rikki Swannell in­sists on one rule be­fore walk­ing into a men’s chang­ing room – no nu­dity.

“As a 23-year-old girl cov­er­ing the Kiwi league tour of the UK, I al­ways made sure the guys had to wear undies or a towel if I was go­ing to in­ter­view them in the dress­ing room af­ter­wards,” says Rikki, now 35, and the sports edi­tor of Ra­dio Sport. “Teams are very com­fort­able with each other, the chang­ing room is a team space and you some­times get one or two ath­letes who try to be cool. But thank­fully, I’ve never had an is­sue.”

In fact, Rikki has had noth­ing but re­spect from male ath­letes in her 13-year ca­reer in ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, as well as sup­port from her col­leagues in a male-dom­i­nated field. And now she’s scor­ing her own goal – lift­ing the pro­file of Kiwi sportswomen and cre­at­ing a new ‘com­mu­nity’ for women who en­joy watch­ing and play­ing sport.

Rikki is one of those women. Grow­ing up in Welling­ton and Tau­ranga in a sports-mad fam­ily, she was al­ways play­ing vol­ley­ball, net­ball or hockey. Her heart was set on be­com­ing a “per­former” – a writer, a Broad­way ac­tress or a TV host. “I did drama and de­bat­ing – one of those re­ally an­noy­ing kids who never shut up,” she says.

In 2001, at the New Zealand Broad­cast­ing School in Christchurch, Rikki fo­cused on a ca­reer in tele­vi­sion, but dis­cov­ered a thirst for ra­dio. “I loved the fast pace of it.”

As a rookie ra­dio re­porter, she ad­mits feel­ing ner­vous at rugby press con­fer­ences – sur­rounded by the ma­cho veter­ans of the sport­ing me­dia. “Un­for­tu­nately, there were few women to learn from. But I got won­der­ful advice from guys like Mur­ray Deaker and An­drew Sav­ille,” she says.

After a stint free­lanc­ing in Lon­don, Rikki re­turned to Auck­land and even­tu­ally be­came the sports edi­tor of Ra­dio Sport and New­stalk ZB in 2010. As well as man­ag­ing a team of sports journos, she fills the roles of re­porter, writer, news­reader, com­men­ta­tor, host and dis­cus­sion pan­el­list. COV­ER­ING LIVE SPORTS events is her pas­sion. Rio will be Rikki’s sec­ond Olympics in an im­pres­sive re­sume that in­cludes net­ball, cricket and rugby World Cups, tennis at Wim­ble­don and the Aus­tralian Open, and two Com­mon­wealth Games. She is also a fa­mil­iar face on tele­vi­sion, com­men­tat­ing on net­ball and tennis for SKY Sport.

She doesn’t feel un­der pres­sure to prove her­self in what is gen­er­ally a man’s do­main. “But I’m acutely aware that my er­rors are mag­ni­fied be­cause I’m a woman,” she says.

She’s rev­el­ling in her lat­est project, She’s Got Game –a new on­line show with The New Zealand Her­ald’s chief sports re­porter Dana Jo­hannsen, cel­e­brat­ing the coun­try’s top sportswomen.

“For years, Dana and I talked about cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for our fe­male ath­letes. They’re world beat­ers who de­serve the same cov­er­age as their male coun­ter­parts,” she says. “Women are in­ter­ested in sport, but they don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to de­bate and have ra­bid dis­cus­sions about it. We want to cre­ate a com­mu­nity where women don’t have to fight for col­umn inches and TV min­utes.”


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