Since the Athens Olympics in 2004, the Kiwi competitors — whatever their whakapapa — have been invited, and helped, to draw strength from Aotearoa’s Māori heritage and tikanga. Learning a haka has been a part of that process. But it’s been much, much more than that. And, for some of the team, it has led to a stronger sense of belonging — and to an even greater incentive to achieve.
Trevor Shailer is now in Rio as the deputy chef de mission for the team. And his role includes encouraging the athletes to embrace and benefit from taha Māori, if that’s what appeals to them. Here he tells Dale how his Olympic Games career began as a boxer, and how, later on, he and Amster Reedy helped shape the identity of the Kiwi contingent.
Kia ora, Trevor. You’ve had some remarkable experiences at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games since you first competed at Barcelona 24 years ago. But I wonder if there’s one particular moment that stands out for you.
Well, my mind goes back to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 when I was a 21-year-old. That was a really elite environment — and I was living in fear that I was out of my depth. But then there was the welcome ceremony for the New Zealand team with Ngāti Ranana coming over from London to perform. That was awesome. They sang all the songs I’d sung at school, and that was a key moment for me. I felt a real connection with why I was there.
And I ended up joining in the group and doing the haka with them. That was a proud moment for me. When I got up and did the haka with them that let everybody in the team know that I was a Māori boy. So that was a poignant experience for me. Making it clear who I was. And who I am.
Later, when you were no longer competing, you had another role at the Olympic Games. You were supporting Amster Reedy in his efforts to help the team understand their taha Māori when they were representing Aotearoa. Sadly, he’s no longer with us. But I imagine he made a huge impression on you.
The opportunity for working with Amster was just amazing. And really my Olympics was the time I spent with him. That may sound a bit cheesy, but to be able to have one-on-one time with him, and to be able to shadow and support him was phenomenal. I was in awe of how he went about allowing others to see and to share in our culture. He was the right person at the right place at the right time. He was the enabler. He enabled our athletes to feel that sense of belonging through our culture. I think that was amazing.
It was Amster who named my son. So, every time I say my boy’s name, Amster is always there. He called him Tamateakiterangi. That means to be a child of the universe, that anything he chooses to do is possible. Amster thought in global terms — and he felt that Māori deserved to be on the world stage. And the Olympics gave him the opportunity and the platform to show people the wonder and the beauty of Māori culture.
Thank you for that, Trevor. But could you now tell us about your family and your whakapapa connections, please?
Dad’s side is Ngāti Kauwhata, which is an uri of Tainui. Our marae is on the outskirts of Feilding in the Manawatu. Mum’s whānau side is Ngāti Hauiti, an uri of the Takitimu waka. Our marae is near Utiku, south of Taihape. But, to be honest, we didn’t have a lot to do with things Māori when we were growing up. However, whenever there was a tangi, or other Māori occasions, Mum and Dad always seemed to be able to kick into a sort of a Māori way of doing things.
We shifted around a few places when we were young, but we mostly grew up in Palmerston North. Mum and Dad had us five boys (I was the second) when Mum (Sandra) was still in her very early twenties. Our parents were always pretty focused on mahi. They were gone to work most mornings at 7 o’clock, and we were usually left at home to kind of fend for ourselves, and get ourselves to school.
All of us were into sports. Rugby especially. But boxing was always a big part of our lives, too. We used to run home from school to watch the big fights on TV. It was a tough old time on occasions. We had our fair share of moments growing up — but they were just a young couple trying to make their way through life and coping with five boys.
You’ve mentioned your Māori whakapapa, but that Shailer name comes from somewhere else, doesn’t it?
I’m named after Dad. He’s Trevor Shailer and I was often referred to as little Trevor or Trevor junior. And the Shailers come from Middlesex in England. Dad’s great-great-grandfather came over in 1857 and bought some land. But he fell through a roof and hurt his back — and he had to re-invent himself, so he became a photographer (glass photography in those days). He took lots of the early photos around the Manawatu in the late 1800s.
Mum’s maiden name is Stewart, and her dad was Scottish. Grandad’s been dead over 20 years now, but he and I had a really close connection. He was the middleweight champion in the navy. So, that’s where my boxing comes from, although a lot of people think it’s from my Māori side.
When I was a little kid, he’d come home from the pub, get me out of bed, put me in a corner, and focus on speed work — hitting me with two rolled-up magazines. That was Grandad, Peter Stewart. Mum’s grandfather was a scrapper, too. He was an O’Halloran from Ireland. My Māori side is mixed in there, too, because Dad’s dad married into a Māori family. My nan, who’s in her late 80s now, also had a huge influence on me and my cousins growing up.
Ka pai, Trevor. Of course, a boxer needs to pack a good punch. But it’s also handy to be elusive in the ring. And you knew a bit about ring craft, didn’t you?
Early on, when I went to the boxing gym in Palmerston North, I met my two coaches, Martin and Peter Fitzgerald. And Peter came to our house to tell my parents how much potential he saw in me. And that set me on a course of commitment. That was my start, at 11 years old.
I was a natural counter boxer and, throughout my 177 boxing fights, I was known for my ring craft — for my boxing abilities. I liked to outbox rather than outpunch an opponent. And, at the national championships, I won the award for the most scientific boxer four times. I was known as a classy fighter. I rarely knocked anybody out, but I stopped quite a few people just by being too quick or too clever. That was my skill set. The art was to hit without being hit.
It’s a bit different now. Today they teach young kids that it’s okay to take 10 punches to the head as long as you give 11, whereas my argument was that it’s never okay to take a punch.
Peter, my coach, could see how focused I was. He said I was “intense”. He said that every day he came to training he had to be on his game because he knew I would’ve thought about why I was there — and about all the combinations. So he had to work hard to keep ahead of me.
Then one day he shook my hand and told me that he’d taken me as far as he could. He said: “You need to go and find someone to take you to the next level.” I couldn’t believe it. But it was a life lesson to see his courage in making that decision.
For a while, my dad ended up coaching me. But, to be honest, he wasn’t a great coach. And I’d work out for myself what I needed to do in the ring. All the moves. But every time I got up off my stool in the corner of the ring, he’d just say: “You can do it. You can do it, son.” That’s all I needed to hear. Having him telling me I could do it. That was a pretty powerful message.
Congratulations. You had a remarkable career. A total of 15 national titles. But I know you were hoping to do better at the Barcelona Olympics. And a first round defeat wasn’t anything like the way you wanted things to pan out.
I tell you what. I was well and truly organised for those Games. I was way ahead of a lot of the other competitors back then. I’d left work. I was training full-time. I had a dietitian. And I had a detailed programme. But the national coach wouldn’t allow me to follow my programme. I wanted to ease up and freshen up. And, to cut a long story short, I over-trained. I remember telling that coach: “Look, I shouldn’t be doing this amount of work.”
But it was an autocratic, command-control sort of environment. And I was pretty much told to buck up my ideas and just get on with it. The result was that I left my best work in the gym a week before the Olympics. And, by the time I got into the ring for my fight, I was mentally and physically fatigued.
It was a hell of a tournament to blow on experience. You want to find that stuff out before the Games. Not during. But that’s what happened. So I came away from Barcelona pretty disappointed. My family had fundraised for me to train full-time. I’d done all this work, and my expectations of doing well were quite high. I still get a bit choked up when I talk about it.
I remember ringing home afterwards and feeling the shame of not doing well. Not that there was anything to feel ashamed or embarrassed about. I probably didn’t manage the pressure of my own expectations. Still, I was only 21. But I made some really great friends. Like Barbara and Bruce Kendall from the yachting team. And I came away from those Games knowing that I should never allow any coach to overrule me again. Because I know the most about me. That’s what made the difference for me winning bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 1994 where I stayed focused on my own plan — even though they threatened to kick me out of the team.
It’s strange how it works because, later on, you ended up in the Olympic Games team working with Amster Reedy from Ngāti Porou — and taking on a very responsible mahi. From what I recall, you guys were trying to present a taha Māori kanohi to the New Zealand team even though they weren’t overly familiar with Māori concepts and kaupapa and tikanga. You were bringing that Māori element and you were building kotahitanga within the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth teams. How did that come about?
Well, I joined the Athletes Commission in 1995, and we developed this notion that athletes going to the Games should have more support — such as former athletes being there with them. I missed out on that role three times. But I started the conversation about bringing in some whānau principles, some tikanga Māori.
And eventually that idea grew into an arrangement whereby Amster was appointed as the kaumātua, with me in a support role.
To cut a long story short, we did a whole lot of things in a short space of time when we teamed up at the Athens Olympics in 2004. In fact, we made up a lot of stuff on the spot. And the welcome process only came about because we were on site. Amster and I didn’t live in the village. We lived in separate accommodation outside the village. We didn’t have accreditation —we were given day passes. So we weren’t permitted to come in until 9am and had to leave by 9pm.
But then Sarah Ulmer won gold in the cycling. And, because Amster and I had taught them all the haka and because they’d done the welcome process, the team wanted to do a mass haka for Sarah. Awesome. But she had to be drug tested first. Then 9pm came and so did our official departure time. And the team said: “No, no, no. You can’t leave. You guys have to stay and guide us through this mass thing.” So they rang up and got us an extra hour extension — and we stayed on.
When Sarah arrived just on 10 o’clock, there was a big horde of us. All stripped off. In some dark lighting. And, man, we ripped into this haka. It was magic. And Sarah burst into tears. It was an amazing experience. Then, while they were still celebrating, Amster and I had to leave. And, of course, that didn’t feel right to me.
So the next day I sat the management team down and I said: “You know what you fullas did yesterday? You trampled over my mate’s mana. Amster is a tohunga and needs to be treated accordingly.” And I got them to realise that there was no point in having all these taonga if they didn’t understand relationships. That message was taken on board and things have developed since then. Like at Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. But you’ve got to keep working at it.
We don’t always get it right, and there are still some challenges, but I think, as long as we have a commitment to learn together and try to share our tikanga, then that’s got to be good. And, because of Amster’s humility, we stayed the course — and helped inspire our athletes.
Well, there’s no doubt that you two had a real impact on the āhua of the New Zealand representative teams. Many Pākehā have grown up seeing the haka and seeing taha Māori, but still never having a close association with Māoritanga. So a number of the athletes in your care, for the very first time, have been able to share in and warm to this Māori dimension. It’s been gold, hasn’t it? The korowai for the flag bearer, the presentation of pounamu, the explanation of haka, the understanding of the kōhatu, of the waharoa. I’m sure it’s had an impact on them.
It has. I remember at Athens, a number of athletes would come up, especially to Amster, and talk about their Māori connection. Perhaps one of their grandmothers was Māori — and they didn’t know their Māori side. They just were captivated by Amster’s kōrero. And I think the truth is that where we are now, particularly heading into Rio, Māori culture has an important role to play in high performance.
When athletes are on the world stage, about to compete, there is a final one percent that needs attending to. They’ve done all their work. All their mental and physical prep. And they’re at the pinnacle of their career, about to go into battle for themselves and their country. Yet there may be that last one percent of them asking: “Who am I? Where do I belong and where am I going?”
And for New Zealanders, the strongest and most compelling answers come from within those who know and who are proud of our collective culture. Their answers can stir their soul and stimulate their wairua. Confirm that they are unique. And help give them the edge.
Our Games team isn’t like the All Blacks where we’d get a chance to be in a camp and to bed in those principles. We have a very short window to impart that whakaaro about connection and belonging and respect.
I understand that athletes from other countries were intrigued by what was going on in the New Zealand village.
Many of them were amazed. I’d hear them say: “Man, I wish we had what you’ve got.” They just were in awe. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing and sensing. And now lots of countries have adopted what we’ve been doing, but in their own way. What we’ve developed is pretty powerful.
But, of course, there’s more for us to do. We need to develop a group of leaders, Māori and non-Māori, all with more cultural knowledge, with an increased understanding around cultural comfort, so that they can lead and guide. And maintain Amster’s legacy.
But it’s not just a matter of what happens in the course of the Olympics. One day those Olympians are going to find themselves in positions of influence, and my hope is that they’ll bring to those roles a greater understanding of Māori culture. A stronger bond. That’s a long term strategy, Dale.
Well, tēnā koe, Trevor, mo kōrero hapai, kōrero rangatira i tenei ra. All the best to you and for your trip to Rio.