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Breaking down barriers

Rebecca [Becs] Mahoney. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

In honour of International Women’s Day [March 8] SOUMYA BHAMIDIPATI talks to some of Wairarapa’s inspiring women. Former Black Fern and international rugby referee Rebecca Mahoney talks about breaking glass ceilings in sport.

Being a woman in what was originally perceived as a man’s domain has been both challenging and also just business as usual for Becs Mahoney.

The former Black Fern and international rugby referee turned farmer knew she would have a sporting career since the age of 10, when she became a rep player for tennis.

Having made the switch to rugby and playing club and provincial representative rugby for Manawatu, Hawke’s Bay, Wellington, and club rugby for Eketahuna, Mahoney made her Black Ferns debut in 2004.

At 33, she became the country’s first female to referee a first-class men’s rugby match. She was also named to the World Referee Squad.

“The greatest challenge I’ve had has been in recent years, being a ref,” she said.

“People definitely asked the questions, and said, ‘that’s a man’s game’.”

Mahoney said there had been a “massive” shift in how people perceived women in sport during her time on the field.

“I think there’s been some amazing change.”

She described being approached by people in the supermarket who would say, “you’re that rugby girl”.

“A new ceiling broken in something, that gained people’s attention.

“That means that you open yourself up to criticism. You have to be okay with that.”

While it was difficult at first [“Women didn’t cross over to ref men’s rugby,”], Mahoney did her best and tried to break down those barriers.

“Which I think we’ve finally done,” she said, “I believe once you prove yourself, as a male or female, then you’re accepted.

“Someone will decide one day that it’s irrelevant, regardless of your gender.”

In future, she hoped to see more “acceptance that we can choose people based on their ability, we don’t have to prove that we’re good because we’re a male or female”.

She had been inspired by and learnt something from most of the women she had met on and off the field, she said.

“Everyone on the sports field can teach you something, [but so can] women across the board in whatever they’ve done and women who’ve challenged themselves outside the square.”

However, her biggest inspiration was her mum.

“I don’t say that lightly,” she said, “She’s driven, determined, and passionate in everything she’s done.”

Mahoney announced her retirement from first-class refereeing last month.

She had taken a few weeks to relax and was now focusing on finding the next challenge.

While she had not decided what form this challenge would take, she was particularly interested in creating opportunities for young people.

“There’s so much that I want to offer back and give back,” Mahoney said, “Kids sport is the ideal one.

“We see sporting numbers dropping.

“Physical exercise is awesome, isn’t it? I want everybody to have that feeling, no matter whether they’re in the under-sixes or the Black Ferns.”

Her parting advice was to work hard, play hard, and remember success looked different for each person.

“Don’t be afraid to work hard, don’t be afraid to fail, but be really excited about what success can be.”

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