Faced with the uncertainty of Covid-19, pace bowler turned rugby league champion Courtney Hill and her English wife, cricket international Lauren Winfield, remain committed to being the best athletes they can be. By Adam Burnett.
Power couple build their resilience
Courtney Hill remembers the moment, a little more than two years ago, when she all but fell apart. Hill was thousands of kilometres from home, washing the dishes at her kitchen sink in Leeds, when a series of random thoughts coalesced in her mind. Suddenly, she was overcome with emotion.
“I just started thinking about Australia, and cricket, and what had been normal, and I just lost it,” the 33-year-old tells The Saturday Paper. “I sat on the floor in tears, with wet dishwashing hands, having a proper sulk. Loz realised what was going on – she came over and was like, ‘What’s wrong? Where has this come from?’ ”
Almost 500 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, in a small rural town named Monto, one of the world’s best female rugby league players and her international cricketer wife have been diligently working themselves into the condition of their lives.
These past few months have been a strange time for all of us, and the travails of Australian Courtney Hill and Englishwoman Lauren Winfield represent a thumbnail sketch of that.
In February, Hill, who typically plies her trade with Leeds Rhinos in the RFL Women’s Super League in Britain, played for the Sydney Roosters in the NRLW preseason nines competition. At the same time, Winfield was also in Australia, for the women’s T20 Cricket World Cup, in which England bowed out at the semi-final stage.
Then, just a week after they wrapped their respective sporting commitments – and before the world as we knew it shut down completely – the pair was married on a beach in Mooloolaba on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
“We snuck the wedding in by a couple of days,” Hill says as she sits at a picnic table across from Winfield. “Everything was cool. So many people before the wedding said, ‘Enjoy it, it’ll go so fast, it’ll be the best day of your life’, and it honestly was.”
Hill and Winfield, 29, were honeymooning on Hamilton Island when restaurants, bars and clubs began closing their doors. Day trips to the famous Whitehaven Beach were cancelled.
“Couldn’t even play a round of golf,” laments Hill. “So old mate here” – she points to Winfield – “turned it into a training retreat. I was like, ‘This is our honeymoon – I’m not meant to be doing hill sprints right now!’ ”
The newlyweds were scheduled to fly back to Britain shortly after their honeymoon but instead had to seek alternative arrangements, which is how they wound up in Monto, on Hill’s parents’ grain and cattle farm, where Courtney grew up.
It was foreign territory for Winfield, who hails from York, though she embraced her new normal, as she has made a habit of doing since she and Hill first got together in 2016. Before long, they were continuing the theme of their honeymoon, and using the self-isolation time and wide-open spaces to build their fitness.
“It was a bit Rocky Balboa at times,” says Winfield, grinning. “I’ve got a program that I’ve been sent [by England Cricket]; Courtney’s got some rugby stuff. We’ve trained hard.”
Hill adds: “We’d go over and get Dad’s tractor tyres, get the sledgehammer out of the shed. We had old drums we filled with water and we were doing farmers’ walks.
“We even had Mum flipping tyres. I was like, ‘Mum, you are going to blow something big here, just go easy – you’re 57 years old.’ ”
As the weeks turned into months, the couple split their time between Monto and the Sunshine Coast, where they stayed with Hill’s aunt. At both locations they continued their training with a level of commitment only the elite can muster, while simultaneously making the most of a rare extended period together as they prepared themselves for the world as they know it to resume.
Hill, a former pace bowler with the Brisbane Heat in the Women’s Big Bash League, stopped playing cricket professionally in 2018 when she moved to Leeds to be with Winfield, whom she had met at the Heat in the 2015-16 summer.
Originally she had planned to pursue her cricket career in Britain, but strict visa regulations put paid to that. So when she landed in Leeds, some part-time cricket coaching was the only item on her agenda. For Hill, who lives her life at a breakneck pace and crams as much into each day as possible, it was a sudden – and dispiriting – stop.
“I went, ‘Well, I can’t play cricket, I’m going to need to find something, because otherwise I’m going to go insane,’ ” she says. “For the first time in my life, I actually felt really lost.”
It was during that week that Hill collapsed on the kitchen floor in tears, leaving a bemused Winfield to console and cajole. The reality of her situation – and the uncertainty of her future – had hit her. But there was an unlikely shred of hope.
Hill, a PE teacher by trade, had seen an advertisement on social media indicating the Rhinos were looking for female players. So she did what she has always done; she decided to give it a crack.
When she turned up to training four days out from the Rhinos’ season opener as a former cricketer and touch footballer, her presence was met with minimal expectation. By that weekend, however, she had made a believer out of then Rhinos coach Adam Cuthbertson, who only excluded her from that first match because he felt it would be unfair on her teammates who had slogged their way through a lengthy preseason. By round two, Cuthbertson could no longer resist. Hill became the team’s starting halfback.
“I felt like my spine was in 20 pieces the next day,” she remembers of her debut. “In the initial [tackling] contact I thought, ‘What the hell are you doing? You are too small and too old for this. Why are you starting back in rugby league now? You are an idiot.’ ”
Adds Winfield: “All those girls have been playing together since they were kids, they all know each other, and then the new kid on the block – the Aussie – comes in. It felt like they wanted to give her a proper welcome.”
Two seasons later, Hill has led Leeds to four of six available trophies. Last year she won the prestigious Woman of Steel award as the Super League’s most valuable player.
For a fast bowler who suffered a series of crippling ankle injuries, it has been an extraordinary transformation, and one that has allowed her to better harness her full athletic potential. Hill weighs just 56 kilograms but she is a strong, explosive athlete. In 2015 she competed in Australia’s oldest and most famous sprint, the Stawell Gift, while a year later she attended an Aussie Rules talent identification camp with the Brisbane Lions.
“I stayed in cricket for so long because cricket was where there was opportunity,” she reflects. “I was like, ‘They’re going to pay me for cricket? Yeah, all right, I can do that.’ So for a decade it was sweet.
“But I always said, ‘I don’t think this is my best sport.’ Is rugby league my best sport? I don’t think so.”
Hill and Winfield left Australia towards the end of last month, though their sporting calendars remain hazy. Hill doesn’t see herself playing rugby league for too much longer anyway. Two years on from one of the most challenging moments of her life, she has a glittering trophy cabinet and a burgeoning reputation as one of the sport’s finest female players. At 33, however, she finds greater value in other elements of her success.
“It depends how you determine success – naturally you jump to, ‘Yes, we’ve won three out of the four titles, plus [my] personal achievements,’ ” she says.
“But if you’d asked me what success would’ve looked like when I was melted down on the kitchen floor, it would’ve been newly developed friendships and belonging to a community.”
She looks over to Lauren, who nods along to her wife’s sentiment before adding: “And you’ve gone from being a lost soul to having something that gives you that joy again, and that reason to compete.”
“One hundred per cent,” says Courtney. “That’s the most important thing for me.”
And, who knows, maybe Hill’s “best sport” remains ahead of her, still to be discovered.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2020 as "Building resilience".
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