Deb Mair has dedicated her life to sport and now wants to help others do the same. Hannah JV talks to a woman whose business gives youngsters the chance to have the things she once went without.
When you think back to your first memory of participating in sport, what do you remember? Do you recall sprinting ahead in the school cross country or scoring a try in a game of rugby? Or were you flailing about in the pool or missing a shot at goal? How we start out in sport as children often shapes our future as adults and for Deb Mair, she’s been tethered to team sport since she can remember.
“My first sporting memory is the three-legged race when I was five. The fastest boy in the class asked me to be his running partner, and for the first time I remember the feeling of being part of a team and relying on someone,” she says.
“I’ve always been into team sports – I’ve done a few individual things but team sports have been the preference. My family has always played soccer – my brothers are four and six years older than me and they both played soccer, so it was natural that I got into it from there.”
For Deb, soccer was not only a game her brothers could teach her, but a sport that was something they could afford to play. “Soccer was easy, cost nothing and could be played outside – I came from a very poor family and we had to get creative; sometimes we’d just kick around a can or bundled up papers.”
Deb, whose Scottish family moved around Germany for nine years before returning to the UK, excelled at soccer and always played on the same team as boys. It didn’t take long before the boys started noticing her skill.
“After a while they started calling me ‘Pele’. I thought they were teasing me and calling me names, so one day I ran home crying and told my Dad, ‘The boys are calling me Pele! I don’t want to be a Pele!’ He of course had to tell me that it was a good thing to be called Pele… I thought they were calling me a slut or something!”
Deb kept up with soccer and was representing Scotland in her age group by 13, but by high school she had limited chances to keep playing the sport as a young woman, so she took to netball, hockey and athletics. The sporty teenager had two best friends who were also sports-mad, so the three of them made a deal.
“My best friends were Simon and Mark. We were all a bit funny-looking – Mark’s nickname was the Scottish word for splinter, I had a big nose and Simon had Bell’s palsy [facial paralysis]; we made a good team. Back then we said we would one day get into a sports business together.”
Years later, Simon would keep up his end of the bargain by forming Wild Haggis sports; Deb followed suit and now runs the New Zealand arm of the company. The team of funny-looking youngsters still gets together now, says Deb. “There we are, three gormless little kids, and now we all work together and go on holiday together.”
Deb says she came to two big realisations as an adult. The first was that she was a lesbian, even though she admits her Catholic upbringing made her a bit of a “homophobic lesbian”. She had had crushes in the past – including a runner called Elspeth who Deb was so enamoured with she took up running – but found a serious partner in Steph. “When I met Steph, I was staying at a friend’s flat, which was across from a pub where Steph worked as a chef. Now we’ve known each other 19 years.”
Deb’s second realisation was her love for the water. “In my adult life, I realised that where I wanted to be was in the water,” she says. “Now I’m a kayak instructor, I have my skippers’ license, I’ve done offshore sailing, I’m a good swimmer and diving instructor; water is where I like to be.“
The call of these sports brought her to New Zealand and Steph moved down two years later. Deb has since opened up Wild Haggis in New Zealand and gets her gorgeous partner to model the company’s sports uniforms.
“Wild Haggis has stations in the UK, the US and New Zealand and we’re trying to go global now. We’ve been operating in New Zealand in 18 months and out of the US and the UK for 12 years.”
It’s a company with big dreams, but Deb says it hasn’t stopped her from wanting to help people out who grew up like her – kicking around whatever they could find because they’re unable to afford their own gear.
“We’ll certainly go out of our way to help anyone who’s involved in sport or anyone who needs a hand up,” Deb says. “We spend a lot of time giving back to the community – we have four sponsored athletes who we give all the gear they need. We create competitions for local schools – design a ball for your school and win balls for your school. I came from nothing and I know how much it means to have something; just something that helps you play.”
Deb is passionate about more than just kitting people out with uniforms and balls, however.
“I try and do my best to help kids out with fitness, nutrition and teaching them how to cross-code [play multiple sports]. I’m a great believer that kids should keep their eyes open, because maybe them or their parents are focused on tennis, but they may be amazing at squash. Alison Shanks [NZ pursuit cyclist who narrowly missed out on a London medal] was a high level netballer and now she’s an absolutely outstanding cyclist.”
Like her own switch from a humble game of soccer to watersports, Deb says it’s not what you train in that builds an athlete, but the attitude.
“What you decide to do as a child is often borne out of what is available to you, so being able to cross-code is crucial; having the ability to train hard is important regardless of your code,” she says. “It’s the work ethic that takes you to be the top. Routine and training are very similar – if you make it part of your routine, you get to go out and… just do it.”
| Hannah JV