Tennis Meets Rugby:
Vania Wolfgramm in Orlando
Victoria Chiesa | November 8, 2019
Vania Wolfgramm traded the Black Ferns for palm trees and rugby for racquets over the past month at the USTA National Campus.
A former international rugby player for New Zealand, for the team known by the “Black Ferns” moniker, Wolfgramm is currently the Women’s Rugby Development Manager at New Zealand Rugby and has been in a management position in her sport since 2012.
Earlier this year, Wolfgramm was selected to participate in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), launched in 2012. Per the program, "these five-week, immersive mentorship experiences focus on empowering international delegates to serve their local communities by increasing access to and opportunities for participation in sports."
In her first-ever extended trip to the United States, with several stops along the way, Wolfgramm ultimately arrived in Orlando to learn from her professional mentor, Stacey Allaster, Chief Executive, Professional Tennis, for the USTA, at the end of October.ADVERTISEMENT
As an emerging leader in women's sport, Wolfgramm not only learned more about tennis, but plans to take her lessons to develop an action plan to help promote the growth women's rugby back home in New Zealand.
USTA.com spoke with Wolfgramm as her time in Orlando came to a close to learn more about her, the program as a whole, and her takeaways from tennis and her time in the U.S.
USTA.com: Can you tell us more about the Global Sports Mentoring Program and how you arrived at the USTA?
Vania Wolfgramm: There are 16 of us women, or delegates, and it is about pairing women [in sports] together. The selection process was based in and around what each of have done in our countries or communities—using sport to make a change. It’s mostly a social change and just trying to look for equality.
They asked me, ‘What do you want to get out of your time here, your mentorship?’ because they hadn’t yet allocated me a mentor. I’m from New Zealand, and I’m in rugby. I think it’s fair to say that rugby isn’t one of the top sports [in the U.S.], but in New Zealand, it’s our national sport.
My job is to provide opportunities for women in the playing space and in every other pursuit of the game. It was the first role of its kind, and I was the first female to be in that role. Seven years on, we’ve got a number of people on the ground now. I have a team, and we have a head of women’s rugby. There’s a lot of investment from our organization, and to me, it feels like we’re a real priority. We are still not there yet, but we’re working towards that.
I said, ‘Give me, the code, or the sport, or the organization, where females are equal, on par, or close to their male counterparts in everything—player participation, high performance.’ Our women in New Zealand, they’ve only just gone semi-professional and professional in some parts of the game. Our men are superstars. That’s what they do. They [just] train. Our women have to [also] work.
I wanted to learn who is the most equal, and how did they get their women to there… and [the program] said, ‘The right mentor, organization for you is from the USTA, the tennis.’ From a high-performance point of view, in terms of equal prize money, I think you can’t get more equal than that.
USTA.com: Did you ever have any tennis experience prior to this?
Vania Wolfgramm: Zero! (Laughter.) I have nothing. I used to work at a high school as a sports coordinator, so that’s probably the closest I got to organizing tennis coaches, or tennis players. It didn’t make sense to me how it is scored, or officiated—15-love, I didn’t understand that! (Laughter.)
I do think that we have a massive appreciation for the sport [in New Zealand]. Where the [ATP and WTA] tournament is [the ASB Classic in Auckland, held each January prior to the Australian Open], it’s literally around the corner from my office, our New Zealand Rugby office. ASB is also one of our major sponsors. I’ve always said that I want to go there, I’ve said that for the last three or four years.
It’s ironic that one of the alumnae from this program [Julie Paterson] is now the CEO of Tennis New Zealand. So, I’m really crossing my fingers that I’m going to be able to get there!
USTA.com: What do you think are the parallels between tennis and rugby?
Vania Wolfgramm: Our sports are very different, but coming into it, I thought, ‘The sport is the sport.’ It was more, ‘How do we deliver it that could be the same?’ How are we coaching it, the coaching philosophies?’
The similarities, for me, are in the community drive. We want people to have a lifelong love of rugby, and in tennis, I’ve heard that too. We want people to be engaged in the game for a long time, forever. We want the same things, around giving people a really cool experience. We want more engagement. [The USTA] wants tennis to be accessible to everybody. We want rugby to be more accessible to everybody, so boys and girls can play. We have a lot of work to do there.
I heard Stacey Allaster say, as a part of her mentoring and giving back to the game, that tennis wants to be global leaders. That’s definitely what New Zealand Rugby is trying to do. We want to be world-leading, just like tennis wants to be.
I think those are the two major similarities. From an organizational point of view, a high-performance point of view, being world leaders in sport.
From a community perspective, we want our game to be accessible, to give really good tennis and rugby experiences, and we want communities to continue playing the game for a lot longer.
USTA.com: Before to coming to Orlando, what else did you do in the States as a part of this program?
Vania Wolfgramm: We first flew out to Washington, D.C., since the program is funded by the U.S. Embassy and the State Department. We were there for a week and a bit, and that was a whole lot of information, guest speakers, and just really prepping us for the reasons why we were here.
We then moved on to California for the espnW: Women + Sports Summit in Newport Beach, and that was massive. That was all about women, hearing different stories. There were athletes being interviewed, and some really phenomenal people were a part of it. I’ve never been to a summit quite like that.
I’d been through here in transit—as an athlete, I went to Canada—but nothing like seeing what [the U.S.] is like. Anything that I knew about America… sport was one of the things I loved about it. [Coming here], it really confirmed to me how massive sport is, and everything around it—from fan engagement to just over-the-top kind of stuff, it’s just so good, and we can really learn a lot from it.
espnW took us out to Disneyland—so that was my first time there!—and then we were all split off to our mentoring organizations. Girls are in New York, Connecticut, San Antonio… so we’ve been away from each other for a long time, and from here, we’ll go back to Washington, D.C. We’ll present our action plans of everything that we’ve learned, but also the action plans of what we’re going to deliver when we get back home.
USTA.com: What have you seen and done at the National Campus that has helped you to create your action plan?
Vania Wolfgramm: I came in here very open-minded. I’ve been in a million meetings. Being able to spend a significant chunk of my time here as allowed me the time and space, mentally, to create and develop my thoughts.
I met with the Diversity and Inclusion team—that’s been huge for me. The coaching team has also been an eye-opener—both in and around tennis, just as the sport itself. We’re very much a team sport, the team environment, and tennis is very individual. Comparing that has been wicked. I also sat with the community [tennis] team, and that’s me to a T.
The Net Generation product is also what I’m all about: we’re trying to grow our game, get as many people in, and give them really good experiences. I’m singing the same song as the community team, so that’s been quite cool. The competitive pathway team, that’s the team that I work for back home. They’re all for each other. They help each other when they have events, and that’s my team to a T.
USTA.com: What have been your thoughts on Stacey Allaster as a mentor, and your co-mentors Cindy Lupkey and Megan Rose?
Vania Wolfgramm: I was probably a little overwhelmed when I looked up Stacey Allaster’s bio and I read the first few lines. I stopped. (Laughter.) She’s phenomenal, and I didn’t want to get myself in that place before even getting here. She definitely lives up to the three lines of the bio that I read. There’s a reason why she’s in her position. I walked into one of her meetings, and you can tell that she really commands respect. I feel like everybody in the room respects her. She oozes excellence. She’s very intelligent. The first meeting I sat in with her, it was maybe 15 minutes, and she was able to summarize a couple of things for me that I didn’t even realize that I was saying. I think that shows her experience. She definitely has a massive work ethic, even with also being a mom. [Wolfgramm has two young children, ages 3 and 11 months.]
I really admire that she’s about her people. The other thing I really loved about her is that she’s fun. I’ve never experienced Halloween in America, and she dressed up—she was a rocker. I had to go across to all of the different buildings, and people kept saying, ‘Is that Stacey Allaster dressed for Halloween, too?’ How cool was it that she could get down with Halloween? I really thought that was awesome.
I also see that Stacey empowers people. Taking Megan Rose as an example, Stacey has allowed her to lead and grow. You can tell that their relationship is a good one, which is important. This is just my short observation, but a big one: I think that the USTA has some really great leaders and is in a really good place.
USTA.com: If you had to pinpoint some things, what are you hoping to bring back to New Zealand from the USTA?
Vania Wolfgramm: This program, being here in America, being here at the USTA National Campus, it really has opened my eyes to people: understanding their different backgrounds, upbringings, and the way that they interpret different things. We all perceive messages differently—I didn’t realize that I had an accent until I got to America, which is hilarious—but I think just that real mutual respect, that deep understanding of people. If we look past the superficial stuff, the surface, and really get to know the person, we’d really be working in unison a lot better or a lot more, because of it. That’s probably my biggest takeback from here.
The other thing that I’ve learned from the USTA is the structure is very similar, organizational-wise, but that there are also some very big differences. It also reconfirms that we’re doing a pretty good job as an organization in New Zealand, in sport, in rugby... but there are also things that we can learn. I loved the mentoring program that Martin Blackman and his team [in USTA Player Development] are delivering… I think that might be something that we might be able to take back home, if it fits.
The mentorship, the ‘coaching coaches’ part, I don’t think we have that back home. That might be something, and I think it’s something that I’m going to use in my action plan.
[Going back to] really understanding people—it’s not a scientific thing, it’s not rocket science, but [the GSMP] really did enhance my appreciation for this.
In the program, there are 14 different countries [represented]. Here in America, it’s so diverse; it’s very multicultural—just like New Zealand, but probably on a bigger scope. I tried to have an open mind, because communication is quite a big thing, and relationships are really important.