Sport’s best new faces of 2023: Breakout stars, talented teens and tons of talent among rookie class
With the end of the calendar year nearly upon us, The Roar is looking back at the sporting highlights, lowlights and moments that mattered…
Like many children, Nikki Laird grew up with a love of sport and an ambition to beat her brother in whatever sport she was competing in.
Laird describes her 14-year-old self as a ‘random athlete’. She was playing field hockey, was a springboard diver and also enjoyed running and swimming.
Then through one of her friends came the chance to attend a beach volleyball clinic in Manly.
Within a week, Laird knew that she had found the sport that she wanted to commit to.
“It was clear to me from day one that there was a reason that this sport was the right fit for me,” said Laird.
“I loved it, it was fun, I liked the challenge and the skills that it forced me to use.
“I sort of stumbled into it, a bit different to most, but I am so glad I did.”
At 191 centimetres, Laird’s height is certainly an advantage in beach volleyball, so when she talks about the sport being the ‘right fit’, that is one thing she can use to her advantage.
But as a younger athlete, Laird’s height was not always seen as a positive. One of the reasons that Laird did not continue with springboard diving was that she was too tall.
“It was sad, but ultimately I can’t complain too much because height is definitely an advantage in volleyball, so I remind my friends that have had a tough time in volleyball for not being tall enough that it hasn’t always been roses for me,” said Laird.
“I spent the first half of my life being turned away from sports because I was too tall; hockey was the same.
“I was never selected because the style of hockey I played was a little bit different to the Australian style, but it wasn’t what they were looking for.
“There were a few knockbacks but it all happens for a reason.”
Since discovering the sport at age 14, Laird has continued with great success. She made her Olympic debut in Rio with her partner Mariafe Artacho.
Following Rio, she continued to compete with new partner Becchara Palmer.
Palmer made the decision in November 2021. In Laird’s view, given the disruption leading into Tokyo and the lack of opportunity to play together in international competition, this was a duo that could have achieved much more together if given the chance.
“As a team, we had such an unfortunate run,” said Laird.
“Our first year was challenging because Becchara was just coming back into the sport, we found it hard to get the chances we wanted or ask for the things we needed,” said Laird.
“Our first year was about really proving to people that we deserved an opportunity.
Then COVID hit, which meant additional disruption at a point where Palmer and Laird were on an upward trajectory with their performances.
“It was the right time for her to retire, but it was sad because I felt like all the things we were building never came to fruition,” said Laird.
But this weekend, the Australian Beach Volleyball Tour has made its way to Shoalhaven on the NSW South Coast for the inaugural Mollymook Open.
This tournament is Laird’s return and she will compete with new partner Jessyka Ngauamo.
“It’s heartbreaking when a partnership ends that you don’t feel is quite finished, so when finding a new partner you have to be careful not to bring in expectations for a different person,” said Laird.
“I am trying to be as open as possible to new partnerships and the strengths and challenges they come with and trying to explore what is the right fit and get back to the level that I was at.”
One skill that Laird has really focused on over the last year, which she is hoping to showcase this weekend at Mollymook, is her ability to make decisions under pressure.
“A lot has happened since the last time we competed on a national tour; the last time was our Olympic qualification event that we didn’t win,” said Laird.
“After that I realised that I still wanted to compete because there was so much more I could do.
This pushed Laird to really consider her strengths and weaknesses and her decision making has been a real area of focus.
“It is something I have really focused on; how much better can I be when I am under the pump in making the right decisions at the right time,” said Laird.
“It’s not been easy in an environment where we can’t compete, but we construct it in our own environment.
“It all comes to how badly you want to create that pressure for yourself, so I put myself under pressure and make sure we play under scoreboard pressure when training to try and simulate that environment.”