Lynda (Okkie) O’Cain is the current chair of Softball New Zealand, which administers the sport in Aotearoa, and is the first to say that the sport has opened a lot of doors for her, including most of her paid work. She spoke with Jenny Rankine.
Lynda was born to a Pākehā family that moved to Christchurch when she was young. She grew up playing lots of sport – rugby for the Linwood women’s team, which played “the first ever women’s game on Lancaster Park” and toured to California when Lynda was 18. She also played hockey for representative Canterbury teams. But softball was her first and main sport; she began at primary school, and started playing for a club when she was about 10.
She can’t pinpoint a moment when she came out as a lesbian – “I was in a team with other gay women; no one was surprised. I think my parents knew when I was pretty young; I used to practice with my younger brother’s rugby team. Most of the people around me accept who I am.”
Lynda was about 17 when her parents separated. “Two lesbians who played in Albion, my club side, were wonderful role models – I call them my godmothers. When things weren’t going so well at home they always had my back.”
“One of them pitched for New Zealand and they’re still together. I stay with them when I go to Christchurch, and there were a number of women like that in the team, great teammates.”
Lynda usually played in the outfield, where players need a strong throwing arm, and was usually the leadoff batter, “because I was quite quick. First batters tend to get hits consistently; if I could get the ball in play, I was often quick enough to get to first.”
Lynda played for Canterbury for 14 years – in the photo she’s on the right of the front row. “I had one relationship with a teammate on the Canterbury rep team. Other people in the team knew we were a couple – it wasn’t an issue. We didn’t have to be closet.”
She was a member of the New Zealand White Sox from 1989 to 1992. “I was fortunate to play at a time when the women’s game was extremely strong – I played with some amazing women. Gina Weber, Cheryl Kemp and Deb Mygind were all pitching then.”
The White Sox had won their only world title in 1982 in Taiwan, and had “been in the top three at three consecutive world championships”. It was a great decade for the national women’s team. In the photo she’s third from the left in the front row.
“Once it became an Olympic sport, countries started putting a lot more money into it. The USA has always been strong, they have a professional women’s league, as does Japan. Australia and Canada are also strong teams.”
Being in the national team opened up opportunities. Lynda was invited to play with a Canadian team in 1990. “They helped with the travel and I got a job there. There was another Kiwi; we boarded with the coach’s family.”
A knee injury ended her competitive career, so in her early 30s Lynda “went straight into coaching the Canterbury women’s team. Canterbury took out five back-to-back national titles, there were some very good players involved and it exposed me to what makes a team successful. Seven of that team played in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the only time our women’s softball team has qualified.”
Coming fresh from playing, Lynda preferred a style that included the players in the coaching process rather than telling them what to do.
“Then I got approached about coaching overseas – in 1996 for a year with a club team in Stockholm. After that I was asked to coach the Czech Republic national women’s team in Prague.” Both teams paid expenses and a very small wage; it was the beginning of a working career made up almost entirely of jobs in sport.
“It was only a few years after the end of communism so a very interesting experience. The players were very used to being told what to do and how to do it; I’d turn up to training and find them sitting there, and I’d have to tell them get changed and warmed up.”
“In the first season the Czech team played at the European Championships in Prague and qualified for the world champs, so I went back for a second year and took them to the worlds in Japan. They did better than anyone expected. We pushed the Canadians, only just lost to the Dutch and we finished quite a bit better than our 18th ranking.”
“Working there made me appreciate our Kiwi way of getting on with things. I tried to enhance what they had, to introduce trust, and encourage them to speak up and share ideas – things we’d take for granted.”
Lynda returned to New Zealand and worked in two jobs developing sports coaching, one with the Hilary Commission as a coaching development officer in Wellington from 1999 to 2001, and another as a coach and performance advisor at the North Island Academy of Sport from 2005 to 2010.
“It wasn’t about the technical part of the sport but how to get the best out of the athletes. You can get two percent gains from sport science, but we asked what it would look like if we had the best coaches in the world?” In the institute the three advisors all worked with a group of coaches across a range of sports.
Lynda worked with the coaches of some of our top Olympic sailors. “I also worked with rugby, squash, netball, cricket, athletics and para swimming. It was a real range of sports, including teams and individuals.”
“It was more about helping the coaches to develop – the how rather than the what. We explored what was happening in education, business leadership models, implicit and explicit learning. Some of the things we were involved in were ground-breaking for coaching at that time: simply put – less tell and more ask.”
“A classic example I had was during some hitting training when a young player asked, ‘Okkie, am I stepping when I swing?’ If I was a ‘tell’ coach, I would have watched and told her. But I had a coaching moment, and I said ‘Take another swing and you tell me’.”
“It’s about getting the athletes to be more self-aware – about what their body’s doing and feeling, what they’re thinking. It can take longer to get there but it’s more enduring when an athlete works it out for themselves, and you just facilitate that. We’re a lot further down the track with that now.”
During that time she also coached the NZ junior women (under 19) for eight years through three world championships. “I was in Taiwan in 1999 and China in 2003 as assistant coach, then in Holland in 2007 as head coach – all volunteer roles. One of the best results was a sixth in China, where we were very close to making the final four.”
Because of her previous involvement with Paralympic coaches, Lynda was approached to support tetraplegic shooter Michael Johnston, above, at the Paralympics in London 2012 and Rio 2016. “Being exposed to working with Paralympians has been amazing.”
Lynda was appointed to the Softball NZ board in 2014 to assist with human resources as well as health and safety; after the retirement of the previous chair, she took on the role at beginning of this year.
There are about 35,000 players around the country; about 60-70% male and 30-40% women. Board roles aren’t set up to represent the two sides of the sport. “Currently the president is a women, there are two other female board members and two male.”
The board is revising the sport’s strategic plan, and “works with the CEO to grow and develop the sport, exploring sponsorship and funding, and enabling the players to compete internationally.”
“The Black Sox are the current world champions; they’ve won the men’s world championship seven times. The women’s game is more competitive internationally; we’ve tried to support the women financially to compete in Tokyo.”
When asked about the position of lesbians and queer women in the sport, she says softball has “always been a sport that lesbians have played. If we ever had any concerns about anyone, we’d ensure they were supported, make sure they felt included. I’ve never noticed any discrimination or heard any negative comments and I can’t think of anything in the sport generally.”
“People in softball administration know my partner (Kim, front). I’ve been with her for 10 years and it’s not a feature. One of the things I love about softball is that it embraces all people, demographically it’s a very accepting sport.”
When asked about the position of Māori in the sport, she says “in the time I’ve been in Auckland and coaching juniors, it was great mix of Māori, Pacific and Pākehā players. One of the things that appeals about softball is that it’s a big family sport; that may be a factor in Māori and Pacific involvement. For me and a lot of people it’s a sport for life.”
“The board doesn’t have a specific Treaty policy. I haven’t come across any discrimination in the sport, nothing that stands out.” She gives the example of young women who have grabbed opportunities to take up scholarships to study and play for a US university. In particular, one young woman who became the first New Zealander to compete in the US professional women’s league and then went on to finish her PhD, before returning home .
“That’s what I love about the opportunities in sport, when young people grab it like that. She’s a wonderful role model for young women.”
Lynda feels herself very fortunate to have been involved in softball. “The sport has allowed me to be who I am without judgement. It’s opened so many opportunities through my life. I’m really fortunate to be still involved and connected with so many people in the sport.”
Her tickets are booked and she’s looking forward to the World Championships in August, where the White Sox will try to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Since the interview and publication of this profile, Gen came out as George Fowler, non-binary transboy. See the Facebook post announcement.
Before Wellington-based Gen Fowler started performing as a drag king in 2015, she worked as a corporate event manager, studied “unsuccessfully” at university, and worked behind a bar.
Drag started “organically” for her rather than being planned, which turns out to be a recurring pattern in her work. “I started dressing as a dude, I was surrounded by showbiz folk and it seemed natural to explore that onstage.” She began with burlesque, but quickly found her niche in comedy.
“This hairy, excitable, teenage boy fell out of me, and we’ve been figuring each other out ever since. Hugo is a genuine alter ego, it feels quite pure self-expression. It’s still me, just a sparkly, fun version that lets me do ridiculous things onstage and make fun of gender. Hugo is more camp and fabulous than I am in real life, and much louder.” The early picture of Hugo is by Pip Clark.
Her move into full-time performing came “by luck and accident. It was inconveniencing the bosses at my full-time job for me to take so many nights off to perform, so I quit.” Fringe Bar needed a bartender, so she worked there and threw herself into performance.
Hugo’s first costume was a ringleader, which has been exaggerated over the time. Hugo also often dresses as a clown, and says his cabaret draws from Rachel Rouge’s monthly Wellington Menagerie shows. “The way I paint my face is youthful, I don’t do the furrows and lines. It’s also aggressively hairy, with a moustache and chest hair.”
In retrospect, she calls leaving her full-time job “the dumbest choice, but it worked out fine.”
Gen prefers to speak in Hugo’s voice about events after that, since “Hugo is my professional persona”. Hugo gradually started developing shows, and it was “a natural progression” for him to become an MC. “It was one less person to pay, and in my own shows using Hugo got the right tone much faster than prepping another MC.”
Hugo’s first show was a one-off poetry slam that he pulled together in a day for the Fringe Bar. His first big show was Tragic Mike in 2015, an all-male piss-take of porn-star strip clichés. Hugo credits the “generous venues” that allowed him to “experiment with different stuff”.
As well as comedy shows and one-off events, Hugo now organises and MCs two long-running shows that have toured to different centres. The first is the Kiwi franchise of Naked Girls Reading, to which he gave an original spin. “Ours are queer and aggressively feminist shows that have more political bite; the US shows are more burlesque and have a glamorous aesthetic.”
Each show has a theme, which have so far included pride, religion, feminist propaganda, Kiwiana, fantasy, crime and punishment, science fiction and smut.
“My dream is to tour it around the country and to smaller centres. They really crave these shows – we have the best time. The cast and the environment is gorgeous, it feels like we’re doing something special.”
Hugo says the women in Naked Girls Reading “teach me how to be a better feminist and queer every month”.
However, the show takes a lot of effort – researching and editing readings, rehearsing the casts, writing banter, and rehearsing with lighting and sound. “There’s still lots of spontaneity; it’s like a talk show, you know the direction the conversation is going to go.”
The show has a seven-person team of “cool queer women”, covering admin, photography and design, tour production, merchandise and front of house, sound and lighting. “I want to expand my team – working 50 hours a week on the laptop, I’ve been neglecting my creative practice”.
Hugo recently branched out with Naked Boys Reading in Wellington, which he describes as a feminist show exploring the way patriarchy affects men, the social expectation that men’s bodies are for “fighting and fucking”, and our discomfort with “vulnerable male bodies. People really want that back, and there’s still so much to talk about there.”
Hugo’s other long-running show is the Pun Battle, “an original concept show. I’ve been obsessed with the idea for 18 months. It’s a high-octane, competitive, round-robin show”, open to anyone as long as they’re punny. It’s the easiest show to tour, so after refining it in Wellington, Hugo is “dipping a toe into the water” with shows in Auckland, Palmerston North and Nelson.
As well as organising these tours, Hugo runs comedy shows in Wellington every couple of months. The Comedy show with good comedians in it! has an all-women line-up, but that isn’t advertised: “Shows with all men never mention it and we shouldn’t either.”
Hugo takes “a lot of pride in giving people their first stage spots and seeing comics doing well when I gave them their second ever paid performance.”
Hugo has also started Cool story bro, because “I don’t find stand-up comedy as funny when I know the stories aren’t true”. The show gathers Wellington comedians for storytelling about their close calls and stupid decisions.
Hugo isn’t worried about saturating the audience for all these shows – “they’re all different and they attract different audiences. But getting people out of the house is hard when there’s lots of others things they could be doing.”
Gen identifies as Pākehā and came out at 20; she has used a lot of labels – femme, camp, non-binary, lesbian – and now describes herself as a “bog-standard queer”. She says she’ll keep playing “an excitable, silly transvestite cabaret character” as long as she can. “Everyone should do drag – it’s good for your soul and makes you question who you are.”
Photos: Naked Girls Reading – NateMcQuade; Clown – JeffTollan; black and white – ParadoxPhotography