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The World at his doorstep - The Southland Times

By Michael Fallow - The Southland Times

Sometimes the sound of your own name can leave you puzzled, scrambling in the disorientation of the moment to come to terms with what those two so-very-familiar of words even mean.

It's a moment that awaits Nathan Stratford as he steps off the board at the Canterbury A&P show physically shattered, his heart racing but not soaring.

"Nah," the 42-year-old Invercargill shearer tells his wife Lisa. "Haven't done enough."

Around him five other ace bladesmen go back to their people, some of them already starting to morph back in his mind from the rivals - hell, enemies - that they had been up there on the board, to the good mates they were off it.

With the world championships coming to his hometown in February, the two places for the New Zealand team have been right there, up for grabs, in this event and what's he done?

After all that training, all that after-work gym time and the delights of a pretty brutal new cardiac regime . . . he let himself fall nearly a sheep behind.

You just can't do that, he tells himself. Not against these guys.

So there he stands. Sure, he's pegged back a bit of time with the second cuts, but that still leaves the results from the jobs out the back, where his work has been scrutinised for quality; penalties applied for ridges of wool left on, or skin cuts.

Others would say he's a clean shearer. Even so, as he waits, he isn't feeling quietly confident. Not at all.

Already he's telling himself those familiar messages. He knows they're true, even if you have to repeat them more often than you'd like.

It is what it is, he tells himself. You have to be a good loser to be a good winner. That doesn't mean you're comfortable with losing. It means you react right. You've had your arse kicked so you acknowledge it. You pick yourself up, figure out what you need to do better next time. Go do that.

[It's been that way since Stratford's very first go. Got himself disqualified at the Waimate junior show. Came home and told his dad next year he was going to win it. And he did.]

Back in the moment, the announcer says Johnny Kirkpatrick of Napier is first. No surprise there. The guy's kind of a hero to the Southlander.

As much as a mate can be, anyway. The Stratfords will be putting the Kirkpatricks up during the Worlds in February.

That leaves one place and among those waiting is the reigning national and world champion Rowland Smith of Hastings

The announcer says the result for second is really close. And then . . huh?

"I stood there for a couple of seconds thinking; did I just hear right?"

It's ridiculously close, but he's hearing his own name.

Lisa's eyes are shining. And then, in what seems no time at all, Stratford has more shearing to do. The day's competition isn't over.

It's a mental game, shearing, and it's time to flick that switch back on and concentrate on the next job at hand, So he does. Even though this next event could hardly matter less to him, you flick that switch.

Off the board, Lisa hands him back the phone he'd given her to look after. I can't handle this, she says. It's been going crazy with so many calls and, messages. Almost like it's alive.

-------------------

So Invercargill will have a hometown hero alongside the mighty Johnny K when the World Shearing and Woolhandling Championships are held February 8 -11. The support's going to be massive. Got to be good, right?

Sitting forward for his interview, Stratford has a wee grin.

If you put the world champs aside -- and he can hardly believe he's saying that -- the biggest pressure he's felt in his career so far was in Alexandra this year.

"Six of us in the final and the other five were Aussies. It was like every second a person would come up, pat me on the shoulder, and say everyone's counting on you."

Same now. Except upscaled. Them against the world. More than 30 countries.

The record shows he did win in Alexandra. Mind you, not all records are created equal. Isn't he the first South Island machine shearer to represent New Zealand at the world championships in ages?

Turns out it's since 2005. But Stratford wants to make a point here. Let's not concentrate so much on the gaps between them that we overlook the actual mountaintops southerners have reached.

After a quick phone call with the man himself to check that he's got the date right, Stratford sees far more relevance in the fact that Southland's own Darin Forde came second in the 2000 worlds in South Africa.

Sure, he works for Julie and Darin Forde nowadays, but this is hardly about greasing up to the boss.

If anything, shearing is more often a place where achievements invoke cheek from workmates. Stratford himself has lately been getting a little bit of mock-reverence from guys calling him sir, apologising that the local sheep today aren't really good enough for him, and asking if he'd like a red carpet down.

He can't really complain, because he's been known to dish some of that stuff out himself.

Anyway, let's have some respect for workaday shearing done well. Though it doesn't have the same sort of intensity as split-second competition, that doesn't mean it lacks for its own depths of challenges, pressures and satisfactions.

"You look outside and you might see a mob of 1400 sheep your crew has shorn. You're part of that.

"There are days when you think why am I here? You do toss your toys out of the cot occasionally. But those days are very few and far between. The satisfaction outweighs it."

Working among a good crew, alongside guys like Forde, you keep learning things. It's hardly as though they're all doing it exactly the same.

"Every shearer is different. No one can shear to an exact pattern. Height, size, everything.

"I'm smaller than Darin and not as strong. Not as strong as some of the other competitors, like Johnny K, Rowland Smith and them boys. I can't muscle big sheep the same."

And those sheep are getting bigger by the way. Twenty to 30kg heavier than back in the day. Farmers have been getting more into the meat breeds.

"So I have to figure out ways that work for me. Different positions to hold the sheep. Different styles of setting things up. Footwork is probably the biggest thing. It's like being a golfer; if his feet aren't right nothing good's going to happen."

As any number of physios and chiropractors have told Stratford, and his mates, their work isn't easy on their body. And after a really hard day's work, for five nights a week the past six weeks, he's been heading down to Sid Cumming's World Health & Fitness gym.

Not always entirely under his own steam. Sometimes Lisa has given that weary man of hers some ungentle motivational assistance to help him make the couch-to-gym transition.

The tailored cardio work was tough, but the results stacked up.

Then there's the mental challenge. Thoughts you need to keep out of your head.

Has he settled on right thickness of comb? That's a biggie.

"If I second-guess myself on the gear, that's where the trouble starts."

Stratford puts enormous value on being among friends and colleagues who help and look out for each other.

The colleagues/rivals dynamic doesn't take any of the competitive edge off, when the switch is down.

Sometimes it involves "weeding" or putting some distance between himself from the influence of people who just aren't helpful.

That doesn't mean he wants uncritical support. The most helpful thing, sometimes, is to have people hammer away until they get through with the message of how badly he's done, how wrong he is, what he seriously needs to change.

"We have some very honest friends."

"What I've achieved over the years, I don't put it down as individual success. The people behind you, and the effort they put in behind the scenes, it really matters."

Back in 1998 The Southland Times ran a letter pointing out that its report of a Golden Shears result read as though Nathan Stratford had somehow won the Southland-Otago YFC senior team's event on his own. The writer pointed out that Peter Hancox, Hoki Ratima and Kelvin Moyland deserved acknowledgment.

The corrective writer was K C Stratford. Nathan's dad. Teamwork matters, perhaps especially to people from large families. And 11, we can probably agree, would be large.

Regrets? Nathan Stratford's had a few. Perhaps surprisingly, going nude for a month doesn't really rank among them.

More correctly it was for a 2004 calendar of naked shearers.

You can't really regret a fundraiser for Kiwi Can, he says. He still has a copy at home, though "I don't know if you'd want to look at it".

His, erm, prop is a towel.

Because? "Shearing is the only job you take a towel to work."

A true regret, even now, is how much his commitment to competitive shearing has required from his family.

He feels their support and knows it's heartfelt, but that doesn't get him off the hook when it comes to absences from what would otherwise be family time.

"It's not like bike riding where you can throw your kids on a bike and they can come. You can't throw your kids in a pen and say get on with it."

Seb is 10, Lexie 5.

More times than he's happy about, he's found himself saying "Sorry, buddy, but I'm away this weekend . . . " and trying to arrange to arrange special catchup times.

Many's the parent who manages such things as best they can. And maybe there's something to be said for showing his kids how hard their dad works to pursue his goals and use his talents, and what can be achieved.

But Stratford declines to sugar-coat it.

"It's a selfish sport, as far as I'm concerned."

As for the world champs in February, he's hugely pumped. Scared? Little bit, sure. But look, he says, everyone's beatable. Him, them, everyone.

Come January, when other teams start to turn up, the collective excitement will really kick in, he reckons.

And you won't have to be an expert to get it. When these men get to it, the drama's hard to miss.

"Not that we're drama queens."

And you don't have to be an expert to put your hand up to help -- the organisers will find a use for you -- or to engage with the visitors. They're people worth getting to know. Some of them will have translators; but they'll all have yarns.
Photo by Robyn Edie - The Southland Times. Seb 10, Lisa, Lexi 5 and Nathan Stratford