In the early days of professional rugby Jeremy Stanley was part of the pipeline of the never-ending supply of promising players for the sporting market. On paper, he has an impressive representative rap sheet, which includes being an All Black, a Black Sox player, the Tanifa Samoa softball captain at the world championships in 2004, an Otago Highlander and an Auckland Blues 1997 champion. Yet, he is largely unknown. Jeremy is one of the many cases of a promising athlete not quite reaching his full sporting potential.
At 42, Jeremy’s story is both common and unique; common in that the pursuit of sporting success is nothing new among young athletes but unique because Jeremy has experienced more than the average aspiring rugby player. In addition to Jeremy’s sporting achievements, he can also include being an orthopaedic surgeon – at Starship Hospital and Unisport Medicine – to the list.
As his sister, I have a general knowledge of Jeremy’s achievements (our mother has displayed his trophies, certificates and medals through our family home) but I did not realise the extent of his drive and ambition until hearing his stories first hand for the blog. We spoke about his need to succeed, his biggest achievements (and regrets) as well as his family life and future plans.
The eldest of six siblings, Jeremy was raised in the East Auckland suburb of Panmure. His education spanned from decile 1 to 10 schools, having attended Panmure Bridge Primary, Tamaki Intermediate and Auckland Boys Grammar. It is difficult not to sound like I’m praising Jeremy given he’s my brother, but knowing the consistent level of focus in his studies and sporting career, it seems only fair to acknowledge that he has achieved almost everything he has set his mind to.
When asked about his biggest achievement, Jeremy doesn’t have one in particular. Instead, he shares milestones throughout his age grades. From the main excellence award at Panmure Bridge Primary, through to a clean sweep of the main trophies at Tamaki Intermediate – Head Boy, School Dux and Sports Award. Jeremy carried on to become Deputy Head Boy and First XV captain at Auckland Boys Grammar, and then received the national award for the top Pacific Island scholar in the country. Discussing the First XV captaincy brings a smile to his face. His favourite sporting achievement? “Captaining the Grammar First XV to the National Top Four title is my favourite sporting memory of all. We were also unbeaten that year,” he says proudly. I laughed at that, knowing how much he has achieved in his relatively short life but it doesn’t surprise me as even today he still upholds Grammar traditions and friendships.
Jeremy’s academic abilities did not stop there as he then went on to pass the part two surgical training exam to become an orthopaedic surgeon in 2011. A welcomed and relieved highlight given the setback in failing his first attempt at the part one exam by one mark. “It was tough; I studied for 18 months for the first attempt and then I had to dedicate a further six months for the second attempt, and that was only the first part”. Having never experienced failure on that scale, Jeremy openly talked about how difficult this period in his life was. “I had my study group to support me but it came down to putting in the hard yards, slogging away each day, studying hour after hour”.
With the highs come the lows and Jeremy has a few notable ones; first off the bat was turning down a baseball scholarship at 17 to the University of Hawaii “a scout came down to watch the under 19 softball world cup series and I was offered a scholarship by the then California Angels”. Jeremy hangs his head and recalls losing the under 19 softball final to Canada as one of his most disappointing sporting moments. Despite his visible disappointment, I was more interested in why he would turn down such an incredible opportunity. “At the time, I said I wanted to stay as I had a confirmed spot in Medical School at the University of Auckland, but if I’m honest with myself, I was nervous and scared about living on my own. I’d never left home before, it was all I knew”. Jeremy was reminded of his decision to stay when he travelled to the University of Hawaii with a friend following his rugby career and witnessed a football game, their campus and people “I wish I had gone”.
Another soft spot of regret was leaving the Otago Highlanders for a place with the Auckland Blues. “I wish I had stayed and repaid their loyalty. I loved Dunedin and the culture, plus the Highlanders supported me through my two ACL injuries”. When asked about his decision, Jeremy admits it was for similar reasons as the baseball scholarship; our beloved family member Ifi, who looked after Jeremy while he was living down south was leaving and he did not want to stay without family. His girlfriend (now wife), Anna had also finished her studies and was keen to make the move to Auckland.
However, Jeremy’s return to Auckland would result in an abrupt end to his rugby career just as he was rebuilding confidence and gaining momentum. “I ran into a Taranaki guy in an NPC game, got up and couldn’t feel both my arms. I got dragged from the field because I couldn’t catch the ball”. X-rays showed spinal cord damage and after waiting another 12 months to see if the diagnosis would improve, the specialist strongly advised Jeremy to concentrate on his studies. “It was a blessing in disguise because I went into the 10-year surgical training at 25 and now I have an awesome job that I love”. Despite his position now, it is a jarring reminder that one moment can end an athlete’s sporting career. This further highlights the need for athletes to invest in a future outside of their chosen code; shifting their thinking towards something to retire to rather than something to retire from, and the skills they need to help transition into life beyond their sporting endeavours.
Thankfully, for Jeremy he had planned for a career outside of rugby. Mum and Dad had always encouraged us to do well in school, leaned towards participation more than winning but essentially just wanted us to be good and kind people. This showed when I learnt more about the other scholarship opportunities offered throughout his journey. He casually mentions at the time of his return to Auckland from Dunedin, Jeremy was seriously considering a full scholarship to Oxford but as fate would have it, he could not fulfil that opportunity due to his career ending injury.
As if Oxford wasn’t enough, Cambridge University also offered Jeremy a full scholarship in 1996 when he came to play rugby in Japan (where our family was living at the time due to our dad’s work). At this stage of our conversation, I start to appreciate how intelligent my brother is.
How did you juggle sport and study?
“It’s not like rugby today; I wasn’t being paid to be anywhere so I planned in between trainings and friends would cover and take notes for me”. It got harder in fourth year medicine as rugby turned professional. Wanting to achieve more on the field, he decided to take a year off medicine to concentrate on rugby. “To be honest, I found that harder, as my time management went out the window and excuses and bad habits crept in.”
In hindsight, another major lesson learnt was the need to work hard and smart “the part one and two exams were the hardest things I’ve done in my life; if I had the same application I showed in my study with my sport, I would’ve been a much better rugby and softball player”. On reflection, natural talent and little effort was able to carry him through but it was the mental toughness required which he lacked in his more impressionable years. “I was so young and my attitude wasn’t the best because I could get away with not having to put in as much with sport”.
The cost of success
From a young age, Jeremy has always had this drive to want to be the best, or as he simply puts it – “I just wanted to make my parents and family proud”. When asked about his choice to become a doctor, he shared a story about when he was younger which helps to explain this almost insistent need to do well. No older than five, one night Jeremy saw our (then very young) parents worrying about an unexpected bill as there was no money to pay it. He mentions it was from that moment that he promised himself that he would do everything he could to look after his family; and he’s kept that promise. Naturally, this kind of determination comes at a cost, and for Jeremy it has been self-doubt. The constant battle to exceed even his own expectations of himself has taken its toll but with age, experience and growth, his outlook on life has changed and the important things have become clearer.
“I’m very aware of mortality in my career and with friends passing away over the last few years, I’m acutely aware of what’s important in life; spending more time with family and friends is key.” The biggest goal for Jeremy now is doing a lot more with his children – Jaya, 10, Nico, 8 and Zac, 6. “I want to go travelling with Anna and the kids so they can see the world. I just want them to be good people, that’s the most important thing. They don’t have to excel in sport and academia, as long as they are good people, I’ll be happy”.
Something else that surprises me are the ‘rules of life’ that Jeremy asks the kids to recite to him every night before tucking them into bed – 1. Family and friends come first, 2. Be honest 3. Try your hardest 4. Be a good citizen 5. Follow your dreams. As the kids are listing the rules, it reminds me of when we were younger, and Jeremy would ask us to recite the rules for the day before taking us out – be kind, share, have good manners and don’t ask for anything. There is something quite warming in the familiarity of this, and it makes me grin that there’s a small family tradition that he is passing on to the next generation.
Jeremy is much more relaxed when talking about his future plans and goals, which was a complete contrast to his younger years “It’s different now. Medicine is such a defined career so it is planned for you”. Now that he has become an orthopaedic surgeon, just being happy is a main priority. “Family and friends make me happy. I don’t like rude people and people who don’t treat others fairly because of their position. People who don’t fulfil their potential, I find that frustrating”.
Jeremy’s frustration sums up his sporting career. He finds it difficult talking about being an All Black and Black Sox because he knows he wasn’t able to reach his full potential in either sporting code. There are many accolades Jeremy could cite, but at the end of the day, he seems most proud with father, husband, brother, friend and son.