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A journey to overcome a serious head injury has seen Rebecca battle to regain her previous form to return as an international player in the 2019 season.

Rebecca was 17 when she started playing bridge and has now been playing for 9/10 years.

Both her parents played (Rachelle Pelkman and Murray Wood) but at the time Rebecca became interested, they weren’t actively playing.  “I was interested in maths and card games. So thought I’d give it a go,” said Rebecca.

Rebecca is a member of the Akarana Bridge Club and has represented New Zealand three times before, once in 2010 in the under 21 youth team at APBF in Hamilton, then in 2015 in the APBF in the Youth team and also the Women’s team.  This is her second outing in the Bridge Ferns.

Rebecca Johnston.jpg

Her playing career was nearly cut short when she was involved in a major car accident in December 2017.  Suffering from a severe head injury, Rebecca has endured a slow process in recovery, leaving her frustrated and despondent at times.  Having had good results at the table and shown herself to be a promising prospect for the future, the accident changed everything. 

Steph Jacob is her international playing partner.  They have been playing together for just over a year now. 

“The accident was the reason Steph and I started playing.  I went over once a week and just dealt a few hands and she helped me get back into bridge.  I had a couple of tough tournaments when at my worst, and had some issues with reading.  I had lots of difficulties but Steph has been extremely supportive, more than just a regular friend.  There were times when I thought, “I just won’t be able to do this.”  In the 2018 North Island Pairs, Rebecca hit a low.  She had never come last in a bridge event before and there she was, right at bottom.  It was all too much.  She burst into tears and remembers thinking, “There is no way I can use my brain as well as I used to be able.”  It was a really tough time for her. 

A career altering time too as Rebecca was studying to become an actuary, working in insurance as an underwriter towards that goal for 8 years, with full-time work and part-time study.  She had to come to terms with the reality that post-accident, she was just not going to be able to do that.  Her chosen career now impossible, she had to find a different pathway and now runs her own maths tuition business.  She says that she enjoys this and it is a career she feels comfortable with and that is manageable.  She hopes to become a secondary school maths teacher next year. 

After a couple of months away from the bridge table after the bad episode at the North Island Teams, Rebecca, with Steph’s continued support and encouragement, returned to play in the New Zealand Teams at National Congress.  They came third.  To Rebecca, that was something she thought she would only ever dream of.  “To get into the last 16 was amazing, a dream fulfilled.  Then to end up third was amazing. It was worth it, to have put our names down for international selection.”  In the same month, Rebecca and Steph won the women’s event of the Sydney Spring Nationals with their Bridge Ferns team mates Christine and Jenna Gibbons.  They teamed up again on the Gold Coast and won the women’s prize.

Rebecca has never been to Singapore and is excited to be leaving winter behind and going to somewhere nice and warm.  She loves adventures and exploring and will use her trip to springboard into a delayed honeymoon, going onto Europe after Singapore for about six weeks.

Rebecca’s Top Tip for the club player?  “Keep at it, keep having fun.  Don’t make your system too challenging, that makes it difficult to remember- so keep it simple and have lots of fun.”

I asked Rebecca about the financial implications of being an international.  She made successful contact with her local Lions group who have given her some sponsorship To the players at affiliated clubs in New Zealand countrywide she wished to say, “Thank you so much for helping support us – we are all very appreciative of it. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without you. So, thank you very much.”

Rebecca plays Standard European with her international playing partner: strong NT 15-17, but not a 2 over 1 system.  5  card majors, 4+ diamonds, 2+ clubs.  She and partner Steph have been practising every single day and making sure they practise hands and different situations that come up.  Rebecca described them as having a really good relationship, not just a bridge partnership but friends as well.  “I am confident we will perform. If we don’t, we’ll be able to handle that as well.”

Rebecca was born Auckland and attended St Cuthbert’s College in Epsom, and AUT where she studied a bachelor of mathematical science degree with a double major in analytics and applied mathematics.  Rebecca lives in Henderson with her husband and their two ragdoll cats, Bella and Simba and their crazy dog Daisy.

Rebeccas pets.jpg
  Bella and Simba

Her favourite vegetable is broad beans and her star sign is Libra.

I asked Rebecca what does it mean to represent New Zealand?

“It means a hell of a lot, especially more recently, because of the car accident and everything I’ve gone through. It’s been a huge year for me.  I feel so proud and my family members are so proud, that I have been able to get back and achieve such goals after such a hard time.”

If you are struggling as a player and results are not coming your way, Rebecca advised: “You can achieve anything you put your mind to. You might think everything is going badly but it will get better at some point and you’ve just got to keep at it.”

Many players do not realise that the only financial support the international players receive is their travel insurance, the entry fee of the competition and uniform along with a contribution towards their airfare.  All other costs, including the balance of airfares if not met in full, have to be found by the players themselves, and when teams are described as “self-funded”, they also have to pay all of their own airfares. 

Tomorrow, in our final pre-event interview, we catch up with John Skipper from Christchurch playing in the Bridge Masters team in Singapore.

Jane Stearns

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