Growing up playing rugby league and then touch football, Vani Pelite never imagined that by the age of 20 she would be on the wider international stage, representing Australia in a sport she had not heard of until she was 17-years-old.
Pelite says her family were the ones to push her towards rugby sevens.
“I think growing up they knew I was really good at sport and I excelled at touch football. But they’re the ones that actually pushed me to play sevens. I wasn't really too thrilled at the start but they told me I could (be good) if I really tried it
"I just had no idea about the game back then when I was 17. I had never heard of rugby sevens,” she said.
At 12-years-old, touch football was her sport of choice. She remembers looking up to the older girls playing touch and aspiring to be like them. One in particular was Emilee Cherry, now an Aussie Sevens team-mate.
“She was 15 I think and watching her play touch I was like ‘I want to be as good as Emilee Cherry’,” she said.
Pelite later went on to play for Australia at the Touch Football Trans-Tasman series in 2013, a big year for her as she also won gold at the Australian Youth Olympic Festival Rugby Sevens (AYOF).
So began Vani’s transition from touch to rugby sevens at just 17 years of age. Pelite again saw Cherry.
“I remember watching her play one game of sevens and I was like, Wow!” she said.
"I grew up playing touch football with a lot of the girls that are in the team now. Training beside them I was in awe and shock at how amazing they were and now to think that I get to train with them is just surreal,” said Pelite.
Injury and development
Despite a thigh injury briefly interrupting her 2014/2015 season, Pelite had good game time in the majority of the World Rugby tournaments. Coach Tim Walsh is pleased with her development as a key player underlining her ability to find space and successfully use her pace.
Racking up seven caps to date, Pelite has started this current season well, being called into the starting line-up on several occasions especially following the injury in round one to captain Sharni Williams.
Like several of her team-mates, Pelite left her Queensland home and family moving to the Aussie Sevens unit at Narrabeen straight out of school.
"I came down (to Sydney) in 2014 when I was 17 turning 18, and it was very difficult. I'm from a large family, I'm the eldest of six children. Leaving all my siblings behind was very hard,” she said.
Pelite admits she eventually settled in, finding familiarity with team-mates she already knew from playing touch in those earlier years.
“Everyone was just so friendly and willing to help, like the older girls, they have lived out of home before,” she said.
Now living with Nicole Beck and her young family, Pelite is focusing on the months ahead. She has started the season well, playing in Dubai, the Sydney7s exhibition series and Sao Paulo and feels she is taking small but strong steps in her development as a player.
“I wouldn't say I feel really settled but this season, I have started in the side or on if Sharni’s been injured. Before that I was coming off the bench replacing Emilee Cherry in the centre.” she said.
Rio is the goal
“I take it little steps at a time. Rio is the ultimate goal but for now it’s just playing these tournaments, putting in my best efforts, making sure I’m doing everything at training, working hard and performing so that, when it comes to selection time, I can hopefully be a part of that 12 that get to play,” she said.
Pelite certainly displays signs of putting in her best efforts. She was named in the Sao Paulo Dream Team following the round two tournament in February.
With the growth and more importantly the acknowledgement of women’s sport in Australia becoming more prevalent over the past year, the reception the women's sevens team received over the weekend of the men's Sydney tournament, where it played a three match exhibition series against Ireland, was a huge confidence booster ahead of the Olympics in August as well as for the remaining rounds of the World Series.
Pelite agrees the experience of playing in Sydney in front of a loud and very supportive home crowd, while a bit overwhelming was both exciting and enlightening. Knowing how she looked up to Emilee Cherry as a youngster, Pelite herself was surprised when young girls came up to her at the Sydney event,. She realised she too had now become a role model to the next generation of players.
“Having young girls come up to you and ask you about your pathways, you don’t think about it until they come up and ask you,” she said.
“I enjoy every aspect of the game and like the physicality as well: but also being able to train day in, day out with the girls."
“We all come to training with the one goal. we just want to go to Rio. We want to excel in Rio and excel in the World Series, so everyone comes to training and their heads are on and we know that we’ve got to do our job and really try to push each other to be better players,” she said adding the importance of the psychological focus of the team along with the physical skills is evident when they play.
One of the key ingredients in the success of this team is the closeness and cohesion of the group, very much like a family, and Pelite says the strength of the team comes from their openness with each other off the field which translates into an almost instinctive awareness on the field.
“I think you can see there’s a bunch of girls that work so well together on the field like lately you see Ellia Green and Nicole Beck are becoming like a duo, so it’s definitely good to have players outside you and inside you that know your style of play and that can run off you and you can run off them and it becomes so instinctive.
"They know your strengths and you know their strengths and it just makes it so much easier,” she said.
The future of women's Aussie Sevens
With an age range of 18 to 31 years, the Australian women's team has all bases covered: youth, energy, experience, wisdom and the ability and desire to mentor and develop new talent – securing its success into the future.
Pelite is part of that development and while she's fast becoming a key member of the current playing group, she is also part of the bright future of Australian women's rugby.
While all eyes are on Rio 2016, the women's world sevens series is played annually and much growth is anticipated. Women's rugby sevens will be part of the 2018 Commonwealth Games program, hosted on the Gold Coast, Queensland. It is a major prize which Pelite anticipates will be yet another big goal on the team’s horizon.
“That would be amazing to play, and so much closer to family,” she said.