Bailey Mes is a modern day Cinderella. Her rags to riches sporting tale includes five long years of drudgery on the bench, a devastating injury, public laceration and finally, redemption.

With her unique combination of athleticism, shooting skills and defensive capabilities, Bailey is now the Silver Fern’s key strike weapon. Her feel-good story is one that makes us fall in love with sport all over again.

Photo: Marcela Massey

A relative latecomer to the world of netball, Bailey first started playing at the age of 11. Her high school coach was a former South African national, who gave Bailey an excellent grounding and ignited her passion for the sport. Selected into a series of representative and development teams in the Auckland district, Bailey was picked up by the Northern Mystics in 2010. While she gained little court time, she absorbed everything she could from the high performance environment.

She remembered, “When I first started with them I was very inexperienced and just trying to soak everything up. I was behind two of the best shooters in New Zealand (Maria Tutaia and Cat Tuivaiti), so it was always going to be tough to get on court. I loved it though; the training was great and I was constantly being told that it was going to work out – I had to hang on to that. It wasn’t as if I was being told I was rubbish!”

Photo: Marcela Massey

In a bolt from the blue, Bailey was asked to trial for the Silver Ferns in 2012. She’d played just one quarter of a game for the Mystics, but came to the attention of national coach Wai Taumaunu, who regularly sat in on practice matches. Taumaunu explained, “I’d seen her over a period of time, and her general athleticism stood out. I saw her training, she wasn’t playing much netball, and she needed the opportunity to do so.

“I had real faith in her, although there was an element of hope too. You don’t learn to be good unless you’ve had time in the saddle and compared to others she just hadn’t had that time.”

To the surprise of many – particularly Bailey herself – she made the Silver Ferns.

“It was the craziest thing to look back on now. That trial week I played some of the best netball I’ve ever played. I went in with the attitude that I had nothing to lose. I’d talked to some people before the trial who had supported me through the shock of even being asked to trial. Although I hadn’t played much, I thought from my training that I was ready to get out on court.”

Public opinion wasn’t so sure. Some remembered Taumaunu’s extraordinary success in spotting youthful talent, and hoped she’d unearthed another future star, while others claimed she’d lost her mind.

While most people learn and make their early mistakes in private, Bailey had no such chance. She started in the spotlight glare of netball-mad New Zealand. Unlike other players, she’d had no time playing at domestic level, and with national shooting combinations well established, took to the court at wing attack, a position relatively new to her. Bailey’s debut and early games were understandably shaky.

Bailey knew that she just needed time to learn, but coping with an unforgiving media and brutal public reviews was intimidating.

“That was probably the hardest thing when it was all so new. I literally hadn’t had any court time, so I was learning everything as I went along. It was a very tough time and I felt overwhelmed, but I focused on talking to family and people that I knew would support me no matter what. A lot of the time I wouldn’t read anything at all. I just don’t engage with the negative stuff, although it’s made me part of who I am now. The amount of scrutiny, the pressure that the public put on young athletes, makes their start 100 times harder than it already is.”

Taumaunu knew that her newest recruit was having a difficult time as a result. “It was huge. She had such a tough first year. And it wasn’t just the one series – she was criticised in the test series leading into the World Cup and the Quad series the year before. I used to joke and tell her she was the most resilient person I’d ever met coming back from that.

“At that point, she’d spent three or four years on the bench, and she also had to experience the pressure that affects any shooter, you just have to go through it.

“But her progress was clear, and it was tangible. And she never, ever gave up. That, I will never forget. She carried on when a lot of people would have stumbled.”

Photo: Marcela Massey

Bailey’s rollercoaster ride continued in 2013. Finally starting to gain some court time for the Mystics, this time in her preferred position of goal shooter, she experienced the cruellest of blows. In the last game of the season, after an awkward landing, Bailey ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. Although it was a relatively clean injury, she still needed surgery and up to a year of rehabilitation.

She remembers the time well. “The beginning of that season had been pretty rough and I saw myself heading into yet another year of being thrown around and not really having a position or place. But I was finally getting some rhythm. So it was an awful thing to happen. But being able to bounce back quickly was good motivation for me, and I managed to get back for the start of the next season.

“Some good did come out of it, though. I was studying at the time, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to finish my course without that time away from netball. Although I’d started health science after school, I made the switch to a design course. I also started to study photography, which is my other passion. They were both really good distractions.”

After her knee reconstruction Bailey spent one more season with the Mystics. During those initial five years with the franchise, she’d spent most games glued to the bench. It was a long apprenticeship, with little time to put her skills into practice.

“I was perhaps a bit naïve, because a lot of players wouldn’t have sat there as long as I did without playing. I was very frustrated a lot of the time, particularly towards the end of that five year period because I had got to the point where I was a lot more confident in what I was doing.”

Photo: Simon Leonard

2015 was a period of renaissance for Bailey. An opportunity opened up at the Tactix, playing goal attack ahead of Malawi import, Mwai Kumwenda. Bailey described her move as a “no-brainer”, saying, “I didn’t reach a point where I was ever going to stop playing netball, it was more a matter of, ‘What am I doing?’ and, ‘How can I make it better?’ And that’s where the move to the Tactix came in, because I just wasn’t getting anywhere at the Mystics.

“Basically, I needed to get out on court. I had everything but the experience of actually being in games and there is a lot you can only pick up by playing.

“There was so much I enjoyed about the Tactix. I was playing goal attack which was another challenge; Mwai was the most amazing player and we had so much fun together. Sue Hawkins was quite quirky in her coaching style and she had heaps to offer in the shooting circle.”

With regular court time, Bailey’s game quickly improved. On the national scene, the addition of attacking specialist Vicki Wilson to the coaching team was also beneficial. Bailey’s shooting statistics had been of concern, with her volume and accuracy below the standard needed of an international shooter.

“Vicki placed a massive focus on shooting, around volume and solidifying technique. But for me, confidence is as equally important as the technique and volume at this level.

“So practice is huge, getting your technique sorted so you have that to fall back on. That then gives you the confidence to put the ball up. You have to keep going to the post and that is the hardest part when you’re missing a few goals. There are so many different mental strategies to reset yourself and I think it is a constant work on for most goal shooters. I’m always finding new situations on court when you have to reach into your toolbox.”

As starting goal shooter for the Silver Ferns, she was part of a team that was narrowly defeated by Australia in the 2015 Netball World Cup final. The margin was narrower than many had predicted; it was becoming obvious that Bailey’s presence would be a thorn in the side of opposition teams in the years to come.

Bailey returned home to Auckland in 2017. While she’d loved the training environment and her Tactix teammates, she was missing friends and family. The opportunity to pair up with national shooting partner, Maria Tutaia, was another strong incentive to re-join the Mystics. It was to be a vastly different experience to her previous five year stint with them. Bailey took over the goal shoot bib, and had a strong season while continuing to improve her skills.

Photo: Marcela Massey

With the domestic season finished, Bailey went on to play six tough games in the annual Quad Series against Australia, South Africa and England, and the Taini Jamison series against England. She shone at both goal shooter and goal attack, but it was her games in the latter position that got people talking – this time for all the right reasons. While highly accurate in the goal circle, her defensive work as the spear head of the New Zealand zone was match winning.

In her most recent game against England, Bailey shot 21 goals at 100% and took six crucial intercepts – a unique contribution for a goal attack. It was all the more remarkable, given that she’d only played a handful of outings in that position for the Silver Ferns.

“I’ve got a lot to learn there still!” laughed Bailey. “You are the link between the middies and the goal shoot, so I had to think about the lines that I was running and building that into my game.

“But I do enjoy it, and it’s another option we have now, as our shooters can all play both positions.” As a result, the Silver Ferns have a formidable attacking line; their range of combinations and unpredictability will be a nightmare for opponents to match up against. With the 2018 Commonwealth Games just six months away, that’s good news for New Zealand’s gold medal hopes.

Bailey is now one of the Silver Ferns’ senior players; a crucial part of their team. Verbal bouquets are thrown at her now, rather than brickbats, but those close to her say she is the same humble, modest person that she’s always been. It’s a character trait that is partly inherent, partly traceable to her earlier years in the sport.

“Because I had such a strange introduction, I’m constantly reminded of how much tougher it can be, so I have such a huge appreciation for where I am today. During the journey from rookie to senior player I’ve played with some incredible legends of the game. I’ve been able to experience that and learn off so many amazing people.”

While Bailey’s fairy tale is far from complete, she’s endured the difficult times and is enjoying the rewards of her perseverance. It wasn’t a glass slipper that she earned, but something far more valuable: satisfaction.

“I love the game, I love the training and being fit. I love the team aspect. Being in different teams, you have so many unique personalities and I love the way that we mould together to work towards a common goal.

“Enjoyment is massive factor in any part of your life. If you love what you do, stick at it, and give 100%. There is value in putting in the effort, because the results will follow.”

 

 

Twitter: @Summerhill1003
Cover image: Marcela Massey