A life-changing journey…

While the Marie Little OAM shield is a hotly contested event, in the end the results are just minor details. According to South Australian Rubies players Mandy Berry, Isabella Ivancic-Holland and Storm Duncan, there’s no greater stake than celebrating each other’s victories, making new friends and playing the sport they love.

Storm was especially mind-blown when she discovered the Rubies back in 2012. “When I first heard about state netball, I had no idea what state meant. Then I came out to a few trainings and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing? This is amazing, this is an amazing opportunity!’”

For Mandy, her enthusiasm comes down to the lifetime friendships made within her Australian netball family. “This year I’m most looking forward to making new friends and making new memories. We have some girls on Facebook from the Northern Territory from last year, and some of them have got back in the team. So, it’ll be good to see them again this year, as well as the new faces.”

“You see, we’re representing disabilities. No one else takes any notice of us because we’re invisible and they don’t understand our disabilities. So, we do sports, and that makes us happy. And being with a bunch of girls is just amazing.”

SA Rubies. Photo: Georgia Musolino

And to captain Isabella, every game is a victory. “If you don’t bring home a medal that’s okay, because when you’re on the court you’re doing your state, family, friends and coaches proud. That’s what netball is all about – doing yourself proud and not letting the negativity get in your way.”

“It teaches you that winning is not always about winning, because then you look back on it and ask ‘What can we change and do better?’ So, it’s good that we can have that positivity towards ourselves and other team mates.”

For Queensland team manager Phoebe Lennox and many others, this upbeat environment is the most fulfilling part of the experience. “It’s just an exciting environment to be in. The girls are so passionate about their netball, they work hard to improve each year and are respectful to Merrin and I. It has a really nice vibe to it, and it’s fantastic to be around. And I think the friendships that the girls have formed between each other are part of that too.”

Queensland team 2017. Photo courtesy of NQ.

In the greater scheme of things, there have been many uplifting transformations. On the court, players have had amazing improvements within all aspects of netball, including their footwork, passing, driving, catching and court awareness. According to Merrin McCullough, Queensland’s head coach, the overall quality of netball has gone through the roof.

A significant part of this growth comes down to the players themselves, whose support is seen in their guidance towards each other during games. Storm explained, “If there’s a new player in our team, or even in another state team, we like to help them out and don’t want them to feel like they’ve been left out. We try to help them understand the ‘don’t step’ or ‘don’t cross over this line’ because they’re still learning.”

Mandy added, “We’re like a family. We’re all in different teams on a Saturday, but when we’re together we’re a family, and we look after each other. It’s not being like ‘No, you can’t do that!’, it’s helping them achieve something they can achieve.”

SA Rubies at training. Photo: Georgia Musolino

But for the Marie Little community, it’s what happens off the court that’s truly remarkable and so much more important than the actual results. Whether it’s losing weight, improving fitness, gaining drivers licenses, travelling, studying at TAFE, obtaining part-time/volunteer work, or just gaining more independence, it’s all these ‘little victories’ which make up the greater reward.

According to Jaime-Leigh Strickland, the Western Australian coach, “For everyone, it’s more the big changes they have as individuals and the life skills they learn through netball. A lot of the players have gained so much confidence just from being in a team environment and doing something that they’re not used to doing. It’s more that side of it that we see, not necessarily the netball side of it.”

And being able to share these triumphs with their coaches is the cherry on top. According to South Australian coach Tricia Crockford, “The best part is definitely the continual learning about their lives, especially with some girls who have been around for five years. We’ll even get invited to their 21st birthdays and things like that. It’s such a privilege to be a part of their lives.”

New South Wales coach Jenny O’Keefe adds on by saying these benefits go both ways. “You can see that they’re learning, and I learn as much from them as they learn from me. I think from the coach’s perspectives, it’s something that everyone needs to do.”

A bright future…

Heading into the future, everybody has their eyes set on one dream: an expanding, prosperous competition.

The Rubies’ netballers want nothing more than to see many new faces and make new friends, whether it’s within their own team or other states.

2017 Marie Little OAM Shield tournament. Photo: courtesy of NNSW

Mandy says, “It’s so good see the teams expanding to new people. And sometimes they say you might not get in and be disappointed, but that’s teaching us that sometimes you can’t always get in and you got to give other people the opportunity to have a go. But it’d still be nice to see more teams because then it’s more of a competition. I think most of the girls with disabilities don’t come out because they’re afraid of being judged, and we don’t want that. We want them to come out and be like, ‘Oh this is really fun.’”

Isabella also sends a powerful message to her fellow netball peers. “We want everyone to try and not send the message that the same girls are getting in. It doesn’t matter if you tried out and didn’t get in, or if you’ve never tried out before, just come and have a go”.

On a local level, Tricia and Phoebe hope to unite their states by expanding these opportunities to other regions.

“Eventually for South Australia I’d love to get out to the regional areas; Port Lincoln and Murray Bridge have a competition, so I’d love to get those girls on board. And eventually, why couldn’t we take two teams away? That’s what we need to grow, to make this competition the biggest and best we can.”

“We’d love to see players coming from all across Queensland, inspiring other associations and clubs to look at how they can be more inclusive. Right now, the majority of the girls are from the south-east corner of Queensland, so we’re hoping to change that in coming years. I also know for a long time people have spoken about naming an Australian team, which would be fantastic too.”

SA Rubies at training. Photo: Georgia Musolino

Western Australian coach Jamie-Leigh Strickland would love to see the addition of a male competition.
“The [Western Australian] association which runs the competitions are mixed, so we already have a lot of strong males playing. So, we would love to have a mixed division at national level, or even a male division, so that those guys can get the same opportunity. Netball is their chosen sport and they’re playing it weekly, so just giving them that same state representative pathway the girls have and adding onto the competition would be great.”

But perhaps the most important aspect is building Marie Little Shield profile, with Naomi hoping for the competition to be widely recognised across the nation.

“I don’t want to hear things like, ‘What are you coaching?’ or, ‘What competition is it?’. I want people in the netball world to know what this is and really push for girls to trial. It’s a great sport to be involved in for people with a disability because people don’t have to be right in each other’s space due to positional restrictions. Netball’s awesome, so we should get everyone playing.”

With Tasmania and the ACT the last states to enter the competition, Marie Little’s legacy will only continue to strengthen. This year is shaping up to be unforgettable, so make sure to support the Marie Little teams and help share the stories of netballers with an intellectual disability.

And in the words of Storm, “bring it on!”

Lifelong friends made through netball. Photo: Georgia Musolino

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