When Stephanie Wood was selected to play netball for Australia at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, one of her sisters told her, “I’m more proud of where you’ve come from, than where you’re going!” It was the perfect tribute for an athlete whose international career was almost over before she’d begun. Described by her former coach, Sue Gaudion, as one of the smartest players she’s ever worked with, Steph nevertheless had to battle to make it to the top. Her biggest challenge along the way was finding her own inner strength.

While Steph was born in Townsville, the Wood family moved around when she was little. Her Dad was in the Armed Forces, and after interstate stints, the family settled in Brisbane when Steph was six. She was the youngest of three girls and describes herself as “the horrible little sister” because everything her older siblings did, she wanted to do, better.

Steph would go along to netball training sessions, and honed her early skills trying to keep up with the big kids. Part of a close family, she said, “They’ve been a big influence on the decisions I’ve had to make, and also when I needed to be brought down a peg or two. So off and on the court, they’ve been a big influence on my life.”

 

Steph Wood (Lightning) takes on Sharni Layton (Magpies) 2017. Image Marcela Massey

 

Gifted with incredible court craft and timing that caught the eye of her early coaches, Steph knew what she wanted her future to be. She said, “From quite a young age I thought that netball would take me to incredible heights. As a result I didn’t put much focus on schooling, much to my parents’ disgust at times. I just knew I’d be a netballer.”

After leaving school, Steph worked for a while before moving to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 2010 for the start of a two year scholarship. It wasn’t an easy transition. She explained, “I’d come from being a good player where a lot of coaches loved me and saw my potential, to a place where people saw my potential but were also very hard on me. Sue Gaudion was my head coach at the AIS, and I remember her telling me, ‘You’re not going to succeed unless you do A, B and C.’

“Being the person I was at that stage, I probably got on my high horse and thought, ‘Whatever!’ I’d get upset and angry with what she was saying.”

While Steph is hard on her attitude at that point in time, Gaudion doesn’t remember it that way; she enjoyed working with the promising youngster. Gaudion said, “However, Steph did struggle to adjust in the first 12 months. It was the same for all the girls, though. We had to keep in mind that they were just 18 or 19 years of age, and had more in their lives than netball. So for all of them, they needed a shift in their mindset towards a greater maturity. And none of them came to the AIS as the complete netballer, they all had something to learn.”

 

Steph Wood (Lightning) v Stacey Francis (West Coast Fever) 2018. Image Steve McLeod

 

The biggest problem for Steph, according to Gaudion, was that her physical capacity didn’t come naturally. “That was something she really had to work hard at. Building her engine was the toughest ask, and understanding all the other elements like good eating, healthy recovery, all those off court one percenters. We did tell her a few home truths – that as good as you are, your netball smarts won’t get you all the way to the top. Something has to shift.”

It took a while for the lessons to sink in, but Steph soon realised that every athlete there was talented. If she wanted to succeed, she had to be better than them. She explained, “By the time the second year rolled around Sue’s thoughts hadn’t changed in the slightest, but my attitude had. As much as she was hard on me, she was one of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”

“She was honest and just wanted the best for me, so it was a turning point – I wasn’t the star of the team, and I had to put in the hard work in to get where I wanted.”

While Steph’s athletic ability was still a work in progress, Gaudion and her assistant coach, Kylee Byrne, were excited by what they saw in training. Gaudion reflected, “She was blessed with a brain on a netball court that you’d pay millions for. She had court craft and a capacity to read time and space, far superior to most athletes. And she was unbelievably coachable. She could respond immediately to your instructions, interpret them, and go and deliver at 100%. Those sorts of players are gold, and few and far between.”

 

Premiership win with Sunshine Coast LIghtning, 2018. Image Steve McLeod.

 

When the players’ two year stint at the AIS ended, Steph was awarded the coveted Gwen Benzie trophy, for the netballer most likely to play for the Diamonds. Unfortunately, it was one of her last sporting highlights for three long and draining years: Steph couldn’t get a contract with any of the major franchises.

Gaudion explained, “Of all the players we had at the AIS, she was the only one who didn’t get a phone call. As the head coach I spoke to the club coaches, and couldn’t have spoken more highly of her, but it was falling on deaf ears.”

“The only thing I can put it down to is that she didn’t meet the athletic profile. And when a player doesn’t meet that profile, I think there is then a misconception that they won’t cope in an elite training environment.”

“However, every athlete has their own repertoire of skills, and you need that mix across a team. For some it’s their physical capacities such as their fitness or doggedness or their never say die attitude. For others it’s their natural cleverness on court. When you have a player that doesn’t fit the mould, that isn’t a textbook dynamic, athletic type, I think there can be a lack of confidence in them.”

Steph continued to play for the Queensland Fusion, and was an injury replacement player for the Firebirds in 2012, but didn’t take the court. When the contracting period rolled round each year, she waited in vain for a phone call that didn’t come.

“The hardest thing for me,” she said, “was that I was given hope at some stages. I was willing to go anywhere in Australia. I might have a meeting with a club and thought it would finally happen, but then it would be ripped out from underneath me. It was hard and challenging, and I couldn’t have got through it without the support of my family.”

“There were some people who thought they were trying to help, telling me I should be playing at that level. But it wasn’t beneficial in the long run, because I latched onto that instead of listening to the people who were making the big decisions, and what they were telling me.”

 

Playing for the Diamonds, Constellation Cup 2018. Image Simon Leonard

 

It was during this time that Steph’s dry, self-deprecating humour came to the fore. Gaudion explained, “Not taking herself or life too seriously has helped build her resilience. In the times when she desperately wanted to succeed and it wasn’t happening, her humour was her coping mechanism. There was so much pressure on her that without it I think she would have walked away from the sport.”

In 2014 Steph had almost reached that point, when she had a seminal conversation with her boss and friend, Mel. “Her husband coached me for many years, and he always said I could make it but that I was a frustrating kid because I didn’t do the extra work needed. She just gave it to me straight: Why hadn’t I made it? It was a light bulb moment.”

Gaudion believes that it was a line-in-the-sand conversation for Steph. “I think it was the biggest shift for her in terms of mental adjustment, and it does take some people years after they leave the AIS. While I would have loved to have seen it happen earlier for Steph, she was perhaps one those people who needed the fire in her belly to burn longer beforehand. But from that point on, she never looked back.”

Steph and Mel set to work across the space of twelve months, in a last ditch attempt to change Steph’s future. She said, “The biggest difference between Mel and other people was that as well as telling me some truths, was that she then did something about it. We put together a rigorous running program, and Mel did it with me. She was there by my side, doing it, helping me through it. I stumbled a few times that year, and she kept me going through all the tough times.”

The hard work paid off. Steph felt fitter, and said, “I was able to execute my skills for longer. While I’d been told I had a natural ability to read the game, I couldn’t previously do it at a high level for 60 minutes, and that was my downfall.” People noticed the impact, and after playing one of the games of her life, the NSW Swifts got in touch.

“I can remember it so vividly,” says Steph. “I’d had a phone call from Rob Wright, I was sitting in my room and I was just gobsmacked. I was in tears of course – I’m a crier – and I raced past mum and dad and drove straight to tell Mel. While I felt mean not celebrating with my parents straight away, Mel was a massive part in me living my dream. It was a joint goal for us.”

 

Steph receiving her silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Image Marcela Massey

 

The start of the 2015 season was an intimidating time for Steph. She walked into a Swifts club packed with stars; players like Julie Corletto, Kim Green, Sharni Layton, Susan Pratley, Caitlin Thwaites, Jade Clarke and later Laura Langman. “I was so daunted, and there were lots of ups and downs, but they taught me heaps.”

“I wasn’t a starting player in those first two years, but I was learning from the best. As much as it can suck sitting on the bench, I felt like I was doing my apprenticeship.” In her second year Steph started to gain more court time, and so impressed the national selectors that she earned a call up into the Diamonds, making her debut against South Africa.

When the Suncorp Super Netball League was proposed, the player who’d had no offers a few years earlier became the one with almost too many. Gaudion remembered receiving a distraught phone call from Steph during that time. “She was so pressured, being pulled from pillar to post, and she didn’t know what decision to make. The best advice I could give her was to go where she’d be most content. She needed to go home.”

While the Swifts dress will always have a place in Steph’s heart, she’d been struggling with homesickness there. So she looked hard at an offer from Sunshine Coast Lightning, one of three clubs added to the new league. Steph remembers her first conversation with the appointed head coach, New Zealand legend Noeline Taurua. “She couldn’t tell me much. She had no idea what anything would look like, who the other staff or players would be, but I just took to her. She was so honest and had an aura about her. I took a leap of faith and signed.”

 

Friends and teammates, Steph with Phumza Maweni, 2019. Image Marcela Massey

 

The move provided symmetry to Steph’s life. The club was Queensland based, close to her family; she’d be reunited with Kylee Byrne, her long standing junior coach and now assistant coach; and one of her best mates, Laura Langman was heading there too. While Langman didn’t try to influence Steph’s decision, she told her she’d never regret playing for Taurua.

Steph said, “She was right. Noeline’s a genius. She gives you the freedom to try new things without inhibition. She challenges you and tests you, to get the best out of you. I like training to be very clinical, whereas she would set up sessions that were so challenging the attackers would quite often fail. I remember thinking, ‘What the hell?’ because I’d get so frustrated. But then the light bulb moment would occur in games. In that first year particularly we played some ugly netball at times, but we kept possession of the ball. Noels taught me that you don’t have to be perfect, as long as the ball goes through the ring. So yes, she evokes a lot of emotions, but she’s extraordinary.”

The club has become a cultural melting pot, signing a blend of Australian and international players. It’s that very mix, Steph is convinced, that has helped them to two premierships. “Their beliefs do influence you, and it’s really cool to learn from them. This year for example, Peace (Proscovia, Uganda) and I see the game very differently. There isn’t a right or wrong; she makes me look at my game in a different light, and I make her see the differences in my game too. Add those elements together, and it creates something special.”

“I’m also a firm believer that you need to know people off the court. We were given some training singlets and I said, ‘Yellow!’, whereas Peace just said, ‘It’s so good to have a uniform.’ Comments like that remind us that some of these girls have come from real hardships in life, and it makes us appreciate what we do have here instead of wanting more. It’s very humbling.”

 

In action for the Lightning. Image Simon Leonard

 

While Steph had always dreamed of playing for Australia, the early rejections made her think it was a far-fetched dream. She said, “I think I was perhaps guilty of feeling entitled early in my career, but having so many knock-backs made me really appreciate being signed by a club. Anything else that might happen was going to be an unexpected bonus.”

“I’ve always felt that if you play good netball for your club, you’re making it successful, and things above may come. If you tick every box that you can, there will never be a ‘what if’. You can put whatever you can in front of the selectors, but if you’re not what they want or what they need, that’s okay, because you’ve done everything else possible to get yourself to that level.”

“It’s something that I always keep in mind. After each tour I never know if I’ll make another Diamonds team, but that excites me just as much as it makes me grateful for whatever opportunity I get.”

Having played for Australia in a number of international series, Steph has recently been selected for the Diamonds’ 2019 World Cup. She’ll have plenty of support in Liverpool: her family are flying over, Taurua and Langman will be there, albeit temporary opponents, while friends like Mel and Sue Gaudion will be cheering from the comfort of home.

Gaudion says, “For me, her story is one of the great stories of netball. The little battler who didn’t fit the mould. To go through the heartache, the disappointments, how hard she’s worked to get there. It’s quite extraordinary. I hope she writes herself a new story in Liverpool.”

 

At full stretch for Australia. Image Simon Leonard

 

Accurate under pressure. Commonwealth Games, 2018. Image Simon Leonard.