Netball: Atkinson's leap of faith

By Suzanne McFadden

It's not every little girl in the world who gets a netball club created just for her. But then Karen Atkinson turned out to be not just any little netballer.

Atkinson, England's vice-captain playing at her third world championships in Auckland, was born in Wigan - deep in the rugby league heartland of Britain.

Her mother, Susan Aspinall, a keen netballer, set up the Wigan Athletics Juniors netball club when Atkinson was 10 so she and her friends had somewhere to start playing the game. The club still exists in Robin Park today.

Nearly 20 years later, Atkinson's mum and dad are in the crowd at Waitakere's Trusts Stadium to witness just how far their little girl has come.

Atkinson, who began her international netball career as Karen Aspinall, has played 90 tests for England, been to three Commonwealth Games and is one of the world's most astute midcourters.

She played a vital role with Loughborough Lightning team-mate Jade Clarke in England's historic victory over the Silver Ferns in May; her speed and drive through the midcourt setting up the 50-45 upset.

In spite of that, Atkinson has a soft spot for New Zealand - she played a season here in 2004 with the Capital Shakers in the national league.

Atkinson has played for England since 1994, but in a confidence typical of this year's English campaign, she rates this side as clearly the best she's been a part of.

"It's brilliant. This is our most realistic chance of making the final and getting gold. This is my third world championship, and we've never been in such a realistic position before," she said.

The English themselves have taken this seriously for the past four years - their build-up to these world champs comprised fortnightly training camps for the last two seasons.

Atkinson, 29, gave up her job as a physical education teacher to concentrate on training for the final three months. To keep sane, she's squeezed in a little freelance coaching work, including a stint with her husband, Peter, strength and conditioning coach for the English Institute of Sport.

Atkinson is the only player in the English squad who's married. Her husband would have been on the sidelines this week, but for a family bereavement back in England. He will join Atkinson's parents in the crowd for the semifinals today.

Playing in Wellington in 2004 was a steep learning curve for Atkinson, who hadn't been exposed to week in, week out competition before. She took home invaluable knowledge to her fellow English players, who now get that kind of intense contest from their two-year-old Superleague.

They have also benefited from the guidance of coach Marg Caldow, the former Australian captain and goal shoot having a "major influence" on the team's shooters. That's had a flow-on effect through to the midcourt, Atkinson says: "Our shooters are good girls, and if they're shooting well it has a massive impact on the team."

Her highlight at this tournament so far has been notching up 99 goals against Malaysia in pool play. "We're feeling buoyant," she says.

Atkinson has three bronze medals to show for her career - 1998 and 2006 Commonwealths, and the 1999 world champs - but in what could be her last major international competition she has all hopes pinned on upgrading the metal.

"We can definitely win this one. As long as we play our match-winning best we can foot it with the rest. Nothing less will do."

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