Monica Falkner walked into a sold out Claudelands Arena in Hamilton to make her test debut for the Silver Ferns against England last month and had a million things running through her mind.
The 24-year-old from Ōpotiki was thinking about the journey she'd been on. The crutches, the physio appointments, the heartache, the support of her family, the battle of living with a serious injury and above all, just how much she'd missed playing the game she loves.
It has been less than 15 months since Falkner went down in a heap clutching her left knee after rupturing her ACL while playing for the New Zealand A 'All Stars' against Fiji.
Falkner has completed a rapid comeback, and few would have believed she'd be back in the international arena so soon.
"It was pretty surreal. If you'd asked me a year ago if I would debut for the Ferns, I would have said 'no way'.
"It wasn't even in my mind. What was in my mind a year ago was playing some netball. But I got that opportunity and I tried my hardest to make the most of it."
NetballSmart Injury Prevention Programme Director and former Silver Ferns physiotherapist Sharon Kearney was impressed by Falkner's dedication in her rehabilitation.
"Monica has made a remarkable comeback in that time, and to see her make her Silver Ferns debut after what she has been through ... that was really rewarding for her and the team."
On a warm and fine day in the Waikato, Falkner and Kearney are putting the next generation of young netballers through their paces in the main gym at Cambridge High School.
Netball continues to be the biggest contributor to female sport-related injuries in New Zealand, with in excess of 25,000 ACC claims, which came at a cost of $30m in 2019.
ACC has increased its investment into NetballSmart to $3.6m over the next three years.
ACC Injury Prevention Leader Kirsten Malpas said in recent years ACL injuries have become more prevalent in 10- to 19-year-old females, where previously it was seen as a professional sports injury.
"This age group has the highest incidence of ACL injuries, compared with other age groups, highlighting the need to continue targeting this age group," she said.
"Since 2014 there has also been a steady decline in the rate of all netball injuries, reflecting the overall impact of the NetballSmart programme."
Kearney takes the students through the NetballSmart warm-up. The programme takes a holistic view to preventing injuries.
"If we can teach our kids how to look after themselves off court, then they will succeed on the court. While the warm-up is key to decreasing injury, the holistic approach of NetballSmart as the 'healthy heart of netball' will encourage NetballSmart to be embedded into all of netball."
Meanwhile, Falkner is on hand to talk to the students about her journey back to international netball.
"It's good to be able to talk to these girls face to face and tell them that rupturing your ACL is something that you don't want to do. It shows why the warm-up is so important because there is a huge personal cost when you suffer a serious injury."
NetballSmart has made an impact. During the last three-year investment period NetballSmart prevented 4615 claims and has reduced and stabilised Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury rates.
Over the next three years, the NetballSmart team will strengthen their work with secondary schools across New Zealand.
Falkner said it was great to connect with the girls of this age group and bed in some good habits.
"It's good to put an emphasis on how important a good warm-up is and getting the technique of jumping and landing right. Instead of running 10 lengths of the court and thinking you're all good to play, your warm-up needs to be much more dynamic and get you ready for the game and training."
Falkner said, following her injury, playing any netball was a privilege.
"When you're in the game and you haven't had a big injury, you can take it for granted, even though you don't really know that you actually are.
"Missing a lot and seeing everyone else play the game that you love, and you can't do it but you want to, that makes it even harder. It also makes the comeback that much sweeter."
She remembers her first Ferns camp back from injury and going home knowing it was a step up.
"Even my hands were sore because I just hadn't caught the ball at speed like that for a long time. My passes have been at home with my partner and he's no good with a circle ball, it has to be oval."
The promising attacker wants to develop further. After four years at the Magic she's heading north to play for the Robinhood Stars in the 2021 ANZ Premiership.
"It'll be nice to be in a new environment with a different coaching style. I'll also have some new players to play with, and I'm looking forward to playing with Silver Ferns Gina [Crampton] and Maia [Wilson] and look to up my game as well."
Falkner is excited about building on her successful comeback in 2021 and continues to work on her strength and conditioning - the NetballSmart warm-up is ingrained in her psyche.
"I play social touch in the summer and everyone looks at me funny because I'm the only one who is warming up and warming down afterwards… I don't mind the funny looks, it's looking after my body. I am not relaxing anymore I am making sure I do everything I can to avoid these types of injury."
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