Since hitting the professional netball scene, teenager Grace Nweke has quickly emerged as one of the country's top shooters - but her sudden rise to fame hasn't come without its challenges. Michael Burgess reports.
When Grace Nweke attended her first Mystics training session, she felt like a "complete gumby".
Nweke, who is now one of the most talked about players in the country, had been invited to practice with the ANZ Premiership side during a pre-season workout in December 2018.
The then 16-year-old was excited, but also terrified, given her limited background in the sport and her fears were soon realised.
"I was mortified," Nweke tells the Herald. "I was so scared of everyone, of making a mistake. I remember coming in, dropping every ball, not being able to pass a quality pass back. I was very gumby ... I felt uncoordinated."
At the end she told coach Helene Wilson it wasn't a good idea, in her mind thinking it was the end of the road.
"The level of performance and expectation was so different to what I was used to," adds Nweke. "It was terrifying for me." But it was only the beginning.
"I'm glad she brought up that story because it's exactly what happened and she did feel out of her league," says Wilson. "At the end she was quite vulnerable and we had to reassure her that everything was okay, that she was going to be fine."
Wilson was also encouraged by the reaction of the Mystics players.
"I had prepared the team, telling them we had quite a 'green' player coming along to the session," says Wilson. "But afterwards one of the senior players asked me 'Where did you find Grace? She is amazing ... she's going to be very good.' I think they were all impressed."
The confidence was justified. At the end of her second ANZ Premiership season, Nweke is already regarded as one of the best shooters in the country. She leads the scoring charts (471 goals), with the third-best percentage (89 per cent).
With the absence of Bailey Mes (injury), Nweke has emerged as a leader within a young Mystics attacking quartet. The 1.93m Nweke is regarded as a future Silver Ferns star, often compared to the legendary Irene van Dyk.
That's a lot to take in, especially for a teenager with just 26 ANZ Premiership games behind her, and such expectations can be "scary".
"I remember before the [2019 Netball] World Cup there were all kinds of conversations [about] who should be there and my name came up in a few," recalls Nweke. "Obviously I was really flattered that people believe I have what it takes to be a Silver Fern and it's exciting to have that kind of support.
"It's something that I want, and hopefully I will be able to achieve someday. But the expectations can be quite a lot sometimes because I do feel I have a lot to live up to.
"There is a lot of 'she will be, she could be' and it is kind of scary; you may get an injury or have something happen and you won't be able to fulfil the potential that you have. It's a lot to think about."
Despite the external pressures, Nweke has coped well.
"She does feel those expectations from other people," says Wilson. "It's important that she knows what to listen to, and what not to listen to."
Her strong family values help, while her five brothers and sisters keep her grounded.
"My siblings just take the piss all the time, they don't care," says Nweke, who was born in New Zealand of Nigerian descent. "It's definitely good to have my family there. I'm just Grace back home, not any special netballer or anything."
From being stunned when facing names like Kelly Jury or Casey Kopua last season, Nweke has felt much more assured in 2020, even with the increased focus and attention from opposition teams.
"I wanted to be consistent this year, that was the main thing," says Nweke. "[At the Mystics] we talk about second-year blues and how that can be a big thing. Not being the breakout star anymore and having teams know how you play. It's about being a strong player week in, week out."
For someone so young, Nweke is well-spoken and perceptive. It reflects a strong focus on education which has never wavered – she is in the first year of a conjoint BSc/BCom degree at Auckland University – and a well-rounded personality.
"I'm really lucky to be able to play netball as a job," admits Nweke. "Not many people get to say that. I want to enjoy netball, have fun with my teammates, and grow my game."
Nweke is grateful to all who have shaped her career so far, with some sliding doors moments along the way. She is particularly thankful to Millie Manuel-Nathan, long-time head of the New Jaks club in west Auckland.
"She gave me the opportunity to play netball and learn how to play netball properly," says Nweke. "She did everything for me, it started when I was 13."
Manuel-Nathan spotted Nweke walking around the Te Pai courts in Henderson one Saturday morning, where the youngster was watching a friend's junior team play.
"She asked me if I played netball, I said 'no I don't have a club'," recalls Nweke. "She said 'Okay next weekend you are playing for us'. From then on, she met my family and would pick me up for training and games."
But Nweke's start with the New Jaks was inauspicious when she turned up the following Saturday.
"Milly had been saying 'I've got this tall shooter'," remembers New Jaks veteran and former Mystics and Steel player Rachel Rasmussen.
"I had just come back from playing in Invercargill with the Steel and I ran on at goal attack. The first pass I threw went straight through her hands. I was like 'Milly – she's tall, but she can't catch the ball'. We always laugh about it now."
Manuel-Nathan, who has presided over the New-Jaks club for two decades, could see the raw potential.
"She didn't even play a quarter that day," says Manuel-Nathan. "She had to learn a lot. She needed to develop her hand co-ordination and her leg co-ordination. But I said I would work with her."
Manel-Nathan helped ferry the youngster to training and games, and also took her down to the Avondale Spiders Athletics club, where she impressed with her high jump ability.
"She became part of our whanau," says Manel-Nathan. "Her mum and dad were busy with so many things and all the other kids, so we helped as much as we could."
Another critical development stage came at Avondale College, where she was coached by former New Zealand Under-21 representative Rasmussen.
"What she did at the Upper North Islands championships, that was a massive shift for her as a player," says Rasmussen.
Nweke inspired Avondale College to third place, qualifying the school for the national tournament for the first time in more than a decade. Wilson, tipped off by her club scouts, was a keen observer.
"She stood out," says Wilson. "Tall netballers often can't jump but she could, which was a really good platform. She also had big hands, which meant she could pull balls in that were well away from her body."
Nweke also coped well with the constant defensive pressure. "She was often sandwiched by two defenders ... holding, pushing, elbows," recalls Wilson. "But she showed a good temperament. She didn't mind the physicality."
The rest is history. Nweke joined the Mystics' feeder team in the Beko league, but was soon promoted to the top squad, making her debut against the Stars in March last year.
"I didn't think I was going to get on, as we had all of our shooters there," says Nweke. "It was halftime and Helene just turned to me and said 'Okay Grace, I'm going to put you on'. I was just shocked and scared - it was surreal. I had no idea that the opportunity to be a training partner would lead to something so soon. But I got the first shot in and then really settled."
That was the beginning of a whirlwind period, where Nweke was juggling school commitments with professional sport.
"It was really crazy," says Nweke. "Like having class on Wednesday and then going and playing the game that night. Or having a game on Sunday and having to wake up and go to form class the next day. It was horrible ... I was so tired."
But she performed well, and still found time to help Avondale College attain sixth place at the national secondary schools tournament later that year.
"She is one awesome kid," says Rasmussen. "It was all about the team and she was never too big for her boots. She shared Mystics training routines with us and was always giving."
Nweke is gradually getting used to life in the spotlight.
"I get approached all the time because I am very tall," says Nweke. "When people put the netball and the height together it is very funny ... I'm just flattered by it."
"It's a bit awkward when I am not looking very nice and just running in to get some snacks but it's lovely to have people say they enjoy watching me play. I was at Pak'nSave the other day and this couple were like ... 'Oh my god you are from the TV ... I saw you on the TV!'."
She's enjoying her studies but laughs that it make take her "12 years" to finish, given all of her other commitments. Life has changed considerably, though she still has the same friends and lives at home.
"It's exciting to see the opportunities I have laid out for me and what I can achieve eventually," says Nweke. "When I was playing in my local centre I played because I enjoyed it but I never thought I could make it this far."
Wilson has no doubts about her potential, but urges patience.
"It's lovely that everyone wants her to be the next big thing right now – but she will be that when she is ready. If she gets those building blocks in place, she will be the next big thing, I'm sure. But there's no rush."
Manuel-Nathan takes great pride in watching her protégé, along with many others from the New Jaks club.
"We all go to watch," says Manuel-Nathan. "I don't miss a game. I love it."
Rasmussen has also been thrilled to see the rise and rise of her former student. "It's pretty cool," says Rasmussen.
"From having that first ball fly through her hands but now catching everything left, right and centre whenever we see her on the tele. We always giggle. We are going to claim a bit of that."