Grace Nweke's path to glory despite jumper's knee

By Suzanne McFadden


Grace Nweke is ready to make one of the biggest leaps in her skyrocketing career so far – even with two grumpy knees.

The pragmatic Silver Fern shooting star says she’s primed to lift her game to a new level this year – “more ready than I ever have been in the past.”

“I’m in a place now where I understand the game better than I ever have. And I know where I’m capable of shifting, and so it’s a big one for me this year, to grow my game,” the 22-year-old says.

In a year without any pinnacle netball events, Nweke has set some big, audacious goals for 2024: To win all the silverware she can get her hands on, especially after a couple of “deflating” international seasons; to grow her leadership skills after her first taste of the Silver Ferns vice-captaincy; and to buckle down with her university studies, now stretching into a fifth year.

“But at the same time, I really want to prioritise my enjoyment, my mental health, and not being too hard on myself,” she says.

Or too hard on her jumper’s knees. “My knees suck. Honestly, I hate them. They’re just the worst.”

As she prepares for her sixth season with the Northern Mystics – far removed from the shy, coltish 17-year-old schoolgirl who first came into their fold – she’s spending more time on the physio’s table than she used to.

“I just miss the days where I’d rock up to training, put my shoes on and go. There’s a lot more to think about now, but I guess that’s the life of an athlete,” she says.

Silver Ferns goal shoot Grace Nweke during the Constellation Cup netball test at Spark Arena in October. Photo / Photosport
Silver Ferns goal shoot Grace Nweke during the Constellation Cup netball test at Spark Arena in October. Photo / Photosport

Nweke has patella tendonitis – commonly known as jumper’s knee. She has it in both legs, but it’s the right one that’s given her the most grief – the tendon she partially tore early in last year’s World Cup. With the huge leaps – vertically and horizontally – the 1.93m shooter makes during a game, it’s a complaint that kind-of makes sense.

“It’s frustrating because I’d never want to do my ACL, but with a knee injury like that, you have the surgery, you do the rehab, and you more or less go back to the game,” she says.

“I feel my knee injury is both so inconsequential and so uninspiring – it’s nothing you can complain about, it’s just annoying. And so, so painful.”

It affects her more off the court than on it, she admits; sitting in the car, at the dinner table, or on her bed with her knees folded for more than 15 minutes is “incredibly uncomfortable”.

“They take a long time to warm up and they’re pretty sore after any hard trainings or a big week. So it’s ice packs straight on; I’m keeping Voltaren in business. But yeah, it just comes with the territory and there could be worse injuries. And I’m still able to play.”

Nweke has plenty of support wrapped around her and her irritating knees, and after being sidelined for a decent chunk of last season injured, she’s happy and determined to continue playing on them – on her path to become the greatest goal shoot in the world.

After a “massive goal-setting session” to start the year, Nweke wants to begin with successfully defending the ANZ Premiership. It’s a feat the Mystics have never pulled off, but this season, there are a few more things in their favour.

They have nine of last year’s triumphant side returning, with the addition of up-and-coming shooter Hannah Glen, a former NZU21 and Tactix player who sat out last season with an ACL injury. And they have the same winning coaching combination of Tia Winikerei and Rob Wright.

“I think the key to going back-to-back will be a full team effort,” Nweke says. “People say, ‘No man is an island’, and I don’t think one key player will make the difference this season. Our defensive end is strong, and we have some fresh legs, with Hannah at the shooting end.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for us to really consolidate the team that we have and continue our momentum.”

They’ll have an early test to see where they’re at with a run against the Melbourne Vixens on Saturday. It’s been four years since the two sides met, and Nweke has never played them.

“I feel a bit rusty; I almost wanted another week of prep. But it’s really cool,” she says. “It’s a nice shake-up from just doing the annual pre-season tournament at Ōtaki; an opportunity to play some internationals [there are four Australian Diamonds in the side] and see what their programme is like.”

Nweke admits she left the Nations Cup in England last month feeling disappointed and deflated. The Silver Ferns finished third – losing heavily to world champions Australia and narrowly to England, but beating evolving netball nation, Uganda, twice.

“It’s tough,” she says. “We were training well and we knew we were capable of beating England and giving the Aussies a better run for their money. So to be ‘close, but no cigar’ again – which has kind of been the story of our last couple of campaigns – is a hard place to be in.

“I feel like we’ve ‘nearly had’ a lot of teams for a long time. And on reflection, it’s the same things letting us down; the same kind of conversations we’ve had over a number of seasons. It can be quite frustrating, so it’s good to put a pin in it, I guess, for the next couple of months and focus on the ANZ [Premiership].”

If she does return to the black dress later in the year, Nweke simply wants to win.

“I want to be back in the Ferns squad, but I want success in that space. I really want to win things, like the Constellation Cup and other international series,” she says. “I’ve debuted, I’ve worked my way into the starting seven and what’s next for me is to be winning.”

Grace Nweke of the Silver Ferns gets a ball from Francesca Williams of England during the second Cadbury Netball Series in 2021. Photo / Photosport
Grace Nweke of the Silver Ferns gets a ball from Francesca Williams of England during the second Cadbury Netball Series in 2021. Photo / Photosport

She’s continually learning to deal with the pressure and expectation that come with being the country’s No.1 goal shoot, especially so early in her career.

“The pressure’s definitely been quite intense at the Ferns level, but I put that pressure on myself,” she says. “When I come back here [to the Mystics] I feel a little bit less pressure, like it’s a more homely, safe environment.

“I find expectations at this level to be the norm. I have pretty high expectations of myself anyway and I use them as my driver. I want to be the best in the world. I want to have strong games with high volume, high accuracy, I want to be better than every defender that comes up against me.

“When I live up to them, or I’m happy with the way I’m performing, that helps me manage it because I know that I’m capable. So I don’t look at it as much of a negative – more like not only realising but living up to my potential.”

In her six seasons of ANZ Premiership, Nweke has consistently improved her goal percentage each year – from 82 percent accuracy as a green Avondale College student in 2019, to 92 percent last season.

She’s keen to expand her leadership skills, too, after a stint sharing the Ferns’ vice-captain role with Kate Heffernan at the Nations Cup.

It was an interesting experience, she says, having never expected to be a leader – at least not so soon.

“I didn’t see myself in that way. I’ve always been happy to be led and I’ve only recently found my voice to give instruction on and off the court or share my opinion,” Nweke says. “The biggest part for me was my own internal battle, accepting that I was good enough and capable of taking on that role.”

She won the battle, and soaked up all she could from the experience – discovering what goes on behind the scenes with the coaches and support staff, and helping out her experienced captain and Mystics team-mate, Phoenix Karaka.

“There was no pressure to change the world or have the secret solution,” she laughs. “I was leading the shooters where I could and bouncing ideas off Kate and finding out how we wanted to lead in our own ways.

“Now I feel I can go into future tours, and even back into the Mystics space, heartened by my experiences and ready to lead when needed.”

Away from the court, Nweke is making 2024 her “academic year”. She’s been studying for her Bachelor of Commerce majoring in information systems and marketing part-time for four years now, but is frustrated by how long it’s taking.

“All my friends I started university with have graduated and are starting jobs, and I feel like I’ve been left behind,” she says. “But I continue to remind myself that I’m literally working full time as a netballer and studying on the side.”

So she did a summer school paper while on tour in England, and is taking three papers each semester this year to fast-track her degree. (Even then, she’ll have four papers remaining in 2025). But she’s determined to walk across the stage of her University of Auckland graduation ceremony later next year.

Nweke knows it will be a challenge to get the study-netball-life balance right, because above all else, she wants to enjoy herself in 2024.

“I just want to have a good, fun season. I want to be happy,” she says. “At the end of this year, I want to look down the line and see teammates who I love and think how much fun I’ve had with them. How cool it was even through the hard times, but to have a huge sense of enjoyment and fulfilment. That would be awesome.”