Doubled over, gasping for air, I heard cries of: "Good work Teuila". Really, I thought? The ball was just lobbed over my head and swiftly shot into the hoop by my opposing player. Pretty sure that takes their lead to 10 goals. Why am I being congratulated for it? Was it possible the match wasn't going as badly as the scoreline showed?
As I looked up, my questions were answered by a high-five between two midcourters from the opposing team. The Teuila being praised wasn't me. She was a nippy feeder in a different club's dress who looked and played like she was 10 years my junior.
So, I thought, this is what returning to competitive sport feels like in your 30s. Breathless, off the mark and weirdly disorientating. And that's all before the halfway point in my first full game back.
This year, I decided to make a serious play at returning to netball. By that, I mean Auckland club netball. After nearly a decade away, I assessed it would be good for me. Notably, I said the same thing last year, and failed to see it through. After injuring my calf muscle at the beginning of the season, I spent the rest of it helping on the sideline. The physio's conclusion: I needed to do more work off the court to be fit enough to play.
The 2020 season was my second chance. After all, being match-fit was one of the reasons I had been keen to return. While I departed from my previous playing days and accompanying rigorous training sessions with glee in my early 20s, I thought it would be good to try and recoup the type of fitness I had back then.
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It wasn't until the first game of the season, pre-lockdown, that I realised how much of a challenge this was. My body, specifically its arms and legs, did not move in the same way and at the same speed it once had. To ensure any kind of longevity for the season, that meant reconciling what I thought I could achieve with what was actually physically realistic.
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Images of players from last year flying across the court started to run through my mind. Twice I had seen individuals carted off because of serious injuries, including one from a ruptured Achilles heel. At that point, I swear my ankle started to hurt. Did I do something to it yesterday? Would it hold up today? It seemed the excitement of the new season had started to wane drastically.
To deal to the misgivings, I decided to perform my own mini-warm up at home before the game. This consisted of jogging around the backyard and stretching vigorously. When my flatmate arrived home - whom I insisted should also play the season - she asked what I was doing. Basically, I was terrified I was going to hurt myself and thought a self-styled, two-hour warm-up session would fix things. I lasted about 20 minutes on court before I asked to be subbed, citing my problematic calf muscle. For those hoping to take up a team sport as an adult, I strongly advise against this type of behaviour.
For the next match, post-lockdown, I took a more measured approach. The season had been reset, and games now consisted of 12-minute quarters. I was down to play a full game that evening, and the misgivings crept back. Ss an extra safety-precaution I lathered my calf muscles with Deep Heat until my eyes stung. Again, my flatmate looked at me in bewilderment. "You're psyching yourself out," she said.
She was partly right, and things improved when the game began. Yes, I could still pass, catch, run and jump. There were some notable early wobbles, including being so surprised to take a rare rebound I dropped the ball and gave it away. But as the timer ticked over, and I familiarised myself with being on court, the fears dissipated.
I remembered what it was like to be part of a team, and rely on your mates at the attacking end to score. I remembered the loneliness of GK when the ball was hurtling down the court, and you needed to disrupt its path to the hoop. Similarly, I remembered the amount of running needed when playing GD to ensure that did not happen, and that your GK was not left isolated. Somewhere in there, I also forgot about my dodgy calf and started to enjoy the game. Importantly, I realised I could still be a netballer after a lengthy period away.
Despite that, we lost to the young Teuila's team. In fact, we were walloped by 20. Notably, that was an improvement on the previous week, which saw us go down by 24 to another team. It is why I'm pleased to report our first win last week, making our current season score three losses to one win. It made for a delightful post-game wine, where I happily raised my glass to the most aptly named team in the competition: Ponsonby Old Girls.