By Kasey Symons
This weekend should have marked the return of the Suncorp Super Netball, but of course the 2020 Season is currently on hold as the world of sport looks to hopefully soon put plans into action to recover from coronavirus shutdowns.
For South African, and new Queensland Firebird, Ine-Mari Venter, it was to be a new season with a new a team and after months of back-and-forth travel playing for the SPAR Proteas in London at the Vitality Nations Cup, back home to South Africa, New Zealand to play the Pulse and then settling into her new home in Brisbane. Taking the court with her teammates was something she was immensely looking forward to. A new challenge.
But in the coronavirus world, all the travel and training now seem to belong to another distant time.
“It’s a big anti-climax. I’m not going to lie, like you’ve been working up to preseason, six weeks in the tournaments, and it’s just like going back to square one.”
The up and coming shooter and goal attack has represented South Africa at international level since 2016 and was part of Netball South Africa’s 2019 Proteas’ World Cup team before having to withdraw due to injury. Venter has 11 Test caps for South Africa. Contracted to the Vixens in 2019 as the replacement player for Mwai Kumwenda, she has now made Brisbane her home to play for the Firebirds in 2020. Hopefully.
Though without a Super Netball season currently kicking off, Venter discusses her previous setbacks and I begin to think COVID-19 certainly won’t be able to hold this athlete back.
Venter tells me the tale of her humble netball beginnings in South Africa and I sit back listening to her story, amazed at how many times she put herself back on the court to prove herself when she was constantly taken off it.
“I grew up near a netball court.”
“My mum always played on weekends, and she still plays a little bit now. But yeah, she was very into netball. So when she went to netball, I went with her and then when I made it to year one of school, I couldn’t wait to start because we don’t have NetSetGo. How it works in South Africa is instead of having clubs, the only netball you play is your school netball and then provincial netball which is similar to state netball. So when you start playing netball, you start in year one and so yeah, I went to primary school and that’s where everything started. I did athletics, I did netball, I did hockey, and I tried to do every sport. I loved sport when I was growing up.
“And then I went to high school in a little town, and I was there for my year eight and I didn’t play any provincial netball until I was fifteen. I never got into the teams. I barely made second trials.
“I moved schools and that was the first time I made the provincial team. It’s because I was in a different province. I played for my age group at my school netball and then played provincial and then when I was sixteen, they decided to select a South Africans under-16 squad or just thirty-six players that they identified as having talent. That was the first time I think I actually had hope for a netball career, when I made that squad. And then they did the same with under-17 and under-18, but at under-18, that’s like your final year of school and with the provincial team, they select the actual team and not just the squad. We had the trials and I didn’t make the team and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m done with netball’.
“It had so many ups and downs because actually, before that tournament, I injured my ankle two weeks prior. I had a grade two tear in my ankle, and I went on playing with that. And, you know, everybody just hyped me up about it. ‘Oh, you’re definitely gonna be in the team!’ and then I didn’t make it and you can feel everybody just staring at you.
“That was my first major let down with netball.
The University of Pretoria
“I went on to the University of Pretoria and I started out [playing] there but in my first year. I didn’t play much, and I didn’t expect to. I was still a young student and there were experienced players there. Some of them play for the Proteas so you usually just watch. I played just our normal South African championship, I then played for the under-19 South African team and played in the Region Five games, which is like African games, and we played against countries like Zimbabwe and Uganda and Swaziland, and all those countries. And it was the first time in South African netball history that we lost that tournament!
“Everybody was so surprised and angry, it was the talk of the town, making history but not in the way that you want to!
“In my first I didn’t even play for the Jaguars (which was our big league), I was actually taken out of the team! We were sixteen players and we were only allowed fifteen and then I was taken out.
“At the end of my second year, I really struggled because I wanted to continue playing netball but I’m not getting into the teams, I’m not playing for the uni. I didn’t get into vet school and I really want to get into vet school, so I was starting like a Bachelor of Science degree which is already more pressure because it’s really difficult to do that and play netball.
“In the beginning of my third year, I had to think about that if I want to do my vet [studies], I knew that I had to either work towards increasing my marks, or I’m just going to decide I’m playing netball. And I ended up playing in like ninety-million tournaments!
“I played in like five teams. I played for the Jaguars, I played for my uni, I played under-21 baby Proteas, I played for the President’s first team, which is like the Pro B team and for my province and all those things.
“Then at the end of that year [at uni] you shadow a vet for a month so you have time to decide. I thought, I still want to do the vet thing so I did it and I just didn’t train for a month. And you’re out of the house at like seven o’clock, even earlier, and then you get back at like, seven, eight o’clock at night so there’s barely time for training. I probably trained like once a week. Literally on the last day working with the vet I got a call from Netball South Africa saying that, ‘Norma just wants to know if you can be a training partner for the quad series?’.
“At the back of my mind. I’m like, ‘I haven’t trained for a whole month and I have to jump into a training camp in like, two weeks, with Norma Plummer?!’ I was like, ‘that is gonna be interesting…’ But nonetheless, I did it. It was the quickest, I’ve ever gotten fit, that one week doing drills with Norma.
“So yeah, that was my first taste of the Proteas team!
“And then my netball career just kicked off in 2017 through all the way till now.”
Venter’s story is so impressive, a netball battler who was always on the fringe but never let go. Not when she thought she should leave netball behind, not when she thought she might become a vet. Not even when Norma Plummer herself wrote her off.
“When I started my international career, we had a quad series in 2017. We travelled Australia, New Zealand, and then we ended off the quad series with two test matches in Fiji. That was my first tour with the Proteas I was like, pretty sure they wouldn’t play me against England, Australia, New Zealand because I’m a youngster, but I was fine. I accepted the fact that I’ll probably be benched those three games. But I was so certain about the fact that I’ll probably have my debut against Fiji.
“And we played the first game against Fiji and we won by like 40-points and I didn’t go on, but the other girl that was also a debutante, she had her debut and I’m like, okay, definitely the second game, and I stayed on the bench.
“That whole game, I was like, ‘what just happened?’ and everybody was looking at me, trying to figure out why I didn’t get on the court.
“But then the next season I just came back and I don’t know, I think there’s just something in you that you want to do better, and every time it makes you come back because you know you can do better.
“I had the base trials the next training camp and I remember Norma telling me, after I came back in 2018 for the trials and I actually made the team again, I remember her when we had our individual meeting, she tells me she was pretty sure that I was going to pack my bags after those five games, especially against Fiji. I told her, ‘Well, I’m back!’
“Yeah, I think I’ve had enough setbacks to know, that’s not always the end.”
Venter has such an introspection about these challenges, these times her sport told her ‘no’ and while she’s questioned it along the way, worked hard on her studies and ensured she’s had options, she has also never given up.
It’s an incredible characteristic to have that drive and resilience, but also a sense of humour and pragmatism. Venter is focused on the controllables, what she can do and how she can take action. It’s that mindset that is helping her with the difficulty of navigating the current impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everybody just wanted the season to start and especially because it’s a new club, new teammates and after the preseason we had, I was so excited to see what the girls are doing on court. I had a little taste of playing with them when we played against the Pulse in New Zealand early in February. Then when this whole coronavirus thing started we all anticipated things like this would happen. I don’t think we thought it was going to happen as quickly as it did. But we just had to adapt to it and we’re catching up. We see each other on Zoom every week. Trying to keep it as normal as possible. But, like we were all excited. You can’t worry about what happened, you have to focus on the next few things that you need to do to be ready for when the season starts. And I think again, that’s the main thing for us is just keeping our heads up and focusing on actually keeping the season going soon.”
The physical distance from her new teammates is still tough to manage for Venter who has just moved to Brisbane, especially with her family still in South Africa.
“I think [I miss] just having the team around, especially being in a different country and not knowing a lot of people here. And I really just slotted into this team so nice. And they were so welcoming. And it felt like I knew, like I’ve known them forever. And now, as quick as I got into it, we had to get out of it again. But yeah, I really just miss the girls. And just being in that environment with training with them, suffering with them, enjoying everything with them. I am definitely missing the team during this time.”
Resilience & Rusks
Among the challenges now of staying connected to her team and training in isolation is also the challenge of finding flour to make a beloved South African delicacy to help her feel less homesick.
“To not have to struggle to get flour! That would be so good! Three weeks to get flour, that was crazy!
Venter details her recent mission to make her favourite treats and after hearing her tales of persistence, I’m not at all shocked at the lengths she’s gone to make it happen.
“I like baking. And I wanted to make these rusks, beskuit we call them back in South Africa, you usually have them with a coffee or tea. And I couldn’t find flour for three weeks to make the rusks! I was driving around looking for flour and all the local shops didn’t have it and then one weekend I actually drove to Wellington Point because there’s a South African shop on the way there. And I decided to literally stop at every grocery store on my way home and I still couldn’t find flour. And then the weekend after that, I went to Mount Coot-tha where I did a little bit of a walk. And I did the same thing and luckily the second store had flour!
“I was so excited. I was like, finally I can make something! It’s something we always have at home. It’s something you just dunk in your coffee—it’s very South African!
“My grandma used to make this recipe, and it’s my favourite, my absolute favourite rusks. So I asked her, if I can please have the recipe because I want to make some. And then it took me three weeks to get flour and eventually I made them! They are so yummy!
“And it takes a while too. You make dough and then you bake the dough and then you cut it into pieces and then you have to put it back in the oven to dry it up and it took five hours just to dry up! I was just like waiting to eat one!
“When they came out of the oven, I made tea and I had some rusk and, oh, so good. I called my grandma.”
With this level of dedication to baked goods and her resilience and drive, I’ve no doubt Venter will be raring to go when it’s safe to take the court again, and I’m so excited to see what she’ll do at the Firebirds.