Mess with Cristina and you’ll get the Thorns! While the Silver Ferns may often flourish, during the Masters Games, two local netball teams (the Silver Thorns and Eastern Sapphires) will be taking it to the hoop on the world stage, as JON RAWLINSON explains.
As the biggest tournament of her life closes in, Sunnyhills Netball Club’s Cristina Nicholls is drawing on skills garnered years ago and miles away. This former sports psychology student is becoming a Master.
Raising two children and helping to run a family business, Cristina leads a busy life. However, during April’s World Masters Games in Auckland, the Mellons Bay local will meet another challenge head on.
“Some might think they’re too old for sport. They may watch the Olympics and think ‘if only’. With the Masters, you don’t have the pressure of being an elite athlete,” she says.“There’s a sense of pride within the group to be participating as it’s a global competition. We are proud to be playing (more or less) competitively, and it shows that it’s never too late to play sport and become good at it.”
Employing her skills on court and off, Cristina chairs a committee which oversees the Silver Thorns, an over 30s squad, and the Eastern Sapphires (over 40s). While she mostly plays at goal attack for the former, her sister, Alex, plays for the latter.
Both teams feature players from various countries, including NZ, South Africa and England, all living locally.
“It’s about taking an opportunity that only comes once every four years. It’ll be something to tell the kids when they’re older; when they’re a little more interested in what Mum’s doing.”
Born in England, Cristina’s passion for netball was put on hold after her family moved back to her parents’ native country of Chile, where netball is uncommon.
She engaged in a whole new ball game (basketball) at University, where she studied psychology. Cristina later returned to Europe and picked up quite the souvenir in a Barcelona hostel. Rather than bringing back a gaudy Gaudi statuette she found Shane, an East Auckland local who would become her husband. Her hoop dreams were rekindled when the pair settled here.
“I just love netball! It all comes down to the social aspect; forming a strong bond with a good group of ladies who share a common interest. Sport is a great way to meet people, have fun, and de-stress from work, the kids or whatever else life throws at us.”
Looking ahead to this year’s Masters Games, Cristina expects teams from netball powerhouses (such as Australia, England and NZ) to dominate.
However, nothing’s certain in sport. I ask just how good her teams are. She pauses; Shane ventures his one-eyed opinion:
“Awesome…” he states from the depths of the couple’s Half Moon Bay offices. Cristina laughs and offers a more diplomatic response:
“It’s hard to say how well we’ll do because we have little idea of how good the overseas teams are. We’ll certainly be giving it all we have, but we’re not Silver Ferns!”
Shane adds: “Yeah, she has a better shooting percentage than the Silver Ferns!” As to her percentage, Shane confirms it’s… “heaps”!
As no national selection process is at play in their category, (Social) Games’ success must come from Cristina and her teammates alone. “There are three categories, based on experience and level of professionalism: Competitive, Social-Competitive and Social. With jobs and kids, we just don’t have time to train 3-4 times a week,” she explains.
So far, the Games has been a ‘once in a lifetime’ prospect, but now that the teams’ committee is in place, Cristina believes opportunity could knock twice. A grant from the Howick Local Board to help cover costs has also raised the stakes.
“We created a committee to establish structure around our two teams because we needed to raise funds and sponsorship. Now, that’s in place we can put money away, and may well head to Japan in four years. Quite a few players are excited by the idea.”
In addition to indoor netball at Action Indoor Sports Pakuranga (where many team members have been playing for years), the Thorns and Sapphires finished runners up and winners of their respective grades in the 2016 local Summer League. Cristina says weekly training sessions to focus form, fitness and game plans will continue.
“The Summer League helped us prepare because some of us hadn’t played together regularly. Everyone’s putting in extra effort with outside training, which is great to see. We can’t wait for the Games to begin!”
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