In our LockerRoom series tracking down Kiwi sporting greats, former Silver Ferns captain Tracey Fear tells Suzanne McFadden about the ongoing influence of a netball dame, and her goal to come back to NZ and help women leading other sports
From the balcony of her Sunshine Coast apartment, Tracey Fear has the perfect view of humpback whales breaching in the Pacific Ocean.
The former Silver Ferns captain and 1987 world netball champion was born in Australia and returned there with her Kiwi husband, Terry, back in 2013 to be closer to her parents. More recently, the Fears spent 18 months driving around the Australian coastline and living in a caravan.
But now, she’s being lured back “home” to New Zealand.
She wants to be closer to their daughter, Robbie, who’s just moved back after exploring Europe and South America. And Fear has a new ambition – to draw together New Zealand’s women sports leaders to learn from each other.
After spending more than a decade overseeing high performance at Netball New Zealand during one of their most successful eras, 60-year-old Fear wants to share what she’s learned with women in other sports codes.
“I think there’s a cohort of women leaders who just want to see other women’s sports succeed,” she says.
“Being able to come in with fresh eyes and see what’s in place, and get all the best brains in the same room to nut out a way forward – that high performance review space is something I’d really like to get into.
“We can learn from all the pain and suffering netball has been through, the trials and tribulations, campaign plans and reviews, discovering if we’ve got the right culture.”
Fear has garnered more knowledge helping develop new talent in Australian netball over the past seven years.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to help other women leaders – there just aren’t enough of us out there,” she says.
“Yes, some of those sports are a threat to our netball athlete numbers, but I fundamentally believe you play what you love to do.
“It’s up to netball to make sure the environment makes you the best you can be, an environment you don’t want to leave. But if you can go and be a superstar in another sport, go with our blessing. And we, as women, will support you all the way.”
Fear reels off the names of former elite-level netballers Portia Woodman and Ali Shanks, who went on to become world champions in rugby and cycling respectively. She’s proud of what they’ve both achieved.
She, of course, has her own imposing sporting resume. The teenager who moved to New Zealand in 1974 when her father was posted to the Australian High Commission in Wellington, was blessed with strong athletic genes from both parents. Her mum a state-level netballer, and her dad played Aussie Rules.
Fear developed into a dogged and athletic netball defender, who could play goal defence or keep, and who loved to win. She first made the Silver Ferns in 1982 and would play 63 tests for her adopted country.
Forming a “wall” with Wai Taumaunu, she became one of the most formidable defenders of her era (in 1999, she was chosen in New Zealand’s netball team of the 20th Century).
She played at two Netball World Cups, and her last in 1987 – when the Ferns dealt out revenge to reigning champions Australia in an unforgettable final in Glasgow – remains the highlight of her playing career. But it’s the women she played alongside, rather than the glorious victories, that have stuck with her.
“As time goes on, you reflect back to the women you played with, and you value them as leaders in their own right. You knew they were a special group of athletes, but they were also a special group of women,” Fear says.
And for that, she thanks the legendary coach of that era, Dame Lois Muir.
“What an incredible inspiring role model we had in Lois. She just instilled in you a responsibility to help develop the woman who would replace you; to leave the team in a better place than you found it,” Fear says.
Fear was going to finish her playing days after the 1987 World Cup victory, but she stayed on one more year, taking on the New Zealand captaincy and helping a new generation of Silver Ferns fit in. Defenders Sharon Burridge and Robin Dillimore were just coming through.
“I heard Pole [Katrina Rore] talk about the Silver Ferns culture – that you’re only in the team for a short amount of time in your life, so you really want to treat it with the utmost respect,” Fear says. “We are all so aware of the wonderful women who came before us.”
Fear went on to work with some of those women, like Taumaunu and their 1987 captain Leigh Gibbs, who’s now also in Australia, as director of coaching and officials at Netball Queensland.
Fear became a strong coach, working with the New Zealand A and U21 sides and the Magic, before starting a 16-year stint with Netball New Zealand – most of that as high performance director. It’s something she’s now more proud of than her time wearing the black dress.
“We surrounded ourselves with very strong women – like Leigh, Ruth Aitken and Sharon Kearney – who genuinely wanted the best for the sport. They had the greater good as their baseline,” she says
“There was criticism of us at that time that we were very united. That may have been how we came across, but no one saw the backroom discussions. We had so much trust between us that we could be very open with our views. That challenge and debate within the high performance team enabled us to do some really cool stuff.”
Under her watch, netball in New Zealand went through a golden epoch, winning back-to-back Commonwealth Games, the 2003 World Cup and a World Youth Cup title.
“Seeing all the work that had been done come to fruition at the 2003 World Cup in Jamaica was amazing; the biggest disappointment was the 2011 World Cup and not finishing that one off,” Fear says.
Fear believes in fate. In 2012, she applied for the CEO role at the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic and missed out – but then an opportunity came up for a high performance role at Netball New South Wales in Sydney.
Daughter Robbie and son Joel had both left home. “And I thought, why not have an adventure in Australia, and be closer to Mum and Dad in Canberra?” she says.
Her dad, Colin Robbie, was a fit-as-a-fiddle track and field athlete, still competing in his 70s. But 18 months after Fear moved across the Tasman, her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “He had only six weeks after that. But I got to spend every day of those last six weeks with him, and I couldn’t have done that if I’d been in New Zealand. So it was meant to be,” she says.
“That led to Terry and I assessing our life and what we wanted to do next. We wanted to spend more time with the kids, more time having fun and not working.
“So we both chucked in our jobs in Sydney, bought a caravan and travelled around Australia for 18 months, hugging the coastline. It was incredibly liberating and beautiful.”
Then they settled in Maroochydore, on the Sunshine Coast, and Fear took on the performance pathways manager role at Netball Queensland, looking after emerging talent that feeds into the Queensland Firebirds.
“I still have visions of seeing Laura Langman and Casey Kopua bursting on to the scene at our nationals in Palmerston North,” she says. “Seeing young women at the start of their careers, and trying to help them along the way, is the joy of the job.”
It also meant she spent two days a week in Brisbane, reuniting with Gibbs, “who was my landlady”.
Fear finished in the job just before Covid-19 spread across Australia. She’s been doing some volunteer work, and she and Terry – who she married when she was 19 – are keen cyclists.
Now they’re waiting for the borders to open so they can come home.