For almost two years, livewire midcourter Sam Winders wasn’t wanted by the Silver Ferns. Now she’s back, with new stories to tell – writing books for children
Sam Winders reckons she’d make a great character in a kid’s book.
“Especially from my primary school days – I was this little red-haired girl who got into everything, who was so upset when she didn’t make a team,” Winders muses.
The same little girl who grew up to be a Silver Fern, who learned how to deal with the knockbacks and the frustration. How to simply appreciate the moment. And how to battle her way back into the black dress.
Sounds like a pretty persuasive tale.
Winders has been recalled into the Ferns for this week’s series against the English Roses, having last played for New Zealand in England in January 2019. The Magic captain gave Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua no choice but to select her after a ‘feisty’ and driven performance in the build-up Cadbury Series last week.
Before the Ferns beat the NZ Men in the series final in Palmerston North, I ran the idea of a ‘Silver Ferns Sammy’ storybook series past Winders.
“There are probably a few kids out there who could relate to her, too. There’s definitely an idea there…” she said, at the same time lamenting the lack of books in her local library appealing to sporty girls.
And it may just be an idea that helps launch Winders’ new career as an author of children’s books.
Away from the court, Winders (nee Sinclair) is deep into a 12-month course in writing stories for children.
When it came to thinking about what she would do once her netball days were over – which, the 25-year-old hopes, is still some way off – Winders couldn’t see herself spending her days behind an office desk.
“I’ve always loved writing; I loved English at school,” she says. “But then I went to uni and studied management and the only creative writing I did was strategic plans. Then when I graduated, I tried to think about how I could enjoy myself when I was working, and could I work from home living the real Kiwi dream?
“Then I thought ‘Why not give writing a crack?’ So I’m giving it a go, trying to fit it in around netball, and letting those creative juices flow. Sometimes that’s hard when you’re in your downtime away from netball and you just want to relax and spend time with your family.
“But it’s a good escape. It’s a good little outlet for me.”
The course, through the New Zealand Institute of Business Studies, involves a lot of assignments on different styles of writing for kids. But Winders has been encouraged to write her own stories in her spare time.
“I’ve written a few little books, but I haven’t done anything with them yet. So we’ll just see how it goes – I’ve got a few little plans up my sleeve,” she says.
Winders has been a voracious reader all her life. Growing up in Rotorua she was obsessed with reading: “There are still two bookshelves at my mum’s house filled with first kids’ books right through to the Twilight series. I’d read till late at night, and only switch off my light as mum was walking down the hallway.
“I don’t feel like kids read enough these days. I want to encourage not just little kids but high school age too. If you read, you just learn so much more; it’s a whole other world you live in,” she says.
“I go to the library, but where are the kids’ books about sport? There’s a few about rugby and the All Blacks and an Irene van Dyk biography. But sports girls’ books, I think, is a niche that someone needs to fill.”
Winders, who’s been a popular Silver Fern since her debut in 2017, is acutely aware she’s already making an impression on Kiwi kids.
“I think about that a lot – we’re not just here to play netball. I know I used to look at the Silver Ferns and think ‘That’s a dream of mine but I don’t think it will ever come true’, because it just seemed so hard and so far off,” she says.
“But now that I’m here, I know there are so many girls out there that this can be a reality for – they just don’t know it yet. So how can we make it seem a closer dream?”
One of the books she’s written so far is about netball “but in a roundabout way,” she says. “The others are really imaginative. I like books that have a message in them, like just be yourself.”
At the keyboard, Winders is at her most prolific in the mornings, although she admits to being a procrastinator who will clean the house first.
She no longer has an office – that room was a victim of the extensive house renovations she and husband, Josef, have carried out in their Rotorua home this year. And although could picture herself in a little writing shed in the garden like Roald Dahl, she’s happy for now writing from her couch.
Josef, who’s also represented New Zealand but as a BMX rider, has been a huge support to Winders during some tough times in netball – from the disappointment of the Ferns’ collapse at the 2018 Commonwealth Games to missing out on the team who won the World Cup last year.
“Joe is very performance driven; he’ll ask ‘How are you going with this?’ And he always has my back,” Winders says.
Her mum, Justine, and dad, Jamie, make up her support team. “Mum will always see things I can work on and be better at. But my Dad is like ‘You’re great, there’s nothing wrong’.”
In an understandably challenging year, Winders relished being part of the Silver Ferns 15 for the series against the NZ Men, NZ A and U21 sides last week. She moved easily between the Silver Ferns and NZA teams – and between centre and wing defence – as Taurua trialled as many combinations as she could before this week’s Taini Jamison Trophy series England in Hamilton.
“I feel like I slot into teams quite well; I’ll just bring energy whatever team I’m in,” Winders says. “But coming back into the Silver Ferns is like putting on your favourite pair of shoes, you know how everything runs.”
Winders has developed a new philosophy to the game to deal with finding herself in and out of the Ferns line-up.
“Basically, my motto for the last few weeks has been: ‘I’m just happy to be here’. Everything I do, whoever I play for, whatever position I’m in, whether I’m on or not, I’m just happy to soak it all up,” she says.
“There was a moment on court [against the NZ Men], just before the quarter started and I was standing on the line, and thinking ‘I really love what I do, and I’m just so happy to be here right now in this moment.”
Yes, she’s been doing mindfulness, but admits it doesn’t come naturally. “It’s definitely something I have to enforce. But I know even just 30 seconds every day, or while I’m standing on court, is great to really ground yourself and be aware of what you are,” she says. “I know it sounds really fluffy, but it’s actually so powerful.
“Comparison is the thief of joy, and as soon you’re not in the team, you start wondering, ‘What am I not doing that they’re doing? Why am I not as good as them?’ As soon as you do that, it takes away from your own strengths.
“It’s not by trying to be like someone else. It’s doing what you’re really good at and doing it well, which actually makes it easier for me because now I can have fun and do my job.”
Taking on the captaincy of the Magic in this year’s rejigged ANZ Premiership has also changed her approach to the game.
“It’s made me think about how I’m contributing to the team, without being selfish. What does the team need of me? I don’t think it takes away from my own game, it only adds to it,” she says.
“I have a new appreciation of leaders, and an understanding of how everyone is so different. Ameliaranne [Ekenasio] has made the Ferns captain her own, which I really admire. And at the Magic, Casey [Kopua] did things she knew to be the right way based on her experience.
“You have to put your own flavour on it, and not try to be anyone else. You need to be authentic.”
It was a difficult season for the Magic, who won only two of their 15 games. But Winders says her family take the losses, and non-selections, harder than she does these days. “The reassurance I give them is actually good for myself too,” she says.
On the cusp of another shot at international netball, Winders calls 2020 a great year on and off the court – “and off the court more so.” The budding author adds: “I just love the balance I have now. I’m at peace with where I’m at.”
The ‘just be yourself’ message comes through loud and clear.
* All three tests in the Taini Jamison Series – on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday – will screen live on Sky Sport 3, starting at 7pm.