Former Silver Ferns captain Julie Seymour was denied a World Cup title three times, but she’s found new reward as a coach, teacher and mum.
The hardest knocks gave Julie Seymour the biggest opportunities of her career.
Sitting down to a cup of tea on a promising Canterbury spring morning, the former Silver Ferns captain is reflective and philosophical about her 16-year national netball career.
Over her 92 tests, the workaholic midcourter wasn’t side-lined for injury in 14 years, had three of her four children during her playing career, and was nanoseconds from pushing her middle-distance running career to Commonwealth Games level.
Today, she’s the assistant coach for the Tactix in the ANZ Premiership and the 49-year-old – married to former New Zealand Sevens star Dallas Seymour – says she has an almost “ideal” job as a physical education teacher at St Margaret’s College, the secondary school she attended in Christchurch.
And there’s a good reason why she’ll never play masters netball.
Finishing runner-up to Australia too many times remains irritating for Seymour. And it’s perhaps ironic the sport that saved her netball career – athletics – has always been the runner-up to her first-choice sport.
Blessed with a heart as big as Phar Lap, a humble attitude and a vision for the game which habitually put her in the right place at the right time, Seymour was first chosen to represent her country in netball in 1994.
Three years later, just as she was getting comfortable in that Silver Fern uniform, the incoming coach Yvonne Willering dropped her. She was 27.
“That was devastating, but in hindsight, it was the best thing for me,” Seymour says. “I thought I was a fit netballer, but I’d become unconsciously complacent. And, I was playing average, very average.
“When that happened, I decided that I could either keep doing the same thing and keep getting the same results, or I could do something different. So, I went back to my old athletics coach.
“He was living in Christchurch and I was living in Wellington. He sent me a programme and I used to go down to Newtown Stadium athletics track and do these sessions on my own. And, I was way off in the times. It was a bit depressing.
“I realised then that I might be a fit netballer, but I was a bloody unfit middle-distance runner.”
She also teamed up with New Zealand Olympic runner Anne Hare at that time, who became her running coach.
While the Silver Ferns toured England that year, Seymour stayed home and worked hard.
So hard, that within four months she decided to run the 800m at the national track and field championships.
“Athletics was really out of my comfort zone at that time. And, while I wasn’t known in athletics, I’d been a Silver Fern for three years, so it was a bit scary for me when I decided to compete and I had to rock up at the start of a 400m track,” Seymour says.
She finished second.
“I was by that stage leaner, faster, and mentally stronger because it is so tough running the 800m. When I started the next netball season, I just knew I was playing better. I was probably 6 to 8kgs lighter, I was more agile, and mentally so much stronger.
“I really wanted to get back into the Ferns, but I thought if I don’t, I’m going to try and qualify for the Commonwealth Games as a middle-distance runner. For the first time I had a plan B. And I guess a part of me wonders if I would have been able to get there with athletics if things had turned out differently.”
Willering, however, had other plans for the young centre. She reselected her.
“That selection felt better than the first time I was chosen for the Silver Ferns,” Seymour says. “I played for another 10 years and I was always in control after that.”
She would continue to compete in athletics until 2000, notably finishing second to Toni Hodgkinson, who qualified for the Sydney Olympics that year.
Athletics gave Seymour the tipping point for her physical conditioning which would sustain her, and arguably save her from serious injury in a sport now littered with broken bodies.
Children called time
Seymour had always wanted four children and somehow with the support of her husband and her mother, Dorothy, she had juggled elite sport and family through her first three pregnancies (with the exception of the 2004 season).
Harrison is now 19, Hannah 17, Josie 15 and Thomas 10. Seymour says it was the arrival of Thomas which helped her transition from player to coach, aged 38 – in addition to a partial Achilles tear sustained during training. Her first truly worrying injury.
“I’d got to three kids, and then all these exciting events were happening that I wanted to be involved in. But I couldn’t get it out of my head that I wanted four kids and the gap between No.3 and No. 4 was getting bigger. Josie was nearly five when Thomas was born,” she says.
“I think if I hadn’t have got pregnant, I don’t know when I would have stopped playing netball. I don’t think I would have been able to make the call myself. Thomas gave me a reason to finish.”
Leaving the playing persona behind is a loss that every national athlete has to face at some time.
Seymour, who was made a Member of the New Zealand Order Of Merit in 2003, acknowledges that many of her sporting colleagues have struggled with the transition. She found it easier because she was coaching, had four children and life after sport with her husband to focus on.
Dallas Seymour remains one of New Zealand’s longest-serving and most successful sevens players over a 16-year career, in addition to his All Black and provincial duties. He now works for Ngāi Tahu.
“It’s not that any of us seek attention or anything, but I do think so much of your identity is tied up in the sport. You almost grieve for it,” Seymour says.
“I missed playing, and for the first few years I just wanted to jump on the court and do it myself. That was definitely hard.”
Co-coaching the Tactix was the next logical step, and Seymour took it.
After five years as the assistant coach she applied for the head coaching role in 2015. Canterbury instead chose Australian Sue Hawkins. Seymour, by her own admission, was “gutted”.
However, for the second time the universe offered her some lemonade out of that lemon.
“My old fitness trainer, Greg Thompson, asked me to come and help with some fitness work at St Margaret’s College, and not long after that a teaching position became available there,” she says.
“It was amazing timing, and it opened the door back to what I was trained to do – teaching. And I love it. Once again being turned down [for the Tactix job] was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Seymour loves being “part of my daughters’ world” – with both girls attending school there. She also takes fitness classes and runs a sports accelerator programme.
“It also opened up other coaching experiences, and gave me the chance to be the head coach for the New Zealand Secondary School team, and assistant coach for the New Zealand team at the World Youth Cup.”
It was coaching New Zealand U21s to gold in Botswana three years ago that lifted the monkey off Seymour’s back that had dogged her through three world championships and two Commonwealth Games in her playing days.
“All my time in the Ferns, we won either silver or bronze. So when we went to the World Youth Cup, I was thinking, ‘If we lose this, I’m the jinx’,” she says.
“But we won. Even though I wasn’t playing, it was still very cool…and a relief.”
Two-and-a-half years after Hawkins was appointed, she was dramatically sacked mid-season. Marianne Delaney-Hoshek stepped in for Canterbury, and she asked Seymour to join her back in her old assistant coaching role.
“I had moved on by that time. But Marianne came back to me a couple of times, and I ended up sitting on the bench and helping out for the end of the season,” says Seymour. “Over summer she came back to me again, and leading into 2018, I eventually said ‘ok’. But I still wanted to work at school, and it had to fit in. Three years later, I’m still there.
“We’ve got a good team for next year and it’s exciting to be involved, but I have to be careful to balance my world. I can’t be at everything.”
In short, Seymour has found her fit.
“I didn’t love coaching for ages. Now I do. I get as much satisfaction being part of other people’s journeys, as I did mine,” she says.
“I love the competitiveness, and I love trying to win. And it’s now so long since I played, you almost forget what it’s like. It’s 10 years, but it may as well be 30.”
The pressure on progeny
Not every child has parents with the Seymours’ incredible sporting pedigree, and their mum acknowledges it came with some pressure for their children at different times.
Seymour still remembers one mother rolling her eyes and commenting when Harrison competed in the cross country, aged five, “Oh, I wonder who’s going to win this?”
“In fact, Harrison was the kid at the back walking and talking with his friends and he wasn’t remotely interested in the race,” Seymour smiles. Harrison went on to play football – after giving rugby a go for two years, he decided to return to the round ball.
The determined Hannah shied away from netball and plays badminton: “Now she really likes fitness and doing her own workouts,” Seymour says.
“But Josie and I have our thing at netball. She’s always loved it – she came to Tactix training and she loved hanging out – and now she loves playing.”
Josie is in the St Margaret’s A team, and at 1.75m, the goal defence is taller than her mother, who coaches the team.
“Because Thomas is so much younger, he wasn’t around when we were still playing… We’re old has-beens to him now. He does loves rugby though, and Dallas coaches him,” Seymour says.
Seymour is adamant there will be no comebacks for her at masters level.
“No, I’d just be frustrated, and I’d always want to do what I used to do,” she says. “I still love fitness and exercise, and I’m very happy just doing my own thing.
“Now, if it’s a beautiful day I can run. If it’s cold, I go to the gym. I’m in a good place.”