New Zealand triple-code star, Anna Harrison, can’t stop returning to the courts – whether it’s netball or beach volleyball. She tells Ashley Stanley what keeps drawing her back. 

The day before Anna Harrison leaps back into netball, she will have one more hit-out at another of her favourite old sports on the sands of Ruakaka Beach.

The former Silver Fern is due to start her stint back in the ANZ Premiership on Monday – after retiring from the sport for a second time in 2018 – this time with the Northern Stars.

But she still has one more beach volleyball tournament to tick off this weekend.

Not one to do things by halves, the 37-year-old who spent three seasons on the international beach volleyball circuit, will be competing at the national championships. The event doubles as the Northland Beach Slam, a leg in this summer’s New Zealand beach tour.

“I would’ve played the whole [beach volleyball] series this year if I hadn’t signed with the Stars, but we start on Monday,” says Harrison, who will team up with Liz Hanna for the volleyball event.

“Back in my day, we played solid pretty much for four weekends over New Year and into January and then I would start netball. It’s different now but I just love getting back out there; it’s such a great game.”

The mother-of-three also managed to get court time before Christmas at the three-star Mairangi Open; she and partner Jasmine Milton made it as far as the quarterfinals. These were the only two tournaments that worked with her netball schedule.

A triple-code New Zealand representative (she also played indoor volleyball), Harrison says she always planned to return to the sandy sport after finishing on the beach volleyball world tour in 2010, but timing hasn’t been ideal the last couple of years.

She didn’t play last year because she’d just had her second son, Benjamin, who’s now 17 months. Her eldest son Isaac is seven, and Georgia is six.

“The year before, after I retired [from netball], I played when I was a couple of months pregnant. But I’d always planned to come back,” she says.

“You’ve got top players on the world tour – not that I want to go back to that – who are well into their 30s, showing you can do it as you get older. And it’s easier on the body too.”

Anna Harrison and partner Susan Blundell in the 2008 NZ Beach Volleyball Open at the ASB Tennis Centre. Photo: Getty Images. 

In a sport that has always given Harrison great opportunities, about six other Kiwi players are putting their hand up for this year’s Tokyo Olympics.

The women’s Olympic contenders will continue mixing up their partnerships at the nationals, as they have all summer. National champions Shaunna Polley and Julia Tilley won’t defend their title together. Tilley is in the top-seeded team with Olivia MacDonald, and Polley joins forces with Analise Fitzi. Francesca Kirwan and Alice Zeimann are the tournament’s second seeds.

Harrison is looking forward to her latest netball comeback – even though it came unexpectedly.

It was almost a déjà vu moment, she says, to 2010 when she left beach volleyball to return to the Silver Ferns, after taking a surprise phone call to trial. She received a similar call from Stars head coach, Kiri Wills, last year.

“I didn’t go looking for that. That phone call from Kiz [Wills] was out of the blue for me. I wasn’t looking to go back to play franchise netball,” says Harrison, who’d played most of her career for the first northern-based team, the Mystics.

The 88-test Silver Fern had trialled as a shooter for the Shore Rovers club last year. She hadn’t been “so nervous for a netball game in sometime” during the trials, but only managed a handful of games because of Covid-19 restrictions.

“I’m one of those defenders who’s always said I wanted to be a shooter – but I actually do want to be one,” she laughs. “That’s one thing about me, I love a challenge and I love seeing what I can do. Playing as a shooter at the club opened up just another vision and I could see and understand the game better. It was awesome.”

It added to an already savvy set of skills for the one-time netball world champion and two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

The different perspectives Harrison brings will play a role in the way she attacks this netball season and shares her knowledge with teammates, on and off the court.

“You really can’t beat experience. And the more exposure you get to different positions, views, understandings, it all adds up – whether you’re conscious of it or not,” says Harrison, who made the Silver Ferns squad at just 19 in 2002.

“The challenge is trying to implement that stuff I’ve learned about myself and how to communicate, which has probably been my biggest downfall.”

Once fierce opponents, now Anna Harrison (left) and Maia Wilson will play together for the Northern Stars this season. Photo: Getty Images. 

Harrison has also spent a good chunk of her sports career studying and learning in different arenas. Last year she wrapped up a diploma in human development to go with her physiotherapy degree from Otago University.

And then she signed up for a diploma in positive psychology and wellbeing with an Australian institute.

“I was always interested in human development from a parent perspective, but this new one in positive psychology and wellbeing, that’s on a personal level,” Harrison says.

“Whatever I end up doing workwise after sport, that’s going to be helpful, because people are people and you work with them and that’s an important part of living.”

Progressing in career and life has given Harrison a good understanding of what she can and can’t do in preparation for an action-packed year.

“Being efficient is a part of experience and as you get older, you are a lot more mindful and aware of how your body is tracking,” she says.

“Like there is no way I could follow a programme that a 21-year-old is doing because I literally do not recover as fast.

“When I train, I train hard; it’s quality and I get the most out of it. And recovery is the key. Sleep is always so important for any athlete but as a mother, you’ll be well aware that can be a challenge that sometimes you have no control over.”

The Stars have experience in managing athletes in similar situations, like Temepara Bailey and Leana de Bruin, who also made comebacks with the franchise. So Harrison has good support systems around her.

Come the end of the year, what will Harrison be happy with when she reflects on her time with the Stars?

“I guess one of the things I need to be mindful of going into the season is I potentially won’t be able to play with the same intensity as I used to,” she says.

“I have to be smarter so I guess I would like to look at the season and be proud of the product that I put out on court but also do my part with helping these young ones. It’s a cool opportunity to play with them and I do enjoy that aspect of the game.

“We have Oceane Maihi who’s just got the call-up to the Ferns camp this weekend so I’m really excited about playing with her. And there’s Elle Temu as well.” Temu played for the victorious Pulse in 2020.

Anna Harrison is looking forward to an ANZ Premiership comeback season in the purple of the Northern Stars. Photo: Getty Images.  

First-hand lessons are priceless for young athletes coming through the ranks and Harrison says there’s no better perspective than being on court.

“If I’m in a position where I have the experience and I can see things and help in the moment then for a young player that’s pretty cool. It’s something I would’ve probably thrived on and appreciated.

“But I’m also well aware of not being too ‘oh yeah, have you thought about this?’ and overwhelming. So it’s a good challenge for me to try and pass on what I know in the right way.”

The sports fanatic, who’s stayed involved in netball through commentary work for Sky Sport, admits there’s a fine balance with her competitive nature.

“I am passionate and determined to be better,” says Harrison. “That can be very unhealthy at times as a person, but also the thing that gets you to the places you want to go with whatever it is you’re into – whether it’s sport or business or arts.

“Your biggest strength is your biggest weakness and I’m really good at harnessing that for sport as a strength.”

So how will she manage the demands of sport and motherhood?

“The opportunity to come back to play netball with the Stars was probably really hard to turn down,” she says. “I had to weigh up a few things with the family, having three now, but you only live once. And being retired for two years, it sinks in that that part of your life is gone.

“So part of me is like ‘If I can still move and play, which is the goal, then why wouldn’t I?’ This season will be interesting, again, another phase in life, maturity and experience.”

One of her biggest worries when signing up was managing her own expectations and mulling over whether it was possible to commit to all fronts “without something giving.”

But her husband, Craig, a sport scientist involved in athlete development, is “awesome”, she says, and the couple have organised a babysitter for one night during the week to help out.

“I mean being tired and a grumpy mum, letting that part go downhill is probably…yeah, ask me that question at the end of the season,” laughs Harrison.

The New Zealand beach volleyball champs are part of the GJ Gardner Homes NZ Beach Tour, with the semifinals and finals streamed live on the Sky Sport Next YouTube channel. The ANZ Premiership starts in April.

Leave a comment