Through the wisdom of Dame Noeline Taurua, more top netballers will be helped to return to the court after having a baby – and Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio is an eager guinea pig. 

Like “a slap in the face”, Ameliaranne Ekenasio has been hit hard by the third trimester of her pregnancy.

“I had a terrible first trimester, and a really good second trimester,” says the Silver Ferns captain, who’s expecting her second child – a daughter – to arrive in November. The next few months she knows will be even more exhausting.

“But I’ve managed to keep training, even though it looks and feels different. It’s so nice to still be able to do what I do, to train and all that other stuff, while growing a baby.”

Don’t be alarmed. Ekenasio assures me she isn’t training every day, and everything she does is under the guidance of the Silver Ferns physio, Mark Overington, and their strength and conditioning coach, Guy Mothersole.

“I know I’m a person who pushes it all the time,” she admits. “I’m constantly pushing, and they’re like ‘No I don’t think that’s going to work’, or ‘What can we do instead?’

“We’re bringing in new people all the time, finding out more information and meeting with specialists as we go.

“So, I think this is only going to grow our game. And hey, if it’s better for whoever is the next mum, then I think my job has been done.”

Ekenasio is happy being the guinea pig for a new way of thinking at the top of New Zealand’s netball tree. A new philosophy embracing the mothers who return to the game, helping them before and after their children are born.

Ameliaranne Ekenasio took a break from netball soon after the Silver Ferns won the Constellation Cup from Australia in March. Photo: Getty Images. 

Silver Ferns head coach Dame Noeline Taurua has played a major hand in this change of attitude towards players who are now mums. It helps that the former New Zealand shooter has been there, as a mother of five.

Taurua and her band of national selectors made a ground-breaking move earlier this month by including a very pregnant Ekenasio in the Silver Ferns squad preparing for the three-test series against the England Roses in New Zealand next month, followed by the Constellation Cup series with the Australian Diamonds.

Not only has Ekenasio continued to train, but her experience and knowledge is being used to help younger players in the squad. For the first time, she’s being included in team management meetings, giving the players a voice.

“Meels [Ekenasio] is doing stuff for us which is going to be massive for those still able to take the court,” Taurua says. “Something only she can do as a leader, and will help others to grow and develop their game.”

It was also announced that three new mums and Silver Ferns – Phoenix Karaka (pictured below), Katrina Rore and Kayla Johnson (nee Cullen) – were under ‘return to play’ plans managed by Netball New Zealand and their ANZ Premiership teams.

For Taurua, it’s a natural decision. “A lot of females can’t have children, and so in my eyes, it’s a blessing when they can,” she says. “Being a mum is part of female sport, and I think we should support them, and be able to educate around what it means.

“For the organisation, for the athlete as a mother – it’s a win-win situation. It’s really dear to me, and an area I feel we should promote. So that it be seen as a strength of the Silver Ferns environment.”

It was not that long ago pregnancy and mothers returning to sport was an almost taboo subject.

Pregnant women were banned from playing netball in Australia in the early 2000s, until an Adelaide netballer successfully sued Netball Australia for being excluded from playing at 15 weeks pregnant.

That led to Australia’s Federal Government introducing guidelines clearing the way for pregnant women to play sport. In fact, Netball Australia have led the way in creating a maternity policy for their elite players, which the NZ Netball Players Association followed.

Here, the agreements ensure paid maternity leave and support for athletes through their pregnancy and help to return to sport after the baby is born.

World Cup champion Phoenix Karaka returned to play for the Mystics in this season’s ANZ Premiership seven months after daughter, Pāma, arrived earlier than expected on Christmas Day. She was back training with the Mystics after 12 weeks, and although her partner, All Black Patrick Tuipulotu will soon play rugby in Japan, Karaka has chosen to stay home and play for the Mystics again.

Former Silver Ferns captain Katrina Rore has also returned to training after the birth of daughter LilyBud in May, keen to see if she can make it back into the Silver Ferns for next year’s Commonwealth Games. Rore revealed on Monday she will play for the Magic in the 2022 ANZ Premiership, now that she and husband, Joel, are building a new home in Rotorua.

Kayla Johnson (pictured with her family above) has just returned to New Zealand after two years in Australia, with husband, Shaun Johnson, who’s back to play league for the Warriors. After their daughter, Millah, was born in February, Johnson doubted she’d play elite netball again. But she’s re-signed with her old premiership side, the Stars, for 2022.

“If the mamas want to play and they are ready to play – even if sometimes you don’t know how to make that comeback – that’s a good start,” Taurua says. “We will put a plan around them and make it work. You can work around anything.”

It’s a whole different ball game from when Ekenasio had her first son, Ocean, back in June 2017. In fact, she describes her pregnancies as being at two different ends of the scale.

“It definitely wasn’t easy after Ocean,” the 30-year-old says. She’s described in the past how she became obsessed with getting back on the court after his birth. When Ocean was just four-and-a-half months old, Ekenasio played for New Zealand in the Fast5 World Series.

She pushed herself to the point of exhaustion and injury. So there are a lot of “ridiculous things” she swears she won’t do this time.

“With first baby, I obviously had no idea what that looked like. So I was just doing whatever I could, when I could,” she says.

“I’d wake up and feed Ocean at 3am, and then I’d go out for a run in the dark. Because I knew my husband had to go to work in the morning, so I was like ‘Okay I have to get it done and come back, then hopefully get an hour’s sleep’. But sometimes I’d come back and feed again, then we would be up for the day. That was ridiculous.

“The biggest thing I’ll do this time is take the very first chunk – whether that’s four or six weeks – to really heal my body. Because I know the better I do early on, the better I will be physically and my performance will be better later on.”

Ekenasio is grateful the support systems around mums have “evolved hugely” in the last four years. And there’s now an understanding every player’s experience with pregnancy and motherhood will be different. She calls it a “huge privilege” to still be included in the Ferns picture.

But Taurua looks at it from a slightly different angle. She’s thrilled Ekenasio wants to remain part of the Silver Ferns.

“From the conversations I had with Meels, her intent was that she was always going to come back and play. I know as a mother, things can change, but the value of that intent is massive,” she says. “It’s also recognition of Meels’ value to us in the Silver Ferns, her leadership and the relationship we’ve developed over time.

“Of course, she can’t be on court with having baby, but there are so many other things that Meels does that she can keep rolling on and doing. We’re really lucky she’s still wants to be part of the Silver Ferns.”

Even from the bench, pregnant captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio will have an influence on the Silver Ferns squad. Photo: Michael Bradley. 

Ekenasio has played 47 tests for New Zealand since her 2014 debut, and has reached a point in her career, she says, where she wants to give back as much as she can.

“A couple of months ago I went along to my first management meeting, which was a really big eye-opener for me. I got to see a lot of the planning behind the scenes, which was massive,” she says. “It gives me a new perspective on the Silver Ferns’ machine and brand.

“I’ve been to all of our player meetings and leadership groups. That will be a really big one too, supporting who will step into the role [of captain] for this next part.”

Back in March, Ekenasio went public with her mental health challenges and three weeks later, stepped away from the ANZ Premiership to deal with “ongoing fatigue”. She’s always had a holistic view on life and sport, and would like to help other netballers with their mental health struggles.

“I’m really big on connecting with the person behind who you see on the netball court, which I think has a huge impact. It’s often the off-court stuff that you don’t see that finds its way onto the court,” she says.

“Just being able to talk with them ask ‘What do you need and how can I find a way to give it to you?’”

As far as getting athletes back into the fold after having a baby, Taurua says sports organisations need to work on “getting the ingredients right” – with the help of sports science, medical advice and good communication with the athlete. That’s again where Ekenasio is a willing test case.

“Obviously with Meels, it’s around being comfortable and confident in the information being passed to her, that it sits right with her, and she’s happy. Because in the end, she’s the one who has to make the decisions about what’s best for her. We can only provide advice,” Taurua says.

“We want to make sure that when she goes back out there, she’s physically capable and she’s got the balance right, having two children and what that means to her. There are lots of areas that she has to drive. There’s going to be a time where there are grey areas, but we’ve got a plan and we will adapt it as time goes on.”

As a mum and grandmother, Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua understands the importance of embracing families in sport. Photo: Michael Bradley.

Ekenasio has signed to play for the Magic in 2022, but will be commuting from Wellington – where she lives with her husband, Damien – for “a big chunk of it”. She’ll take the new baby with her.

Taurua has assured her that the Magic, where she coached for 10 years, have always been good to families.

“I always had my kids on the sideline and [netball stalwarts] Mary Thompson and Taini Jamison would look after them. It’s a franchise synonymous with family and children and there will be tons of people who will want to hold baby. That’s how it should be,” Taurua says.

While we may think New Zealand has been a pioneer in getting mums back on the court (think Temepara Bailey, Anna Harrison, Jodi Brown and Casey Kopua), it’s the way it’s been in the Caribbean for even longer.

Marva Bernard, Americas Netball president, says the African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is exactly how it is in Jamaican netball.

“The ‘aunties’ come to the training venue every day to support with play time, homework and general supervision,” she says.

When Sunshine Girl Sasher-gaye Henry returned to the court eight months after her second child was born in 2008, Bernard – then president of Netball Jamaica – would come to training to babysit.

“We have watched over all these children – many of whom are now at college. We think of them as our grandchildren,” Bernard says.

There’s another adage that’s gaining credence, that sportswomen with children come back to the game better athletes. Ekenasio agrees having Ocean has changed the way she looks at netball.

“I’m still so competitive and I want to win and do everything I can on the court and in the gym. But at the end of the day, I have a baby to come home to and look after, who loves me no matter what,” she says.

It’s still not certain whether Ekenasio will be sitting on – or very near to – the Silver Ferns bench during the English series in Christchurch in September. Covid levels may have a say in that.

But her influence on the team will still be obvious.

“Back in the day, it was: have a baby and see you later,” adds Taurua. “It’s really cool how the sport has evolved and embraced the female form, and recognised the power of the female as well,” she says.

“As a predominantly female sport, we can champion this. We can offer to other sporting organisations what we’re learning. It’s a real strength for Netball New Zealand.”

* Both Silver Ferns international series will be show on Sky and free-to-air on TVNZ, as part of Sky’s commitment to women’s sport. The three tests against England in September will be live on Sky Sport and delayed on TVNZ 2, while the four Constellation Cup tests in October will be live on both Sky and TVNZ 2.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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