With over 150 test caps as the Silver Ferns physio, Sharon Kearney keeps giving back to netball – helping prevent injuries around the world and stepping into the breach to help the Ferns once again.
When Sharon Kearney got the call, she knew exactly what she had to do.
With key members of the Silver Fern management team stuck in lockdown in Auckland as the world champions were about to play England, Kearney’s more than 150 test caps as physiotherapist of the Ferns would come in handy.
“When you’re the physio for the Silver Ferns, you don’t sign up to be the case manager at the end of a computer and to buy the supplies; you sign up to do the fun stuff,” Kearney says.
And she knew this challenge would be fun.
Kearney has an extensive CV, including being part of the victorious Silver Ferns team when they won the 2003 Netball World Cup in Jamaica, but this time the task at hand was a lot closer to home.
Covid-19 had continued to rock the sporting world, this time impacting the Silver Ferns’ international calendar. When the rest of New Zealand outside of Auckland moved to Level 2, it meant the Ferns series against the England Roses could go ahead in Christchurch.
While four Auckland-based players were given exemptions to leave the city for the series, the decision didn’t extend to the team’s physiotherapist, Mark Overington, their doctor, Melinda Parnell, or the Fern’s manager, Esther Molloy.
So Netball New Zealand turned to Kearney – known throughout the game as ‘Shaz’ – asking her to step up and fill in as physio for the three test matches.
Kearney last took care of the Silver Ferns in 2015, and now runs her own physiotherapy practice, as well as working with NetballSmart, the sport’s injury prevention programme.
She and her partner, Kevin Dysart, run Performance Physio clinics in Christchurch and in Akaroa where they live. They have two daughters who are following in their parents’ footsteps – now both physiotherapists, too.
Knowing the team up in Auckland had her back made Kearney’s decision to fill in a lot easier.
“Being able to do it at short notice, knowing that I had Mark at a phone call and Mel heavily supporting me behind the scenes – the ones who knew absolutely everything about every player – was fundamentally important to my ability to be able to just jump out of my physio clinic and do it,” she says.
It would have been hard to find anyone more suited for the last-minute replacement; the tests being in the same city as Kearney far from her only asset.
She was the Silver Ferns physiotherapist from 1993 to 1995 and returned to the role in 2002, going on to win one Netball World Cup title and two Commonwealth Games gold medals.
Stepping away after the 2015 World Cup, Kearney worked for two seasons as the physio of the Tactix before stepping into a role with NetballSmart, a programme designed to support players and coaches to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.
Kearney helped to establish NetballSmart but with the programme growing significantly, she’s now a consultant to it.
Since 2019, Kearney has been a member of the World Netball medical committee, where she’s able to share her experience and passion for the game on a global scale.
Kearney has been inspired to give back to the sport that had given her so much.
“Having worked at the elite level, I’d seen injuries occur at that younger age that then impacted their ability to be the best they could be at their most pivotal point,” she says. “Here was an opportunity to give back to the grassroots and start developing a holistic injury prevention programme to help with performance and injury prevention in our young netballers.”
During the series against England (which the Ferns lost 2-1),Steel manager Dayna Kaio stepped in for Molloy and Silver Ferns centurion, Dr Lesley Rumball, sat on the sidelines in case her medical advice was needed during a game.
At the end of the week, Kearney finished up her work with the Ferns and passed the responsibility back to the team in Auckland. “I thought that was me done and dusted because Covid was going to go away and Mark was going to be able to get out of Auckland,” she says.
But when it became clear Auckland wasn’t going anywhere, Kearney’s expertise was called on again for the Cadbury Series between the Silver Ferns and Aotearoa Men in Wellington.
“They asked me if I’d do the men’s series because I knew the players, I knew the injuries, I’d developed the relationship and it was probably going to be easier for me to pick that up rather than trying to bring somebody else in,” Kearney recalls.
And there were a lot of injuries to be managed over the two series, including Ferns captain Gina Crampton battling with the hip adductor strain she suffered against England.
This is where the support of the team back in Auckland came in handy – with Kearney in constant communication with them on the best ways to manage the players.
“They were hugely valuable. Mark had been working with the players for the last four years so he knows them really well. I could ring and say: ‘Hey Mark, this has happened, this is where we’re at, talk me through your understanding of this athlete and whether this could be a big deal or a little deal’.”
This series felt a lot different for Kearney, the lack of preparation due to restrictions impacting both players and coaching staff.
“The whole series was challenging because we had players who hadn’t been able to train at the level they needed coming into camp,” says Kearney.
“It was about hitting the ground running and make the best of what you could under really challenging situations.”
They had to adopt a ‘get on and do it’ attitude, according to Kearney, none more so than coach Dame Noeline Taurua overseeing a new management team.
“We know high performance management teams work really well when they know each other really well and they’ve got their great sounding boards and almost intuitively understand what people are thinking at the time. Noels didn’t have that… so I really take my hat off to her for embracing it as she embraces everything.”
Kearney can now add three more international caps to her name, totalling 154 over the span of her career, but her two on-court highlights come easily to her mind.
The two-goal win over Australia in the final of the 2003 world netball championships sits alongside the double extra-time thriller at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games as matches that still resonate with Kearney.
Two members of that Commonwealth champions team also get a mention in Kearney’s journey.
Often referred to as the netballing GOAT (greatest of all time), Laura Langman’s 141 consecutive Silver Ferns tests are a testament to her work ethic off the court, Kearney says.
“If you gave her anything that would help mitigate risk from an injury perspective, she’d work on it and she’d want to know that she was getting better. Invariably she was, which I think helped her stay in the game for as long as she did.”
Another special person in Kearney’s work was Ferns’ legend Casey Kopua. When Kopua was ruled out of international netball after rupturing her patella tendon in October 2014, Kearney was part of the team who brought the defender back to full fitness before the World Cup in August 2015.
One doctor told Kearney there was no way Kopua would be able to play at the World Cup, to which Kearney responded: “You don’t know Casey.”
“Not many people gave Casey an ounce of opportunity to think that she would ever be at those world champs 10 months later. I have never seen a young athlete apply herself as hard as she could to be there, she so wanted to be there,” Kearney says.
“For her to play in that final against Australia was absolutely inspirational and we can’t underestimate how talented, how hard working and how gutsy that kid is.”
For Kearney, the young girl who so longed to be a Silver Fern but came up short (literally), her career achievements are a fitting tribute to the game she loves.
“Each place along my journey has been around growing and about me being better than I was before. By doing that, it’s kept me inspired, it’s kept me wanting to learn and more importantly, it keeps me wanting to give back repeatedly to the sport.”