One of the most exciting players to emerge from this season’s netball’s premiership, Simmon Wilbore suffered a series of untimely setbacks – including surgery. But she still made her mark on the Magic midcourt, and has her sights set on 2023.
The odds were stacked against Simmon Wilbore this year.
After playing a full game for the Magic in the opening round of the ANZ Premiership, and making quite an impact, Wilbore was then absent until round 10 – more than two months later.
A broken finger, Covid, a sprained ankle and a tummy bug all threatened to put a halt to Wilbore’s season, but the cool-headed midcourter refused to let anything stop her return to court.
Wilbore was a standout for the Magic in her first game this year, a victory over the defending champions, the Mystics. She had the most feeds, goal assists and centre pass receives in her 60 minutes at wing attack. She also had four pick-ups – the most from either team that game.
But in training for their second game, Wilbore felt a crack in her finger after a minor bump while defending. She hoped it was just a sprain.
It turned out to be a spiral fracture, and the 28-year-old had to undergo surgery two days later. The surgeon estimated the healing process would take 12 weeks, essentially ruling Wilbore out of the entire season.
“I said ‘We’ll aim for six weeks’,” recalls Wilbore, who then worked with sports doctors and a hand therapist to push to get back playing.
Then she caught Covid two days after surgery, and had to look after her young son with the illness and a big cast on her finger.
“I had made a decision that even if I wasn’t cleared, I was still going to play,” she says.
“I needed to be back on court. I wasn’t going to end the season by just doing nothing, this was my opportunity, and I needed to take it.”
Initially, her bone wasn’t healing well, but after eight weeks, she was given the all clear to return to the court.
But at her very first training back, she sprained her ankle, ruling her out of that week’s game.
Round 10 was set to be her return, a re-match of the Magic’s opening game (and only win at that stage) against the Mystics, but a stomach bug the day before put her in doubt.
“Nothing was going my way,” Wilbore admits. “But I ended up getting out on court, and we got the win, so that was awesome.”
Wilbore (who was Simmon Howe) had a traditional journey through netball, starting at the age of five in Ōpōtiki; her sporty family supporting her to play netball, touch and basketball.
She played for Waiariki, the Bay of Plenty Māori team, from the age of 12. That’s where she met current Magic coach Mary-Jane Araroa, whose family was involved in running the team. Wilbore also played Bay of Plenty representative netball from the U15 level and moved to Hamilton when she was 18 to study at the University of Waikato.
Receiving a Sir Edmund Hillary scholarship, Wilbore studied sports and leisure, with a one-year postgraduate diploma in teaching. Now she’s a PE teacher at Hamilton’s Fraser High School, also teaching core subjects in the junior school.
Wilbore was the player of the year in the National Netball League (NNL, formally known as Beko) in 2018, and captained the Waikato Bay of Plenty team. The following year, she received her first Magic contract, chosen as one of four training partners, but was elevated to a fully contracted player partway through the season.
“That was my debut season and first time playing at that level, and I loved it,” says Wilbore.
“But I was also still working full-time. I’d literally go to the gym at 5.30am, go to work, go to training, repeat, go on the weekend to games and go back to work. It was way too hard.”
After the 2019 season, she married Te Amo Wilbore, and in September 2020, they welcomed their first child.
She smiles when asked about her son. “He is amazing, he’s such a good boy. His name is Te Amo Amo Wilbore, he’s named after his dad.”
“You couldn’t even make up what happened to us this season, so hopefully Covid doesn’t impact us like this heading into 2023.”
After taking the 2021 season off and slowly returning to the game via club netball, Wilbore decided she was ready for her next challenge, and let now Magic coach Araroa know she would be keen to play NNL in 2022.
“One morning I got a phone call from her, literally at like 7.45am when I’m getting me and my son ready,” Wilbore recalls. “She asked if I was interested in being a training partner for Magic.”
Wilbore’s initial reaction was shock, but after talking it through with her husband and family, she decided to take the opportunity. Having found herself stretched thin back in 2019, so she decided to fully commit to netball this season, taking leave from teaching to focus fully on netball.
When Silver Fern Katrina Rore announced her pregnancy before she got to play a game for the Magic, Wilbore had the chance to step up from training partner to fully contracted team member.
“As a training partner, you feel like you’re in the team, you’ve trained with them all pre-season and then when it’s time to go, you get quite sad because you feel like that’s your team,” Wilbore says. “So it was amazing that I was given that opportunity.”
With the support of her husband, who plays rugby in Ōtorohanga, Wilbore manages to balance the busy life of netball and mum, Te Amo Amo turning two in three months’ time.
“Prior to him, netball was everything and I would have done anything for netball, my number one priority. Whereas now, obviously he is,” Wilbore says.
“Netball is still important, but at the end of the day it’s not everything. I think it also makes me enjoy it a bit more cause I’m not as focused or stressed.”
Wilbore has a strong community around her, including friends and fellow netballers Ariana Cable-Dixon and Ngawai Hawera – two players who filled in for the Magic’s midcourt when Wilbore was away.
The trio are very close, Cable-Dixon and Hawera were bridesmaids at Wilbore’s wedding and all three had babies within nine months of each other. “They’re forced best friends,” Wilbore jokes.
“Even though we’re kind of competition in netball, we’ve never let that affect us. We’re really supportive of each other and I couldn’t be more stoked that anybody else got that opportunity to come in than them.”
The netball skills run in the family too – Mystics and Silver Ferns shooter Monica Falkner is her cousin.
“It’s funny in the family when we play each other, everyone just goes for both teams,” Wilbore says, playfully pointing out the Magic won both times she was on court against the Mystics.
When the Magic’s 2022 roster was announced, there was some scrutiny from Magic fans, noticing none of their 10 contracted players were specialist wing attacks. Georgie Edgecombe made the shift from wing defence to wing attack, having a lot of court time in Wilbore’s absence.
“She’s unreal, she is so fit, so strong, so athletic,” Wilbore says of 21-year-old Edgecombe. “She’s just like a sponge, she just takes it all in and you couldn’t ask for anybody better to learn a new position.
“I think people kind of underestimate how important wing attack is, and actually how hard it is. They’re the leaders down the attacking end.”
Covid was harsh on the Magic this season. It wasn’t until round 12 they had all of their 10 contracted players available to play. They finished their final three games with two wins and one loss – a glimpse of what could have been if they’d had a full-strength team all season.
“Obviously on paper, the results haven’t been that great. But we’re a new team, with lots of changes, and we’ve had a rollercoaster of a season,” Wilbore says. “We’ve got such a good connection and culture off-court, it’s just building it on-court.”
Wilbore hopes to continue playing next season and be offered a contract with the Magic again.
“That was the other thing why it was important for me to try and come back,” she says. “I’d been given this opportunity and I had something to prove.
“I’ve been given a decent amount of court time, which I’m very grateful for, so hopefully I’ve shown enough. But I’ve loved every chance I’ve had.”