As the Black Ferns sevens win Commonwealth bronze, Theresa Fitzpatrick had her Silver Ferns sister, Sulu, screaming from the crowd. The close siblings have leaned on each other in hard times and good in Birmingham.
Through thick and thin, the Fitzpatrick sisters have always been there for each other.
Only two years separate them – the oldest two of six siblings – one who’d grow up to become a Silver Fern and the other, a Black Fern. Sulu, the elder, would always test the boundaries; the loyal Theresa would stick by her side.
When Sulu was struggling as a young solo mum of twins, Theresa, a medical student (and now two-time Olympic medallist), would always lend a hand.
And now, as they’re side-by-side in a New Zealand team for the first time, at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, they’re leaning on their sisterhood again.
In the past week, there have been the good moments. At an emotional ceremony on the eve of the Games, Sulu – the Silver Ferns vice-captain – presented the Black Ferns Sevens with their black jerseys for the tournament. It was a surprise she’d managed to keep from Theresa – but neither knew their parents, Rosie and Greg, who’d followed them to Birmingham, would be there, too.
Naturally, there were many tears.
And there have also been the bad moments. Immediately after Sulu and the Silver Ferns ground out a 53-40 victory over an unpredictable Uganda netball side for their second win at these Games on Sunday morning (NZ time), she was told Theresa and her Black Ferns Sevens side were dealing with heartbreak. And more tears.
Fifteen minutes drive down the M6, the tight-knit Black Ferns had lost to Australia, 17-12, in their rugby sevens semifinal – ending the New Zealanders’ chances of defending their 2018 gold medal.
So Sulu, renowned as a fierce defender with a huge heart, sent Theresa a message. She reminded the player who’s called “the backbone” of the Black Ferns Sevens, to be strong, and that she was there for her.
And when 27-year-old Theresa ran out onto Coventry Stadium this morning for her bronze medal-winning performance against Canada, her big sister was there for her again – screaming out from the crowd.
Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua gave Sulu the “all-clear” to go and support her sister, in a rare gap in the Ferns’ netball schedule.
“We have a day off, which a lot of us mature athletes are looking forward to,” said Sulu, a ‘veteran’ at 29, while sitting in an ice bath out the back of Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre.
“So I’m looking forward to being able support my sister and all the girls.” She had no doubt they would win the bronze.
“This is a massive part of these Games for me. Being there to watch her with our parents, and also to be her cheerleader. There will be a few of us there with big voices.”
Theresa will return the support now her competition is over, taking her Black Ferns team-mates to cheer on the world champion Silver Ferns as they strive to climb onto netball’s medal dais in a week’s time.
Knowing the Black Ferns were focused on the top step of the seven’s podium, Sulu Fitzpatrick expects it will take time for her sister to deal with the disappointment of falling short.
“As a team, they will have some time to reflect on it all. But that’s just sport, right? You win some, you lose some,” Sulu says. “But I know Theresa. She’ll focus on what’s next, she won’t dwell on it. She’s real good that way.”
The younger Fitzpatrick, who became a world champion 15s player with the 2017 Black Ferns, has been a regular in the starting seven throughout these Commonwealth Games. She scored her first try in Birmingham right on halftime in the semifinal yesterday, putting the Black Ferns out to a 12-5 lead before the turnaround.
But the Australians, who lost the gold medal match to New Zealand on the Gold Coast four years ago, had better control at breakdowns. And speedy young wing Maddison Levi was almost unstoppable, bagging a hat-trick of tries for Australia, who went on to beat Fiji, 22-12, in the gold medal match.
Afterwards, Black Ferns captain Sarah Hirini summed up the feeling of her team-mates: Absolutely gutted.
“I know how hard those girls will take that. Just the amount of work they put in to get to that point and for it to be so close,” she said. “But we’ve also been on the winning end of a few games like that. I guess that’s the good and shit thing about sevens.”
But the New Zealanders came back out this morning with a mission, and held out a late charging Canada, 19-12, to make it onto the medal podium in Birmingham.
As driven as the Fitzpatrick sisters have been to win in Birmingham, they’ve also been determined to enjoy the unique experience of being in the same national team. This is Sulu’s first Commonwealth Games, and Theresa’s second, and it’s unlikely to happen again – Sulu plans to retire from netball at the end of next year.
The Fitzpatrick sisters met up before the New Zealand Team photo in Birmingham
That’s why the jersey ceremony was so special.
“She really kept it under wraps,” Theresa told Sky Sport after the opening game. “I didn’t think I was going to see her. So it was extra special for me, having my parents there and my oldest sister.
“To have her talking to us, and telling the other girls about her journey with netball. She’s a big inspiration to me.”
Sulu was “really honoured” to share that moment with Theresa (who she named her daughter after) and the many Black Ferns Sevens she’s come to know.
“There were a lot of tears and a lot of love. Just embracing sisterhood – that’s a big focus for their team. It was nice to be with my actual sister – and to see her in her element,” Sulu says.
It was an important moment, too, for the sisters to acknowledge their parents.
“They’re the reason we’re here,” Sulu says. “So it was so nice that they got to celebrate – and be celebrated, especially after all the hard work they’ve put in that’s allowed us to be here. They definitely know we carry them with us on our jerseys and our dresses.”
Since she was a baby, Sulu has been raised by Greg and Rosie – who’s a sister of Sulu’s birth mum – as their daughter.
They will be there on Tuesday morning when the Silver Ferns play Malawi – the world No.7 side who beat a floundering Ferns side for the first time, 57-53, at the 2018 Games. Fitzpatrick wasn’t in that team on the Gold Coast who missed out on a medal for the first time, so doesn’t carry any ghosts into this game.
“I’m really looking forward to it because I’ve never played Malawi before. So it should be fun,” Sulu says.
“We know they are massive on treasuring the ball and they will be patient if it means taking 100 passes to get there. So we have to be smart in our strategy, and use our strengths. We won’t take them lightly.”
Malawi lost to defending Commonwealth champions, England, 66-41, yesterday, but showed they’re gathering strength by drawing the final quarter.
Although Fitzpatrick made her debut 11 years ago, she’s only been a constant in the Silver Ferns since 2020. “I’m actually new to international netball,” she says. “So I’m loving playing nations I haven’t played before, and learning new ways of defending.”
Uganda, ranked sixth in the world, pushed the Ferns at times, and won the third quarter, 11-8. Fitzpatrick relished the challenge of defending Uganda’s towering shooter, Mary Cholhok.
“It was actually fun. I loved the tension, I loved the pressure. I think we did well to absorb it and grind,” she says.
“I’m living a dream, playing these different nations, these different styles. We can’t forget that we’re here to win, but I’m also here to have some fun and see the different cultures and embrace the tournament.
“That’s what it’s all about. We want world netball to grow, and that’s where it starts. We don’t want it to be four nations at the top. We want world netball to be great, and to get the sport in the Olympics.”
Two from two so far, the Silver Ferns are building in strength, Fitzpatrick says. There are still gaps, but they’re working to close them. Taurua continues to try out different combinations – including veteran shooter Bailey Mes at wing attack for the final quarter against Uganda.
“Aside from the results, we’re also working on the discipline to work our game plan, so we’re able to execute it at the tail-end,” Fitzpatrick says. “I’m really proud of each of the combinations that are going out on court – there are massive points of difference.
“We’re comfortable working with the different combinations, working out what our brand of netball is and what our trademarks are. That’s a strength for us.”
* Day 2 saw another medal spree for the New Zealand Team in Birmingham, with four more medals won on the cycling track and two in the pool. Ellesse Andrews won her second gold, in the individual sprint, and Bryony Botha set a Commonwealth Games record in clinching gold in the individual pursuit.
LockerRoom will update the Day 3 results of our Kiwi wāhini in our Lunch Wrap later this morning.