Thirty years on, Linda Vagana still clearly remembers the old red station wagon delivering her to her Silver Ferns debut, but just as quickly, bringing her back down to earth with a thud.
The girl from West Auckland arrived at the hotel where the Silver Ferns were staying – ahead of playing the Cook Islands back in 1993 – dropped off by her proud family who’d all packed into their Ford Cortina wagon to see her off.
As was tradition in the New Zealand netball side, the rookie would always room first with the captain, in this case the experienced shooter Julie Carter (or JC).
“I saw my uniform with my name on it at the end of the bed, and I was rooming with JC, and I was thinking ‘Oh okay, deep breath’,” Vagana recalls.
“But then my family cut through all the nervousness, by calling out to me to come back out and push the car because it had broken down outside the hotel. I thought ‘Okay this is a great start’.”
Like the station wagon, Vagana’s international netball career had a sputtering start, but over the next decade, she’d play 64 tests for New Zealand and become an integral part of the team.
She’d be renowned as a formidable defender with a sharp netball brain, a phenomenal standing leap, an eye for an intercept, and a huge heart.
She also went on to share all of those talents and the knowledge she’d gleaned with her ancestral home, Samoa – first as a player at a World Cup, then as their national coach for nine years.
Today, 51-year-old Vagana continues to work with Samoan netball – both at home in Auckland and in the islands.
“Whenever they find out I’m coming to Samoa… the Samoan taro vine is way faster than Facebook,” she says. “I hop off the plane and my phone already has a text: ‘When can you come and present or coach the girls?’ It’s quite funny. Such a small world.”
She’s just returned from a family visit to Samoa: “I found myself on the second day rushing out to work with some nine and 10-year-olds at a netball camp during the weekend.”
But she will never say ‘no’. Vagana’s values are all around serving her community – whether it’s coaching netball in the islands, running youth programmes at her family’s church, or helping kids at low decile schools throughout Aotearoa to fall in love with books and reading.
For the past 18 years, she’s been running Duffy Books in Homes, which has gifted 15 million new books to kids to break the cycle of ‘booklessness’ in Kiwi homes. It’s something Vagana is incredibly passionate about and proud of.
“It’s dear to my heart because it’s mostly our communities in the Māori and Pasifika space who often show up in the stats, that long tail of underachievement,” she says. (A 2018 international study showed 40 percent of 15-year-olds in New Zealand struggled to read or write).
Books were always important to Vagana, growing up with a dad who was a teacher.
“I had to compromise very early on. I had to lift my grades, start reading books, start doing my homework otherwise I had to stop playing sport,” she laughs.
Playing myriad sports at primary school, netball won out when she reached Massey High School. She chose it, she says, “for a really stupid reason”.
“The netball team had a brand new uniform… It even had a sponsors’ name on the back. So I thought I’m going to play netball because they have flash gears,” she laughs.
The sponsor was a chicken factory where many of the team’s parents worked, and where Vagana had a school holiday job.
Vagana spent two years at Otago Girls’ High, when her father went to university in Dunedin to train as a church minister. “We were very lucky he got a calling to minister at the North Shore Pacific Island Presbyterian Church. But in my last year at school, he said ‘You might as well finish your schooling at Massey High’. And club netball started for me there, too.”
Then a promising shooter, Vagana made the Waitakere U21 side, and was promptly moved to the other end of the court when they needed height on defence. She never looked back.
At 19, she made the Young Internationals, a national talent identification side, and was named in the Silver Ferns squad at the same time.
“Young Internationals was hard – I was introduced to fitness,” Vagana remembers. “I was like ‘What? You have to train? What is this beep test?’ It was tough, but you just keep going, eh?”
She admits her first selection for the Silver Ferns was overwhelming: “I don’t think I really understood what I was getting myself into. It was really just ‘go with the flow’ for me.”
Vagana was dropped from the Ferns for the 1995 Netball World Cup in Birmingham, but remembers a friend phoning her in the middle of the night telling her to watch South Africa stun the Silver Ferns, thanks to a young goal shoot named Irene van Dyk.
“They said ‘You should have been there’,” says Vagana, who’d had some epic tussles with van Dyk when the nation first came out of Apartheid.
“It was that phone call that got me to get my A into G. And also that break, reflecting on ‘Okay do I want to take this and do some work and start training properly?’ It was a good year to just kind of be lost, and find direction again.”
Vagana got to play under five Silver Ferns coaches – Lyn Gunson, Leigh Gibbs, Yvonne Willering and Ruth Aitken (and Wai Taumaunu when she was an assistant in the late 1990s) – and they all helped shape the player she became. And later, the coach she was.
She credits Willering with “solidifying the type of player I could be” to rattle tall shooters like van Dyk and the Jamaicans.
Her favourite memory as a Silver Fern was at the 1999 World Cup in Christchurch, during the semifinal against Jamaica. Willering brought on Vagana at goal keep alongside Bernice Mene in the second half.
With the scores locked at 50-all and less than four minutes on the clock, Vagana stole a cross-court ball that turned the game in New Zealand’s favour.
“I was very lucky that ball was coming down the court very slowly, quite high, and I was able to get under it and get us ahead by one goal,” she says. The Silver Ferns’ 55-53 victory put them into the final against Australia (which they painfully lost by one goal).
But Vagana will never forget that intercept. “I will always remember, too, you can be on such a high,” she says. “I remember Wai Taumaunu coming down the court [afterwards], she was talking to Bernice, and I went around thinking she was going to go ‘Great intercept’. But she said something like ‘Thank you for waking up and seeing that pass’. That got me back down to earth.”
Along with that World Cup silver medal, Vagana won two more silvers at the 1998 and 2002 Commonwealth Games.
While she played, she studied (“I went to nearly every university in the country, and got myself a bachelor of experience in every paper – psychology, anthropology, child psychology, education – never quite finished any one of them”) and worked in marketing at the Auckland University of Technology for eight years.
Her drive to play for so long came from her family: “They were probably the most honest critics I had in my game. Often you wouldn’t see them at any of my games. I’d only get the report after the game, which would be, if I wasn’t on the court, ‘What are you doing there?’” she laughs.
She credits her faith, too, and her philosophy to make the most of an opportunity, knowing the chance to playing netball would be a short window. “It’s probably given me back so much more than what I actually put in,” she says.
Vagana retired from the Silver Ferns at the end of 2002 – the year before they won the World Cup in Jamaica. It wasn’t a tough decision, but it opened another door – to give back to Samoan netball.
“One of my idols, Rita Fatialofa, was coaching. When she asked whether I wanted to help out – ‘We’re going to Jamaica for the World Cup’ – little did I know she was making me play,” Vagana says. “So I was able to participate and be a part of Samoa netball in a way that my parents were even more proud. It was quite emotional.”
Samoa finished sixth – their best World Cup performance – and Vagana enjoyed it so much “I ended up coaching Samoa for the next nine years”.
She wasn’t exactly sure how to coach, but then she “picked the best things” she’d learned from each of her Silver Ferns coaches that would make the most impact. They finished a creditable fifth at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Vagana is still involved with coaching, and wants to help Samoan netball return to its glory days. Today the team is ranked 18th in the world, and failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup in Cape Town.
Last weekend, Samoa finished fifth at the Pacific Series in Australia, where Tonga beat Malawi in the final.
She’s heartened by a new drive of young players coming through in Samoa, and helps run a big annual tournament there, drawing Samoan teams from New Zealand and Australia (she started the North Shore Pasifika side).
“It’s quite hard for our Samoan or Pasifika players to see another option beyond club level here in New Zealand,” says Vagana, keen to show them there’s another pathway to international netball.
“Sometimes [their dreams] are hindered by ‘You only know what you know’. So that’s pretty much where I raise my flag – there are other opportunities here, girls.”
Vagana does the same at work, trying to boost literacy in her community. It was a netball connection that led her to Duffy Books in Homes 18 years ago; at Mene’s wedding on Waiheke Island, she met Mainfreight founder Bruce Plested, who’d helped kick-start the books programme.
Today Vagana’s office is in a corner of Mainfreight’s Penrose warehouse. The programme reaches 549 low decile primary schools and 263 early learning centres across the country, each year giving books to more than 100,000 kids they get to keep at home.
“It’s been 18 really cool years of trying to get our kids excited about books and reading. As a Silver Fern I remember going to school assemblies saying hi to the kids and talking to them about my favourite book or the importance of reading. And I never really understood the concept until I was offered this opportunity,” she says.
“Now when I’m speaking to the kids, I always see myself in them. I’m standing there going ‘That poor girl, that really tall giant, sitting there in front of all those girls just reminds me of me’. I try to put myself in their shoes, working out where they’re from, what their home might be like.
“We’re just a small part of it, at Duffy Books in Homes, but we’re always looking for ways to connect and collaborate with other community groups to make sure that we awhi [embrace] this child, this home, or the community.”
And that, she says, is now what excites her.