Claire Kersten (left) and Bailey Mes bowed out together after their last Magic game in May. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

When your life has revolved around netball for so long the choice to walk away from the court is not easy.

But for netballers Bailey Mes and Claire Kersten, the pathway to that decision has been made easier having each other to talk things through, knowing they understand completely what the other is grappling with.

“We’ve spent a lot of time together as teammates and friends, often driving together to trainings and games, and we’ve definitely leaned on each other in making our decisions,” reflects Mes, 34.

“There’s a lot of stuff your own family and friends don’t see or know about what it’s like to play day-in, day-out, but [Kersten] gets it all.”

The friends have closed out their professional netball careers playing their last game together for the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic against the Southern Steel in Invercargill in May, a game the Magic won 53-52. 

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They insist there was no collusion in their decision to retire at the same time. But laugh over the long-standing joke between them about playing for the same ANZ Premiership franchise.

“It started off as a joke between Bailey, Pole [Katrina Grant] and I that we should all play ANZ together,” laughs Kersten, 33, who won two ANZ Premiership titles with the Central Pulse and has 22 Silver Ferns caps to her name.

“For a long time, it didn’t really seem like it was going to be possible, but I’m so stoked we’ve had this time together.”

The past two years for Mes – who also played for the Mystics and the Tactix in her career – have been two years longer than she thought her career would be when she left the Mystics after winning the 2021 title.

A farewell haka.  Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

Mes and Kersten first met at a national U21 tournament in Dunedin in 2009, but really got to know each other as team-mates of the ill-fated Silver Ferns team at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

“During that tough time on the Gold Coast, we planned a holiday together in Japan at the end of the year after the Fast5 tournament,” remembers Mes – who has represented New Zealand at the last two World Cups, and two Commonwealth Games. They took the trip together, lifting their spirits. 

The concrete decision for Mes to finish her netball days after the ANZ Premiership and not make herself available for this year’s World Cup selection came as a shock to some netball pundits.

The athletic and fit shooter would have been a genuine contender for selection in the Silver Ferns team for Cape Town, but she chose to go out on her own terms rather than add to her 76 caps for the national side.

“With the World Cup coming up and the training camps beforehand, as well as the tournament itself, I just knew my body wasn’t where I wanted it to be to do that,” she says.

The relentless physical grind on Mes has taken its toll and she says that if her body was in the position it had been five years ago, maybe it would be a different story.

“For two out of the last three seasons, I haven’t been able to play netball because I’ve been injured and rehabbing. It just gets draining.”

Getting out of bed after netball games has become more of an effort through the rigorous premiership season, with multiple double-header weekends.

With a laugh, Mes says at times this year some of the more senior players would give each other a knowing look when starting their warm-up, willing their bodies on.

“We would look at each other and say ‘How are we going to do this?’” she says. “It just got to the point where it was feeling that much more of a push every time.”

Bailey Mes had one of her best domestic seasons with the Magic this year. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

For Kersten – who’d made herself available for the Silver Ferns for Cape Town, but wasn’t selected – she knew the timing was right to walk away from professional netball.

“Sometimes it feels like you go until your body can’t keep going any longer – I didn’t want to be in that position,” says Silver Fern #168.

The qualified teacher, Kersten says as an older athlete you’re constantly managing your body through the week to get to game day on the weekend.

“My body has needed extra attention this year – it’s something I’ve found quite challenging,” says Kersten, who for the most part of her career has had a good run with injuries.

It’s not just the physical load though. Her journey has been a rollercoaster mentally.

“I’ve been in and out and in and out. My mum would say it’s been character building!” she laughs.

When Kersten made her Ferns debut in 2013, she played just one game.

Across her first two seasons she played one more game and a combined total of 37 minutes.

So when people retire and say they wouldn’t change a thing, Kersten says the opposite. There’s been some really hard bits that have taught her much as a person. 

Kersten controlling the ball in the midcourt for the Magic. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

Mes, who played her first game in the ANZ Championship for the Mystics in 2010, was a Silver Fern bolter in 2012 and says people don’t realise how hard sport is mentally on the day-to-day.

“I struggled with being super anxious on court for so long. So many times, I’ve worried about losing and not scoring, but that’s not really what’s it’s about,” she says.

“What’s led to the last few years being so much better for me is pulling it back and having perspective on results and what the bigger picture is.”

With more than 100 ANZ games they each realised towards the later stages of their careers they needed to take pressure off and just enjoy the game they love.

“As a youngster growing up in the Hawkes Bay the thought of playing netball for your job wasn’t a possibility,” says Kersten.

They both know they’ll both still be involved in netball somehow.

One thing Mes says she’d like to help with is nurturing younger players into professional netball – a role she’s enjoyed over the past couple of seasons at the Magic in a leadership capacity with newer players.

Being thrust into the spotlight herself so unexpectedly was challenging and she didn’t know how to cope.

“To the point when I think about my debut and I just didn’t enjoy it because I was so stressed and not able to cope with the stress,” Mes says.

“Back in the day there wasn’t that support for the younger players. It was like come in and earn your stripes and some of the more experienced players were amazing when I was coming through but sometimes it was really hard.”

Mes will soon shift back to Auckland to continue her work as with Sky TV as a sports imagery editor.

Kersten intends to take time to sort out her next chapter. She’s been grateful for support from the Netball Players Association in her transition.

Both players have gone out on their terms with the courage they grew through their playing careers.

“So much of playing sport at this level, is learning how to deal with things that you have no control over. It’s been nice to have control over my decision to finish playing,” says Mes.

Kersten, with a wry smile, says she’s happy for her friend’s knees to have a rest.

They’re immensely proud of each other.

“She’s this amazing athlete and I got to watch her do these phenomenal things on court. Beyond the netball court, she’s an incredible person,” says Kersten.

In turn, Mes says of her friend who she says for so long she thought was the most underrated player in the ANZ Premiership competition: “I’m proud of her making a call because it’s quite scary.

“It’s been so cool to see her reach the top and perform so well.

“She’s definitely had a lot of stuff thrown at her, that lots of people wouldn’t have stuck out.”

Sarah Cowley Ross is a NZ Olympian and Commonwealth Games representative in the heptathlon and high jump, a sports commentator and LockerRoom columnist.

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