I am not going to lie, when my executive producer first raised the idea of sending me out to a netball game, my brows furrowed in confusion.
"But I know nothing about netball!" I protested. "I don’t even know the rules of the game."
"Just go, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The kids go nuts over it," he replied.
Growing up, the only round shaped balls that existed in our household were footballs (lots and lots of footballs, many of which my brother Ivan would belt at me endlessly in the backyard) and the odd tennis, cricket or basketball.
Our ridiculously long driveway back then made for the perfect ‘mock’ sporting arena and we spent much of our summers battling it out in various ‘Zelic El Classico’s’ until my mother had to beg us to come inside for dinner.
In 29 years of existence, I have managed to avoid attending a live netball game but this time around, there was no getting out of it.
I was going to the NSW Swifts v QLD Firebirds game and as many people kept telling me, ‘you’re going to bloody well like it.’
Arriving to Sydney Olympic Park at 11:30am on Sunday morning, I felt like a fish out of water, to the point where I fully expected to be dragged out of the stadium by security staff, while netball fans threw tomatoes at me and shouted ‘get that fraud out of here!’
I was certain that people would be able to smell my lack of netball knowledge like a cheap chemist perfume.
Walking into the arena was hugely overwhelming because for the better part of my personal and professional life, a football field is all I’ve ever known and it’s become my sanctuary, the place second to my own home, where I am most happy and comfortable.
After taking in the sheer size of the venue and overcoming my initial anxieties, I took a seat at the media table where I was surprised to see just how close we would be to all the action.
‘I hope I don’t get clocked in the head during the game,’ was the first thing that sprang to mind because aside from the table, there was nothing separating us and the players from a potential incident.
Shortly after, Netball NSW and freelance photographer, Nigel Owen stopped by and introduced himself.
"Netball is the hardest sport to shoot," he said. "Once the game gets going, you’ll see what I mean."
As the players from both sides came out for their pre-match warm ups, I was amazed by their athleticism. They’re imposingly tall, agile and so fast-paced that if you blink, you might just miss them.
The two tallest players on the court are Firebirds goal shooter Romelda Aiken who stands at 196cm and goal attack Gretel Tippett who is not far behind at 192cm. I am told that they’re ‘the one’s to watch’ by a fellow reporter.
Before long, the game gets going and the roar from the crowd is deafening.
The sound of thousands of young girls crying out in unison takes me back to the days of my Backstreet Boys obsession (I was convinced I was going to marry Nick Carter) and all of a sudden, I feel this wave of nostalgia wash over me - the atmosphere is electric.
The speed of the game is insane and the dynamism of the players make the width of the court look like school-yard hopscotch amplified.
You can’t tear your eyes away for a second and I am starting to see why I was told to look out for Romelda and Gretel.
Romelda is impossible to mark and she’s rarely, if ever, beaten by the player responsible for marking her - Sharni Layton.
Gretel is an equally striking figure, her platinum blonde ponytail whips this way and that as she sets up Romelda beautifully, time and time again.
Tippett has this ability to make what she does look easy and after just one period, I realise that this game is anything but that.
The match chemistry between the pair is palpable and even with a ‘novice netball eye’, it doesn’t take much to acknowledge that their partnership is a thing of beauty - it’s almost as if there’s a string connecting the two of them together.
Doing her part to make life difficult for the opposition is none other than Swifts captain and goal keeper, Sharni Layton.
Coming into the match, I knew very little about Sharni, other than the fact that she looked up to equestrian riders growing up (included in my inspirations blog) and that she’s one of the most prominent figures in Australian netball.
Now I know why.
At almost all times during the game, Sharni’s voice can be heard as she shouts and cajoles her teammates into line, offering cheers and claps of encouragement whenever the situation demands it.
She’s aggressive, commands authority and even if you can’t see her, you can feel her presence on the court - a dream captain for any sporting side.
By the time the second-half is up, it’s 26-22 to the Firebirds but the Swifts are constantly nipping at their heels.
The tide however starts to turn in favour of the homeside and much of it has to do with the introduction of 25 year-old goal attack, Stephanie Wood who has changed the dynamics of the Swifts game going forward and in defence.
By the end of the third period, it’s 39-38 to the Swifts and the crowd are roaring by this point.
The final quarter sees the game become impossibly tight and with less than 10 minutes to go it’s still sitting at 45-all, until the Swifts make a break for it.
At this point, I’ve abandoned all journalistic requirements to remain unbiased and I am clapping and cheering the girls on - ‘go on Sharni!’ I shout over the top of all the commotion.
This game is addictive.
By the time the final crowd figure of a league record-breaking 13,314 comes through, the fans have broken out into raptures - the Swifts have just defeated the Firebirds 58-54 thus ending the QLD side’s 21-game winning streak.
When I catch-up with Steph Wood post-match, she’s bursting with energy and immediately I ask her if this was one of her career best games.
"I’ve never really ranked my games, I am just stoked to get out on the court. Any opportunity I get I’ll take it with two hands and run with it," she says modestly.
Winning against one of the best teams in the competition for a long time was no easy feat but Steph concedes that it ‘feels great’ especially in front of such an impressive turnout.
"It’s like an eighth player, it really brings the energy up on the court so to have them here today has been amazing."
As some of the arena begins to empty out, there is still a large contingent of fans lining up along the edge of the barriers waiting to meet some of their favourite idols.
Sharni Layton is a crowd favourite and whenever she drifts remotely close to the sidelines, the crowd go bananas.
As I pack my things to leave, I realise that without even trying, the game of netball has captured me, inspired me and above all left me hungry for more.
Players like Layton, Wood, Aiken, Tippett, Geitz and Ravaillion just to name a few, proved that exceptional and rare talent is required to compete at such a level because I felt unfit just watching them. (I convince myself that this has absolutely nothing to do with the box of donuts I ate the night before).
On the way out, music is blaring and a throng of young kids are dancing about while a massive line of people swarm the Swifts merchandise stand.
There is this undeniable warmth in the air and as I jump into my cab, the taxi driver asks me who won.
"The Swifts," I say, still swooning from my experience.
"That’s a big win for them," he replies expertly and I am dutifully impressed that he knows this.
It’s big win indeed, not just for the Swifts but the game of netball too.