NS EXCLUSIVE: Cara Koenen – Determination

NS EXCLUSIVE: Cara Koenen – Determination

By |2023-04-22T01:03:45+10:00April 22nd, 2023|Categories: AUS, Exclusive Interview, Featured|Tags: , , |0 Comments

One of Cara Koenen’s greatest strengths is her determination, according to coach Stacey Marinkovich.

When Koenen hears that she stands a little taller, smiles a little wider, and not just because it’s an important quality to her. It’s also a measure of just how well Koenen’s national mentor knows her as an athlete, and also as a person. Understanding what makes her players tick has been a hallmark of Marinkovich’s reign, and has certainly played a role in their success.

“Stacey wanted to build a team that was versatile, and she promoted each athlete’s individuality to make that happen. She got to know us both on and off the court, and celebrates the ways in which we are unique.

“She has a very clear game plan, so for example in terms of individuality, picking different players that bring their individual strengths to the table, then fitting us all together in the limited time she has available as head coach.”

In recognising Koenen’s determination, Marinkovich not only understood her netball achievements, but also how Australia’s starting goal shooter faced down and adapted to geographic isolation, a ‘chaotic’ period after leaving school, surgeries, and finding her own unique playing style.


Cara Koenen outpointing Swifts goal keeper Sarah Klau. Image Danny Dalton.


Small fish in a big pond

Growing up on Magnetic Island, an idyll just off the Queensland coast, was heavenly, but came with its challenges. Koenen and her three siblings all went to primary school on ‘Maggie’ but with its population of around 2500, had to leave the island almost daily.

“It was a pretty cruisy childhood – we lived 800 metres from the beach so spent a lot of afternoons there. We used to catch a 20 minute ferry ride across to Townsville for sport and high school, so add in scheduling the ferry time tables, needing an island car and a Townsville car, and the odd cyclone which made the ocean a bit treacherous. It gave mum a few headaches.”

Most kids from the bush need to head to the bright city lights to build a career. They can face immense challenges such as leaving behind a familiar way of life, family and friends, learning independence and how to make financial ends meet.

Koenen followed that well-trodden pathway when she finished high school – at the age of 17 she packed up her belongings and moved to Brisbane, in a period that she described as ‘chaotic.’

“It was really tough, and quite overwhelming trying to do it on my own. While my parents moved heaven and earth to help me, it did take me a little while to get used to it. Studying full time to be eligible for Centrelink benefits, because it was the only way I could pay my rent. Then I also had netball training, and part time work to fit around all of that.

“It was a logistical nightmare, and I learned a lot about being organised and had to grow up pretty quickly. Getting on top of deadlines and asking for help when I needed it, was all a huge learning curve at the time.”


Cara Koenen protecting the space and the ball. Image Simon Leonard.


Koenen started several different courses but nothing really stuck until she ended up back at the beginning, studying a double Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Science and Criminology and Criminal Justice. Just a year later she fielded a call from Sunshine Coast Lightning’s coach, Dame Noeline Taurua, asking her to be part of the inaugural team. Relocating to the smaller community came as a relief, and gave Koenen a sense of the familiar.

“While I was enjoying my studies, I did feel a bit lost in Brisbane. It was a massive surprise that Noels took a chance on me, and I will always be grateful for that.

“My older sister is in Brisbane, my younger sister has been on the Coast for the past year. I’ve been able to create a real home away from home, and the Coast has such a great community feel. We know a lot of our members personally, bump into them at the shops, and I think being a regional community team really sets us apart.”

When the Suncorp Super League started in 2017, Koenen was working alongside netball greats such as Caitlin Bassett, Geva Mentor and Laura Langman, soaking up all the information she could and starting to get court time. Unfortunately, injury struck – the 19 year old needed an ankle reconstruction to repair the damage, and she faced a long stint on the sidelines. It was during this time that Koenen developed a mantra that has helped her to focus on work-life balance ever since.

“Rehab did put things into perspective for me – not putting all my eggs in the sporting basket because sport can be fleeting and can come to an end at any time.

“So I needed to develop goals away from sport, and learn to fill my cup in ways that don’t just involve netball. It’s something I’ve carried ever since that surgery.”


Cara Koenen did her apprenticeship on the bench, behind Caitlin Bassett and then Proscovia Peace. Image Kirsten Daley.


Diamonds’ call up

When Bassett left the Lightning after two years, the franchise signed Ugandan superstar Proscovia Peace, and many expected that the lesser known Koenen would continue to warm the bench. Instead, she broke into the starting seven, and a couple of years later into the Diamonds. Although she stands at 190 centimetres, Koenen is not a typical post shooter. Movement and creativity are two of her greatest strengths, and she’s grown her ability to whisk through the smallest gaps on the baseline, turn on a dime, or head out of the circle and finesse her way back in.

“It (movement) did come naturally to me, but I also wanted to work really hard on that strength until it was almost unstoppable. I don’t think defenders expect that of someone of my height.”

Koenen received her first national cap in 2021, and said that the call from Stacey Marinkovich was nerve wracking. “Every phone call for Diamonds selection is! But at that time, I was freaking out, shaking, as I wasn’t expecting it. I still get nervous for every phone call, and still feel just as blessed afterwards to represent my country and the many girls playing our sport, but also to be surrounded by so many incredible women.

“We have a really amazing group in the Diamonds, we are close on and off court, and it’s a very special era to be part of.”

As a new athlete into the national squad, Koenen used the opportunity to soak up information and thrive in a highly competitive environment. “It inspired so much confidence to learn from people like Gretel (Bueta), Steph (Wood) and all the other girls. We are constantly pushing each other to be better, and in that squad environment there’s no love lost out on court.

“We are so competitive in match play simulation. But we do have a team first mentality so in approaching selection or competition, we help each other prepare the best way we can. It’s all about the squad.”


Cara Koenen has made the most of her opportunities with the Diamonds. She went into the 2022 Commonwealth Games with just 9 caps.  Image: May Bailey | Netball Scoop


Australia took one of its least experienced teams to the 2022 Commonwealth Games, giving away hundreds of caps to the other top four nations. In her first pinnacle event Koenen, for example, had just nine. It didn’t matter to the Diamonds however, who despite limited time together, had been thorough in their preparation.

“In camp, we did so many reps with different combinations against different styles of defence. Stacey and the high performance team mapped out what they wanted everything to look like across the tournament and leading into the finals. We were all given good role clarity, and even if we didn’t play, Stacey was very clear with her feedback after each game about what our role either was, or would have been if we’d been on court, and what was needed from us.

“So we had a clear game plan, and clear objectives in mind for the team and for each of us.”

Having been beaten by Jamaica in pool play, Australia later faced off against them in the gold medal match. The Diamonds took an early lead, but the circle became stagnant and Jamaican goal keeper Shamera Sterling started to get her hands on the ball. Although Koenen hadn’t taken part in a match for several days, Marinkovich had total confidence in her rookie shooter.

“When Stacey turned to me and told me to get on the court, it was probably a good thing I only had a few seconds to react and didn’t have time to overthink. My role was to generate some movement, and after having a few issues with our balance in the circle, I think Gretel and I were able to create some nice movement and passages of play.”

Koenen proved integral to the 55-51 goal win – she not only shot a perfect 15 goals from as many attempts, but her movement kept Shamera Sterling’s head spinning, reducing her ability to intercept the ball. In facing one of the best defensive units in world netball, Koenen took confidence from knowing she’d played against all the Jamaican defenders during Super Netball.

“It’s one of the advantages of having unlimited imports. We have quite a few international players in our domestic league, and it’s not like you’re coming up against someone you’ve never faced before. So that adds confidence that with Stacey’s help we could implement our game plan and it would all fall into place.”

Koenen played a full game against Funmi Fadoju in the Roses series in early 2023. Image May Bailey I Clusterpix



Working to achieve balance in her own life, Koenen is conscious of its impact on wellbeing. She noted, “There hasn’t been a lot of focus on research into the health of female athletes until recent years, and we are finally seeing a light shone on that area.

“It’s a very taxing environment to be in both physically and emotionally.

“Sport is heavily weighted on performance. Everyone has an opinion on how you are performing, and with players being so accessible via social media, they can voice their opinions, whether that’s good, bad or ugly. It does take a toll on athletes, and young people in general. I’m proud of the steps forward that we are taking, but there is still plenty of work to be done in this area.

“Physically, there still needs to be more scientific research into female athlete cohorts, and that’s something that all women’s codes need to keep pushing.”

Advancements have come in some areas, including sleep quality and hygiene, post match recovery, hydration and nutrition. With one in two female athletes being iron deficient at times, significant strides have been made in this aspect, and it’s something both clubs and Diamonds’ management keep a close eye on.

“It’s something I’ve struggled with myself,” shared Koenen. “We’ve had a big shift in our focus with our nutritionist and medical team, and our doctor is amazing at getting our bloods checked and making sure we keep on top of it.

“Knowledge is power, so it’s really important as athletes to be able to trust in your medical team that they are going to give you the best advice, do what’s right for you, and keep you healthy so that you are out on court performing.

“That trust has to work both ways though – we have to be honest with our medical professionals about any symptoms that we might be having.”


Cara Koenen and Donnell Wallam, after Wallam’s debut. The Diamonds have a squad first mentality. Image May Bailey l Clusterpix



While Koenen has notched up more than 70 games for the Lightning, she has just 20 Australian caps to her name. Still very much in a growth mindset, Koenen is determined that she can take her game to new levels, and combinations with athletes around her to greater heights. She said, “I want to learn, and to play the game a little bit differently than anyone else.

“Part of that comes through hard work, and part comes through watching those around me, and surrounding myself with the incredible people that I’ve been able to do in my career so far. To see what they do really well, and what I can implement into my own game.”

Having risen through the ranks to the pinnacle of elite netball, Koenen said that in getting there, the Diamonds’ values have aligned closely with her own. As well as hard work, she hangs her hat on honesty, despite them both presenting a challenge at times.

Koenen explained, “Hard work pertains to everything that I do in the gym, at training and on court, but also to my approach to life outside netball, whether that’s at uni or at work. Making sure that I’m 100 per cent invested, trying to give my all and dedicating my attention to the task at hand.

“Honesty includes having difficult conversations when they are needed. Because they can be very uncomfortable, they don’t come naturally for me. But I do pride myself in standing up for what I believe in, and the people around me that I care about.”

Koenen has seen netball progress over recent years, stating that players have worked hard to ensure they are successful both on and off court. She explained, “Traditionally, netball hasn’t been financially viable to live off, so a lot of athletes do have other things going on in their lives, whether that be work or study. We strive to achieve things outside of netball.

“We’ve also worked really hard on getting the recognition we deserve as strong, powerful athletes. I think the lens is shifting, but it’s taking a long time.

“And while one measure of success is wins and premierships and individual stats, it’s also about putting out a brand of netball that we can be proud of. To hang our hats on and be happy with.”


Cara Koenen balances the ball on the end of her fingertips. Image: May Bailey | Netball Scoop


Cara Koenen’s work along the baseline sets her apart from most shooters. Image Simon Leonard.


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About the Author:

Physiotherapist, writer and netball enthusiast. Feature articles, editorials and co-author of "Shine: the making of the Australian Netball Diamonds". Everyone has a story to tell, and I'm privileged to put some of them on paper. Thank you to the phenomenal athletes, coaches and people in the netball world who open a door to their lives, and let me tiptoe in.
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