If you want to join the Donnell Wallam fan club, join the back of the queue. In just her first year of elite competition, the sharp shooter’s achieved cult-like status, and is seen as a rising Djinda (“star” in Noongar language) of the sport. Whether it’s her ability to own the goal post with some gravity defying shots, her meteoric rise from club sport, or a quiet pride in her heritage, Donnell has captured the attention of the global netball family.
Her signing with Leeds Rhinos was a huge move, a world away from the small country town of Harvey, where she grew up, or even the sleepy city life of Perth, Western Australia. It was more than just a plane ride – rather a meteoric leap towards Donnell’s ultimate dream of representing her country one day.
“That’s my biggest goal,” she said. “At the moment I’m just trying to play my best netball here, maybe get back home and get signed, preferably by Fever, but with any Suncorp team, and from there to try and see if there’s any possibility of playing for Australia.”
It’s a big dream, but if Donnell’s rapid move up the netball ranks is an example, she has the ability and determination to achieve it.
Like most children growing up in rural Australia, Donnell had minimal access to sporting development pathways. Such programmes are city-centric, and Harvey, two hours south of Perth, was too small to attract top level coaches. Like most young families, the Wallams didn’t have time to take their talented daughter to the big smoke, multiple times per week, to further her career.
“It was definitely a problem – I didn’t even understand there were pathways to go any further with netball,” Donnell said. “Fortunately I had a good basketball coach who worked in our town, so that was why I started out in basketball.”
Donnell reached a point where she was no longer enjoying the game, and after spending some time playing social netball, ended up travelling to a nearby town, Waroona, to play more competitively. It was a life-changing decision. The local coach was Daniel Cools, a talented defender in the Western Australia Netball League (WANL) and mens’ state team. He developed her raw ability, and pushed her to play in Perth.
“After that first season, Daniel said, ‘Why don’t you give WANL a crack?’ I didn’t know who to talk to or who to play for, but he knew Wardie (Lorraine Ward – coach at the West Coast Warriors club) through the men’s state team.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you try out for the Warriors, the coach will really look after you.’
“The day before the try-outs in December 2018, I messaged Daniel saying that I was going to give it a miss, as I didn’t think I was good enough. He said, ‘It’s fair enough if you feel that way, but what have you got to lose?’
“I rocked up a little bit late to the try-outs and Wardie was there waiting for me. I was so shy I could barely speak to her.”
It was a challenging start for Donnell. While she was already living in Perth at the time, she was based in the far south, and pre-season training was in the most northern suburbs, a 90 minute commute to training, battling the freeway traffic. Donnell said, “I missed a few morning sessions, as I couldn’t make it up there and back in time for work.”
Going into a club only knowing the coach was unsettling at first, but Donnell soon felt at home. “Everyone is so welcoming of each other, everyone is respected and they embrace each other’s differences. It honestly felt like a family.
“At the start I was so shy I didn’t even know how to hold a conversation, but training with them twice a week, I got used to them and I now have lifelong friends.”
While it was just her first season at that level, Donnell swept the board at the WANL awards night, taking home the Jill McIntosh medal for the league’s MVP, the Player’s Player of the Year, the Goal Shooter of the Year, and the MVP of the winning grand final team. They were not only deserved but popular choices – the large crowd erupted with each announcement.
2020 was shaping up to be even better – with a year of experience Donnell was selected in the All-Stars team to take on West Coast Fever, and to play for the Western Sting in the Australian Netball League (ANL). In the All Stars game, the 191 cm shooter took the court part way through the first quarter, and finished with 49 goals, proving a massive headache for Australian goal keeper, Courtney Bruce.
“I was so nervous at the start of that game, thinking, ‘What if I miss a goal?’ But once I was on court I was okay – I just play to have fun, and don’t put any pressure on myself to score 100%. If I’m having fun, the rest will work itself out.”
Having enjoyed a season with the Warriors, and learned what it was like to play in front of a roaring crowd, Donnell thirsted to take her netball further. She said, “Sport had always just been about having fun. But those experiences also made me realise how much I wanted to play in the big leagues – training on these courts, playing before these crowds. I just felt really comfortable with it.”
Unfortunately Covid hit, and the ANL was cancelled, robbing Donnell of higher opportunities. She took the court for the Warriors instead, once again winning the grand final and picking up the same numerous awards as the previous year.
One of her biggest highlights for the season was being asked to design the Warriors’ playing uniform for Indigenous Round (see header image). A Noongar-Kaniyan woman, Donnell found it was ‘an amazing experience’. When asked she said, “Oh my God, I would love to”, but being her first design, she wasn’t sure where to start. She reached out to her cousin, a talented artist, for some guidance.
“She asked if I wanted to tell a story. And did I want to tell the story of my family and growing up in Harvey. That was important to me to have represented, and once I started jotting ideas down, everything just came to me.”
Central was the kangaroo, the Wallam totem, with the design representing their family story – yongka nyitting, or kangaroo dreaming. Other elements included the bushland and waterways around Harvey, and footprints travelling from camp to camp along the yongka trail.
In a perfect example of celebrating both cultures – Donnell’s living heritage and her sporting club – she also chose to incorporate netball in the design. “I added some stars – they represent all the girls and guys on the team, and we had a shield around the bib, which represent the Warriors Netball Club as well. When we put that bib on, we’re going out on the court to battle together.”
The Warriors loved the design, and chose to wear it as their permanent uniform instead of as a once-off occasion. It also opened the club to learning more about Donnell’s heritage. She said, “They really embraced the opportunity to ask questions about my culture, and that’s the point of Indigenous Round – to recognise the First Nations people, and to start conversations with non-Indigenous people.
Donnell is clear that she is still learning about her own culture – a traditionally lengthy journey before she will eventually be recognised as an Elder of her community. “When people do talk to me I hope they understand that. Sometimes I can’t answer their questions, but that pushes me to go and speak to my Elders, and then I can teach others.”
Netball has always been a good place for Donnell – she said the Warriors have been a ‘safe and welcoming environment’, but she’s well aware that other First Nations’ people have had different experiences in sport. Racism is rife in Australia, and it’s something she’s known at times in her life. “As a young girl, there weren’t many Aboriginal kids in school, and it was hard to stand up for yourself in those situations. Now that I’m older I feel more comfortable to stand up and call it out.
“Growing up in Harvey, you get well known in town, especially through sport, so you think you wouldn’t experience it. But there is casual racism where people don’t understand their behaviours. So that’s hard at times.”
She’s hoping that reconciliation will continue its fledgling journey in Australia. “It all comes down to education. If you want to learn, do some research on the local tribe from the lands you are living on. Take accountability, consider cultural awareness. Recognise and acknowledge Aboriginal people as the First Nations’ people.”
Midway through the 2020 season, Donnell signed as a training partner with West Coast Fever, but knew she needed court time to develop her game. With Suncorp Super Netball rosters filled with goal shooting imports, she considered her options. It would have been the easier and safer to stay in WA, playing in the familiar Warriors’ environment and staying close to her close-knit family and friends. But knowing that dreams are only realised with hard work, she chose to head overseas.
“Wardie got in touch with Dan Ryan (Leeds Rhinos’ coach), and said that she had a shooter who would suit a team in England. So I had a Facetime meeting with Dan, he spoke to me about what Leeds could offer, and it really came down to whether or not I wanted to play at that next level. I knew I had to step out of my comfort zone to get court experience, and the Rhinos offered that.
“It was a really tough decision. I didn’t know how I would live without my family on the other side of the world. When I came over I was a little bit nervous, and wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision because it was so different to Australia. But having settled in, I know it was the right choice for me.”
Donnell left 40 degree heat behind, and arrived in the depths of an English winter. She wasn’t prepared for it, but soon grew to love the snow, and the longer days and placid evening sun as the months progressed. She moved into The Netball House with four other teammates, who she said ‘brought me out of my shell’.
In addition to living in a country struggling with Covid, it was Donnell’s first experience of a full-time netball programme. Training daily – instead of twice weekly – and access to a gym have seen her make enormous progress. “It was hard at the start, waking up, going to the gym and then to a two hour training block. But I really enjoy it, and have improved in a lot of aspects since I arrived.
“When I first came I was always asking our Strength and Conditioning Coach, ‘How do I do this?’ in the gym. Now I just look at my schedule and know what to do.”
In just her second game, Donnell suffered a broken arm, and had surgery the following day. It was a brutal welcome to the world of elite sport, but one that she believes has made her a better person. “The first week was the toughest. I’m not only shy, but quite independent. There were small things that I couldn’t do for myself and I had to ask for help. That was hard, and I had to put my pride aside – little things like getting help to tie up my hair or do my shoelaces. Being vulnerable to that was a really big mental challenge.
“But my teammates were so lovely. They’d say, ‘You don’t even have to ask. Don’t feel embarrassed, it’s normal, you can’t do anything about it!’
“Once I accepted that I couldn’t change what had happened, and I was going to miss a certain number of games, I told myself to be strong mentally and I would then be fine physically.”
Donnell played her next game 7 ½ weeks later, and looked like she hadn’t skipped a beat. She’s the most accurate shooter in the Vitality Netball SuperLeague – averaging 95%, and has thrilled viewers with her flair, ability to keep sight of the goal post, and strong presence out on court. Her basketball background is obvious – whether it’s a jump shot, falling out of court, or even over another player, she still manages to nail the goals.
While she’s a rapid work in progress, Donnell knows that her biggest growth has been with her confidence. “I was particularly vulnerable – breaking my arm shortly after arriving, but I learned how resilient I could be. Being around my teammates all day, having Christmas with Dan and his partner, interacting with people I don’t know – it’s helped me to come out of my shell. I’m less reserved, and I think that shows out on court – the confidence that our playing group has in each other.”
The life lessons that Donnell’s learning will help her to chase her dream. Added to her on court performance is the ability to step out of her comfort zone and work determinedly towards a goal. While her main worry is that a lack of time in Australian development pathways might hold her back, she said, “All I can do is just keep pushing my case of getting a chance in the Suncorp Super Netball League, and hopefully one day for Australia. But I’ll just take it one day at a time.”
While Donnell’s biggest inspiration is her mum, she’s rapidly becoming one for many others. It’s a role that sits comfortably on her shoulders, as she hopes to encourage youngsters, particularly disadvantaged Indigenous youth. “If they can relate to me somehow, I want to show them that it is possible to break the barriers that we’ve faced, and they can achieve their dreams as well.
“I would say to any young Aboriginal kids that come from a tough upbringing, ‘We can all relate to some of the hard times growing up, and not thinking or having the confidence to finish school or play sport.
‘So stay strong, and take every opportunity that comes your way with both hands. You have a lot of potential to do what you want to do.’”