For Funmi Fadoju, meeting netball legend Serena Guthrie was a reassuring, if eye-opening, moment. A fresh face in the Roses’ Futures squad at the time, Fadoju was both nervous and excited at her first camp, but found the wider playing group ‘incredibly supportive.’
“People would come up and introduce themselves, like, ‘Hi – my name is Serena.’
“Serena!! I’m meeting Serena (Guthrie)? That really shocked me, but after some time I realised these women I idolised were just like me – normal people wanting to do what we love.”
And despite being one of the most exciting young talents on the sporting stage, ‘normal’ is the best way to describe Fadoju. On one hand an effervescent young woman who loves Marvel movies, lunching with friends, and living in one of the world’s most vibrant cities; on the other a dedicated student of biomedical science and life, who just happens to be exceptionally good at netball.
Seemingly capable of leaping tall buildings with a single bound, Fadoju also keeps her feet firmly planted on the ground, thanks to an eclectic support group that includes her genetic and sporting families, and a wide circle of friends. From her parent’s church group to carpools for training, wise words from sage coaches, and teammates teaching her how to cook, there’s plenty of people who have Fadoju’s back.
“There’s always someone out there willing to help, so even if I’m tired or down, I know that I can keep going.”
Fadoju started playing netball in Grade 3, shortly after watching her first match. She explained, “My PE teacher took our class to see some older girls play, it looked like so much fun, and in my head I was imagining playing with all my friends. So I went home, told them about it, and we all tried out the next day and got in. It was such a good time, playing a team sport with your mates. It’s active, and the fun never stops.”
The impact of that 60 minutes is a classic example of why visibility matters, and why women’s sport needs to be on our screens and our newsprint. And in turn, Fadoju now serves as an inspiration for countless other children, many of whom have limited access to exercise facilities in inner city London.
She said, “At this point, it’s like, Wow! There are actually people watching us and who might want to be like us. It feels weird that we are a role model to these little people, especially when I still feel like I’m the one asking questions rather than answering them.
“The greatest thing is when the kids say they love watching us play, and ask for advice about this, this or this. Some people, for example, have heard that netball can be quite expensive to play, and ask what I did.
“I literally experienced this, I know what they are going through, and some of the different ways they can find help. At my church for example, someone knew of a netball club across the road that I could join.
“So as players I believe we can help people to the best of our abilities, although for me, I’m still very much still learning.”
As an intercept and deflection queen, it’s hard to imagine that Fadoju started her career in the shooting circle. She said, “I was having the time of my life, but my coaches wanted to see what would happen if I shifted to the other end of the court. I said okay, but I was so upset, and the other parents couldn’t work out what was going on. “But I loved it, and didn’t ever play goal attack again. I just wanted to go for that ball, to be able to jump up in the air for it, and getting my first tip from the three foot mark (defending the shot) really got me into it.”
As a young player, Fadoju found the amount of travelling for sport was ‘insane.’ “Mum or Dad would drive me to training sessions, trials or games, even if it was across the country. And if they were busy, my sister would catch a train with me, as it was safer to travel together.”
If getting to training could be a quiet, albeit lengthy, affair, game day definitely was not. As Fadoju found out, families have a great knack of not only uplifting, but embarrassing, each other, with her proud parents gathering friends, relatives and fellow church goers to loudly cheer on their favourite. And while she might have blushed at the time, that support remains the bedrock on which Fadoju’s career has been built.
Finding a home with her London Pulse family has also been crucial for Fadoju, with the group acting as sisters, mentors, advisors and sounding boards for each other. She said, “I’ve known most of these girls since I was 13. We all live near each other, we know so much about each other, and it’s easy to communicate as we are going through so much of the same things together.
“For us younger players, it’s trying to get the right balance in life. Some of us split our last year’s education, so we have more time for that, for netball, and to get on top of it all. We will carpool, catch an Uber together to training or Uni, we all help each other out.”
The sisterhood extends right across the team, despite any age differences – for example, one of the more senior team members has been helping Fadoju in the kitchen. “In my first year at Uni, I wasn’t much of a cook. So for a few months, Lindsay (Keable) would tell me what to buy beforehand, then we’d have a Zoom call at night, and she taught me about meal prepping and cooking. She was amazing.”
And as Pulse has been on the rise – a top four finish last season, further improvement expected this year, and a number of their players now making national squads, the wise heads of players such as Keable and Jade Clarke, and coaches such as Sam Bird, have been invaluable. Fadoju said, “We do have a lot of vibrant personalities on court – we all have something to say, people are passionate and energetic which I love. But for the younger players, we do wonder if we’re going okay, doing the right thing, and we can get quite in our heads about it.
“So to have people with that experience talking to us, talking things through with us, giving us encouragement to keep pushing, makes it so much easier.”
Finishing as the Super League’s Young Player of the Year for the last two seasons, and one of the leaders in defensive gains, Fadoju was a prospect for England’s 2022 Commonwealth Games team. Unfortunately, an injury came at just the wrong time.
She said, “It happened at camp. I thought it was just a little twinge, I’d get a scan and be back out on court. Next thing I know I had to be sent home because it was worse than expected.” As a result Fadoju missed out on critical test match experience in the lead up to Birmingham, and selectors didn’t take a risk on the uncapped youngster for their final 12.
“Being injured proved to me that I wasn’t quite ready,” said Fadoju. “I was still fresh into the team, I hadn’t time to build connections, to find out what the girls do and what they are like.
“So while it was perhaps a missed opportunity, I decided I needed to look forwards. I had a lot on at uni which I focused on, and I told myself that it wasn’t the end – I hopefully will have many more years ahead of me.
“And having made my debut now, I think those extra few months really did help – getting into the right mentality, seeing the dedication and hard work that’s needed for a long term future at this level.”
If the Commonwealth Games was a netball desert for Fadoju, the following months were an oasis. Tests against Uganda, Australia and the Quad Series followed in quick succession, with Fadoju used at goal keeper and defence. She still remembers coming on from the bench in her debut. “Nerves. I was so nervous. The game was taking place, we were warming up on the sidelines, and I got the message I was going on.
“My heart just dropped, my mind went blank, but when the game had finished, I’d just loved it. To be out there representing my country at an international performance level for the first time, with my mum and sister in the crowd. I had my moment, and best of all, I was out on court with some of my Pulse teammates and we got our first cap together.”
Where to next?
While Fadoju’s outrageous talent already has its own formula: hard work + athleticism + anticipation = gains + netball stans, she believes she still has plenty to learn at an international level. “It is a little bit tougher, a little bit more physical. It’s still tough at club, but you know all the girls, you’re more used to them. At an international level it’s always changing, and you have to be able to change it up too. It’s a different mentality.
“In club, I know how the defenders around me work – how Zara plays, how Lindsay plays. I know what I can do, what I need to do, and have the freedom to do.
“For England, there are different structures that I’m still learning, which balls I can’t get to, and that I can’t just do my own thing. I have to maintain focus and concentration to stick to different structures. It’s two styles of play, but I am bringing them together.”
Having now played against a range of styles and opponents – from Jhaniele Fowler and Grace Nweke who stand around 20 cm taller than her, to the mobility of Cara Koenen – Fadoju has identified some areas of her game she still wants to work on. She explained, “Physical presence is a big one – not being pushed off by some of the giant goal shooters. Plus my fitness – could I could last a little longer, or go a little harder during that time? So improving my endurance on court.
“My mentality too: if we’re down, how can I set up, what can I do? Do I stick to the same thing, or if it does need changing up, how can I do that? Because normally, if it’s not working feel like I can get into a panic. So calming down, what else can I do, what else can I go for to help us get the momentum back.”
Video analysis and communication are crucial to Fadoju’s learning. “I do lots of it. Thinking, ‘Right, that happened, what can I improve on?’ I watch the footage, see what happened, and try to work out what I could have done differently.
“Then I talk to the other girls and ask their opinion – that really helps get it into perspective. Then reminding myself there will be another day, another game, and that we have to keep pushing on.
“So having the confidence to keep going out there, and not to be scared if something isn’t quite working. And the girls are fantastic with that. Having Geva (Mentor) behind me, for example, is amazing. She tells me just to do it and have fun.”
If fans have thrilled to Fadoju’s talent on court, they’ve warmed to her effervescent personality. Bubbly but unassuming and modest, she’s remained well and truly grounded despite her meteoric rise on court. Viewing every day as a privilege, Fadoju said,
“It is an honour to live another day, because some people aren’t able to.
“So my mantra is to never give up and always push on, while doing what I can to experience everything in that day, and the next one, and the one after that. Having my family and friends around while I do that, because they are the reason I’m here on earth, and why I’m here in netball.”
Fadoju’s New Year’s resolution was also to keep her promises. She said, “That’s a new one for me. Sticking with a promise, and doing my hardest to achieve it. If it’s as simple as being somewhere on time, I’ll be there on time. Not being scared to tell people what I think, because people have their own ideas and opinions, and it might help them to see my perspective as well.”
From a netball perspective, Fadoju believes that having taken part in the Quad Series, England aren’t far off the mark. “We’ve seen how the other teams play, we can look at ways to get around that, work on a few little things, and I have faith that will get us over the line.”
And if this is one promise that Fadoju can stick to, the 2023 Netball World Cup should be a whole lot more interesting.