Gabby Coffey is one of Melbourne Vixen’s most recently promoted training partners, and it was quite the journey to get there. From Mparntwe (Alice Springs) to Naarm (Melbourne), the proud Wiradjuri woman started her netball career in the Northern Territory and has never looked back.
“You see why people don’t understand Indigenous culture, and it’s because they haven’t seen it, they don’t even know an Indigenous person.
“Growing up in Alice Springs was awesome, it’s a whole different Indigenous culture up there and you learn so much from it. With Mum being one of the trachoma nurses we used to go out and stay at [Indigenous Communities] heaps when we were younger, which is a really unique experience and I feel very privileged.”
From an early age Gabby loved the competitive nature of netball, always keeping score even when they weren’t officially tallied at junior level. She also turned her hand to many other extra-curriculars including swimming, cricket, basketball and perhaps a more unusual one in ballet.
“I did a bit of ballet, which was actually great – it was so good for my balance. As a really tall person it literally just centred me and made netball better, plus it was so good for my ankles because they have been shocking. Everyone that I tell that I did ballet always [says] no wonder when you play, you look so much like a ballerina.”
Gabby first played representative netball for Alice Springs at the NT Underage Championships, aged 12. From there she was hooked, and wanted to trial for every possible team from then on.
Gabby worked her way through the NT representative pathway, playing in the 15 & Under (15/U) School Girls Team and then progressing to the 17 & Under (17/U) side coached by Deb Gray, competing at Nationals for three consecutive years from 2015-2017. She was just 14 at her first tournament in Sydney. Gabby continued playing for Federal Netball Club in Alice Springs, coached by former Victorian Fury and Territory Storm player Tahlia Lee. Her second year at 17/U Nationals, 2016, Gabby was talent identified and invited to attend a National camp at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
“I went and absolutely loved that, I was just soaking up everything…and just getting feedback from all the coaches”
In 2016 a new NT Institute of Sport coach, Gillian Lee, came on board. She recognised Gabby’s eagerness to continue pursuing her netball career and helped put all the pieces together for a move that would propel Gabby’s netball career to new heights.
“I remember having a conversation with [Gillian], and she said, ‘If you really want to take netball to the next level it’s probably your best opportunity to move, and move before you finish Year 12’…I think I looked at it a bit more excited, rather than looking at the whole picture, but I was, ‘Yep, sounds fabulous, can’t wait’.”
Lee was pivotal in putting all the pieces for Gabby’s interstate move in 2017. She landed a scholarship at Caulfield Grammar, was connected with the Victorian Pathway and took up a position with Melbourne University Lightning for the Victorian Netball League (VNL) season.
Gabby competed her final year for 17/U Nationals with the NT team in 2017. That same year, Netball Australia hosted the Inaugural Indigenous High Performance Camp at the AIS, an event that is yet to replicated despite cries from many that Indigenous representation and involvement in Netball needs to be improved.
“I went away for the Indigenous High Performance Camp in 2017 and it was really eye opening about a lot of things to do with Indigenous culture in general but also Indigenous women in sport. I think that shaped a lot of things within netball from then on, with wanting to be part of the small group of Indigenous girls that play Suncorp Super Netball (SSN). I feel very privileged to have learnt so much about my culture and history because I know a lot of people can’t.”
“[My indigenous heritage is] really important, it’s something I just love talking to Mum about. I probably didn’t really focus on it too much until I was a bit older because I guess it was just one of those things we always knew…there was such an important time when we went over to Sydney and caught up with family and we just really had this big conversation about all our heritage. That was one of those moments where I was like, “Wow, this is really awesome to learn about and really awesome to know.”
Gabby also has the hope that Indigenous engagement, from grassroots through to the elite level, will continue to improve but knows netball has a long way to go in identifying talent and successfully bringing it through the pathways.
“A Netball Australia run or funded program would be awesome, [that goes out to Indigenous Communities] and would really help the foundation of pushing kids to [try netball]. [As well as] providing the support they need when they are a bit older, because in teams when I was playing for NT we had plenty of Indigenous girls, but once it gets to a certain age it gets hard to continue because of the lack of support that they specifically need. I think the understanding around that will improve, but having that will definitely help girls stay in the sport.”
After attending the Indigenous High Performance Camp, Gabby continued to strengthen her game, successfully trialling for the 19/U Victorian team in both 2018 and 2019.
“In Year 12 (2018) we went away to Adelaide and won that competition which was crazy, because it was like going from one end of the ladder to the other and getting a medal which was so cool.”
In 2019, after graduating from high school Gabby remained in Melbourne and began studying an Arts Degree at the University of Melbourne. She earned her first call up into the Victorian Fury Australian Netball League (ANL) side, and again represented Victoria at 19/U Nationals. Despite not getting the success she was chasing at underage level, with Victoria finishing fourth at Nationals, Victorian Fury won the ANL Grand Final by one goal against the NSW Waratahs.
“I wasn’t playing at the time, I was coming back from injury, just trying to get the most out of my first year in ANL. I wasn’t really a starting seven player, I was just wanting to get some experience.”
2019 also saw Gabby make the switch from goal keeper to goal defence.
“I was a goal keeper and it was great, but I’m definitely better as a GD. I’m quick enough to be a GD…I can always go back and be a GK, but I think the move into GD was a really good transition for me. There’s a lot more opportunities for me in teams. The transition was definitely a little bit of a wake-up call. GDs do so much work, and because 2020 didn’t happen this year has probably been the biggest year of me just realising what needs to be done and actually figuring it out on court. It’s really reflected back into my VNL games – when I’ve been playing I’ve been a tougher competitor, been getting a lot of balls just from being on my player and going forward for the first ball. Being with Vixens helped so much…you have to work a thousand times harder, be really strong and smart and work with everyone around you.”
All through the Victorian Pathway, Gabby remained a member of National Development Squads, which saw her eligible for selection as part of the 2020 World Youth Cup Squad. She missed out on the initial squad selection for the pinnacle underage event, which she’d always pegged as a goal.
“At the time I was obviously disappointed, but I was looking at it like it’s meant to be in 2021, it’s [only] the start of 2020, if I manage to impress and be ready for the opportunity that’s [the best I can do].”
Gabby was fortunate to have Cathy Fellows as her coach as the Victorian Institute of Sport, who she credits with really changing her game through 2020 as well as helping her keep a positive mindset.
“Cathy Fellows, she’s such a great coach. Having her to train me in pre-season, I could already tell my game was so much better and that I was so much fitter and stronger. I was just so motivated, who knows what could happen, there could be injuries or anything so I was just wanting to be prepared. And that’s what Cathy would tell me, ‘That’s the best you can do, you don’t always get picked for teams but being prepared is the top thing you can do’.”
This attitude, along with her performance and dedication at training paid off with an invitation to attend the 21/U Camp at the end of 2020, and again in early 2021. In 2020 Gabby was also named as part of the Vixen’s Academy, alongside newly contracted Melbourne Vixens Rahni Samason and Hannah Mundy.
“[The Vixens environment] was a massive step up in terms of the professionalism, you rock up and [players are] there doing what they need to do to get ready. On the other aspect, the actual training part it was just another step up, just so incredibly hard. It kind of reminded me of my first year in Melbourne when I did my first netball training and was like what have I signed up for. But it was awesome, I think just getting the feedback from any little things from Jo Weston or Emily Mannix and feedback from the coaches. It shows you that’s the step up and what you need to start focussing on.”
As a member of the Vixen’s Academy, Gabby was invited to attend a pre-season tournament in Sydney leading into the 2021 season, with both Mannix and Weston managing injuries. During her first experience against other SSN teams, she relished the opportunity against English internationals Jo Harten and Helen Housby, while also having a little ‘fan girl moment’. It also provided more chance to get feedback from players and coaches, then put it into practice against top level athletes.
“It can be just little things like a player who receives [the ball] on this side of the body so if you push them to the other side it puts pressure on the catch and gives you the opportunity at the ball. I remember the first time someone said that and I was like, ‘wow that’s really detailed’, but those are the little things that they focus on and is why they’re so good and why they’re Australian Diamonds. I sort of turned into a whole new goal defence, so much better than my previous years which was awesome to see.”
Gabby was rewarded for her great performance, being offered a position as a Training Partner for the 2021 season after the end of the pre-season trip. The progression from Vixen’s Training Partner to SSN contracted athlete is a common path, with defenders Jacqui Newton and Rudi Ellis both plying their trade at Collingwood and Firebirds respectively during the 2021 season. Gabby played alongside these athletes during her time at Victoria Fury in the ANL.
“I knew they were such awesome players. I think having Di Honey as an assistant coach with Vixens and also having her be our Fury coach is so awesome because it shows how much time they’re wanting to put into us, how they really want to make us basically the next best in Victoria or even Australia”
2021 was shaping up to be a break out year for Gabby, playing in the Championship Division of VNL with Melbourne University Lighting, playing for Victoria Fury in the Australian Netball Championships (ANC), which was set to replace the now defunct ANL, all while training alongside the Melbourne Vixens on a regular basis.
“[The change from ANL to ANC] is interesting, I really liked the way ANL was shaped. It was kind of cool to feel you were almost professional in that way, travelling every week and having the opportunity to play curtain raisers on Hisense Arena. I understood why they did it, but I’m hoping in the future, and I’m assuming it’ll be when COVID settles down, that we’ll be able to go back to the old format. However even the new format would’ve been a really good experience, so I think we’ll be happy with whatever we get.”
After the disappointment of a COVID interrupted season in 2020, Gabby was looking forward to a ‘normal’ year of netball in 2021. This was until COVID re-appeared and threw the netball world into complete disarray once more. SSN was relocated many times across the country, limiting the time Gabby could spend training with the Vixens squad, ANC was modified to a decentralised competition, VNL was abandoned mid-season and chances of international competition with the 21/U Australian Squad was looking slim.
“The best word to describe it is shattering, especially this year them having to cancel our state league VNL competition and also the ANC. I think is really hard and you can tell from some of [the players] my age and some of the older training partners [across Melbourne] that it’s hard because those are our competitions to show [SSN teams] what type of players we are. That can be quite tough, because now…the next few years are going to be really pivotal, you only have so long and the timeframe to get into that higher level before you’re probably past it [is short]. But in the aspect of development that also sucks, we didn’t get a whole season last year to develop our skills and then even this year was cut short so that’s also heartbreaking. Hopefully next year we will get another season in, a full season, and get back on track and show a lot of other teams what we can do.”
As she completes her 14 day hotel quarantine in Alice Springs, returning home for a few months prior to the beginning of the 2022 pre-season back in Melbourne, Gabby had the chance to reflect on her netball goals for the near future.
“I’m waiting to hear about contracting, hoping to stay with Vixens but we will hear about that in October for Training Partners. I’ll stay with Melbourne University Lightning [for VNL] in their Championship Team next year which will be really exciting, we had such a good team this year especially with the likes of Shae Brown and Fiona Themann who were some really good SSN players.
“For the rest of this year there has been talks about aa 21/U camp possibly, but I guess we’ll wait to hear about that. Hopefully the ANC or ANL will also happen in some form and we’ll be able to play other states. I’m just hoping to keep improving, keep trying to get on court with the ANL and play a few good games and impress people and maybe get an SSN contract in the next few years.