The number of netball matches Geva Mentor has played may forever be lost in the mists of time and a dearth of records from her earlier years. It is known that – incredibly – this is her twentieth year of elite netball, joining an exclusive club of three alongside Mary Waya (Malawi) and Irene van Dyk (South Africa, New Zealand).
During the Suncorp Super Netball fixture this Sunday, Mentor will also notch up her 200th national league game in Australia, on the exact date that – twenty years earlier – she made her debut for England. And while eight years worth of English domestic league games remain uncounted, Mentor’s durability is amazing – she’s missed just one domestic match through injury during her 14 years down under.
The two very remarkable milestones, along with 146 test caps for England, represent an enormous investment of time, strapping tape and sneakers that has seen Mentor become one of the world’s most loved and respected netballers.
Since arriving on Australian shores, she’s thrilled local fans with her flying intercepts, her ability to get up to high balls – even against the most towering of shooters – and the gleaming smile that says, ‘I’m out on court, and I’m having fun’. Teammates walk taller beside her, supported and inspired by her presence.
Growing up in Bournemouth, Mentor was blessed with her gene pool – inheriting hand-eye coordination and fierce competitiveness from her mum, and statuesque athleticism from her dad. Excelling at a range of junior sports, she was part of England’s national trampolining circuit before her height made it too dangerous to continue.
“Netball found me, at that point,” Mentor said, and from then on she skyrocketed up through the pathways. Talent spotted by Lyn Gunson, her ability was endorsed by English national coaches Julie Hornweg and Wai Taumaunu who selected her for the senior national team at the age of just 15. After a period of bench-warming, on the 11th July, 2001, the sixteen year old debuted against van Dyk while on tour in New Zealand.
In 2008 the star was in search of a new challenge, when she became one of a small group of English athletes to join the newly instituted ANZ Championships. Unfortunately, a change of leadership in England’s national programme saw Mentor and Sonia Mkoloma – the Roses’ world class defensive duo – stood down from international duties. The ban lasted for 18 months, both athletes a casualty of wanting to extend their skills by playing in Australia.
Common sense finally prevailed – English athletes were becoming better in the full time training environment that the ANZC provided – and Mentor was reinstated to the national team in 2013. She’s now competed at five Commonwealth Games and World Championships, is gunning for her sixth of each, and was a crucial cog in England’s historic gold medal performance at the 2018 Games.
Mentor has also won six titles across her time at Team Bath, Adelaide Thunderbirds, Melbourne Vixens and Sunshine Coast Lightning, and has played for Surrey Storm and the Collingwood Magpies. Awards and tributes have flowed along the way, including her recent induction as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2019 honours list.
As one of the legends of our game, there’s been surprisingly little publicity for Mentor’s two significant milestones this year. She said, however, that the time has ‘flown by’. “I don’t look backwards too much, I’m always looking to the next game, the next challenge, the next season that’s on the horizon. So enjoying that process and the teammates around me makes it speed past.”
An experienced athlete, Mentor knows how to navigate each pre-season. The basics don’t change, although she avoids becoming stale by trying different activities, from pulling on some boxing gloves, to heading to the driving range with a 7-iron. Her biggest challenge is remaining emotionally fresh and making space to unwind. “Looking at the calendar and juggling domestic and international seasons, times and dates, when is our down time, how long before my next match.
“So getting my head around that, trying to be organised, and looking out for people close to me who aren’t part of the elite sporting bubble. It does take it’s toll, and so I like to escape, usually through travel, and getting out into the community as much as I can.”
Mentor has been frustrated in recent years by remarks made about her age – something she says male sport handles much better. “If you start to believe that you are old and past it, you will go down that route. Commentators in netball tend to blame bad games on age or inexperience, rather than discussing the performance, but sometimes you do just have a shocker. I’d much rather insight is given on the game itself, or on particular players if they have it, but generalities just bring people down.”
It’s a common thread again this season – age has been publicly blamed for Mentor’s patchy form of late. However, there’s been greater frustration to 2021 than most people realise. Primed and ready to play, Mentor suffered a debilitating back injury just 10 days before the first game. She said, “It was a good time for me to prove that age doesn’t really matter, but I suffered a disc prolapse through an overload at training. I’ve been chasing my tail ever since, because I lost all my strength and power on one side, and I’m still on the road to recovery.”
Then there’s the lingering impact of Covid, which has left the Magpies’ captain exhausted. In Round 9 for example, the team didn’t know they were definitely playing until 11am the same morning. “So each week, it’s are we playing, or aren’t we? Are we travelling or not? As part of the leadership group there’s extra work involved in sending messages, making calls, having conversations, and putting numerous plans in place, on top of our usual training load, and working around stay at home or quarantine requirements. It’s not an excuse, but people don’t see that, or realise just how much it takes it out of you.”
Leadership is a quality that Mentor’s always excelled at, informally through her presence on court, or via captaincy of the Sunshine Coast Lightning’s inaugural team, her current Magpies group, and previously with the Roses. She said, “For me, I try to be natural. The easiest way for me to do that is leading by example, and by holding onto good values and beliefs. I prefer to try and empower those around me through listening rather than speaking, and supporting them as needed.
“As a leader, you always have to evolve, taking the successful qualities you’ve had in the past, and applying them to the current group and where you are going.”
Always articulate, Mentor has used her platform off court, working with First Nations’ people in remote communities, as an ambassador for minority groups, and speaking out on issues close to her heart. She explained, “It’s important that athletes do share their voice. It’s okay to have a different opinion to the person standing next to you – that makes us stronger.
“But we also need to make sure that there is support if speaking out backfires, because there are trolls and bullies out there who have nothing better than to say nasty things. When you put yourself out there, you are vulnerable to that. So it’s important to know who you are, what you are about, and to give and receive support when it’s needed.”
Having recently spoken out about the fertility issues that many female athletes face, Mentor is also keen to start a conversation about athletes transitioning into retirement. She said, “There’s been work done in recent years on our contracts, and making sure we are more professional in our approach to strength and conditioning, recovery, sleep and nutrition.
“The next step is to recognise that we can’t just spit athletes out at the end. We need to either keep them involved in sport in some way, and retain their experience, or support how they move into a different world. Many of the girls are fortunate that they have careers lined up post netball, but as we become more professional there is less time to study along the way. So athletes need support to negotiate what that looks like.”
While Mentor is keen to further her work with Indigenous communities and hopefully experience motherhood, she’s not ready to end her career just yet. “You are a long time retired,” she laughed, “and for now I believe I can add value to a team. I’ll be back with the English squad later this year, with international series coming up, and hopefully leading into the Commonwealth Games next year, and the World Cup in 2023.
“I’d also love to have a couple more years with Collingwood, to build on what we are trying to create culturally. After that I’ll consider hanging up the dress, whether that’s internationally, domestically, or looking at playing opportunities in the UK or even New Zealand. I just love the lifestyle, the opportunities and the people that I meet along the way.”
As England look to defend their Commonwealth Games success, the Roses’ squad is impressively strong. And in a very smart move, national coach Jess Thirlby has brought in a range of assistants – Sonia Mkoloma, Liana Leota and Olivia Murphy – who between them have inside knowledge of the Australian and New Zealand playing styles they will face.
“The six athletes currently out here will be joining the squad, which we couldn’t do with the pandemic last year. We’re looking forward to getting court time together, integrating, solidifying combinations and seeing what works. And our coaching team are very forward thinking and not afraid to challenge the group. So hopefully it will be a fun, exciting and successful campaign over the next few years.”
Athletes are considerable risk takers – there are no guarantees of success, income or the longevity of a more regular career. Moving to a different state or country, and time on the road for fixtures, can impact relationships and the minutiae of daily life. Mentor said, “While every person is different, you do need to spread your roots quickly to create a support network. That’s the difference between people being able to stick at sport for a while, or those who struggle and see an exit as the best option for them.
“For me, wherever my overnight bag is, is home. I do try and create sanctuaries away from netball that give me a breath of fresh air. Having said that, some of my closest friends have also come about through elite sport. Take Sonia Mkoloma – she was the English goal keeper at the time when I was the whipper snapper coming in. It could have gone one way or the other, but she took me under her wing and we are now best mates.”
Having grown up in elite sport, Mentor believes it’s added to the core values she’s learned from her family. “It’s given me perspective about life. The skills that come with being organised, being prepared, being able to handle things that don’t go your way. Having patience, and being humble. But also being able to enjoy life, because the high adrenalin and buzz can be stripped away so quickly through injury or non-selection.”
And while it seems premature to discuss legacies with an athlete not yet retired, Mentor – as always – is happy to oblige. She said, “I just hope that I’ve been able to have an impact on my teammates, that they in turn can share with future teams as they go. And with an understanding of my own mixed heritage and the impact of sport, I’d love to work with and help empower the beautiful Indigenous community we have here in Australia.
“It’s very raw, a place to gain perspective. You might go in thinking you’re making a difference, but really they are making a bigger difference and impact in your life.
Sunday’s milestones will be a time to celebrate all that Mentor has achieved during her 20 years and 200 domestic games. It will also be a time to reflect. Small moments make big memories, and fans will remember the warm and approachable woman, alongside the well-spoken leader and brilliant athlete. But with her usual humility, Mentor won’t be focused on the games she’s played or the awards she’s received, just the people around her.
“I hope that my career, and what is to follow, is about people. Sharing stories and values, and leaving an impact that’s broader than just netball.”
Geva Mentor’s autobiography, “Leap”, is available through Booktopia and good booksellers.
Please also enjoy the photo gallery