In a netball styled version of Alice in Wonderland, Caitlin Thwaites fell down a rabbit hole this year to an altered reality. She faced a global pandemic, quarantine, hub life, the condensed season, changing personal circumstances and the strenuous move out to goal attack. None of them fazed one of netball’s most enduring and beloved characters.
Thwaites said, “I’ve absolutely loved playing this year, and feel like I’ve had a big smile on my face whenever I’m out on court.
“The enjoyment factor is part of why you play well, and you’re enjoying it if you’re playing well, so it’s a bit of a cycle. But my priorities have shifted a bit, and so it’s time to step away from netball for a while.”
Realising that she needed a change, Thwaites announced that she’d retire at the end of the 2020 season.
It’s been almost two decades since Thwaites first stepped onto a netball court at an elite level, joining the Melbourne Kestrels as a fresh-faced 15 year old. After a year she almost gave the game away for good, accepting a volleyball scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport, and considering offers to play in Europe and America. But Australia didn’t qualify for the Olympics in 2004, and so she returned to the Kestrels, honing her craft on a different court.
Since that time, Thwaites has played for another five clubs, shifting sometimes through choice, at others through necessity. It wasn’t always easy, but Thwaites said her ability to evolve and “stubbornness” kept her going.
“I’ve had the attitude that I’m constantly learning and having to adapt to performances, to opponents, to different teams, and that has kept me doing this for as long as I have. My pathway has taken me to New Zealand, to Sydney, and different teams, and I’ve had to keep reinventing myself and learning different skill sets to be able to hold my position in a team, or to keep aiming to play in the Diamonds. That’s all assisted me to stay relevant.”
“The other part of it is stubbornness. If somebody doesn’t want me, a coach for example, I think, ‘I still want to do this, so I’m going to bloody well fight for it.’
“So I’ve needed ambition and drive to want to keep playing, when sometimes it would have been easier to stop.”
Since her first incarnation under the post, Thwaites has added a plethora of skills to her game. Movement, incredible accuracy, the ability to shoot from any distance, and most recently, being able to log full games at goal attack.
Told by coaches earlier in the year that she’d be shifted forwards on court, to a new position that required a far greater capacity to run, Thwaites took on the challenge.
“I thought, ‘It’s going to be a long, tough preseason,’ but I was willing to do it.”
She laughed, “I don’t think the coaches quite believed that I could, but I’ve had the likes of Tegs (Phillip) and Sharelle (McMahon) giving me pointers.”
Thwaites has been a joy to watch on court this season, rolling between goal attack and goal shooter with ease, combining movement with strength, netball nous with composure. Like the very best of poker players, she knows when to hold, making space in the circle, and when to fold, driving out to create room for her shooting partner to run into.
A fixture in the national team since 2012, Thwaites notched up 55 caps and a clutch of gold and silver medals from the last two Netball World Cups and Commonwealth Games. For much of that time, Thwaites and Caitlin Bassett pushed each other, hard, for court time. Their vastly different styles were a bonus for Australia, with defenders struggling to adapt at times.
An automatic starting seven player for her club, it took Thwaites a while to learn that her input was also valuable if she started on the bench for the Diamonds. She previously told Netball Scoop, “It’s something that you don’t train for – how to be injected into a game, catch up to the pace of it, figure out the physicality and make an immediate impact.
“Part of my role for the team is to push and put pressure on our number one shooter, so they have to lift their game. If they have to go to training and work harder, because I’m nipping at their heels and I’m also working harder, the team is better as a result and that is very positive.”
If her on court performances have been consistently good, it’s off court that Thwaites has been extraordinary, elevating her to one of the most admired and respected athletes in Australia. Diagnosed as a teenager with anxiety and depression, Thwaites spoke publicly about mental health issues, and followed it up with inclusion, diversity and anti-violence campaigns.
Thwaites willingness to speak about her own symptoms has played an important part in the evolving national conversation on wellbeing. She explained, “I do feel a responsibility of being a role model, and for me, it’s about supporting the greater good, the ability to give back to the community and a sport that’s given me so much.
“The idea that athletes are just their performance is definitely not the case. Yes, that’s the job that you do, but it’s just a small component of what people may see out there on the court or field.”
While Thwaites has been vocal about a number of topics, athlete welfare is where she believes her future lies. “There’s so much more that goes into the athlete as a person, and that’s what I’m so hugely passionate about, the wellbeing side of things, looking after athletes in their normal lives, because athletes are people, and that’s the case for me.
“We are so hard on ourselves, and constantly striving to be perfect does drive us to be better, but if that balance isn’t right it can be detrimental, through being too hard on ourselves.
“It’s huge that we’re exploring and discovering that people need more support in that space, and I hope that’s where my post athlete life career can end up in helping some of those areas.”
Having a positive impact on team culture has been one of Thwaites’ greatest strengths. She’s always been ready to lend a helping hand, or an ear to listen to a teammate who’s having a difficult time. She reflected, “I’ve needed support personally in that space for myself, so I’ve learned the value and benefit of that, and wanted to provide that to others around me.
“So I’m a very perceptive person who can see if someone is having a hard day, or might need a quiet conversation after a training session or things like that. I’ve tried to have the attitude that while the team comes first, we can also support each other individually.
“I get the benefit of that support when I’m having a hard day, and hopefully I’ve given that support when others needed around me too.”
While Thwaites has built her playing ability year after year, she knew during the 2020 season that it was the right time to retire. She said, “Sport has taken a toll on me physically, emotionally and mentally; there’s been so many ups and downs. I never could have done it without the people who are close to me.
“But for the first time my priorities have shifted. For so long, those sacrifices have always been worth it to play netball, and my family and partner have supported me along every single step. But the tide has turned, and I need to be putting them first now.”
While Thwaites is grateful that she’s played out one last season, hub life has definitely taken its toll. She said, “I honestly didn’t think I would be able to be up here for as long as I have, given my family circumstances at home. So I’m very proud of the strength that has taken, my ability to compartmentalise, to step across the line, to still perform and do the job.
“But I’m most proud of the relationships and the people that I’ve met along the way, and who will continue to be part of my life for a very long time.”
Thwaites has spent 18 years – all of her adult life – as an elite athlete. She’s grown from a self-confessed “naïve” youngster to one of the stateswomen of the game. While she’s planning on finishing her psychology degree, Thwaites knows that the next few years will be very different.
“The knowledge and things that I have learned about the game, about things off the court, how you can contribute to a team if you aren’t playing, the pathway and the journey, has created me as the person that I am today. I’ve grown up in netball, and I’m so grateful for all the opportunities that I’ve had.
“But I’ve not known anything else since I was 15. What life looks like next I’m unsure, and it might take me a few years to adjust, but I’m sure I will find what’s next to throw my time and energy into.”
Like Alice, Thwaites will experience a strange new Wonderland. There won’t be the structure that sport brings: no trainings to attend, games to play, or recoveries to do.
And while that might be hard at first, Thwaites can do no better – just as she’s done throughout her career – than to follow the advice of the King of Hearts: “Begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end.”