Before I interviewed Laura Langman I made a list of her strengths. Athletic – yes; powerful and skilful – definitely; GOAT centre – in my opinion; can turn a game, quirky sense of humour – tick and tick; humble and unassuming. Given the latter, when I asked Langman for her opinion, it was no surprise that I got a very different answer.
She said, “Man, that’s a hard one,” and paused, genuinely struggling to find something. Finally she took a deep breath, and listed just one thing. “I think I’ve never been afraid to take a risk.”
And while it might not appear that way, given her traditional introduction to netball and an unflashy approach to life, there is far more to Langman than her trademark long socks would suggest. While an outstanding career has been built on her brilliance on court and genuine affability, it’s the less-trodden path that has defined her.
Born a farm girl in the Waikato region, Langman learned the value of hard work very early on. She was expected to pull her weight on the property, honing her muscles while helping with the dairy and sheep herd.
She was talent spotted at a young age, and signed with the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic in 2003, while still a fresh-faced high schooler. It was the start of a long term partnership with coach Noeline Taurua, who became one of the most influential people in Langman’s career.
At a time when the Silver Ferns were laden with midcourt talent, Langman was good enough to force her way into the mix. Aged just 18, she made her debut against England, and was one of the youngest ever captains of her country’s Under 21 team, taking out the Netball World Youth Cup title later that year.
The Magic reigned as a powerhouse during Langman’s time with them. They picked off three domestic titles and became the only New Zealand team to win the coveted trans-Tasman ANZ Premiership title in 2012.
After 11 years as mentor and student, the partnership between Langman and Taurua was broken, when the latter took a break from netball. Langman says she ‘emotionally checked out’ as a result, and moved to the Northern Mystics for the next three seasons.
Slightly restless, and wondering whether to retire or immerse herself in the life of a professional athlete, Langman took a calculated risk and crossed the Tasman.
“It was always on the list,” she said. “I was like, ‘Man, I wonder what it would be like to play in an Australian team.’
“So I put my feelers out, never expecting a team to be interested. When I got picked up by the Swifts, that was a real dream come true. I couldn’t sign my contract fast enough, I didn’t want them to change their mind.
“2016, that was such a cool year. Hard, but the growth of me as a person and a player was huge.”
Langman was thrust into the intensity of a full time netball environment, with training sessions including the gym, skills, fitness and court work. Despite the enormous rivalry between Australian and New Zealand netballers, former opponents became teammates, and then became friends.
She explained, “I learned so much in that year about myself. I learned so much as a player, being under Kimmy G’s (Greens) leadership will always be a highlight of my career. Being able to play alongside her was just amazing.
“Also too, that year was the biggest year I had in development of my leadership, in terms of knowing what it feels like. You forget what it feels like to be a rookie, I reckon, when you’ve been around a wee while.
“So that was a unique opportunity. I was stepping into a team where I was the newbie, and everyone was very established. I learned a lot from that, in terms of knowing what it feels like when you’re not sure what you can contribute.
“And nothing’s worse than having players in the team that don’t want to contribute. So that was a real big challenge that I had to overcome pretty early on.”
Langman had gained an exemption from Netball New Zealand to play overseas, and soon stamped herself as a favourite with Australian fans. They thrilled to her enormous prowess on court, and her down to earth ways off it. Teammates obviously felt the same way, and despite being new to the group, Langman was elected as vice-captain of the Swifts.
While she would have happily stayed in Sydney, another opportunity came knocking. Noeline Taurua was signed as the inaugural coach of the Sunshine Coast Lightning, and Langman jumped at the chance to work with her former mentor again.
However, Netball New Zealand ruled that if she continued to play overseas, Langman would no longer be eligible for the national team. Late in 2016, and for the first time in 12 years, the Silver Ferns took to the court without their star centre. It not only deprived them of her ability and leadership, but broke her string of 151 consecutive international games, a record that in all likelihood will never be repeated.
It came at a time when Langman was at the peak of her powers, and if she was heartbroken, it didn’t show on court. It’s hard to forget her flight through the court, ponytail flowing, with the ball on a string. Or her ability to catch a ball, pivot and throw, all whilst in mid-air; or plucking an intercept on the edge of the circle, without toppling offside.
When publicly asked about her stand down, Langman was classy but silent; few people would”ve known just how much it cost her.
There was just one hint. Immediately after winning the 2017 Suncorp Super Netball grand final, Langman was interviewed courtside about her decision to play for the Lightning, and her subsequent omission from the Silver Ferns. As her team and the crowd erupted, Langman said with a few tears and a slightly wobbly voice, “I have no regrets. I have loved every challenge, every moment, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Fans, who’d previously admired the star for her talents, fell in love with her. Whilst they couldn’t always imagine life as an elite athlete, they could relate to a person who knew about disappointment and heartbreak, and fought on despite it.
It was a side of Langman that many hadn’t seen before, but she was comfortable with showing some emotion. She said, “I think that it’s okay to show a little bit of vulnerability. In terms of when you are in a team sport you feel like you have to leave your baggage at the door. But the last few teams I’ve been in, it’s been really cool to see that the entire person is embraced and that’s okay.”
And with a laugh, she added, “There’s been lots of tears. I’m sorry about that!”
Being cut from the Silver Ferns almost pushed Langman into retirement. She stepped away from the elite court in 2018, heading to Canada for a snowboarding holiday, playing club netball, and running some long distance events just for fun.
However, 2017 and 2108 proved disastrous for the Ferns. They lost two games to England, were white-washed by an inexperienced Australian side, and achieved their worst ever result at the Commonwealth Games, exiting without a medal.
Change was needed. Taurua was appointed to coach the national team, and with an exemption in place, she coaxed Langman back onto the court both for the Lightning and to captain the Silver Ferns.
After almost 18 months away from the sport, Langman wasn’t sure if her skills would still be up to the mark. She said, “When I came back in 2019, that was a big moment in time. I had to be okay in terms of what I had, and I had to be content with that.
“I didn’t really have the time to dwell on what I didn’t have. So that was a big turning point. That was when I really bought into, ‘I’m going to contribute as much as I can, as long as I can, and I’m okay if someone needs to take over from me.’
“Because, as an athlete you want to be the best that you can be, and you always want to be out there, that sometimes you get feelings when you get taken off. But I knew my role was going to be different, and I did as much as I could for as long as I could, and I was prepared to take on any role that the team needed.”
While Lightning was convincingly beaten by the Swifts in the 2019 grand final, Langman led the Silver Ferns to a remarkable World Cup Victory a few months beforehand. After 163 matches, she promptly announced her international retirement, then played one more season with the Lightning, before breaking netball fans’ hearts for good.
She said, “You always want to play forever. I’ve been lucky to be in teams that are amazing, and no day ever beats game day.
“To be honest, in 2017, I thought I was done.
“So these last two years have been a gift. I came into the year, thinking, ‘This is it.’ The intention was that I’d retire. I flirted with the idea of playing in 2021, and then I thought, ‘Come on, Lauz, this is just a bit cheeky.’
“The decision feels good. Your heart always takes a wee while to catch up with your head. I’m lucky, I’ve got my original knees and my body kind of does what it’s told, so I can play other codes and do some other activities. I’m doing okay.”
Having grown up on a netball court, Langman has learned a lot about herself and about life. She said, “The list is a mile long.
“I’ve learned that many hands make light work, to know what your role is, but adapt it to what you have to offer. I’ve really learned I know what I’ve got, and what I definitely don’t have, which I think was huge in these two last years. I’m okay with that.
“I’ve also enjoyed bringing a bit of banter. I think I’ve always felt like I’ve been okay at enjoying the moment. And of course, I’ve never been afraid to take a risk.”
That’s precisely what Langman will be doing as she moves into the next phase of her life. She’s still not quite sure what it will hold, but has earmarked AFL as a possibility. “I feel like that’s the next transition that netball players do. I’ve got some great workmates who play a lot, so I might have a go and that’s exciting. I feel like grass is going to be a lot nicer on the knees than wooden sprung floors, so we’ll see how it goes.”
For the time being, Langman is still in what she describes as, “a strange place.”
“The lack of structure is probably the biggest hurdle I will have to get over, and it will take time to adjust. That’s all part of the process of moving on to different adventures, and I was probably lucky that I had a little taste of it in 2018 to know what to expect.
“I had a day like that yesterday. You could not pay me to make a decision, I was so indecisive. Then this morning before I went to work I wanted to go to Pilates, Crossfit, and go for a run. I had to sit back and laugh at myself.”
Langman has an encyclopaedia’s worth of awards, victories and leadership roles, including four domestic titles, four World Cups and three Commonwealth Games, but describes the people she’s met along the way as what she’ll miss the most.
“I’ve had so many special people make an impact, whether it’s been support staff, an opponent, or a teammate. You take those really special little memories, and keep them with you forever. I’m so grateful that I was looked after right from day one when I was still in high school, right through to today, the people that I’ve been able to be around. So in many ways my career is all a credit to them.”
It’s typical of Langman’s unassuming nature that she credits others for her own success. But those who’ve admired her sheer genius on court, and her warmth away from it, have a different narrative. For them she is, quite simply, the greatest.