NS EXCLUSIVE: Pamela Cookey – Duality

NS EXCLUSIVE: Pamela Cookey – Duality

The essence of Pamela Cookey’s success lies in creating a complementary, rather than compartmentalised, life. She’s built a professional career in parallel with her exceptional sporting achievements, all while coping with the physical and emotional toll of three serious injuries and a personal tragedy. Some people would have crumbled under the strain of such loss, but Pam’s inner strength was developed by combining her family, faith and a punishing schedule of netball, study and work.

She said, “I believe that the dual aspects of life are really important and should never be underrated – particularly making opportunities outside of sport to learn and grow. My generation has been fortunate that we’ve been able to do that. As netball moves towards a fully professional basis, we need to ensure our athletes are still rounded, and we’ve seen other sports having problems with that.”

Pam’s belief in duality was fostered by her Nigerian-born parents from an early age. Having emigrated to England before she was born, they placed a high value on becoming self-sufficient through effort and education. Pam explained, “I grew up being taught that nothing will be given to you, you have to work for everything, and if you do put in the work, the rewards will follow. Striving throughout life’s journey is important.

“As a result I always had to balance my sport and my education. I couldn’t spend time playing sport unless I was working hard in the classroom – that was something my parents drilled into me from the start.”

 

Pam Cookey playing netball for English Roses vs Mo'onia Gerrard of Australia

Pam Cookey’s athleticism on full display. Image supplied by Pam Cookey

 

The Cookey family lived a multi-cultural lifestyle – Pam appreciated the England she’d been born into, as well as the heritage she’d come from. “Being English was really important to us, but many aspects such as our Nigerian food, clothes, and religion were also part of our life. I was taught to be comfortable with who I was and take the best of both cultures.”

Christianity was a guiding light for the family. Pam said, “It was how I grew up, and my faith is always in the back of my mind. That things happen for a reason, and there is a bigger plan that we might not be aware of. That always gave me comfort in the hard times, because I believed I would come out of them as a better person.” In some of the dark days to follow, Pam’s faith ‘held her steady’ when she most needed support.

The talented youngster was a relative late-comer to netball, only taking it up at the end of her primary school years. Before then, like many elite athletes, she played a range of sports that included ballet, athletics, tennis, hockey and martial arts. Pam said, “It’s something I tell younger kids now – to play as much as they can for as long as they can before specialising. It not only adds variety to sport and to life, but the skills are transferable.”

From the time she first stepped onto a netball court, Pam was destined to be a star. Just a couple of years later, at the age of 14, she was talent-spotted by coaching guru Lyn Gunson. “Lyn had just set up Team Bath, and said it would be really good for me to come along for the experience, and for match practice.

It was a 210 mile round trip – particularly hazardous during the dark and icy winter months – and Pam’s eventual transfer to Millfield School was partly to be closer to training. Her leadership qualities were already apparent, and she joked about her election as head girl, “I think it’s because I like to be in control!

“It helped me to balance everything together, work with different people – which is something I enjoy – and try to bring out the best in others to help us all achieve the same goal.”

While training at Team Bath, Pam came under the aegis of Gunson and Wai Taumaunu, both of whom shaped the young athlete. Describing them as ‘phenomenal women who imparted so much knowledge, skill and technique’, Pam said they were instrumental to her longevity in netball. “They also saw us as women, not just as athletes or scholars, and that contributed and complemented our development into all-round individuals. We were much happier and more well-adjusted as a result, and I think that kept us in sport for longer.”

When Pam was 14, she’d completed an essay titled ‘Mon Rêve’ (My Dream)  – in French! – about her goal of competing as an international athlete or netballer by the age of 21. While she disliked French so much that writing about her passion was the only way she could complete it, it was a harbinger of what was to come.

Just a few short years later, as a 17 year old, the secondary school student was selected to represent England at the Commonwealth Games, three years before her own deadline. Pam said of the juggling act that followed, “I was still at school, with friends there, and family, and netball included school, club, County and England stuff. So my hardest work was actually making sure I was in the right place at the right time, and that I had everything I needed for each of those commitments.

“Being in an environment with older athletes was tough at times, although I knew Geva (Mentor) and she was my age. However I felt that I was there for a reason, and embraced the opportunity.

“Then I did my ACL just before the Commonwealth Games, which was cruel.”

 

While Pam was selected for the English Roses at the age of 17, she made her debut two years later due to injury and her studies. Image supplied by Pamela Cookey, courtesy of England Netball.

 

It was the first of three, long term, season ending injuries for Pam, which made her feat of achieving seven domestic titles and 114 test caps even more remarkable.

In the week leading up to the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Pam had received her uniforms, and was taking part in her final preparation. “I went to run the baseline to get a pass to the post, and I felt my knee hyperextend. I didn’t know what was wrong, only that I couldn’t put any weight on. So I had scans, and met with Wai.

“She was the one who sat and told me that I needed surgery and wouldn’t be able to compete. I remember balling my eyes out. Wai had always been that strong intimidating presence – we were all a little bit scared of her but only because she was direct and to the point, which is what we needed.

“But in that moment she was so lovely. She said, ‘You’ll come back from this, it isn’t the end, but just a moment in time. It’s cruel, but we know what you can do and what we know you will go on to achieve.’ It was an amazing moment at a really bad time.”

Pam had surgery shortly afterwards, then went to watch the latter part of the competition. She said, “It was good to be there to support the team, although it was killing me inside. But I took comfort from knowing that I was on the road to recovery, and that while it would take a long time, I was on the track.”

The following year, having made a good recovery, Pam was reselected in the English team, only to withdraw because of her studies. It was a difficult but incredibly mature response from an 18 year old who’d worked hard to get back to full fitness, and who thirsted to represent her country. She said, “Having gone through an injury it made the decision easier, because I realised that netball wasn’t guaranteed, and it wasn’t a professional sport at the time. So if I was to get injured again, what could I fall back on?

“I’d done all the rehab, sat on the sidelines, felt really out of it, and wanted to be part of the team again. However, at that time, I didn’t see how I could study and go on tour. And with lots of communication with my coaches and support staff, I knew I wasn’t pulling out completely, but just for this period in time to focus on my studies.”

Selected again the following year, Pam made her debut against Australia. The dream quickly turned into a nightmare, however, as two minutes after taking the court, she ruptured the ACL in her other knee. “I went up to get a ball, landed awkwardly, and felt something go. I remember looking around and seeing Liz Ellis standing alongside me, and thinking, ‘What’s she done to me!’ But when I looked back at the video, no one was near me.

“At that moment in time, when I knew that I’d done it again, all those thoughts and emotions, the heartache and work I’d done came flooding back to me. I remember thinking, ‘How can I do it all again?’”

If the first injury was tough, the second was far worse. “At the time, I did go through thoughts of, ‘Am I supposed to be doing this? Is something wrong with me? What is going on?’

“There were times when I really pitied myself, and sat on the couch thinking, ‘I can’t do anything. My leg is broken, my body is broken, what do I do now?’

Pam knew what she’d gone through to return to netball, but was also comforted by knowing that she could do it again. “I had the mentality of ‘I’ve not done everything I’m meant to do yet!’ I’d put so much effort in getting to that point, and so many people had helped and supported me along the way, so I didn’t want to let them down.”

Pam decided her best way forwards was not to dwell on her injury, but break her recovery down into a series of small steps on a timeline, in reverse order. “I made goals for all my injuries. In order to play a full game, I need to play half a game. In order to play half a game I need to run, to be able to run I need to do my weights, to do my weights, I need to do my proprioceptive exercises.

“I started by getting off my couch, and learning to walk using crutches, then using a static bike. So I had lots of tangible goals that I could achieve at different points. Each of them stretched me, but made me feel like I was going at the right pace.”

The other key point in Pam’s recovery was realising that for too long she’d coasted on her natural ability. Sport, and selection in teams, had always come easily to her. “Talking to my strength and conditioning coach, I realised that my preparation for netball needed to improve. I hated running, and I hated swimming. I enjoyed interval training and games, but I needed to do more on my conditioning and getting my base right.

“Everything else would come from there, and my skills would flourish more if I had that good base. So the second injury was a real kick up me to say, ‘You don’t like it, but you have to do it to achieve what you want.”

 

Team captain Pam Cookey leading the English Roses out on to court. Image supplied by Pam Cookey

 

Returning from injury fitter and stronger, Pam had a highly successful ten years. A multitude of domestic titles and test caps followed, bronze medals at multiple Commonwealth Games and Netball World Cups, a short stint in New Zealand with the Mystics, and selection as the English captain. However, she rates her off court experiences as equally valuable – the lifelong friends that she made, the feeling of achieving team goals, and balancing netball with her professional career after successfully completing her university degree.

If her previous two injuries had tested her, 2014 would prove to be the most difficult time in Pam’s life. A third serious injury kept her out of another Commonwealth Games, and it was shortly followed by the unexpected loss of her father.

Pam said, “I didn’t have a direction. I didn’t know what to do or how to fix things. That’s what I really struggled with, and I couldn’t call my dad or go to see him. It was an awful period, and I couldn’t see out of the fog and the grief at times.”

Leading into the Games, England were on a roll. They’d beaten Australia 3-0 in a test series the year before, and were aiming high. Pam had been named as team captain. “You never step on court thinking you are going to lose, but previously in the backs of our mind we’d know that we’d never beaten Australia or New Zealand in a big tournament.

“But this time we didn’t feel like that. We had the mentality, the belief, the bubble around us.”

About three months before the Games, Pam was playing for Team Bath in a final’s match. She said, “It had been a difficult year and we hadn’t performed as well as we’d hoped. I had a slight niggle in my calf which I was managing, and thought I’d be fine. In the second quarter, however, I moved one way, heard it pop, and fell to the floor.” Scans revealed that she’d ruptured her Achilles tendon, with surgery and almost a year of recovery ahead of her.

As a mature athlete, Pam knew there would be challenges ahead. Ten years had passed since her previous injuries, and her body might be slower to heal. Could she get back to her best, or would she be overtaken by a new generation of athletes? “There was fear in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to come back from this one. But it was a different injury, so I looked on it as another challenge. I still hadn’t achieved everything I wanted in netball, because I did believe that gold medal was within our sights. And I wanted another shot with Team Bath as well.”

Pam went back to her process of goal setting, and shortly after surgery was back at training. While she couldn’t walk, she could catch and pass, work on her core strength and tick off some specific, short term goals. Her managerial work at the National Composites Centre was also a huge help. “I could focus on that and take my mind off netball, especially if I’d had a bad session or wasn’t where I wanted to be, I couldn’t dwell on it because I had to go to work.

“And the team was great – I never felt like I was being left out, and if I was having a down day, someone would come and chat, or we’d watch a movie. I never felt alone.”

Settling back into another extended period of rehab was difficult enough, but shortly afterwards Pam’s father passed away unexpectedly. She said, “It was an awful time. So much of me is because of him – the drive to be the best that I could be, pushing myself, that things don’t just fall into your lap.

“On top of my Achilles, it knocked me for six. I’m not good at sitting and sobbing, and I’d get angry with myself because I felt I should be doing something more positive. But my mind and body did need me to stop and take stock of everything that had happened.”

Focusing on the tangibles that she could control helped Pam through a very dark period – including helping organise her father’s funeral, and giving emotional support to her mother and brother. She was also asked by the BBC to commentate at the Commonwealth Games. “From grief came opportunity, and that’s what dad would have wanted, not for me to fall away and dwell on what we were going through.

“I would so rather have been on court with the girls – they lost by one goal to New Zealand, and one to Australia, and I like to think I could have made up that one. So that was devastating, but it set me up to get that experience on the media side.”

After overcoming her injury, Pam was rewarded with a place in the English team that competed at the 2015 Netball World Cup. While England finished with bronze, it was fitting that one of England’s most enduring and best loved stars finished her international career on netball’s biggest stage.

Known for her netball smarts, athleticism and elusive nature on court, Pam was also highly respected for her leadership, which she described as the ‘ultimate honour’. “It was one of my four main personal achievements – getting my 100th cap, being captain of England, election to the England Netball Hall of Fame, and getting my degree. It meant that others had belief in me, and the work that I’d put in over the years.”

 

In action for Surrey Storm. Image supplied by Pam Cookey

 

Following the World Cup, Pam wound down her playing career with two premierships at Surrey Storm, and then juggled a number of commitments, including a stint as Director of Netball at Severn Stars, commentary with Sky Sports and the BBC, and a full-time managerial role at an engineering firm. She also became an ambassador for the Mintridge Foundation, promoting the importance of education and sport to the next generation of students.

Pam’s role with Sky Sports involves a mix of match analysis and commentary. She said, “It gives me the biggest buzz. We rock up on game day and have so much to chat about that the producers will remind us to concentrate. I’d missed being part of a team and a family when I stopped playing, and to be part of a group again that has the same drive and passion is amazing. We want to see netball grow and succeed, and to develop it further for the ones coming behind us.”

Her first roles involved analysis, and Pam has recently moved into a lead commentary role. Her own harshest critic, she laughed, “I was rubbish when I started. I knew I’d done really badly after the first one, but you have to keep giving it a go, developing yourself, and hopefully people will be patient with you, and hope that you’re doing it with the right intentions.

“I’m a perfectionist, so I’ve had some training sessions with different people, and each time I get better. So any time I can get my hands into netball I will say yes, and give it a whirl.”

 

Pam Cookey in Comms for BBC

Pam working in commentary during a season made challenging by Covid19. Image supplied by Pam Cookey

 

While she enjoys studio analysis, giving opinions and discussing the back stories, Pam believes that the role of lead commentator is more than just talking viewers through a game. “You shape the flow of the commentary, and guide people on a journey. We are trying to make it more accessible and informative to different audiences, because it’s not just your die-hard netballers who are watching. It might be a dad, who will sit down next to his daughter and watch a match, and you want them to get hooked as well. So we need to play to all the potential audiences that we might have, and that is a challenge.”

On a personal level Pam is very close to her family – her softly-spoken mother has been particularly supportive over the years – and there’s a wedding to plan: a Covid impacted ceremony that will take place in the British summer. Pam’s going into marriage a much stronger and wiser person than the teenager who earned her first call up to the national team at 17, or the athlete that experienced three serious injuries and the loss of her father.

“I have the strong belief that there will be a better tomorrow, and whatever I’m going through today, is moving towards that better tomorrow. Life is like a rollercoaster and that will never stop, but it’s how you come out of the downs, and quickly you manage it. My faith and my family hold me steady and keep me centred.”

 

Pam loves the challenge of working in commentary. Image supplied by Pam Cookey

 

About the Author:

Physiotherapist, writer and netball enthusiast. Feature articles, editorials and co-author of "Shine: the making of the Australian Netball Diamonds". Everyone has a story to tell, and I'm privileged to put some of them on paper. Thank you to the phenomenal athletes, coaches and people in the netball world who open a door to their lives, and let me tiptoe in.