Sunday Aryang knows a thing or two about care. It’s her career outside of netball, and a professional bent that runs through her family. The nurturing that she’s received from a mentor. It’s even why her parents packed up and left Ethiopia.
And careful is the precise way to describe Aryang’s netball career so far. Her meticulous attention to detail, the sporting environment that surrounds her, and – on court – a low penalty count gloriously juxtaposed with her ball-hunting ability.
The Aryang family emigrated when Sunday was just one, a decision made for the good of their children. With a violent civil war raging in Ethiopia, civilian casualties were mounting – famine and disease were also terrorising the people. Aryang reflected, “Mum and Dad were concerned about the conflict that was happening, and wanted us to have the opportunities that a safer life and a good education could bring.”
Leaving their relations and familiar surroundings behind was a brave move, with no guarantees of a better life at the end. Fortunately, Aryang’s parents found work – her father as a social worker, her mother as a carer at a nursing home – and settled into suburbia, raising their children and supporting others left behind in Ethiopia.
The family embraced all that their new life had to offer. They were comfortable blending Ethiopian cultural practices with the Aussie vernacular – Aryang said, “It didn’t take us long to learn English, although we also speak our own language Anyuak when we are at home by ourselves.
“Mum keeps some traditional items in the house, and cooks the food she grew up with – which she tries to keep up as much as possible – but my Dad loves cooking more Western food.”
The four siblings – Sunday has two sisters, Rose and Ruth, and a younger brother, John – all attended a local school with athletics and basketball their original sports of choice. “Athletics is something that we children were all good at, and so were my mum’s brothers. It was in the family, and we all thought we would stay within it. At that point I didn’t even know that netball existed.
“Every Friday afternoon at school we had sports practice. There were no athletics or basketball teams though, so when I was about ten I chose netball, and that’s where it started.”
Her school team played at the Swan Districts Netball Association, one of several leagues that WA Netball Life Member Sue Stacey was involved with. She quickly spotted the limitless potential of the Aryang sisters, but it was more than their ability that appealed to her.
Stacey said, “While Sunday had that athleticism and height to start off with, I remember seeing her at a small primary school carnival. She encouraged all her teammates around her, even though they weren’t quite as skilled. She was very inclusive, and I resonated with that.”
Stacey invited the girls to play for a local club, the Illusions. Her support was selfless and ongoing – and although she didn’t realise at the time, a key in developing one of the most prodigiously talented sporting families around.
The youngest child’s sport of choice remains basketball – John’s only 10 but is described as a tall and talented youth – while all three sisters are making a considerable impact in netball circles. Rose, the eldest, is a shooter, while Sunday and her younger sister Ruth hold down defensive positions in state and national development squads.
“Rose was the first of us to start playing, and we went through the WANL (Western Australian Netball League) pathways together, playing for Darling Range for about three years. Rose also did State 17s and 19s, but then she stopped, played basketball for a couple of years, and is now back with Coastal Sharks but balancing that with her work.
“The two of us had quite a competitive streak because she was a shooter, and we were always training against each other or playing matches against each other.”
It was a different story with Ruth, who also plays at goal defence. Sunday said, “We do get comparisons made, like, ‘She’s better than you!’ or, ‘Which one of you is better?’ but other than that we have a very good connection. Unbelievably we still haven’t had a chance to play alongside each other, but we hope that might come one day.”
The move of all three sisters into WANL pathways increased the family’s travel burden exponentially. It was only possible through Sue Stacey’s unwavering help – for the last eight years, she’s made the hour and a half round trip to Perth Netball Centre, every second day.
Stacey said, “We’ve had a lot of 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock starts in the morning. Three to four times per week with state training, WAIS training, appointments, all sorts of things.
“It was time consuming, because I also work and we have our own business, but as I said to the girls, it gave me that quiet time to chill out and relax. When it was dark, I’d dose off while I was waiting, and in the lighter months, I’d take a book and read that instead. I just did what I felt was needed.”
The traffic wasn’t one way however, with the Aryang sisters always prepared to give back to their mentor and Swan Districts’ Netball Association. Stacey said, “The girls have become really beautiful and responsible young adults.
“In their younger days they worked in the canteen for a long time. You could go away and leave them because they would get the job done. They were so appreciative of the support they received, and even now they will come back and do anything to help us out. They still keep in touch.”
Transitioning to state pathways was an eye-opening experience for Sunday, who said, “The speed and level of netball was a huge jump at first. The training load was a lot different, and the girls I started to play against were my height and strongly built. One of the most important things for me was getting into the gym, as I was always quite athletic, but I was a skinny little girl back then.”
Verging on 18, Aryang signed as a training partner with West Coast Fever. In those pre-Covid days of 2019, she felt like a regular part of the group, saying, “Fever try to align training partners with the squad, and keep us all connected. So while we were aware we might be needed if someone was injured, our main role was to train with purpose, and help them prepare for matches. I just tried to keep up as much as I could.”
Normal life went out the window in 2020, as the pandemic created a season with a difference. The combined Queensland hub and condensed fixtures saw teams extended from 10 to 12, with Aryang asked if she wanted to travel with the group. It was a decision that needed a huge leap of faith.
“At first I was really hesitant,” Aryang said. “We didn’t know how long we would be there, as originally the league’s plan was for Fever to return home in the second part of the season. That made it difficult to plan. I was working full-time at a nursing home, and I didn’t know if my job would let me take leave, or if I would even have a job to come home to.
“But I just knew that it was an opportunity that I had to take advantage of as best I could. I wasn’t expecting to play much netball, but as the weeks went on, and I spent more time on court, I was stoked.”
As a teenager, Sunday was one of the minnows of the competition, and a long way out of her comfort zone. She said, “It was very new to me, but the girls always made me as comfortable as possible, and the club also made sure we were in a positive environment and well taken care of. Even though there was an age gap, I was always included, and encouraged to speak out whenever I wanted.
“I’m not used to all the media attention and other things that come with being part of an elite group, but I’ve been well supported the whole way through.”
Aryang was impressive in her debut season, eventually becoming the preferred circle defender alongside goal keeper Courtney Bruce. Her stealthy ability to hunt the ball, commentator-marvelling intercepts, safe handling skills and positive outlook were noticed, and Fever elevated her from a training partner to one of the team.
Called in to meet with staff during the contracting period, Aryang said, “They told me how pleased they were with me. I smiled the whole time – so happy that they recognised the efforts of this shy young girl during the hub. It’s always been a goal of mine to play for the Fever, and when they offered me a contract I was teary to start with, before the smiles broke out again.”
An Australian U21 squad member, Aryang’s approach to netball has always been diligent. However, with her elevation to Fever’s playing list, she’s become increasingly purposeful. A huge summer in the gym has strengthened her colt-like limbs, while she now restricts herself to a part time career outside of netball, at a conveniently close location, to manage her rest and recovery.
Even the family’s traditional Ethiopian dishes are closely looked at. Aryang said, “I’m starting to step away from what mum cooks, and try and get into my own routine, so that I can fulfil my nutritional needs. That, plus the gym work, has seen me become much stronger, and I feel that I can hold my own on court so much better.
“I’m learning so much. Along with the coaches, Courtney (Bruce) and Stacey (Francis-Bayman) have been amazing. The stuff that they know, I think, ‘Wow!’ It comes from experience, and I hope my court smarts have improved as a result.”
While many elite pathways in Australian netball are unacceptably white, Aryang has had a different experience so far. From the junior multi-cultural association she started at, through to the wide-ranging diversity of the Western Australian ranks, she described her journey as ‘smooth sailing’ so far.
She said, “I’ve never had any challenges with racism. I’m always happy to share my culture with people, and they’ve been keen to learn about my background, and what’s it been like for me growing up here. The state-aged groups are very diverse, and I feel comfortable within them.”
Aryang takes a keen interest in multi-cultural programmes offered by football codes, and enjoys tapping into netball’s more modest version. She said, “The schools I visit have very diverse populations. Even if the students are from a different background or culture to me, I think seeing me encourages them to believe that they can make a success of their lives as well.”
Setting herself small tasks for each match or training session, along with wider goals – such as playing for Australia in the future – for now Aryang is content with the path she’s on. She said, “Diamonds is a light I’d like to achieve at the end of the tunnel. I’m hoping to stay with the Fever for as long as possible, continue to work hard, hopefully succeed and get up to the senior national level.”
Netball experts have noticed the talented youngster, with pundits including Liz Ellis suggesting that she’s well and truly on the Diamonds’ radar. Her strengths are many, including her agility, closing speed, and creating gains for her team. Aryang is by far the cleanest defender in the league – in avoiding the umpires’ whistle she stays in play, building pressure on the opposition.
While there’s still much for the rookie to learn, few would bet against Aryang achieving her dreams, or achieving her ambition of playing alongside her younger sister one day. And when she does make it to the highest pinnacle of netball, one of her earliest mentors, Sue Stacey, knows that she will continue as she’s always been – an impressive and care-full young woman.