“Write your own story,” said Karla Pretorius.
“No journey repeats itself, so write your own journey, and create your own destiny.”
For an athlete who prefers to lead by example, Karla’s words pack an almighty punch. Her story is one of determination and sacrifice; sharing it is a gift to her countrywomen and men that the struggle is worth it. To make the most of every sliver of opportunity when you are chasing a dream, and that success can be achievable with time and hard work.
Widely regarded as one of the best netballers in the business, Karla was judged the Most Valuable Player at the 2019 Netball World Cup. But her success is not the matter of a heartbeat or an hour; rather the product of over two decades of hard graft.
She said, “Some people might take one year, others might take ten. It’s how long you keep on doing it, and much you want it. I just hope my story can inspire others.”
Karla’s work ethic was instilled early on by her parents, a couple who put their shoulder to the wheel to give their children opportunities in life. Karla explained, “It was from them that I learned that actions speak louder than words. They taught us that way, by how they lived, how they worked, how they managed disappointments, and their attitudes when they were successful.
“Sometimes in school I wouldn’t make a team that I wanted, but they always supported me, and told me to work harder. They never told me to stop, but motivated me to try again.
“They gave us so many opportunities, and I will always value and appreciate that.”
From the time she was young, netball was always a pathway that Karla wanted to follow, even though the route wasn’t easy. She said, “Netball isn’t full time in South Africa, and you don’t get paid for playing it. Most South African women have to stop playing at quite a young age, as you can’t have a family, provide for that family, and play netball. It’s almost impossible as there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
However, she’d seen the success that South African legends Irene Van Dyk and Leana de Bruin had overseas, and knew that it was possible too, no matter how remote the prospect seemed in her early years.
Growing up in Pretoria, Karla attended a ‘normal’ school, rather than one of the premier ones known for the sporting talent they produced. As a result she was often knocked back from some of the representative teams she trialled for, sometimes not even making it through the first round. While it was disappointing at the time, she said, “I had good people around me who encouraged me, so that helped me to believe that I had ability, and to trust in that ability. That motivated me.”
Karla said she loved netball so much, she wasn’t discouraged to the point of quitting. “There were other sports that I was good at, but I was passionate about netball, so I kept on going back and working hard.”
The main pathways into South Africa’s elite netball system are through tertiary based programmes, and after she finished Year 12, Karla moved to Bloemfontein to study. She’d been spotted at a tournament by Burta de Kock, Head Coach at the University of the Free State, and asked to try out for their team.
“That was unusual, because it’s mainly girls in the state or representative teams who are invited to be part of the netball programmes at the big universities. I am so lucky that Burta saw something in me that she liked.”
It was a turning point for the teenager. She was able to study and train in a high performance system, and also felt at home. “My dad grew up in Bloemfontein, and we used to visit, so I felt comfortable there. That was important to me.”
Karla chose to study dietetics – “I was always interested in health, but not something blood related!” she laughed. “So it was a matter of finding something that suited me in regards to that.”
As a community based career it also reinforced that – whether it be in sport or the workplace – she was most happy being part of a team. Karla said, “Being with people is what I really enjoy.”
Once Karla qualified and started fulltime work, staying involved with netball became so much harder. She followed a gruelling routine – up at 4.30 am for training, starting her job at 7am, and heading back to training straight afterwards.
She explained, “When you are in the university system, you are studying while also being part of a high performance environment.
“But once I started work, I wasn’t in that structure anymore and had to look after myself. Source my own physio, a strength and conditioning coach, massages, netball training. I had to do all that on my own and outside of my work hours.
“That was a huge challenge. Not knowing any better, I somehow managed and got through it. I was grateful that I could keep playing, but it was very tough.”
Karla was first selected for the Proteas, the South African netball team, in 2011. A camp was held to select the World Cup team, and out of a ‘massive’ number of triallists, she was announced in the squad of 15. “I was only 21, and didn’t realise it would happen so soon. I was a travelling player, so was one of the three extras, not the final team of twelve, but I learned a lot.
“That same year I went to Perth where we played Malawi. Although we lost by 20 goals, once I stepped onto court I realised that I didn’t just want to be another player, I wanted to be competitive and continue to improve myself.
“The more I had a taste of it, the more I wanted it.”
It was a mental challenge going down a career path in South Africa with such an uncertain future, and no guarantee of success. And while Karla had the work ethic and talent needed, she felt fortunate to come under the tutelage of some of the world’s best coaches. One of those was Norma Plummer, the former Australian Diamonds’ head coach, who joined the Proteas in 2015.
“Every coach that I’ve had took me to the next level. At the time Norma coached our team, she showed that she believed in us. She took us places. She’d give us valuable information as a team, and also as an individual.
“We’d play against the top countries, and the more we played against them, the more she’d tell us that we could compete. So through her actions and her words, she gave us all the tools we needed to improve, and played a massive part in my career. I think about 90% of the opportunities for our players to go abroad and play came about through Norma.”
Karla had known from an early age, that if she wanted to excel at netball, she’d have to move overseas at some point. She said, “It sounds like a cliché, but I was still in school when I first imagined that I would play abroad one day. I believed in my own ability, I had great people around me that instilled me with confidence, that backed and supported me.
“That was a big factor in being able to have that dream and push for it. I knew I wanted to finish my studies first, and then see what happened after that. Luckily, in 2015 we had the Netball World Cup, and that opened a lot of doors for me.”
The goal defence joined Team Bath’s excellent program for a year, under Anna Stembridge and Jess Thirlby, then moved to Australia in 2017. Karla can still remember the phone call she received from Noeline Taurua, head coach of a new franchise, Sunshine Coast Lightning. “I was in Australia at the time playing in the Quad series. We all knew that Australia was starting a new league, so there was hope within me that I might get an opportunity.
“Noeline tried to convince me to join them. But I didn’t need convincing – she had me from the very start of the call.”
Few Australians had seen Karla on court before, but netball fans soon thrilled to her ability. Her speed, footwork, and uncanny ability to hunt the ball soon saw her regarded as one of the best goal defences in the league. But commentators affectionately pointed out that her slight frame resembled that of a ‘toothpick’.
Karla said, “I’ve never seen that as a negative, but I did use it as motivation. I decided that it was the truth, I’m skinny, but I’m going to work hard and show you that I can be skinny but strong.
“So that’s the route that I took, to become stronger, not be pushed around, and to be able to stand up to my opponent.
“In the Lightning’s environment it was easy to achieve that goal. Our strength and conditioning coach, Mark, and Kellie our dietician, worked closely with me. The numbers show how much I’ve grown. So it was a matter of hard work, and surrounding myself with the right people.”
Whilst playing in Australia fulfilled a lifelong goal, it came at a price. Karla had to temporarily give up her dietetics career, family and friends, while her long term partner, now husband, stayed in South Africa for the first three years of her time overseas. Werner moved to Australia for the past two years, but he’s recently headed back home again to run his business.
Karla said, “A lot of people give up their dream for their loved ones. I was lucky that wasn’t the case.
“Werner always supported me, and knew that it was something that I wanted to do. So when I got the opportunity I had to go. Anything that is worth doing is going to require sacrifice. It’s important that young ones know that it’s not always going to be easy. You have to make those sacrifices to achieve your dream.”
“It’s not easy being apart from him, and I will never get used to it, but we’ve found a way to make it work. We go the extra mile to reach out, to stay in contact, but it’s hard at times having a relationship over the phone.”
Karla is a huge advocate for a South African professional league, and it’s something she will keep pushing for in the years to come. “England, Australia and New Zealand are currently the only places where you can play netball fulltime. So we South Africans do have to leave our families. We will keep fighting to have our own league at home, and not have to go abroad for years at a time.”
While finances are the main limiting factor, there is hope that one day netball will succeed there professionally, and a much bigger picture at stake. Sport is part of South Africa’s life blood, a common theme that unites the country. However, it’s not just about national pride, but now a way to educate, communicate and celebrate together. In particular, people from less privileged areas can come together through physical activity, but learn about health, nutrition and literacy along the way.
“Sport is a perfect vehicle to reach out to the communities that really need it,” said Karla. “It’s something our people believe in, and can be used to teach the important things in everyday life.
“Of course it’s great that donations of time and equipment occur to our poorer communities. But the only way to make sure that poverty is improved is to make the intervention sustainable. I’m a very firm believer in that. For example, it’s great to build a netball court in a community, but can we then write netball programmes for that court, that also tie into health and education. It’s more effective long term.”
Sport has tapped into the depths of the South African people, and the Proteas are representative of that. They are the netball world’s most diverse team – a collective of women from varying cultures, races, backgrounds and even languages, a shining example of how sport transcends difference. Karla shared, “In a team environment, the beauty is that you can only go forwards if you work together. We’ve achieved that.
“We might have contrasting views from each other, but we find a way to make that work. We listen to each other, consider each other’s thoughts and meet each other halfway. That’s something so important that you can take into the real world.”
One of the Proteas’ strongest commonalities lies in their shared faith. They ask for spiritual guidance before matches, while their post match prayer circle on court is spine-tingling to witness. Karla said, “Living your faith is something that we all believe in, but even more, it’s about what each of us stand for as ourselves, and as a team. No one has to do it, but we choose to kneel as a sign of respect for our faith, and for each other.”
Karla’s belief in her fellow people is a beacon that shines just as strongly as her passion for netball. She said, “I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing my story. And if I can give hope or inspiration to other Africans that they can achieve their dream, I’d be very happy.
“I’ve grown as a person through sport, and it’s taken me places, and for that I will be ever grateful. Hopefully seeing what I’ve achieved can help create the start of a dream for someone else.”