Gretel Tippett is a fascinating dichotomy. On court, she’s a powerful and athletic presence; a former world class junior basketballer, now an Australian Diamond. Off court she’s incredibly modest, far more comfortable praising her teammates than chatting about her own achievements. It’s an engaging trait, giving no hint that she’s risen to become one of netball’s most unique and consistently performed goal attacks.
It was as a little girl that her early competitiveness was first tapped. She’d chase her older brothers, Kurt and Joel, around the back yard, wanting to join in with their games. “They were five and six years older than me. I tried to keep up with them, and they weren’t too hard on me – to start with! There was a fair bit of rough and tumble,” Gretel laughed. “Mum and Dad gave us so many different opportunities, but we always chose sport. Our long limbs were good for that.”
The Tippett family moved as a group. As a five year old, Gretel used to watch her siblings play in an Under 12s basketball competition on the Gold Coast. She quickly figured out that if she played too, her family would be cheering from the sidelines. She said, “I loved trying to impress my brothers – that was my biggest motivator at the time. When I knew they were watching I’d try my heart out.”
While Kurt and Joel moved on to play Australian Rules Football, Gretel stuck with basketball. Her talent and work ethic were noticed early, and at 16 she was selected for her first Australian youth basketball team. Gretel played in three junior World Championships spread across the globe, an exciting experience for the youngster.
At the time she was living in Canberra, studying, competing internationally and in the NBL where she was named Rookie of the Year in 2011. It proved to be too much. Gretel explained, “I got burned out as a young athlete in a sport that demanded a lot of you. There was no real off-season, and I was also trying to keep up with my studies. So when I contracted glandular fever just out of Year 12, I headed home to recuperate.”
After having a complete rest for four months, Gretel still didn’t have the energy levels to go back to elite basketball. However, she was missing the social aspect of team sport, and was convinced by her best friend to try her hand at netball. She’d had a taste of it in Grade 2, enjoyed the game, and so went along with the idea. It was to prove a life-changing decision.
Gretel started playing club netball and was gradually getting her fitness levels back up when she received a phone call from out of the blue. “I got asked to play State League for the Gold Coast Jaguars. I remember asking, ‘Are you sure you want me? I couldn’t even make the district team!’ For some reason they did, and it was a nice surprise that they showed some interest.”
At 192cm Gretel had the height and athleticism to play at either end of the court, but her preference was for shooting. She progressed quickly up the ranks. By 2013 she was playing Under 21s for Queensland, represented Australia in the World Youth Cup and was a replacement player for the injured Chelsea Pitman at the Queensland Firebirds.
Coach and talent spotter Rob Wright saw her play at the nationals, and shortly after that Gretel received a phone call from the Swifts asking if she’d like to join the team. She said, “I’ve always been very attached to home and my family. When I got offered a place in New South Wales we contacted the Firebirds, because ultimately you do want to play in your home state. There wasn’t an opportunity available at the time, and so it was a no-brainer to join the Swifts.”
Gretel was still quite raw. She was struggling with her shooting percentages, gaining court time, and adapting to life in a new state. Missing home, she flew back to the Gold Coast every second weekend to spend much needed time with her family. She laughed, “That’s all mum’s fault – she looks after us so well.”
While Gretel was contracted to the Swifts for another year Rose Jencke rang her shortly after the 2014 TransTasman grand final, asking if she was interested in switching to the Firebirds. While the idea was tucked at the back of her mind, it wasn’t until her 21st that Gretel considered it seriously.
“I’d come home for my party. After such an amazing season with the Swifts I had planned to go back there. But after catching up with family, friends and some of the Firebirds girls who came to my party, I knew I didn’t want to go back.”
Swifts released the rising star, and Gretel thrived in the supportive atmosphere at the Firebirds. She was given strong support from her coach, Rosalie Jencke, and team leaders such as Laura Geitz and Clare McMeniman. Gretel said, “Laura and Clare really drove the culture within the team. It was very family oriented, and we spent a lot of time together off court as well.”
Gretel also relished the opportunity to be a starting seven player in partnership with Jamaican goal shooter Romelda Aiken. Originally playing a supporting role, Gretel became more dominant as time went on. She explained, “It’s a challenge to form a new shooting combination, but it’s also a challenge to keep reinventing that connection. You have to be creative, adding new skills and adjusting to each other.”
“For example, in this last year we’ve changed our movement a little bit. We know that our strength is to go directly to Romelda, but she’s giving me an opportunity by leading out and leaving the circle free for me. So that’s helped me to get my shooting load up this year.”
In 2015, her first year at the Firebirds, Gretel was an integral part of their premiership winning team and earned a call-up to the Diamonds. She still remembers shedding a few tears with her mum after being selected, her pride in singing the national anthem, and having to cancel a trip to Hawaii.
Gretel’s family had booked a holiday together, and on hearing the news they rapidly changed their plans and headed to New Zealand. Gretel made her debut as perhaps the world’s tallest wing attack, under the proud eyes of her siblings and parents.
“It was a very special time for me,” Gretel said. “The Diamonds are one of the best high performance teams in the world, and an awesome environment to be part of. You continuously push yourself to be better, so it brings out the very best version of yourself.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. Gretel copped criticism from traditionalists then – as now – for her slightly unorthodox ways on the netball court. Moves like her layup to the post and high release jump pass were reminiscent of her basketball grounding. It stung initially, as Gretel explained.
“Growing up I wanted to please people and make them happy. So hearing those things made me feel down and that I was bringing controversy to the sport. In the end I had to change my mindset, thinking I was playing netball because I loved it, that I was trying my best, and helping out whichever team I was in to the best of my ability.”
Luckily wiser heads knew just what a weapon Gretel could be. She was firmly supported by her domestic and national coaches, along with commentators that marvelled at her skills. One of Australia’s finest goal attacks, Sharelle McMahon, believes that it’s unfair to keep referring to Gretel as a basketballer that happens to play netball.
“That was a long time ago and the argument is a bit old. Let’s chat about what she brings to the game, and how we assess her as an elite netballer.”
“She’s incredibly athletic and does a lot of work outside the circle. This year I’ve noticed that she has the ability to put herself into the game in the circle. She’s unusual in her movement, and it’s difficult for defenders to follow that.”
“Her ability to release the ball into the goal shooter is amazing. I’ve seen defenders all year trying to stop that. Trying to put hands over, trying to jump with her, but if she’s getting herself into a good position it’s almost impossible to stop that pass, she does it so well.”
“There’s a lot of elements to her game that I love. She’s grown a lot but still has some work to do in picking the times to do the spectacular stuff, and when she needs to knuckle down and put the shot away. Getting the balance between the two is important. But you’d never want to take that athleticism out of her game.”
Gretel is still honing her court craft. She said, “I know I’ve got work to do. The biggest area for me has been around my decision making. Learning how to switch up the combination of patient netball with using my flair, and when to use it. It was something I had to add to my game if I wanted to move forwards in netball.”
What some fans don’t realise is that her earlier basketball training has added to Gretel’s game rather than detracted from it. It’s given her a slightly varied outlook, and an element of unpredictability that opponents struggle with. Her high release jump pass, for example, is completely unstoppable.
Gretel said, “Kelsey Browne and Susan Pettitt are two others who’ve played a lot of basketball. We do find those different skills help. For example, you’re more aware of screens and how to use them. But there are also skills that you need to change and refine, particularly around the stepping rules.”
Ultimately, national coach Lisa Alexander overlooked Gretel for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, deciding that she wasn’t quite ready for a pinnacle tournament. It was a tough blow for someone who’d been part of the national squad for three years, and acted as further motivation to work on her game.
She explained, “I trusted Lisa, and knew that I had to wait and be patient. I had full faith in the team that she chose, and I learned a lot from watching them train, hanging in there, and constantly practising to be better. That’s my motivation: to keep improving for the next selection, and the one after that, and so on.”
Gretel put in an enormous off season that saw gains across most statistical measures. For example, in 2017 she averaged 15.6 goals per game at 77% accuracy. In 2018, that tally rose to an average of 20 goals per game at 90.4% accuracy. While they are two of the most important measures for a goal attack, improvements were across the board.
But perhaps the biggest change was in Gretel’s mindset. She said, “I think I took the pressure off my performance and the outcome of each game, and just played for the love and enjoyment of it. My biggest focus was to help the team out as much as possible, to be around awesome athletes and to bring out the best in each other.”
Reselected into the Diamonds for the 2018 Constellation Cup and Southern Quad series, Gretel has been a revelation. While she’s shared the goal attack bib with Steph Wood, and her combination with goal shooters Caitlin Bassett and Caitlin Thwaites is a work in progress, Gretel has taken the court in each game to date. She’s scored 67 goals at an incredible 98.5% rate of accuracy that is unmatched by any other shooter. In addition to her work in attack, she’s been a powerful defensive presence in a fairly short Australian midcourt.
Given her composure during a match, it might surprise many to learn that Gretel struggles with nerves beforehand. She advises younger players experiencing similar feelings not to isolate themselves. “Keep talking to your teammates. When I start I like to give the goal shooter and wing attack a high five before the whistle goes.
“If I’m on the bench, I’m constantly talking about what is happening, communicating with the girls sitting alongside me. Staying connected to the rest of the team really helps.”
Gretel is studying a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics, and is passionate about the role of natural health in sport. She said, “You put into your body what you want to get out of it, and I believe good nutrition helps you to recover well, reduces inflammation and even helps injuries heal.”
“As athletes, we put so much stress on our bodies when we’re training hard and playing, and needing to get the most out of our bodies. There’s often a short turnaround, and that’s when it’s particularly important. When you are doing so much exercise you have to consume a lot, so it needs to be beneficial.”
The Diamonds spend a lot of time on the road, and when they pull into a new town, one of their early missions is work through their dietary needs. Team nutritionist Kerry Leech is an expert at providing healthy meals, while at a more scientific level there is hydration testing done every morning, and before and after games.
However, athletes take the ultimate responsibility for what goes into their bodies, and also have to be careful with processed food. Banned substances can accidentally contaminate products during factory processing, and it’s a risk the players try to minimise. That’s one of the reasons raw food makes up a fair proportion of their diet. Gretel laughed, “When we arrive in a new place we sus out the whole food cafes and shops. Lizzie (Watson) is my current room mate on tour, and we will load up on goodness bowls, green smoothies, eggs and anything healthy we can find at the local shops.”
She advocates the use of natural anti-inflammatory foods such as turmeric lattes and bone broths, while believing that sugar still has a role to play in a healthy diet. She said, “Athletes do need the energy that glucose provides. Gabi (Simpson) has her jelly beans on the bench, and I’ve been known to steal a few. But most of all, a balanced diet is important.”
While they were playing at the Firebirds together, Gretel established “Rav Fit and Tip’s Health” along with one of her best friends, Kim Ravaillion. It’s a great example of passion meeting purpose, although the business has been on hold since Ravaillion moved to Collingwood. It’s a road that Gretel hopes to follow again in the future.
She often has to hit the books on tour and feels lucky to add practical advice from Kerry Leech to her theoretical studies. Gretel said, “Kerry has helped me so much. It’s hard to finish a degree when you travel so much, so she’s been a great sounding board when I’ve needed to talk things through, and gives me some advice in terms of which subjects I should be studying.”
At just 25, Gretel appears to have a long career ahead of her, both as a netballer and a nutritionist. There are few defenders that can match her for height or athleticism, and her shooting volume and accuracy is formidable. She sets high standards for herself, and has improved season after season.
While she’s one of netball’s genuinely nice people, her innate shyness has yet to see Gretel clothe herself in the invincible aura that the most elite of athletes wear; the hardnosed attitude that elevates them into the immortals. There’s a sense that once Gretel matches her ability with greater self-confidence, that an unstoppable force will be unleashed on the world of netball.