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Netballer returns home for love of her daughter

UPDATE: Erena Mikaere is the bolter named in the Silver Ferns squad for the first time, as one of 12 players to tour to Liverpool next month for the Northern Quad Series against Australia, England and South Africa. She joins former Silver Ferns captain Casey Kopua, who ends a three-year retirement from international netball. 

Among her many tattoos, Erena Mikaere has three that form a triangle on her left arm, and tell a significant part of her life story.

Inside her wrist is ‘Bileigh’, the name of her nine-year-old daughter. She’s the reason Mikaere has returned home to New Zealand, after four years living and playing netball across the Tasman.

Just below her left thumb is a lightning bolt, to remember her 'family' at the Sunshine Coast Lightning - the club she played for over the last two seasons and won back-to-back Super Netball titles under the formidable coaching of Noeline Taurua.

And then, in an almost invisible white script, is the word ‘courage’. “I almost keep this one to myself,” she says.

It’s the courage, she explains, to go for the ball in a netball game.

The courage to live 2500km away from your daughter to pursue your sporting dream.

And the courage to believe that, at 30, you may have a real shot of finally making the Silver Ferns.

Mikaere could be the answer to the Silver Ferns’ scarcity of truly tall defenders. She stands at 1.93m and is incredibly athletic and swift for her height. Kelly Jury, the Ferns' goal keep, who is 1.92m tall, is still on the comeback from dislocating her shoulder in May.

Mikaere has been in Taurua's sights since she was a schoolgirl at Rotorua Lakes High. Together they’ve won three major league titles – including the 2012 ANZ Championship with the Magic. It's no surprise the new Silver Ferns coach had her on her radar.

It was Mikaere’s decision to return home to be closer to Bileigh (pronounced Billie), that led to her inclusion in the Silver Ferns squad at this week’s training camp in Auckland.

At the end of this latest triumphant season with the Sunshine Coast Lightning, Mikaere sat down with Taurua to discuss what her netball future would look like.

“Noeline asked me: ‘What is it that you want?’ I said number one, to be a mother; to have my daughter around me,” Mikaere says.

“Number two was court time. And number three was looking at whether playing for the Silver Ferns was a possibility before I finish my netball.

“One, two and three all meant coming back home.”

Mikaere had left New Zealand in 2015, when she was scouted by the West Coast Fever in Perth. She became the first New Zealand player to be imported into an Australian team in the ANZ Championship.

She’d jumped at the chance: “I knew if they wanted me as an import, they valued me.”

She moved to Western Australia with her partner and their daughter, and played there for two years. But then her situation changed: “I didn’t have my baby’s father around. So I had to look at what was best for her.”

Although she wanted to be with her mum, Bileigh also wanted to go to school in Rotorua. So, for the last two years, she’s lived there with Mikaere’s parents, Brenda and Kerry.

Not ready to leave netball in Australia, Mikaere found a home on the Sunshine Coast in 2017. “Noeline said she would be there to support me,” she says. Naturally, it wasn't easy being separated from her "baby". 

Erena Mikaere wants to help the young Mystics side to grow in next year's ANZ Premiership. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

Although she was a Silver Ferns triallist back in 2015, Mikaere has no regrets about living and playing in Australia for so long.

“When I sit down and look back at it at, no matter what happens next, I’ll be proud that I’ve been places, and that I’ve played and learned from people who I’ve idolised in the sport,” she says.

“I’ve played with the likes of Caitlin Bassett, Nat Medhurst, Ashleigh Brazill and Geva Mentor. When I see the slideshows on the screen when New Zealand play the Diamonds, South Africa or England – I see the faces of all my friends, and I think I’m blessed to have played alongside them and taken from their knowledge.”

If Mikaere is named this week in the Silver Ferns team to play those sides in the Northern Quad Series in Liverpool next month, she says it would be “unreal”.

“But I think it would mean more for my family than it would for me. And it would be special for all the people who’ve supported me,” she says.

“My mum and dad - who took me to all my games growing up; the people who helped me in Perth, and my Sunshine Coast family. They still support and believe in me. If I make it, it will be a nice way to thank them for helping get me to this point.”

Where some Silver Ferns have called this week's camp one of the toughest physically in a very long time, Mikaere knew what to expect under the Taurua regime. "She's pushing us to the brink, making us work mentally when we are out there fatigued," she says. 

She didn’t feel like an intimidated newbie. She’d played with Maria Folau, Casey Kopua and Laura Langman at the Magic, where she’d been a training partner from the age of 18, and spent a season in the Southern Steel with Te Paea Selby-Rickit and Shannon Francois.

“They are family to me, and I’ve kept in touch with all those girls,” she says.

“It’s only in the last two years that I’ve recognised how fortunate I was to have been part of the Magic when I was so young, to have been amongst those amazing netball brains.”

Now, she says, it’s her turn to pass the knowledge on to the next generation of young netballers, through the Northern Mystics side she’s signed up to play for next year.

“We’re a young team, I’m the oldest – and I’m still young!” she laughs. “I hope I can give back what all those girls once gave to me. I’d love to be able to give all my knowledge to the Mystics and see where it takes us this season. I want to help them grow; they’re the future of our game.”

Mikaere is now living in Auckland, flatting with the Mystics’ towering new shooter, Kristina Brice. The 1.96m Australian age-group star played for Sydney’s Giants in the Super Netball league.

It still means there’s distance between Mikaere and her daughter: “But she knows I’m not a flight away anymore, just a drive.”  She heads down to Rotorua after her last training session each week.

Mikaere has a degree in teaching, and would like to be a relieving teacher, once she’s settled into her new netball routine.

If she doesn’t make it into the Silver Ferns this time, she won’t be daunted. She knows it’s not her last chance – if she proves herself in the ANZ Premiership, she could be in the reckoning for the New Zealand side for the World Cup in Liverpool in July.

“I’m just blessed to have been considered. It just tells me to believe in myself a bit more,” she says. “I’m one of those people who thrives on being in the presence of like-minded players who bring a next-level mentality to netball. That’s why I’m loving it here.

“I know my parents are proud, and I hope Bileigh is proud of me too. She just started playing netball this year.”

And, if she is selected to wear the coveted black dress, you can bet Mikaere will be visiting her brother-in-law, a tattooist, for new ink in the style of a silver fern.

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