Michaela Sokolich-Beatson: a leader in the making
She may not yet be a household name, but young Silver Ferns defender Michaela Sokolich-Beatson is determined to build her own netball legacy.
When the Silver Ferns were battling out the final of the Netball World Cup, their team-mate Michaela Sokolich-Beatson was in the air somewhere over Europe - and growing more and more exasperated.
Sokolich-Beatson had been on the verge of playing at that World Cup in Liverpool back in July. She’d got as close as 250 miles – at the Ferns’ final training camp in Colchester - before the injured Katrina Rore was declared fit to play. And Sokolich-Beatson, called in as her replacement-in-waiting, was sent back home to Auckland.
But that wasn’t her beef. Far from it.
“People keep saying ‘You must have been so devastated to go home’. They think I’m weird because it didn’t upset me,” says the bright young defender, who turned 23 this week.
“But it didn’t, because I was never selected in the World Cup team to begin with.”
She had played – and starred - in the Cadbury Series against the NZ Men and Fiji, and then travelled to England with the team, all while the veteran Rore fought to overcome a calf strain.
“And I got to have Noelene [Taurua] coach me for another two weeks. All of that to me was gold,” she says.
No, Sokolich-Beatson’s vexation on that flight came from the fact she couldn’t see the Silver Ferns playing the Australian Diamonds in their gold medal match.
That very day, she was flying to Croatia – her maternal grandparents’ homeland – on a holiday she’d booked months earlier. “I was so annoyed with myself,” she says.
“I had wifi on the plane, which was good, but I couldn’t see the game because the streaming wasn’t strong enough. But I could get live updates, so I was reading the game.
“I read the first quarter, then we flew over a country that wouldn’t allow us wifi, so I started stressing.”
Then, with a minute and a half of the final to go, the connection returned. “I was refreshing the page, when my brother sent me a message saying ‘OMG they won!’” Sokolich-Beatson says.
“I had a tear in my eye, and I was hitting my boyfriend, who was asleep next to me, saying ‘We won - oh my god, we won!’”
It was a week before she finally got to watch her team-mates claim the world title.
Now Sokolich-Beatson has earned her place back in the Silver Ferns, for a re-match with the Diamonds in the annual Constellation Cup series.
And it’s highly likely she’s there to stay.
Sokolich-Beatson is the only real change to the team who won gold in Liverpool, replacing the retired Casey Kopua. (Shooter Maia Wilson will join the team in Australia for two tests).
The Mystics defender is not new to the international scene, making her debut for the Silver Ferns last year against the Malawi Queens, in the build-up to the ill-fated Commonwealth Games campaign. She’s accumulated 11 test caps so far.
She’s versatile - able to play in all three defensive positions - sharp-sighted and quick. But more importantly, she’s one of those rare players who radiates leadership. She’s a player touted to one day captain the Silver Ferns.
While some would balk at the responsibility, Sokolich-Beatson is ready to embrace it. Off-court, she wants to focus on how to be a better leader: “To be myself, but not put too much pressure on myself to save the world,” she says.
She’s already proven herself in the captaincy role – leading the New Zealand U21 side to victory at the 2017 World Youth Cup in Gaborone.
This year, the graduate of Whangaparaoa College stepped up to captain the Mystics in the ANZ Premiership, when Phoenix Karaka was sidelined with concussion. But Sokolich-Beatson is not convinced she did the best job.
“I’m still young and I feel I have so much to learn in that space. I can often get caught up almost trying to save the world,” she says.
“When Phoenix was injured, I felt like I tried to do everything. I took everyone’s issues on my shoulders and tried to be the voice for them. I spent too much time worrying about all of that, and I forgot to worry about my own stuff.”
Back with the Mystics next season, Sokolich-Beatson will work with mental skills experts in both her franchise and the Silver Ferns to help develop her leadership.
And she’ll continue to watch other leaders at work. “Good captains I’ve observed are just themselves,” she says.
“I kind of lead anyway. In the Mystics - where I’m not old, and I’m not new - I feel like some of the younger ones look to me, and I can help them. Yes, Phoenix is our captain, but everyone else needs to be a leader in their own way.”
Sokolich-Beatson can only describe the last 18 months of her netball career as “massive”. She found her feet, she says, in both the Silver Ferns and in the ANZ Premiership, and she learned the importance of taking a break.
“When you’re given a week, actually take the week… before I would just keep training, thinking my body could stay at these peaks, when the reality is you can’t,” she says.
“I feel like I’ve learned it quite young, though, so I hope I remember.”
She can't forget the moment when her career jerked to a stop midway through 2017, and she had to nurse a stress fracture in her back. It was a deep-seated injury, aggravated by the biomechanics of her jumping and landing.
Just two weeks before she was to leave for the World Youth Cup, scans revealed the fracture in her L5 vertebra.
“That’s why I sympathise with Katrina a lot. I was in her position once. I was umming and ahhing about whether to go,” she says.
When she returned home a world champion in July of 2017, Sokolich-Beatson spent the rest of the year resting. It meant missing the first Silver Ferns trials she was invited to.
“If I’d done those trials, I probably still would have back issues, because I wouldn’t have given it time to heal,” she says. “I was pretty much not allowed to do anything. It was really boring.”
It was five months before she could run again, cycle or lift weights. Now she constantly works on her core strength, so her back doesn’t take all the load.
“I always say we are in the best possible place to get hurt – we’ve got so many good people to look after us,” she says.
Now fighting fit, Sokolich-Beatson is excited by the prospect of getting back on a netball court – “I haven’t been on one since I left Colchester” – for the four-test series against Australia.
The University of Auckland student, who’s two years off becoming a physical education teacher, values the time she spent with the Silver Ferns in England before the World Cup. And she will always be happy that Rore recovered in time to play.
“It was her time. It was her position. She’d done all the hard work to be there,” she says of Rore, her room-mate at her very first Silver Ferns camp, and now a good friend.
Sokolich-Beatson is also adamant that she isn’t “replacing” Kopua in the Ferns.
“I keep telling people I will never be able to replace Casey,” she says. “I don’t want to try to be her, because you’ll never be able to replace someone like that. I want to make my own legacy.
“I’m replacing the bib not the person.”
As to which black bib she wears, she isn’t too concerned. She’s always favoured goal defence, but she has a new-found love of wing defence.
“I think it’s where I might end up internationally. I’ve had to learn different body angles and how to attack different balls. But I’m really starting to have fun there.”
Her goals for 2019 are simple: to learn more about leadership, to consistently turn over ball in every game of the ANZ Premiership, and to be in a position where the Silver Ferns selectors “can’t not pick me ... I want them to say ‘We just couldn’t leave her out’.”
“I still have so much to learn. But how lucky am I, that if everything is smooth sailing, I could still have another eight or 10 years at this level? It’s unreal. It’s very special.”
* The Constellation Cup begins in Christchurch on October 13, then goes to Auckland (October 16), Sydney (20th) and Perth (27th). The Silver Ferns haven't won the annual series since 2012.