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Charlotte spins her web around Silver Ferns’ hearts

The woman managing the Silver Ferns reveals the behind-the-scenes formula for their World Cup success - and the heartbreaking challenge she's returned home to.  

Charlotte Molloy has asked to take her mother's World Cup gold medal to school this week.

The six-year-old is quite confident she would be able to look after the medal all day on her own. But her mum, Esther Molloy - the long-serving manager of the Silver Ferns - is all about eliminating risk.

She knows it’s probably best that she goes along, too.  

Molloy has seen the Silver Ferns through the good times and the bad; from the devastating low of last year’s Commonwealth Games, to now being on top of the netball world. But the challenges and ordeals she’s dealt with over the past few years have stretched far beyond the netball court.

And she knows the biggest test is yet to come.

The eldest of Molloy's two daughters, Charlotte is sparky, funny and incredibly bright. And she's confined to a wheelchair.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Charlotte has suffered from juvenile dermatomyositis - a rare and complex autoimmune disease, where the body attacks the muscles and skin.

Charlotte is preparing to undergo a stem cell transplant. And her mum will be right by her side for the six to eight weeks she's likely to spend in isolation at Starship Hospital.

"It's time to park up netball for a little while, and be 100 percent Mum," Molloy says.

She knows her Silver Ferns family won’t be far away.

While she was in Liverpool taking care of every facet of the Silver Ferns’ daily needs, Molloy would get FaceTime calls from Charlotte, back home on Auckland’s North Shore, who'd ask to speak to her favourite Ferns - like Casey Kopua, Katrina Grant or Shannon Saunders.

“She could spend hours chatting away to the girls about life,” Molloy laughs.

For all the support that Molloy has given to the Ferns over the past 11 years, she “gets it back in bucket-loads”.

“It’s been so good for me to have the Silver Ferns. They’re so caring, and they’ve been such amazing support for me through some really scary times,” she says.  

“They are always texting to see how Charlotte is, and players like Casey and Katrina are constantly ringing and talking to her, wanting to visit her. It’s like I’ve got another family, who’ve always got my back.”

Charlotte’s web

You could say that some of the Silver Ferns’ jaw-dropping success in Liverpool this month was planned from Level Two of Starship Hospital.

Each month, the Molloys spend at least four days at the hospital’s Day Stay Unit, where Charlotte receives treatment.

“Starship is a phenomenal environment,” Esther Molloy says. “And I’m fortunate to have a job that’s mobile, so I can work away on my laptop while we’re there.”

She admits juggling being a manager and a mum has been challenging since Charlotte first became ill at the end of 2016, but family has always been her No.1 priority.

Molloy didn’t travel with the Silver Ferns to Liverpool in January for the Northern Quad Series because Charlotte was so unwell. Molloy’s friend, Dee Leggat (daughter of the legendary Silver Ferns manager Monica Leggat), took her place.

“Dee was wonderful - she slotted into the manager’s role and did it like I would. It’s awesome to be able to step out at times to be with my family,” Molloy says.

“Charlotte’s illness is so unpredictable – we don’t know where it’s heading. Her needs have got greater, and her mobility is so poor now.

"She’s had everything taken away from her – it absolutely breaks your heart.”

World Cup winner Esther Molloy back in Auckland with her six-year-old daughter, Charlotte. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

Charlotte’s distress began just before she turned four, when the active little girl who played soccer and never wanted to be indoors complained of aching legs. She was rushed to Starship when her arms and hands suddenly swelled up.

“The doctors described it like she had run five marathons in a row. She was in so much pain, you couldn’t touch her,” her mum explains. “It’s a very rare condition that only one or two kids are diagnosed with in New Zealand every year.”

Juvenile dermatomyositis is like an arthritis of the muscles. Charlotte can no longer straighten her arms and legs; calcium has leached from her bones, making rock-like deposits under her skin. Her mum calls them her “plates of armour”.

The Molloys hope Charlotte will be well enough to have the stem cell therapy in September. Her own stem cells will be harvested then transplanted back to try to ‘reboot’ her immune system. She will also need chemotherapy.

“The hardest times are when she’s sick while I’m away, and there have been times when I’ve almost had to fly back home. But we are so blessed with family who help us in those times,” Molloy says.

She calls her husband, Stu, “Superdad”. A top New Zealand yachtsman who sailed in the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race, he's now production manager at Doyle Sails.

“It’s a big strain on one parent, when you’re away for weeks. But we have a good system now,” Esther says. The Molloys have a nanny, and Esther’s parents came up from Wellington to help take care of Charlotte and her three-year-old sister, Summer, during the World Cup. 

Molloy has had a barrage of emails over the past week from Charlotte’s specialists, occupational therapists and physios - congratulating her on the Silver Ferns' success.

“We’ve made so many friends there,” she says. And the Silver Ferns have been very willing to help Starship – donating memorabilia or their time – in thanks for their care of Charlotte.

“The girls have been beyond kind,” Molloy says. “It’s why the Silver Ferns are so liked by everyone.”

Behind the scenes of a success story

Esther Molloy’s manager mantra is simple: “No surprises”.  

“We don’t leave anything to chance, ever. And you have to be able to change and move all the time,” she says.

Because of her attention to detail, right until the final whistle on day 10, there literally were no surprises for the Silver Ferns in Liverpool.

Molloy has built up a raft of experience managing the Silver Ferns at three World Cups and three Commonwealth Games campaigns.

With a degree in sports management, she first worked in high performance at Yachting New Zealand, and ran a conference for yachting gurus during the 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland.

Not long after the Silver Ferns won the 2003 World Cup, Molloy took a job at Netball New Zealand as an administrator in high performance. Her role was looking after all the national squads, organising camps and tours - accommodation, meals, transport and uniforms – and handing over the arrangements to team managers.

When the Silver Ferns manager became a full-time role in 2008, Molloy took on the job from Jackie Barron, who’d been the manager in a voluntary role while she was deputy principal at Gore High School.

Manager Esther Molloy (left) holding the countdown clock on the Silver Ferns' bench in their semi-final victory over England. Photo: Getty Images. 

A master of logistics and operations, Molloy gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of her role in Liverpool.

So New Zealanders could watch at a reasonable hour, most of the Silver Ferns’ early games were played early in the morning - which meant the Ferns rising at 5am for a 9am match start.

Before dawn, they trained in a secret space just outside their hotel, a windowless concrete bunker they’d turned into a gym.

The hole-in-the-wall was a hotel storage space, hidden from the street behind a plywood wall plastered in concert posters.

“You didn’t even know it was there,” Molloy says. “But it was the perfect place for the girls to do their primer session before breakfast.”

The New Zealand team hired brand new gym equipment, and Molloy filled the space with team posters and New Zealand flags “to make it our own”.

The only downside was when players dropped the Olympic weights onto the matted floor - the clank reverberated through the hotel.

“It sounded like a bomb going off,” Molloy says. “I could hear it on the sixth floor. The poor man at reception didn’t know what was going on.”

When she showed him the transformed gym, he was impressed – he’d been an Olympic weightlifter for Greece.

Most of the Ferns have a very set pre-game routine - breakfast, shower and strapping, before putting on the black dress. Jane Watson and Te Paea Selby Rickit had the role of plaiting team-mates’ hair.

Although the M&S Bank Arena was a 10 minute walk from the hotel, Molloy arranged a bus for game days.

“It was too much of a risk before a world championship game. And it’s about keeping the routine – we never walk to a game in New Zealand,” she says.

It was Molloy’s job to bring the bibs and spare uniforms to the game, then set up baskets with lollies, bars and gel for court side and the locker room.  

During the game, she sat on the bench holding the clock counting down the seconds for the players, and kept a note of the centre passes. She was also the ‘middle woman’, relaying messages from coach Noeline Taurua and assistant Debbie Fuller to the players - especially when it was time for them to sub on to the court.

At the breaks, she and physio Mark Overington passed out hand-towels that they’d frozen overnight to immediately cool the players down.

Back at the hotel, Molloy washed all of the playing bibs. But it was up to the players to handwash their black dresses in their rooms – a tradition handed down from Sheryl, Lady Wells (aka “Duckie”), the Ferns’ manager when they last won a world championship in 2003.

“The older girls teach the younger girls how to wash them, roll them in towels and wring them out,” Molloy says.

One of Molloy’s main concerns on tour was fuelling the players, ensuring the hotel prepared suitable breakfasts and dinners for the athletes. The Ferns arranged their own lunch, then spent the afternoon in rest and recovery; shooter Ameliaranne Ekenasio leading the  stretching session.

Music was also important to this Silver Ferns group – Molloy revealing the team held a singalong every night, led by their strength and conditioning coach Stephen Hotter on guitar. “We can even manage duets now,” Molloy says. “It’s very connecting.”

Maria Folau, Selby-Rickit and Taurua are all strong singers.

Molloy hadn’t worked with Taurua and Fuller before they took on the coaching roles almost a year ago. But she soon discovered they were “really cool women to work with”.

“They were so empowering of their staff to lead and do the job that we knew we could do, to contribute to the greater whole,” she says. “Noels has such a way with words and has a really warm fuzzy feeling, while Debbie is the energiser.

“Many of us had all lost our love of netball and [2018] was a really hard year for us. I think that’s where Noels did a really good job of bringing back the love.”

Molloy also pays kudos to the Silver Ferns themselves.

“They were 12 amazing adults who all led. They all took ownership of something, and I never had to chase anyone for anything. They were such a joy to work with,” she says.  

But there was one job that Molloy refused to do before the Ferns went into the final against Australia. Even though she truly believed they had the skills to win the World Cup, she didn’t order champagne for the dressing room afterwards.  

“I never would – I'm always afraid that I'd jinx it.”

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