Banishing dark days, Silver Fern changes direction
After struggling with depression while recovering from a devastating knee injury, Tactix midcourter Erikana Pedersen wants to take her career in a new direction to help others.
Last year was the “crappiest" of Erikana Pedersen’s 26 revolutions around the sun. But this year may turn out to be the best.
Pedersen's year of misfortune was triggered just four minutes into her first game of the 2019 netball season. Turning out for her fifth season with the much-maligned Tactix, the vibrant wing attack had barely raised a sweat when she suddenly crumpled.
Helped to her feet by Magic opponent and Silver Ferns team-mate Casey Kopua, Pedersen hobbled off the court, not knowing then that she’d ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament – a netballer’s nightmare.
It couldn't have happened at a worse time in her netball career.
Four months before, the Kiwi-born Fijian-Cook Islander made her debut for the Silver Ferns in the Constellation Cup. “It brought out that hunger and made me realise I actually wanted to compete at that level,” she says.
She was fitter and stronger than she’d ever been. But the injury would end her season as it had just begun – which also ruled her out of making the Silver Ferns for the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool.
As crushed as Pedersen was, she was also fortunate in a sense. The accounting student also works part-time on the front desk at Performance Physio in Christchurch. It’s run by Sharon Kearney – the former Silver Ferns physiotherapist who's revolutionised injury prevention in netball.
So Pedersen had the perfect workmates overseeing her rehab, reminding her to ice her knee or take a quick spin on the stationary bike. And she did as she was told, to the letter, because she was absolutely committed to getting back on the court.
But there was something that Pedersen hadn’t foreseen: the darker side of injury.
“To be honest, I really struggled with depression during my ACL rehab,” she says.
“People said it would be tough, but I didn’t understand that until I went through it. Mentally and emotionally were the biggest things. Netball is your livelihood; it’s what you do. And when that’s suddenly taken away from you, you lose your sense of self.”
As Kearney helped Pedersen she saw just how distressing it was – especially watching the Silver Ferns succeed at the World Cup.
“It was really tough for her because she’d had that little snippet of opportunity with the Silver Ferns, and it was devastating for her to have that taken out from underneath her,” says Kearney, who Pedersen calls "my second mum".
But it’s what Pedersen learned during those tough times that’s now steering her towards a new career.
When she completes the last two papers in her Bachelor of Business degree, majoring in accounting, at Massey University (“It’s only taken me about 10 years!”), Pedersen is looking to stay in school and study psychology.
“I’m very passionate about mental health now, after going through my ACL battle. It wasn’t all doom and gloom for me; I got a lot of learnings out of this ACL,” she says.
“Before this I just thought of injury as a ‘toughen up’ kind of thing. But it’s opened my eyes to how people can be affected mentally, and how to spot the early warning signs as well. It’s been a really interesting journey.”
Kearney, who's also the injury prevention manager at Netball NZ, has helped many elite athletes through their rehabilitation after career-interrupting injuries, and has seen many struggle with the psychological impact it has.
“The thing we don’t talk about much is that it’s a grieving process. So it’s acknowledging those emotions, and saying ‘This is hard, I’m grieving, something has been taken away from me’, and then developing strategies to deal with this. Some athletes will suppress those first elements, which makes it harder for them,” she says.
“But Kani [Pedersen] was a great patient. You have to have the application and she has it in spades; no matter what you asked of her, she did it 100 percent.
“She’s driven by unfinished business. She wants to give herself the best chance to have a sniff again.”
Pedersen reckons her whole perspective on life has changed following that single crushing moment on court. “I know to take time out for myself now, that netball isn’t life and death, and I don’t beat myself up after a loss anymore,” she says.
And it’s also had an effect on the way she’s playing netball for the hugely-improved Tactix this season.
That’s something Kearney concentrates on in the ACL comeback: how can you help make the athlete better than they were before?
Pedersen’s point of difference as a versatile midcourter is her movement – her ability to cut and change direction; the angles she plays that make her a challenge to defend.
“That’s one of the things we worked really hard on - preparing her body to do that again. And now she’s probably playing the best netball she ever has,” Kearney says.
“She’s always had great vision; she can thread a needle with that ball. Now she’s running clear and sharp lines to put herself in the best place at the right time to execute her beautiful feeding skills, and she’s taken that to the next level.
“Sometimes a silver lining comes out of really challenging situations. And this is hers.”
Pedersen also found a bright side in the Covid-19 lockdown. Her first game this season, back when the ANZ Premiership started in March, Pedersen still wasn’t feeling like her old self.
“Not with my knee, but with my game time," she says. "And so I think that lockdown was a blessing in disguise for me. It meant I could work on different skills, do more fitness and build my confidence. So when the season started again, it felt like I hadn’t even done my ACL.
"I felt like it was an entirely new season. And I don’t think about my knee anymore. But every time I get out court, I’m just so grateful and so happy.”
Pedersen is also ecstatic at the way the Tactix have performed this season. On Monday night, the Mainlanders secured their first-ever grand final spot with a 39-32 win over defending champions, the Pulse (they'll meet again in the final in a fortnight).
Pedersen has been at the Tactix since leaving her Auckland home in 2015 - after two seasons with the Mystics - and she’s been loyal to them through some testing times. Off the court, there were the Christchurch earthquakes, the mosque terror attacks, and the Mainland Netball zone going into liquidation during lockdown - with the team losing all of their management, bar coach Marianne Delaney Hoshek.
On the court, their greatest winning streak until this season was three games in a row – their losing streak, 11 on the trot.
“Usually we’re the team trying to upset other teams from making the finals, but now we’re the ones people want to take down. It’s in a cool position to be in,” Pedersen says.
“At the start of the season, our connections were still building and we weren’t really happy. But I feel at this end of the season we’re in our stride now and peaking at just the right time.”
Pedersen is the eldest of five siblings, in a family of sporting achievers. Brother Mandela Baledrokadroka plays US scholarship basketball at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, while another brother, Bonowai Baledrokadroka, started the year playing league for the Newcastle Knights U20 side.
Both brothers returned to Auckland for lockdown, and are training together until the sports world becomes normal again. With the Tactix travelling to Auckland for six weeks of the national league, it meant Pedersen has been able to see them often. "They’ve come to a few of our games, and always try to give me a few tips,” she laughs.
There are also 12-year-old twin siblings, Leilani and John-Paul, who love netball and rugby respectively, but find their big sister’s games “really boring".
Erikana Pedersen Baledrokadroka (her full name) is proud of her Fijian and Cook Island heritage, and is comfortable being a role model.
“I’m always very proud that I’m able to be in a position where I can inspire young Pacific Island girls to reach their goals - not just in netball, but in life. To work hard and have resilience to get back out and do what you love,” she says.
A World Youth Cup winner in 2013 and a regular in the Silver Ferns development squads since 2016, Pedersen would naturally would love to have more than one international cap next to her name. But this year, her focus is on other things.
“This year is about getting out on court and playing consistently. And I want to win a premiership with the Tactix. I’ve been here for so long, through the real lows and we’re getting to the real highs right now," she says.
“It’s gone from the crappiest year of my life to one of the better years. It’s a cool turnaround. And if the call up to the Ferns came, it would be the extra present on the side.”