The super-volunteer who took a risk on Dame Noels

Sarah Cowley Ross sits down with Mary Thompson, one of New Zealand's great sports volunteers, who's given much of her life to netball. 

Mary Thompson clearly remembers the conversation with Dame Lois Muir.

It was during Thompson’s stint as president of Bay of Plenty Netball, and two candidates had applied to coach the region’s senior team - one with “umpteen” qualifications, and the other, a young Noeline Taurua.

Thompson sought the advice of the doyen of New Zealand netball, Dame Lois, on the selection. “If you turn down Noeline Taurua, you are mad,” was Muir’s response.

And so began the representative coaching career of another great dame, who would later turn the Silver Ferns into world champions. As she learned the ropes, Taurua was supported by Thompson and the Bay of Plenty netball whānau.

“I’ve seen all her children grow up, and I’ve helped out with the kids on the sidelines when she’s needed it,” Thompson says.

In fact Taurua told a Queensland newspaper in 2013 that she "fell into coaching" when she moved from Wellington to Rotorua to be closer to family, and Mary Thompson "took a risk on me". Taurua went on to coach the Waikato-BOP Magic for 11 years and win an ANZ Championship title. 

This is not a one-off occurrence. Thompson has given a huge part of her life to helping people in netball.

She is the epitome of a selfless sports volunteer – the people who make up the backbone of sport in New Zealand.

Thompson's skills range from picking coaches and babysitting the children of players, to managing the Magic, raising millions to upgrade Rotorua’s netball courts, running one of the country’s largest tournaments each year, and caring for one of the great Silver Ferns coaches.

“Sport is such an important part of life. I love that it teaches you so much,” 73-year-old Thompson says. “That’s why I’m so passionate about netball because I want to see kids out there playing sport.”

Mary Thompson at Rotorua's new Westbrook netball centre she helped create. Photo: Rotorua Lakes Council.

For 40 years, Thompson has been secretary of Netball Rotorua. Her incredible service was recognised when she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours.

“I was very humbled and proud to receive an honour,” says the life member of Rotorua and Bay of Plenty Netball. “There have been a lot of people on the journey with me who deserve part of it too – particularly my family and netball friends.”

Among them is her mentor, 92-year-old Taini Jamison - one of our most successful Silver Ferns coaches, who won New Zealand’s first World Cup title in 1967. She has also been a stalwart of Rotorua netball, who coerced Thompson to move into netball administration.

“She probably the person that’s influenced me most in netball,” Thompson says of Jamison, who she helps take care of today.

Describing her role as secretary of Netball Rotorua, Thompson simply says: “I keep my finger on the pulse and make sure everything runs smoothly out there.”

“Out there” is 16 netball courts finished last year in the Rebound Ace synthetic surface - a project Thompson says has been one of the highlights of career.

“The players love the surface and having eight courts with umpire lines is also fantastic,” she says.

Throughout her time with Netball Rotorua, Thompson has been across the sport’s physical move from Kuirau Park to the Westbrook Sports and Recreation Precinct, home to the 16 new courts.

She also played a part in the decision to break up the traditional Saturday sport model to help families. Now primary school Future Ferns play on Monday, secondary school players are on Wednesday under lights, and intermediate and senior club players take the courts on Saturday.

“Some high school students need to have the opportunity to work in the weekends,” she says. “It’s also about parents not having to split themselves across multiple venues to make sure their kids have a chance to play sport.”

On a typical winter Saturday, Thompson arrives at the courts at 7.30am to open the doors and warm up the pavilion for committee members. She will leave the courts just before 5pm. There are no paid employees at Rotorua – simply a dedicated team of volunteers.

Mary Thompson has been a netball player, umpire, manager, event convenor and administrator. Photo: supplied. 

Her netball journey began in Hamilton, where she grew up in a sporty family and fell in love with the game.

Thompson and her husband, Ian, moved to Rotorua in 1974 where she worked at Rotorua Hospital as a lab technician.

It was then Jamison invited her to come and play for the Caravail team. Thompson took time off playing to have her daughter, Leigh, but when she came back, she dived deeper into netball administration.  

“Taini said to me ‘Well you’re not going anywhere, so you can be on the executive’. That was 42 years ago,” Thompson recalls.

When Leigh decided to play hockey, Thompson was shuttling between turf and courts. “She played representative hockey for Bay of Plenty so my husband and I followed her round to tournaments to support her,” she says.

Watching her own parents going off to club committee meetings with various sports helped give Thompson the impetus to naturally want to dedicate so many hours to her game.

The hardest challenge she’s faced in her career has been retaining volunteers and getting people “to do the jobs that need to be done”.

“You’ve really got to thank people for what they do. You’ve got to be grateful for them giving up their time to help,” she says.

Small things, Thompson says - like Netball New Zealand sponsor Cadbury last year giving coaches and umpires bars of chocolate - help sports retain their crucial volunteers.

Every year Thompson fills out community trust funding applications to help the representative teams travel and fund other netball projects. But with Covid-19, there is growing concern over funding for community sport.

“If we don’t get trust funding, the players have to come up the money. There will be players who can’t afford the fees and then we lose them,” Thompson says.

Netball Rotorua have already had to cancel this year’s Kurangaituku tournament, one of the biggest recreational netball tournaments in the country, because of Covid-19. Established in 1933, the tournament is usually held over three weekends and attracts 150 netball teams each weekend.

“It’s a huge undertaking; I don’t think people realise,” says Thompson, the long-time convenor of the tournament. “They come along to play but they don’t think how all the toilet paper gets into the toilets.”

Thompson also spent time as the manager of the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic team back in the days when they played in the Coca Cola Cup, and she's now the event coordinator for all Magic games played in Rotorua. She's been honoured by Netball NZ with a string of service awards.

Living within walking distance of the Westbrook courts, the netball pavilion was included in Thompson’s bubble during lockdown - so she set to sorting out the infamous “hole in the wall”, which she says anything and everything goes into.

Clearing out old records, she managed to collate the executive minutes right back to 1949.

“It’s funny reading some of the minutes - they’re all complaining about the same thing they’re complaining about today. The umpire was biased, or somebody cheated and played somebody from another grade,” Thompson laughs.

Part of the reason for the clean-up was so Thompson could finally hand over the secretary job to someone else.

“I just want to be the tea lady, and on Saturday make everybody their cup of tea,” she says.

Now retired from working for 30 years at Western Heights High School, Thompson volunteers at Rotorua Hospital in the elderly services ward, and helps look after her grandson after school.

“We all have a role to play,” she says. “I love what I do and what it has given me.”

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