Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience, caught up with Jo Weston before she departed for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
Jo Weston first heard the idea of a potential pathway to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games floated almost five years ago, while away in Scotland on 21-and-under duty at the World Youth Cup. That was, the Melbourne Vixens defender recalls, when the seed was planted from which bigger things have grown.
“There were four of us who are in the side now who were in the team back then, which is a little bit crazy, when you think about it,’' Weston said before departing for her major international championship debut among a Diamonds' squad that is unbeaten so far. “To have followed through with that is pretty special.’’
Indeed, the quartet completed by vice-captain Gabi Simpson, fellow defender Courtney Bruce and long-serving centre Kim Ravaillion represent one-third of the team on track to claim the gold medal that eluded their younger selves in the 2013 youth final against New Zealand. By doing so, it would defend the drought-breaking Commonwealth Games title from 2014.
Weston arrived on the Gold Coast having played 10 Tests, and, with 12-cap midcourter Lizzie Watson, was farewelled by the Vixens’ players and staff at the State Netball Centre. There was a team presentation, just as the departing duo recalls sending off Bianca Chatfield, Madi Robinson and Tegan Philip to Glasgow.
“I remember our last training session before they left all those years ago,’’ said Weston, recruited by the Vixens in the same season for what would be an ANZ Championship-winning campaign. “It does feel like it’s come a little bit full circle, I guess.’’
Yet it is also worth rewinding to 2006, and hearing what Weston, now 24, associates with her first close-up Commonwealth Games experience - as a schoolgirl fan at several pool matches in Melbourne.
The outfit. Oh, the outfit.
“Very cringeworthy, very 2000s fashion!’’ Weston laughs. “I think it was a three-quarter, cut-off jean scenario, maybe a Dunlop Volley kind-of shoe because they were very popular when I was finishing high school, and then something like a pink Roxy t-shirt - I had this one that I absolutely loved. And some of the big ugly sunglasses that were in fashion, and then I had this tiny little handbag which I used to cart around everywhere, like Paris Hilton from (TV show) ‘The Simple Life’. It was very, very stylish.’’
Or, well, not. Fortunately, the only clothing Weston is currently concerned with is her Australian uniform, from national tracksuit to gold dress, while the sole desired accessory is of the metallic kind, strung on a ribbon around her neck ahead of the closing ceremony on 15 April.
“Being reigning world champions there’ll be quite a bit of pressure on us, and also with it being a home Commonwealth Games,’’ said the polished Melbourne University commerce graduate ahead of the pool competition, where she has spent time at both goal defence and on the wing.
“And for six of us it's our first Commonwealth Games, so the experience of being generally in the village and surrounded by other sports is something we haven’t come across before.
“I guess there is that added level of ‘it only happens every four years’ in comparison with the Quad Series, which happens every six months, so that does put a bit of significance on it.’’
Growing up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, young Jo’s first sporting ambition was to be a tennis professional, then for a time extended no further than a spot on the roster of one of Melbourne’s original national league teams, the Phoenix and Kestrels. She owes much to junior coaches such as Leesa Gallard, and, at the AIS, Julie Fitzgerald, and there is appreciation, too, for Alexander and her Vixens’ coach Simone McKinnis.
The latter, in charge at club level since before Weston’s two-game 2014 debut, notes a growing maturity to complement the close-checking circle defender’s innate competitiveness.
“You’ve got to love Jo,’’ smiles McKinnis. “She’s worked extremely hard, and she’s just a tough goal defence to play against. If I was a goal attack I wouldn’t want to be on her, because in some ways there’s that white-line fever with her - she’s just so competitive. I love it, and she’s showing that now in the Diamonds as well.
“She’s got her opportunity and she’s shown that she’s up to that standard, so I love seeing Jo out on court for the Diamonds during the Commonwealth Games. She’s in great physical shape and great mental shape and she’s really grown within herself as an athlete. She’s had some disappointments, but she wants the best and she works hard, and she just wants it.’’
Her Gold Coast roommate in the athletes’ village is the experienced Caitlin Thwaites, a fellow product of the Victorian development pathway, and if Weston is a relative newcomer, then her answer to the question of how long it takes to feel like you are part of the Diamonds’ cluster is instructive: “Not long!’’
The culture is special, she stresses, both ingrained and constantly instilled by the leaders, from Lisa Alexander down. “It’s about the empowerment of the athletes, so you never really feel like you’re the newest in the team, because your opinion will always be heard, and being pushed on court to try new things and being thrown into the deep end is what makes it a really special group.
“And we’re only as strong as our wider squad. So that’s not the 12 who have been picked but the Commonwealth Games training partners and our wider squad, as well. We’re representing our club, especially, but anyone who has any interest in netball and is Australian will be watching keenly. Especially those who were on the cusp of selection, that’s a really difficult pill to swallow. We really want to do our best on behalf of them, and just want to do everyone proud, really.
“It’s been pretty surreal, the entire thing.’’