Linda Pearce, a multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience, caught up with Liz Watson before she departed for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
Liz Watson’s first Diamonds’ experience was as a surprise inclusion for the selection camp ahead of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Much has changed since for the former midcourt rookie whose fairytale first season would end with a place in the championship-winning Melbourne Vixens’ starting seven.
Her body, for one thing. “Looking back at the photos now, I was so young and skinny!’’ Watson laughed, before donning her Diamonds' dress on the Gold Coast. “I’ve definitely bulked up a little bit since then and become stronger and more creative on court.’’
Her status, too, is vastly different. The bolter who was fast-tracked from Vixens’ training partner to 11th-hour team member to Commonwealth Games candidate in the space of just three months has, in recent international series, become the Diamonds’ first-choice wing attack.
With the positional switch, Watson says, come the need to be more decisive and authoritative in attack, while her leadership has also evolved with experience and confidence. “So there’s lots of different aspects: growing into being an athlete, and learning what it takes to be an athlete. It’s not so much like ‘oh my God, this is so exciting’ as ‘I’m here, and how am I going to make the most of that?’’’
There have been few problems so far, with Vixens coach Simone McKinnis speaking glowingly of the player who arrived looking like “a little girl” and has developed into "such a power athlete", similarly adept at centre as at wing attack. Which is just as well because, on the Gold Coast this past week, she has spent considerable time in both roles.
“Lizzie’s had to sit behind a little bit in the Australian team and wait for the opportunity, but particularly this year, she’s just been outstanding,’’ says McKinnis. “She’s got a great work ethic, she’s calm, collected, and just makes it look easy a lot of the time.’’
Having celebrated her 24th birthday during the Diamonds’ final pre-Games training camp on the Sunshine Coast, the youngest team member had already been farewelled by her inner circle. There was a meringue-sponge cake and a speech from her uncle, 2000 Essendon premiership player Steve Alessio, reinforcing the close-knit family’s pride in her achievements, regardless of the result.
An eight-member personal cheer squad, including parents Manuela and Neil and little brother Damien, have been on the Gold Coast from Australia’s opening game against Northern Ireland, and will stay until the medals are decided this weekend. Fingers are crossed.
The tournament-style format is one Watson has not revisited since her years as a Victorian junior representative, so the ability to back up day after day will be critical. So far, ahead of Wednesday's final pool clash against Jamaica, all has gone encouragingly to plan.
"Game day is my favourite day, and there’ll be a few different game days on this tour,'' Watson said. "The other thing I guess is just looking into the stand and seeing my family and friends - they’re probably going to be the best moments.’’
Four years ago, Watson watched the Glasgow Games from her northern-suburban lounge-room. Back then, her Vixens’ teammates Bianca Chatfield, Madi Robinson and Tegan Philip were all among the triumphant 12, and yet, typically, it was Chatfield’s selflessness that resonated the most with a player who acknowledges her Vixens’ roots and influences at every opportunity.
“Bianca was on the bench for that (gold medal) game, and I remember her saying her role, whether it was on-court or off-court, was just doing everything for the team,’’ Watson recalls. “Even now, when we have our leadership chats amongst the group, Bianca’s example still gets brought up because of her sacrifice and dedication and putting team first.
“She was my captain at the Vixens at the time, and to see her along with Madi and Teegs win gold, it was just exciting, and just the emotion after the game and how everyone jumped on each other and fell around the floor you’re like ‘wow, they’ve worked so hard for this’.’’
As, already, has Watson. A fairytale start deserves a new storybook instalment. Watch this space.
By Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience.
Photograph: Getty Images