Simone McKinnis had a secret. Well, sort of. The champion Australian wing defence knew for some time that the start of netball’s official status as a Commonwealth Games sport would mark the end of her brilliant playing career.
Year: 1998. Place: Kuala Lumpur. The now Melbourne Vixens coach had decided that it would be her competitive farewell. Two decades later, as she watches the sixth Commonwealth Games netball edition from afar, McKinnis is prompted to recall her own personal chapter in the competition’s brief, yet storied, history.
“I knew going in that that was going to be it for me, and I’d known it all year. I don’t think I told many people,’’ McKinnis recalls. “I told maybe a couple of the girls, and it may have even been only just before the game, saying ‘this is it’.’’
Never one for fanfare or self-promotion, there was nevertheless emotion - of the happy, satisfied kind. McKinnis had loved the Commonwealth Games experience, having been part of its prelude as a demonstration sport in Auckland four years earlier and then setting herself the goal of being around for the real thing.
“I thought ‘I want to be a part of that’,’’ she says.
“For the last 12-18 months it was a goal to play at the Commonwealth Games with the players I’d been lucky enough to play with in the Diamonds. It was great to experience it with some really good friends in the team, and finish on a high.’’
Yet the final itself was hardly straightforward. It was against New Zealand - naturally, for all six have been. The scores were level at quarter-time, but a five-goal Australian advantage at the half soon evaporated in a grimly low-scoring affair that ended with a come-from-behind 42-39 victory.
Off-court, McKinnis recalls the heavy traffic and long commute to the Malaysian venue, and how “fantastic” it was to be part of an event bigger than netball. So many positives.
“It was the first Commonwealth Games that netball was in, so to win the gold and be finishing like that was good.’’
Village life was a special experience, with opportunities to interact with other athletes, and watch other sports, such as swimming, or limited-over cricket - the latter another new Games addition that, in contrast, proved to be short-lived.
“With netball, I remember that our final was on the last day and there was a lot of partying and whatever going on the couple of nights beforehand, but it was good fun,’’ says McKinnis, whose own team stopped at a pub to celebrate with supporters once the gold medal had been won.
So, were there ever any regrets that she finished then, with a still fit and agile body, just before her 33rd birthday?
“Never, never, never, never, ever. I honestly never have. I never did,’’ McKinnis smiles, a Vixens’ pre-season training session about to begin, her long-ago transition from player to coach as seamless as her trademark interceptions were so remarkably clean.
It was not her body, though, that was calling time on a 67-Test career. “I think it was more the mind. I had just had enough,’’ McKinnis recalls.
“It had probably been 18 months to two years, even, that I knew. It just got harder. Not in terms of the physical or the playing, but it was just harder to get up to play a game, or harder to take the drive up (from Geelong) and all of that.
“It was just ‘I’m tired of this’. And I probably wasn’t a nice person in the team, because I wasn’t into it anymore.’’
Instead, she switched to coaching, initially as a Melbourne Phoenix assistant, then internationally with Singapore and Tanzania, then at the AIS and 21 and under level, before eventually returning home to lead the Vixens to the 2014 ANZ Championship.
A first Suncorp Super Netball title is next on McKinnis’ to-do list.
No secrets there.
By Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience.