A story that Steve Hawkins likes to tell to young physiotherapists keen to follow the sporting path to, potentially, the elite level, qualifies as his own ‘Sliding Doors’ moment.
Spoiler alert: there’s a (very) happy ending.
“The truth is that my journey into netball was complete pot luck,’’ says the long-time Melbourne Vixens and former Diamonds physio, who had the top Australian job at last year’s Commonwealth Games, and was recently appointed to head the Physiotherapy and Soft Tissue Therapy team at the VIS.
Once upon a time, back in the last century, Hawkins was working in a sports medicine centre in outer-eastern Croydon when, by chance, a free appointment slot was filled by a young teenager who had rolled her ankle at nearby Heathmont during Melbourne East Netball Association competition the previous weekend.
As chance would have it, the girl's mother was the MENA president, and Hawkins was subsequently asked to speak to players about taping/injury/etc ahead of the inter-association carnival that is now more centralised but was then, co-incidentally, next due to be played at famously cold and foggy H.E. Parker Reserve.
Which led to some physio/first-aid coverage during that event… which happened to be attended by a Netball Victoria staffer… who recommended the caring and competent physiotherapist to then NV High Performance manager Annette Hatterly… who posted via snail mail way back then an application form to work with a Victorian state team at nationals… etc.
That first national championship was in Adelaide in early 1998. Coached by Gillian Lee, Victorian 21/U players included the likes of Wendy Jacobsen, Cynna Neale and Leah Van Rensberg, while a certain Bianca Chatfield was ruled out with a shoulder injury.
“I had a ball. I loved it. It was the most fun I’d ever had working in sport,’’ recalls Hawkins, whose enthusiasm lead to an ongoing role, before an approach from then-VIS coach Jane Searle to work with a development team that competed in the Victorian State League and contained names such as Renae Hallinan (now Ingles) and Julie Prendergast (Corletto), Chelsey Nash (Tregear) et al.
Next, the great Marg Caldow came knocking when a new broom swept through the Melbourne Kestrels in the old national league and, after the Kestrels and Phoenix combined to form the Vixens for 2008, what was largely a Phoenix majority included minority-man Hawkins in what he jokes was a lucky choice from his perspective and a “very brave” one from foundation coach Julie Hoornweg’s.
On top of two World Youth Cups and a three-year Diamonds’ stint, Hawkins has been with the Vixens for twelve years since - apart from one season when exclusivity was required by Netball Australia to hose down interstate coaches’ perceptions of a potential conflict of interest, and when the hands-on father-of-two took a complete break from sports team duties the next.
Then, at the end of 2015, Vixens' supremo Simone McKinnis came calling. “She said ‘right, you’ve had your year off, so how about you come back and do some work for us again’,’’ Hawkins laughs. So here he is.
The best thing about netball? The people.
“They’re all there for the right reasons. They’re all there because they’re interested in seeing the sport continue to develop in a professional, elite fashion, but maintain its ‘groundedness’ at the same time,’ says Hawkins, who has often been asked why he hasn't pursued a better-paid career in one for the football codes, for example.
“Netball athletes are the best to work with. They’re extremely intelligent - certainly at the elite level, they have to be smart, they’re polite, amazing, nice people to be around, they’re fun to be around, and if you say ‘jump’, the first thing they will say is ‘how high?’
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in lots of other team things with multi-sport events over the years for which netball has kind-of given me the foot in the door, so I’ve been exposed to lots of different sports and other high-pressure elite environments.
“But there’s just something special about netball, working with netballers and netball people. It’s a bit of an X-factor, intangible thing to describe.’’
As for Hawkins, “broad” is perhaps the best way to summarise his own role, whatever the official title. Duties include equipment carrier, jellybean/red frog distributor, part-podiatrist/dietician/‘doctorial advisor’. His stories are many, varied, and interesting.
"I’ve been involved in two phantom, mistaken pregnancies internationally; we’ve had girls with ruptured ovarian cysts that we’ve had to rush off to hospital in the middle of the night in different parts of the country and the world,’’ he recalls.
“But, more than that, you also end up becoming a bit of a confidante for people - not just the athletes but also sometimes the support staff, and the communication part of things is probably what gets glossed-over and underappreciated the most, in terms of how significant and important that is.’’
A Sharelle McMahon Achilles rupture is treated with the same care and gravity as Tayla Honey’s, and Hawkins gets emotional, still, when recalling how to explain to Mwai Kumwenda that she had ruptured her ACL in Perth last year. A positive rehabilitation tale for the popular shooter is one he is happier to tell.
Then there is that random, career-changing moment out in Croydon and the teenager whose name he wishes he could recall.
“I do think about it,’’ he admits. “Where I would be had I not had that appointment and had that girl not stood on another defender’s foot going for a rebound on that Saturday morning. That was then an absolute Sliding Door moment.’’
Written by Linda Pearce