Grace Nweke never thought it would be possible to become a Silver Fern

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Grace Nweke’s journey to become a Silver Fern has been a learning experience for the entire Nweke family.

When Nweke made her long-awaited debut in Christchurch last September, she became the first Silver Fern of African descent.

The miraculous shooter told RNZ sports reporter Bridget Tunnicliffe she wants other girls to know that they can represent New Zealand ‘no matter what you look like and where you come from’.

Maia Wilson watches as Grace Nweke warms up for the Cadbury Netball Series in Palmerston North, October 2020.
Photo: photo sport

Nweke was born in Auckland; her Nigerian parents emigrated to New Zealand in the late 1990s.

The 20-year-old’s debut was a huge moment of pride for her family, but Auckland was in lockdown, so her father, Fortune and mother, Chidinma, were unable to sit in the stands due to travel restrictions.

It looked like her parents would miss that opportunity again after the series against Jamaica was in doubt, but that moment will finally come tonight when the Silver Ferns play the Sunshine Girls.

“They haven’t really seen me represent New Zealand yet, so it’s a very exciting opportunity for them to come and watch … it will be so special to have them there.

“And hopefully we can get some of my friends and others who have supported my journey along and see me play too.”

It is fair to say that Fortune and Chidinma Nweke knew very little about netball before their daughter got involved in a sport that has a strong traditional influence in New Zealand.

“Netball was definitely introduced to them in New Zealand. I don’t think it would have ever crossed their radar in Nigeria, and it’s so cool for them, I think, to have me here to play for New Zealand. With Nigerian descent, it means a lot and I just think it’s so cool that that’s part of our story now,” says Nweke.

“And I’m still teaching them, they think they know more than I do, like I’ll come home and they’ll say ‘you should take the pictures’ and I’m like ‘no kidding – that’s literally why I’m here’ she laughs.

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“They mean very well, but they don’t know much about it. They’ve learned a lot from watching me play over the years and so they think they know, but they probably won’t understand as much as you do. You know, the next would do that.”

Knocked down Georgia Tong (r) and Grace Nweke of the Silver Ferns after losing the third Test against England, 2021.

Grace Nweke made her debut last year during the series against England.
Photo: PHOTO SPORT

Her parents had to put a lot of trust in the coaches and mentors who nurtured Nweke over the years.

“It’s been a huge journey, through school netball and club netball. There have been key people in my journey who have really helped and supported me to get to that level where you can be seen by national selectors.

“Because it’s a long road before you get to ANZ or that kind of realm.

“I’ve been hugely supported by a netball community in Auckland who really helped on my journey.”

Nweke said her wider Nigeria-based family had managed to watch her play through live streams.

“So funny that we have this family WhatsApp group chat and they were all watching the games of the Silver Ferns Commonwealth Games and talking about it and they were so proud and so excited.

“A lot of them I haven’t met and I don’t know very well, so I think it’s so cool that netball is a connection and they definitely came in and support team New Zealand.”

Gunner Grace Nweke looks set to have a long-term future in the Silver Ferns as the squad rebuilds after their 2019 World Championship success in Liverpool.

Gunner Grace Nweke looks set to have a long-term future in the Silver Ferns as the squad rebuilds after their 2019 World Championship success in Liverpool.
Photo: photo sport

Nweke, who has a twin brother and four other siblings, said a trip to Nigeria would be great.

“I haven’t been home and I really really want to go. I think it would be such an opportunity to really understand who I am.

“When people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from New Zealand. I’m a Kiwi because I am, but I feel like there’s a huge side of me that I don’t know and that’s why I want go back sooner rather than later.”

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Nweke said it was bigger than just her family to become the first player of African descent to represent the Silver Ferns.

“I just never thought this would be possible for me.

“I think it’s more special for me and my family to give other migrant girls and other migrant people the chance to see that they can do it too and that you can represent New Zealand no matter what you look like and where you come from. .

“And you come here and there is this connection of all being proud Kiwis and being able to represent where you come from. It’s more than just me and playing netball as the first African, but also what it means to everyone else.”

At home in the black dress

The Commonwealth Games were a huge learning curve for Nweke.

She went to Birmingham with just four Test caps to her name and none of them were full matches.

“I think the biggest benefit was the lessons and just the chance to get that experience at a top event and I think I’m definitely better for it.”

Nweke played her best game in the black dress in the bronze medal match – 44 shooting at 92 percent – against veteran England defender Geva Mentor.

The contrast was like night and day to when she faced Mentor three days earlier, when England beat New Zealand in billiards.

It was only a matter of time before Nweke would beat a world-class defender and it gave her a big boost in confidence.

“Yeah sure, when I came out of that first game we played against them I knew there was room for me to grow and improve and I just wanted to get out there and get better.

“And that game meant so much to the whole team and it was clearly an opportunity to take bronze and I’m very happy, I think, knowing I can take on some of the best defenders in the world.”

The pressure to be a goalscorer on the international stage was immense and Nweke said it had taken her a while to figure out what worked for her.

“I’ve just learned to leave absolutely everything on the pitch in terms of what’s given to me.

“You know I’ll take the blows, I’m glad I’m the guy they want to beat up, but that’s okay and just know that when you get the sink thrown at you, they have nothing else to offer.

“I’ve really learned to just be in the moment, focus on what I’m good at and what my strengths are and just let everything else happen.”

Earlier this year, Nweke found herself in a race against time to get over a foot injury so she could prepare for the Mystics in the ANZ Premiership final, as well as be fit in time for the Commonwealth Games.

“I look back on it now and I think I had a really hard time. I was juggling college on top of it and then the question came up how bad was the ankle and I didn’t want to injure it again and it was actually quite challenging” Nweke said.

“There was a lot said about the team that wasn’t very nice and it was a difficult place for the whole team I think,” she said.

“It’s been such a big lesson and I’ve learned to give more than just what I can on the pitch, like being a better teammate. Hats off to people struggling with injuries for being out for even four or five weeks being was such a challenge.”

New Zealand netball fans will be delighted at the prospect of Nweke pairing up with Ameliaranne Ekenasio, who has returned to captaincy after 18 months.

One of Ekenasio’s strengths in target attack is her ability to look after her target shooter and it could prove to be a fruitful combination.

Tonight’s game at the Eventfinda Stadium in Auckland kicks off at 7.30pm. The second test is tomorrow in South Auckland.

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