Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio has been doing it tough in her return to netball this season - living in two cities, with two small children in tow, during a pandemic. She tells Sarah Cowley Ross why she took on the almost superhuman challenge.
When a māmā-athlete returns to sport, you don’t usually witness the hoops they’ve jumped through to get back on the field, track or court. Even the simplest things can be a challenge, like packing the right shoes on game day.
You don’t see the deep thoughts of ‘Why am I doing this?’ The struggle of returning to baseline fitness levels. The rush to pump breast milk so your baby has enough nutrients while you’re separated from them during training.
The mother’s guilt of wanting to be an example to her children and the time away from them that requires. And the village it takes to help raise a baby and support a mum-athlete.
It’s like Instagram versus reality.
The reality for former Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio is that it’s been immensely challenging to return to netball following the birth of her gorgeous daughter Luna, now six months old.
“I honestly don’t know if anything could have really prepared me for having two kids and coming back to play,” says the formidable shooter, who’s switched to the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic this season, which means travelling between Wellington and Mt Maunganui.
“There are so many hard things – the juggle of two kids in my life; my husband has a full-on job and is trying to support me. I could go on, but nothing could have prepared me to go from one to two kids.”
Ekenasio describes herself as constantly treading water, living between two cities combined with travel for matches in a Covid-affected season.
“You’re constantly thinking ‘I’ve just got to make it through this week or a few days’. But that never comes," the 31-year-old says. "At the moment its neverending for us, but we signed up to it.”
Ameliaranne Ekenasio at a Magic photoshoot with baby daughter, Luna.
She makes it clear that she likes a challenge, which is part of the reason she’s come back to the ANZ Premiership following the birth of Luna.
“A lot of people thought I couldn’t do it with two kids and to be honest who knows if I will be able to get back to international level?” she says.
A key member of the 2019 World Cup-winning Silver Ferns and with an ANZ Premiership title to her name (with her former Pulse side), Ekenasio points out she has yet to be part of a gold medal Commonwealth Games side. Something that could be on the cards in Birmingham in July.
While being a part of a winning team is nice, her drive to come back to netball is actually her children.
“My son [Ocean] is four – I want him to see that you can do things that are really hard, when you really want to do it. That’s my why,” she says.
Ekenasio returned to the court yesterday after a three week absence, on the comeback from Covid. She played at goal attack, alongside Bailey Mes at goal shoot, for the second half in the Magic’s narrow loss to the Tactix, 51-48.
When LockerRoom spoke to a pregnant Ekenasio last year, while she was in her third trimester with Luna, she felt the support and processes around netballers returning to play had hugely evolved in the four years since having Ocean. She reflected on how obsessed she’d been to return to the court not necessarily allowing herself to heal before returning to play in the Fast5 series only four months after Ocean was born.
“I’d wake up and feed Ocean at 3am, and then I’d go out for a run in the dark," she said at the time. "Because I knew my husband had to go to work in the morning, so I was like ‘Okay I have to get it done and come back, then hopefully get an hour’s sleep’. But sometimes I’d come back and feed again, then we would be up for the day. That was ridiculous.”
Second time round, Ekenasio has been much kinder to herself.
But she admits it’s been harder to meet her own high fitness standards and work towards the rigorous national standards under coach Dame Noeline Taurua (who was in the crowd at Pulman Arena watching Ekenasio yesterday). There were no fitness targets when she returned to play after Ocean’s birth.
In the Magic dress this season after seven seasons with the Pulse, Ekenasio says the whānau culture of the Magic has been “unreal”.
“Without the support of the Magic, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing,” she admits.
Navigating life alongside her supportive husband, Damien, the Ekenasios are living between two cities – her family home in Wellington and Mount Maunganui. To be close to the Magic team base, Ekenasio moves in with Magic general manager Gary Dawson and wife Sheryl Dawson (the former president of World Netball and Magic CEO).
“I feel I can be a mum at the same time. It’s not like I have to leave my baby at home and pretend like I’m doing everything I do without a baby,” says Ekenasio, who sometimes travels with both children.
Ekenasio’s best advice for mum-athletes is to plan, expect change and be okay with that change.
“With kids you’ve got to roll with the punches. Shit just hits the fan sometimes and we just work through it,” she laughs.
She’s aware that as an athlete wanting to have children, you may be at the peak of your sporting career while your fertility clock ticks away. There comes a time when you must choose.
“There’s a lot more to life than just being an athlete – that’s from someone who has a high identity in being an athlete,” Ekenasio says.
“Nothing is more special than being able to have having a family – not everyone is able to.”
The lens is shifting for mum-athletes with the increased awareness for women to continue to play elite netball as mothers. In January, Silver Ferns mums Phoenix Karaka and Kayla Johnson took their toddler daughters (Pāma and Millah) to England while they played in the Northern Quad Series.
Paying to tribute to those who’ve paved the way, Ekenasio says the more we talk about how mums can return to sport, the better we can understand what support needs to be wrapped around the players.
Ekenasio has been able to exclusively breastfeed Luna for the first six months of her life - again this is not without a high level of logistics.
“Before training I try and feed her as much as I can. Firstly, to keep her happy and secondly to empty myself before I run out there,” she laughs some more.
When Luna isn’t physically with Ekenasio, the netballer has to express - at times she feels “like a cow” but it’s something she really wanted to be able to do.
For now, though, Ekenasio is paving the way – day-by-day getting through the mahi as a netball player and as a mum.
“I knew it was going to be tough but I really knew I wanted to come and play," she says.
Although the Magic have struggled again this season, with only one win so far, captain Sam Winders says having Ekenasio in the side has been invaluable - and will be crucial from now on.
“The youth in the team bring excitement and unpredictability and fun energy. But Meels brings stability and predictability and experience," Winders says. "At this level you need a good combination of both."
Ekenasio has played one full game so far this season, against the Pulse, before she was struck low by Covid. “She’s not back up to full game level yet, but she’s now ticked off pregnancy and her return to play, and ticked off Covid and her return to play. So now we have her for the road ahead,” Winders says.
”That’s really encouraging for her, and for us. We need her impact, someone who’s been around before. We’ve got the second half of the season to turn things around now.”
Meanwhile in the ANZ Premiership:
The first game of Round Nine on Saturday saw the Mystics record a convincing 19-goal win over the Tactix, 70-51. Ten consecutive goals in the third quarter from the Stars led to their 47-39 home court victory over the Magic later that afternoon.
Sunday's double-header was much closer - the Tactix just holding off a spirited Magic side with a final quarter surge resulting in a 51-48 win (the Magic's eighth loss of the season). The Mystics remain at the top of the table after dispatching the Stars in another tight battle, 54-51, with the Mystic's supershooter Grace Nweke slotting 49 goals.
Monday sees the Steel take on the Pulse to close out the round.