Netball prodigy Ainsley Puleiata rebounds from injury and targets Silver Ferns – Stuff.co.nz

Posted: September 24, 2020 at 3:57 pm


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Michael Bradley

In happier times: Ainsleyana Puleiata takes the ball for her St Mary's College side, before her two ACL reconstructions changed her outlook on life.

One distressing knee injury after another would be enough to crush most young athletes, but not Ainsleyana Puleiata. The rising netball and sevens star tells Suzanne McFadden how she twice overcame the mental and physical torment and now the black dress beckons.

Twelve minutes. Its a timeframe Ainsleyana Puleiata can never wipe from her memory.

Just 12 minutes was all it took to send the promising sports star into a downward spiral. A career-challenging moment the now 20-year-old breaks into tears recalling.

A thrilling young talent from Porirua, excelling in both netball and rugby, Puleiata had just pushed herself through a nine-month comeback from knee surgery, and this was her first real netball game back.

It was early last year, a pre-season match in Auckland with her champion Central Manawa side. A game of little importance.

I remember thinking, OK Im the starting wing attack, Ive worked really hard to get here, Puleiata says.

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On court she forgot about her left knee - no painful twinges; no hesitancy.

Twelve uneventful minutes into the game, Puleiata took a ball in the air and landed in the left-hand pocket of the court. As she put a perfectly weighted lob into her shooter, her rebuilt knee just caved in.

Crumpled on the ground, her only thought was: Please dont let it be the ACL.

An MRI scan revealed her worst fear: Puleiata had damaged the same knee twice.

Facing another season off the court and the rugby field, the Samoan teenager hit rock bottom. She doubted she had the strength to do it all over again.

But with a supportive team around her including her parents, former Silver Fern now physio Sharon Gold, and victorious Central Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie Puleiata did another 12 months of intense rehabilitation.

An athlete described as unbelievably gifted, with incredible power and strength, that team only wanted to see the best for her.

And this week, Puleiata joins the New Zealand U21 squad, in camp working towards playing the Silver Ferns in the Cadbury Series in a month's time.

Honestly I didnt expect to make it, Puleiata says. Especially after being off the court for two years. But after hearing the news I was like Oh my god, I need to get myself together! This is a big step for me.

A huge step, considering she had to learn how to walk again twice.

Monique Ford/Stuff

The St Mary's sevens team arrive home from Fukuoka, Japan as 2017 world youth champions.

The year 2017 was, mostly, an outstanding one for 17-year-old Puleiata.

She went to Japan and came home a world champion. The Year 12 student at St Marys College in Wellington a hothouse for young female athletes was part of the schools sevens rugby side who won the world youth tournament. (Also in that team were Monica Tagoai, who became a Black Fern, sisters Lyric and Dhys Faleafaga, who later played for the Black Ferns Sevens, and Renee Saviinaea, who this season played netball for the Pulse.)

Puleiata's side also won the national first XV school title, and she was named in the New Zealand sevens training squad for the 2018 Youth Olympics.

In netball, Puleiata had signed her first contract as a training partner with the Central Pulse, and starred for Central Manawa as they won the inaugural Beko League netballs second-tier championship.

At the 2017 national secondary schools netball champs, St Mary's captain Puleiata was named NZ schools player of the year recognised for her speed, agility, vision and leadership, and her respect for those around her.

Puleiata, who has three younger brothers, was shocked by her sudden rise. Id never expected to get this far in sport, she says. For primary, I went to Windley School [in eastern Porirua] where sport wasnt that big.

Her sport of choice there was basketball. I wasnt really good at it, but I just liked that I could shoot, she says. That shows how modest she is - Puleiata made the New Zealand U14 basketball team.

Around 11, she began taking netball seriously. After arriving at St Marys in Year 9, she was pulled up into the schools senior A side, coached by Pelesa Semu, now Pulse assistant coach.

One of Puleiatas strengths is mastering all three midcourt positions. Midcourt is hard on the lungs, she laughs. But I just love how creative we can be.

Shes always looked up to Silver Ferns Whitney Souness and Laura Langman, and Australian sisters Kelsey and Madi Browne.

At high school, Puleiata decided to give rugby a try. The more I got exposed to it, the more I thought I could balance the two.

A speedy wing, she was preparing to defend their Condors Sevens national title late in 2017 with her St Marys team, coached by Tuga Mativa and his All Black mate, Ardie Savea. The Rongotai College old boys arranged a training game against the Rongotai sevens on their school field.

During the game, Puleiata went to sidestep, but her foot got stuck in a pothole. As I started to turn, my upper body went but my leg stayed, she recalls.

She felt a weird click in her left knee. Off the field, she jogged and did lunges, and was convinced it was okay. She ran back on, but her left leg gave way.

Puleiata refused to let her team-mates carry her off. Hobbling to the sideline, she just wanted to go home.

An MRI scan revealed shed torn her anterior cruciate ligament and needed surgery. I was in tears, thinking why is this happening to me?, she says.

In February 2018, some of her hamstring was used to rebuild the knee. The rehab with her personal trainer Malcolm Toeaiga at Centurion Athletic Performance in Porirua was demanding, but she was driven.

A couple of weeks in my rehab stages I hated being labelled an injured player, Puleiata wrote on Instagram. I felt like an outsider among the athletes, and boy did that fire up my adrenaline. For the next nine months, I would always wake up [in the] early hours to do my knee stretches and muscle activation, I would go to the gym every day to build myself up, I would meditate every night and I would do a lot of video analysis for 273 days straight.

The hardest part, she says, was learning to walk, run and bend her knee again.

CAP

Ainsleyana Puleiata spent almost two years rehabbing in the Centurion Athletic Performance gym.

In November 2018, Puleiata was cleared to return to netball. She was named captain of the Central Manawa team for the 2019 Beko season and was again a training partner for the Pulse. Id made it back to where I wanted to be, she says.

Puleiata got a little court-time at a Pathway to Podium camp, building up players towards New Zealands defence of the 2021 World Youth Cup. Then she headed to Auckland with the Manawa team and that fateful training game that almost broke her after just 12 minutes.

I dont know how this one movement was different; Id done it so many times before, she says.

This time, she explains, her hamstring graft had torn. With her second surgery, they added a tissue graft to the side of the knee to give it more stability.

Puleiata is not alone - around 400 New Zealand netballers have ACL reconstruction surgery each year.

Research from ACC data shows theres been a 120 percent increase in the number of teenage girls in New Zealand having ACL surgery over the last decade. The game has become faster and more physical, and there are more girls playing.

Netball NZ have been proactive, developing an injury prevention programme, NetballSmart, to change how players warm up.

Understandably, Puleiata struggled to come to terms with another long stint off the court.

My mindset changed. I doubted myself. Could I do this again, take another year off? she says. I went downhill.

But with the support of her parents, Diana and Faauliuli, her trainer Toeaiga, and her new physiotherapist, Sharon Gold, Puleiata headed back to the Centurion Athletic Performance gym.

I had their voices in my head when I couldnt be the voice myself, she says.

She decided to step away from the side-lines for a while. Even on crutches, she was going to team trainings and games, but it was torturing her mentally.

There was this imbalance between my mind and my body. Mentally I was like Yo, I could do that when physically I couldnt, she says.

So I thought I should distract myself. She became a full-time student at Victoria University, studying health.

The second rehab was slower and more painful. But Gold knew it was worth nurturing Puleiata towards a netball future. Gold, nee Burridge, played 19 tests for the Silver Ferns between 1988 and 1995, and could see the abundant talent the young woman had.

We all knew we were dealing with someone special. Not just physically, but mentally with all shed been through. Everyone wanted to do something extra for her, Gold says.

Shes one of the coolest kids Ive ever dealt with. She was just so determined and disciplined, and she wasnt going to let this stop her.

Having an ACL tear, then tear again after reconstruction, isnt are, Gold explains. But in Puleiatas case, she was just so powerful.

She generates so much power and force, it put a lot of pressure on that graft, she says. We told her we cant treat you like other people because youre different.

Her strength and power was outrageous. We were taking her to levels we dont take other people because she was just pushing all the time.

As well as the most amazing mental attitude, shes unbelievably gifted. And she wasnt just going to come back, she was going to come back better. Thats an amazing attitude to have.

Gold would regularly liaise with the Pulse physio, Nikki Lynch, who would keep Pulse and NZ U21 coach Yvette McCausland-Durie updated on Puleiatas progress. Everyone was working together for the same cause, Gold says.

Puleiata also had support from another former Silver Fern, Belinda Colling her mentor through a three-year Tania Dalton Foundation scholarship. She was one of the original inductees into the foundation in 2018.

Belindas been so good to me - always checking in to see if Im doing okay, if I need help with uni, Puleiata says. Its really good to talk to someone whos been in the high performance environment, and get some tips on how I can get there too.

Supplied

Ainsleyana Puleiata on the Sky commentary bench.

The biggest lesson Puleiata learned from two ACL comebacks was patience.

I wanted to go for the 12 months recovery the second time round. I kept thinking: Im still young; there will be more opportunities. Youve got to be patient, she says.

In March, Puleiata was ready to return. For her third year running, she was contracted as a Pulse training partner, and she planned to rebuild her skills playing club netball for SMOG (St Marys Old Girls).

Then Level 4 lockdown tested her patience again. It seemed to be such bad timing, but it was actually really good, she says. My expectations and my hopes to play were suddenly taken away so I had to prep myself to adapt again and not get lazy.

Her first club game was horrible, she says, but it wasnt her knee. After 12 months of rehab I only got to play one quarter!

Her game preparation is different now - doing a full warm-up while listening to podcasts. Gold and Toeaiga have helped her build strength in her hamstrings and glutes.

Her plan, she says, is to survive this weeks U21 camp in Wellington, and hopefully play in the Cadbury Series against the Silver Ferns, the NZ Men and a New Zealand A line-up in Palmerston North next month. Then theres the World Youth Cup in December 2021. And then she might return to rugby.

McCausland-Durie is glad shes kept a close eye on Puleiatas lengthy comeback.

Shes worked so hard and been very committed to getting back to this level. Weve seen her resilience, she says.

And McCausland-Durie knows shes an amazing player. There arent many specialist wing attacks around who have continued to be wing attacks. Its really important to help her grow in that area, she says.

She plays low to the ground and can quickly change direction. She has beautiful feeding skills that come from having vision and being able to read the game. She uses a good change of pace to get where she needs to be, but makes it look easy, like she has time. Thats the mark of a great player.

Even though Puleiatas netball career is beginning all over again, shes already looking beyond it.

Ironically as a kid she wanted to be a physiotherapist, but now shes interested in the health and wellbeing of the Pasifika community.

If I can make a change not only in netball but in my career, it would have to be something that relates to Pasifika, she says. And if I could change their health status, and give everyone equal health treatment, that would be great.

I need to have something to fall back on when my netball career is over. Luckily, Im still young!

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Netball prodigy Ainsley Puleiata rebounds from injury and targets Silver Ferns - Stuff.co.nz

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September 24th, 2020 at 3:57 pm

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