“I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”
Pride is evident in Sharon Finnan-White’s voice as she reflects on the recent success of one of the participants in her First Nations Academy of Excellence (FNAE) netball pathway program.
Sonnyanne Raggett, a 15-year-old aspiring netballer from Borroloola, a remote community in the Northern Territory, had only played indoor netball before connecting with Finnan-White and taking part in his program.
The FNAE provides personalized support to aspiring Indigenous netballers to excel in the elite pathways.
Its ultimate goal is to create more Australian indigenous diamonds.
Finnan-White, diamond number 105, was one of only two Indigenous women to represent Australia in netball when it debuted in 1990.
That was until shooter Donnell Wallam was selected to represent the Diamonds 22 years later, bringing the total to just three.
“I think we can all agree that the fact that only three Indigenous women have played for the Australian Diamonds in the history of the sport is pretty shameful,” Finnan-White said.
Raggett stunned the Townsville City Netball Association Premier League in September by not only winning the competition’s MVP award in her debut season, but also the Senior Player of the Year and Goal Shooter of the Year against the best in the league.
“The fact that she won these three awards in her first year says a lot about her as a person, as an athlete and how much she has grown in such a short period of time,” Finnan-White said.
“It also shows what the Townsville netball community thinks of her as a player and her future in the sport.”
Changes are underway, but there is still “a long way to go”
Finnan-White acknowledges netball’s attempts to secure more Indigenous diamonds, such as a declaration of commitment signed by all netball peak bodies in 2020 to provide better opportunities for First Nations people in the sport.
But she believes that this is not enough.
“There are (some organisations) that still have a long way to go to get tangible results for our people in netball,” she said.
“The good news is that Netball Australia recently employed Indigenous leader Alison Tucker-Munro, a former member of the Australian under-21 team, to develop and oversee a national Indigenous netball strategy. So I hope that with Ali in charge, we will start to see progress.
Finnan-White’s program will initially focus on developing netball pathways for young First Nations women, but plans to expand to other sports.
FNAE provides First Nations athletes with the opportunity to experience high performance training and education and also liaises with training providers and employers.
Community engagement and cultural safety are essential
Finnan-White’s experience in elite sport ensures that her program is not only accessible, but also culturally safe and community focused.
“It is difficult for some of our athletes and families to trust non-Indigenous institutions because of historical policies and practices that excluded our people, and also because of the overt and covert racism they face day in and day out, in everyday life and also in the netball system,” she said.
“It’s about building relationships and netball, as a sport, must be prepared to engage with our communities, rather than expecting us to enter their unfamiliar and often unwelcoming spaces.”
This is where FNAE stands out from other netball academies or programs in Australia.
Raggett says one of the most important aspects of the program was that he brought his family along with him on his journey to help him progress.
“It was really difficult at first because I wasn’t used to playing at that level before and it was really pressure playing against all types of goaltenders at that level,” Raggett said.
“Sharon (Finnan-White) is, to be honest, one of the best coaches I’ve had.
“She did a lot for me and thanks to all that, I received the awards I have now. It’s thanks to her.”
Finnan-White sees Raggett’s success as validation of what culturally safe spaces and tailored support can do to boost First Nations participation in elite sport:
“I want people to know the importance of having an Indigenous background, because, up until now, the traditional background hasn’t worked for us.”
A personalized approach to inclusion
Finnan-White says netball and other sports need to understand that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work for First Nations athletes.
“The word ‘inclusion’ is thrown around a lot, but if netball is to truly demonstrate inclusiveness, it needs to value and implement the advice of our First Nations leaders and have real conversations with us about how to personalize programs and pathways for Indigenous athletes. ,” she says.
“This is how we achieve authentic, community-driven results and self-determination for our people.
“I have been working in this field for three decades, without the support of national and state netball organizations. Imagine what could be achieved if we all collaborated together?”
For aspiring netballers like Sonnyanne Raggett, support for Finnan-White’s program, as well as potential future partnerships, means much more than the chance to get on the court.
“I really enjoy being a part of it, knowing that there are all the girls like me playing a sport that we all love,” Raggett said.
Finnan-White has now brought her into a world of possibilities for an elite career in her favorite sport; something she didn’t think was possible.
When asked if she wants to become a Diamond one day, Raggett smiles. The answer is simple.
Diamond 105 could well be the one to achieve this.
ABC Sport has partnered with Mermaid Sports to increase coverage of women and non-binary people in sport.
Kasey Symons is a researcher in the Sport Innovation Research Group at Swinburne University in Melbourne and co-founder of Siren: A Women in Sport Collective.