“My lesson of the year 2020 is that you should not take anything for granted. It can be taken away from you within a second. And you always need to be adaptable for a change thrown at you at any time.”
The year 2020 brought upon many its fair share of misery, despair, restrictions and challenges, yet it was far from doom and gloom for South African student-athlete Nicola Smith who made the most of the opportunities presented to her as she scaled the heights of her sporting passion: netball.
The 20-year-old, who began playing netball at the tender age of seven, was a natural from the start, making her provincial School’s Team by the age of 13 and the national School’s Team in high school, before rising up the ranks to feature for the South African Under-21 side – the “Baby Proteas” – at 19.
After enrolling into the University of Stellenbosch in 2019, Smith naturally made the university team that participated in the prestigious Varsity Netball competition, an annual tournament involving the eight best university netball teams in South Africa.
The then first-year student’s performances helped “Maties” – as the university’s sports teams are affectionately known – reach the final of the competition for the first time in four years, narrowly losing 48-43 to national powerhouse University of Pretoria in the gold medal match. Smith had made an impact however, collecting the Interceptor of the Match Award for her display in the final after her successful debut in a university sport event.
“That was my first Varsity Cup and it was absolutely amazing,” she tells FISU.net. “There wasn’t a single second that I did not enjoy. My team and coaches were wonderful and they made it so special for me. We as a team always had each other’s back and no one was more important than the other. It is very unfortunate that we couldn’t play the Varsity Cup in 2020 [due to COVID-19 restrictions], but I can’t wait for this year’s tournament.”
As the global pandemic unwelcomingly spread across the globe in 2020, facilities were understandably shut down as sport events ground to an absolute halt, leaving Smith getting far more acquainted with her computer screen than she would have hoped as her studies continued online.
Following the gradual easing of restrictions in South Africa, an opportunity arose for Smith to return to the netball court as she attended trials for her provincial team, the Southern Stings, who would compete with 12 provincial sides from across the country in a bio-secure two-week Telkom Netball League (TNL) in October.
Disaster struck as Smith fell ill on the last day of trials to miss out on the Stings’ team selection, yet as fate would have it, the youngster’s talent was not disregarded.
“It’s a really interesting story on how I made the team,” she starts. “I played all the trials for the Stings and when it came to the last round of trials where they had to choose the team, I was so sick I couldn’t get out of bed. Unfortunately I didn’t make the team because I didn’t play the last round. It was hard for me to accept the fact that I wouldn’t play in the TNL, but that’s how it was. But then one day our Stings coach called me and asked if I would please join the team because they were short on defenders. And that is how I made it into the team.”
Smith did more than make the most of her lucky break: in her senior tournament debut playing against some of the country’s top netball players, the 20-year-old held her own as the Stings qualified for the tournament’s semi-finals, falling short in the business end of the tournament as they finished a commendable fourth overall.
Smith had made her mark, however: she was named Player of the Match in the Stings’ semi-final clash, before later being named the overall Defender of the Tournament award, only finding out about her accolade via text message from her university coach.
“This was the last thing I expected to happen in the tournament,” she says. “I watched the TNL finals back home on television and soon after the finals, my Maties coach sent me a WhatsApp message saying I had received the Defender of the Tournament award.”
“I was speechless. I will forever be grateful for this reward on my debut for the Stings. This was a reward for me that hard work pays off.”
Playing in a bio-secure bubble was a unique experience for all, not least Smith, yet it created the perfect environment that was well-suited to her warm and friendly nature.
“I really enjoy the social part of netball,” she says. “With each tournament and every different team I play for, I meet new girls and we became friends.”
“The fun and memories of each tournament will forever stick with me. So I enjoyed the bubble with the other teams because we could interact with each other without the thought of COVID-19.”
Smith’s upward trajectory continued at full-speed following the tournament, as she received an invitation to attend trials for the South African senior national netball team, the Spar Proteas, juggling her year-end examinations in between before being filled with emotion and achieving a life-long dream.
“After we played the trials, they announced the team and my name was on the list … I immediately got tears in my eyes. It was a dream that came true for all the years and years of hard work on the court to finally get the reward.”
Smith joined the national squad for a three-match series against Malawi, making her debut in a 62-29 victory over the Queens in late November.
“It’s a feeling you can’t describe to anyone,” she says of her maiden senior appearance. “A lot of people asked me how it felt to step on court with the Proteas dress, and until this day I can’t answer them. It is a feeling you can’t express, you can only feel it. But what I can say is that it is a huge honour for me to have the talent to put that dress on. The difference in level between the Varsity Cup and Spar Proteas is massive. The type of fitness, the intensity and the team motivation to perform is so high and it is a big responsibility for you as a newcomer and player to stick to these high standards and work even harder than before.”
While many are glad to see the back of 2020, Smith was able to pursue her dream and make the most of the opportunities that came her way, while learning several important life lesson from the challenging circumstances.
“For me personally, it wasn’t such a hard year,” she says, gratefully. “I enjoyed every second of the rest period I received because at beginning of the year I thought to myself, ‘How am I going to get through this year?’ Academically it was a little bit harder than what I’m used to because studying online is way harder than you think it will be. And as an athlete, it was initially hard to go train alone, but you get used to it. But playing netball again was the best. I missed the game way more than I thought. My lesson of the year 2020 is that you should not take anything for granted. It can be taken away from you within a second. And you always need to be adaptable for a change thrown at you at any time.”
The third-year Education student understands the importance of a dual career, and hopes to combine her love for netball and teaching in future.
“I can’t wait to become a teacher, even when I’m still playing netball,” she says. “When my four-year degree is done and I graduate, I am going to start working as a teacher, and hope to coach netball at school as well.”
For now though, she hopes to remain grounded while building upon her successes of 2020.
“I hope to keep up my motivation for training and hard work, to achieve even greater heights than I already did, to stay humble and focus on my own game and mindset.”
Zanele Mdodana, Smith’s University of Stellenbosch netball team coach, is proud of her starlet’s progress, and foresees even more success for the rising talent in future.
“Nicola is our pride and joy – we are so proud of her flying the Maties netball flag so high,” she says. “As her coach, I am personally so proud she is the first Protea I have had the pleasure to coach. Her future is so bright; she is limitless. She knows it takes hard work to get to the top, and that it’s even harder work to stay there. She is young and will go as far as she desires to go.”