Photo courtesy of Maggi Gao

Photo courtesy of Maggi Gao

All sports deserve some time in the spotlight, even those we don’t know much about here in the U.S.

Nearly 20 million people in over 70 countries play netball. It’s a fast-paced sport similar to basketball, but it’s touted as a “true team sport” by Netball America President Sonya Ottaway.

Because it’s a non-contact sport with no dribbling involved, men and women can play together. The great thing about it is it can be played on preexisting courts or on grass, and no special equipment is needed.

With the FISU World University Netball Championship being held in Miami this July, we wanted to catch up with Maggi Goa, one of the athletes representing the U.S. this summer.

Gao has been kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about the sport and how she got involved. Netball America provides free education, nutrition and fitness programs to at-risk youth across the country, and Gao has been volunteering with their Sports 4 Life program in Brooklyn.

Netball America is still looking to fill their roster, so if you’re looking to compete at the world level, dig in and learn more about this up and coming sport.

P2P: First off, what is netball? You don’t have to go over every rule, but explain the game to us in a few sentences.

Maggi Gao: Just a quick summary of the rules – netball is comparable to basketball, except you don’t dribble, you’re not allowed to step with the ball and the hoops have no backboards. It’s played on a basketball-sized court, with the court separated into thirds rather than halves, and a semicircle around each hoop (similar to the 3-point line, but smaller). Each team has seven players on court, of which only two can shoot. Each player has a matching opposing player and a designated area to work in. For example, one player may be allowed to travel in two-thirds of the court, but not inside the semicircle around the hoop. The goal is to bring the ball down the court and shoot as many balls into the opposing team’s hoop as possible.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 4.37.59 AMPurpose2Play: Tell us how and why you got involved in the sport.

MG: I could go on and on about how this sport has impacted my life, and why I love it so much, but I’ll try to keep it to the basics! I moved around a bit in my first 10 years – I was born in Connecticut, moved to Hong Kong when I was five, and then my family settled in Shanghai. After a year of living in Shanghai, I was sent to a newly opened British international school (Dulwich College Shanghai) when I was seven.

It was during the first P.E. class there when I learned about the sport of netball. I had never heard of it, but I was one of the few Americans among a class of mostly Australian and British students, who of course had heard of this sport and played it before. My fitness and athleticism were atrocious, and I couldn’t keep up with the other students. I remember we received effort grades back then, and on my grade report for P.E. class I received an “Average” effort grade. I wanted to keep up; I wanted to be like the “cool kids” who were always off on rugby and netball competitions. I tried out for the team that year and didn’t make it.

Fast-forward to a year later in sixth grade. I still didn’t make the team, but by then I was hooked on the sport of netball. It really stuck out to me – the fitness, the team dynamics, and the discipline needed to really carry out the sport. And so I kept working, and throughout all of middle and high school, I was on my school’s varsity netball team. I kept trying out year after year because I loved the team dynamic, and I loved that bit by bit, I was gaining control of my body and seeing the skills I learned in netball transfer to my everyday life.

I’ve been playing netball for around 13 years now. Throughout middle and high school I also participated in my school’s JV and varsity basketball, volleyball and soccer teams, but I still always go back to netball because I feel there’s really no other sport like it, and learning about it is definitely what I see as the turning point in my life. I would not have the interests I have or the passion for health and fitness that is such an incredibly huge part of my life now.

P2P: Netball is popular in other parts of the world, but it hasn’t quite caught on in the U.S. Why do you think that is?

MG: I think the US loves sports that have a lot of action and flair – take for example American football. There’s the thrill of setting up for a play, the scuffle trying to take out the quarterback, the struggle of other players trying to break free to receive a pass, and of course the intensity of that final tackle. You can see the action happening, and even if you don’t understand the rules (it took me quite a while to finally get the rules), you understand why something is happening at any given moment.

Netball recently had a few rule changes, and they were changed to “make the game more enjoyable for viewers.” There are many rules in netball that to an unknowing spectator would make absolute no sense. And because the game is so fast paced, there isn’t really much time for that spectator to understand before the ball is on the move again and the game continues.

The sports that are more popular here are flashy, bring in big money, and are easy to understand — at least the very basic rules and objectives of the game. Also, because the US has such a huge sporting culture built up around existing sports, why would anyone want to watch a sport they’ve never heard of? I personally wouldn’t be very much interested to watch a sport that I’ve never heard of, much less sit through an entire game or try to understand the rules. The sports here are so ingrained in the culture and identity of being American that it’s hard to penetrate and change anything about that.

P2P: Tell us about the Sports 4 Life program and your involvement in it. How has it impacted you?

MG: The Sports 4 Life program has really lifted off the ground since I started playing with Netball America and the USA University Team. We started training in Harlem at a local NY Parks and Rec Community Centre. People would come and go, watching us practice. Eventually, we had a few interested kids agree to “train” with us as well as play a few games where we taught them the rules.

Netball America already had Sports 4 Life set up in various schools throughout the city, but playing with those kids in Harlem really showed me how much impact the programme could have on all those kids involved. We now partner with a middle school in Brooklyn that allows us to train in their gyms, while we teach the kids about the sport of netball and have them play a few games with us. I have always wanted to coach a kids’ netball team, and it amazes me how much direction these kids take from me even when I’m teaching them about this very sport. I’m thankful that Netball America has given me this opportunity, because I really see these kids improving over time and just seeing what they learned in netball carry over into their daily lives has just been remarkable.

Photo courtesy of Maggi Gao

Photo courtesy of Maggi Gao

P2P: Talk about the World Championship coming up and the challenges the U.S. team faces in assembling a roster due to the green card/visa issue.

MG: Getting the word out about the World Championship coming up and finding players has been difficult. I remember about a year before coming back to the states, I started scouting netball clubs in the areas I was looking to apply to university. I would send out e-mail after e-mail and try to research everything. I never got a response, and the information offered online wasn’t helpful at all. I knew about Netball America, and I would constantly check their website in hopes of something being updated and that I would finally find a netball club that was willing to let me play. It wasn’t until two years ago, around the spring semester of my freshman year that I updated the Netball America website and saw the flyer looking for players to play for the USA University Team.

So, I immediately contacted Netball America and even though I wasn’t able to play at that time, I was on their radar and was invited to team trials later that year. At this point, I still have any local netball clubs respond to me so I was not playing at all. Only after an event that Netball America organized early last year that a local netball club came up to me and asked if I wanted to train with them. This is just an example of how hard it is for netball players to connect here in the States, where the sport isn’t mainstream at all. I think I was also the only one in my club who was born and (sort of) raised in the USA and still knew about netball.

The main challenge with finding players for the USA University Team is that most people in the age range (17-28) who know about netball and have played before wouldn’t be US citizens and therefore wouldn’t be eligible. Most of the players who have trialed also come from the NYC area, because it’s so hard to spread the word. Originally, we were told that if we carried a green card, it would be possible for us to participate, but the rules stated we must be US citizens and we lost more players that way.

P2P: What makes Netball so fun?

MG: I really enjoy netball because there’s a sense of discipline and teamwork that I’ve never experienced with any other sport. As I said before, I became extremely athletic after working on my netball skills. Although all the other sports I’ve played are also team sports, there’s just something different about netball. The teamwork needed in netball is unparalleled – only two people can shoot on a team, and no one can go on every part of the court. It truly requires you to trust your teammates to help one another carry the ball down the court.

I’ve always been very drawn to the sportsmanship that netball teaches. You can be called out for something called “intimidation,” and at the very basic level, trash talk is very much looked down upon. When I played basketball for example, I’ve definitely run my mouth a bit on the opposing team and was physically rough if I had the desire to be. The discipline it takes to play netball is challenging, and I love the challenge. In netball, I get the same precision of passing a ball that volleyball needs, the fitness and ball skills that basketball gives, as well as the instincts and reflexes that I’ve used so often in soccer.

Another reason why netball is so fun to me is because of the team. I’ve never bonded more with any other team than I have with my netball team. So most of it I feel is the people you surround yourself with that makes the experience. I also love mastering new skills, and the challenge of constantly improving – I always know that I’m never going to become the best athlete I can be if I don’t continue working at it.