Images from Ben Lumley / England Neball.
“It sounds silly, but honestly I feel like a little kid that's just achieve something really spectacular and I’m bouncing off the walls with excitement,” Chelsea Pitman tells the WSA.
The former Australian World Cup winner turned English Commonwealth gold medallist is a seasoned champion who has competed at the top of her sport for over a decade, but she is not reflecting on a latest trophy triumph.
The veteran netballer is instead celebrating an international call-up for England’s latest test series against Uganda.
Just a few years ago such news would have received a smile, but not much more. Times have changed, as has Pitman.
Since helping her adopted nation to a historic 2018 Commonwealth Games gold in the country of her birth she has suffered two miscarriages, struggled with injuries and been controversially dropped domestically by Adelaide Thunderbirds.
Pitman, now 34, had feared her time in the sport might be heading towards its conclusion.
She “took a chance” by leaving her role in the Australian police force for a £3,000 training partner contract with West Coast Fever, which ultimately led to a “surreal” comeback.
NETBALL? NO. I JUST WANTED TO PLAY FOOTY WITH MY MATES’
It may surprise you to know that despite Pitman’s dedication to the sport, she was not always a fan.
As a child she initially preferred motocross, trampolining, rugby league, rugby union, basketball and athletics – in what was a pretty packed sporting programme.
“In the winter I played rugby league for school and they had to get clearance for a girl to play in the boy’s sport, but I didn’t see it like that,” she recalls. “I just wanted to play footy with my mates.
“When it came to netball I was a bit reluctant because of the perception of it being a ‘girly sport’ and I was such a tomboy but my mum was like ‘please can you just give it a go?’
“I still wanted to do other sports, like football and softball, so I made a deal with my school teacher who said I could try out for any school team if I tried netball and I was like ‘yeah, that’s a great deal!’
“After playing netball I just fell in love and never looked back.”
FROM AN AUSSIE DIAMOND TO AN ENGLAND ROSE
Pitman enjoyed success in her brief time with West Coast Fever - @ChelseaPitman
Pitman was 23 and the “baby of the team” when she received the “surprise” call-up for the 2011 World Cup, just a year after an anterior crucial ligament (ACL) injury and switching from playing goal attack to wing attack.
She recalls how her selection felt “incredible” but also very “awkward” as the 12 lucky players received the news alongside the rest of the 24-strong training squad who were told they were not heading to Singapore.
“It was very brutal and I remember being elated but also gutted for those sat next to us who were heartbroken,” she Pitman.
She would go on to play an instrumental role in the Aussie Diamonds’ success as she appeared from the bench in the second half and helped them overturn a six-goal deficit against rivals New Zealand.
“To have that achievement at such a young age and add it to my trophy cabinet was really special,” says the World Cup winner.
“I look back on that time as a Diamond really fondly, but sometimes I feel awkward talking about it because I play for England now.
“I shouldn’t, it’s just something that once I put all my effort into being the best netballer and playing at the best level for Australia and now it’s for England.”
Pitman’s Commonwealth debut came in her homeland for her adoptive nation.
Pitman, who has an English father, competed for Australia in 2012 before falling out of favour, moving to the UK and playing for Manchester Thunder where was approached by then England coach Tracey Neville.
“We spoke but I wasn’t eligible because I had to sit out four years of tournaments (after representing Australia) so I said I’d revisit it later,” says Pitman. “Looking back my one regret is how much mental airtime I gave to what people would think of me changing (nationalities).
“I am half English, love my dad and his heritage and when I came over (to the UK) I felt a sense of home. The environment and the culture, I never felt out of place or unwelcome so I'm extremely thankful that my path led me this way.”
HISTORIC GOLD, ON THE GOLD COAST
How England claimed a historic Commonwealth Games gold…
After making her England debut for a rapidly improving Roses side in early 2017 the team defeated New Zealand twice enroute to the 2018 Commonwealths where they were among the medal favourites.
Once a final berth was secured many thought they would return home with a solid silver, but history would be made as Pitman helped the Roses win their first-ever Commonwealth title in the sport.
“As an athlete you put so much pressure on yourself when you're in that environment and it's so stressful because you just want to win, but we felt something special,” she recalls.
“We internally had the belief and this buzz around the team, plus there was also the beauty that no-one thought we could do it.
“I still remember bumping into two ex (Australia) players before the final and they said ‘just make it exciting, and don’t a blowout’ - that gave us even more fire.”
“It's really hard to put into words on what that (win) meant, but they’re great memories and I’m sure when I’m an extremely old lady in a nursing home, I'm be like, ‘you want to hear a story?’ and I’ll talk about it.”
PREGNANCY, MISCARRIAGE AND GOING PUBLIC
While 2018 would bring success on court, 2020 would be a year of struggles off it.
On December 31 she posted a photograph of herself in hospital with her husband after an ectopic pregnancy. She revealed details about her two miscarriages and the psychological toll she had experienced as a result of her body ‘failing’ at pregnancy.
“I like to pride myself on being quite open and honest, but I was holding it in with even my close friends and I was struggling,” Pitman admits.
“When I did it was like a weight off my shoulders and I found I had more of a support system.
“I found it ridiculous the number of people that were silently going through something similar or had gone through it and then there were other athletes that I put that on the back burner.
“It's not just athletes that go through it, but we prioritise our careers so much, because we're so scared that we won't get an opportunity to get back into it.
“There’s also the fear that it’s going to be held against you, or there’s worry about the maternity clause (in your contract). It's beautiful that the times are changing, but it (combining pregnancy with a playing career) is not as easy as everyone thinks it is.”
Pitman is full of praise for the support she received from England coach Jess Thirlby as well as former national team leader Neville, who herself suffered a miscarriage a day after the team’s Gold Coast 2018 success.
RETURNING TO THE SPORT AND AN INTERNATIONAL COMEBACK
Pitman became a police officer after leaving Adelaide Thunderbirds. @chelseapitman
Pitman feared her career may be over after being controversially overlooked for a new contract with Australian team Adelaide Thunder and she took up a job as a police officer.
A training partner contract with West Coast Fever came as a suprise, but she took the chance and gave up her new role in the force.
That move led to a significant amount of game-time following injuries within the squad and it revitalised her playing prospects.
England were aiming to defend their Commonwealth crown at home this summer, but they left empty handed after Australia gained revenge on that 2018 final loss with victory in their semi-final.
The England team, which Pitman was assisting in a off-court support role, then lost the Birmingham 2022 bronze medal match to New Zealand.
Pitman has since signed for London Pulse for the 2023 season and will round off 2022 with the England international test series again Uganda.
“The series against Uganda is a really great hit out because they came into some really good form recently and it will be a good challenge,” she tells the WSA.
“There are going to be off games (like at the Commonwealth Games), but we have to move forward because we have goals, an exciting young team and the World Cup isn’t far away.
“I'm just making sure I soak it all in and not taking anything for granted because I know how fleeting these opportunities can become.”