Netball’s Sarah Klau factor
It was not a typical pre-match conversation but, then, few players prepare like Sarah Klau. The Australian defender’s routine includes multiple tests of her blood glucose levels and, on Super Netball semi-final day, the readings were unusually high.
About 16, in fact, compared with the target range of between four and eight. Not wanting to be a distraction for her New South Wales Swifts coach, Briony Akle, Klau – who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in February – confided in her friend and circle partner Maddy Turner. Nothing she’d tried was working. What should she do?
“I was like, ‘Gosh, I’m probably not the best one to ask,’ ” Turner recalls. “I was like, ‘Should we warm up and then we’ll see how we go? ’ And she was like, ‘Yep, good idea.’ And she played a blinder [against Sunshine Coast Lightning], so it must’ve been good advice.”
Klau’s low-key handling of a health condition – shared with West Coast Fever midcourter Verity Charles – that requires constant management is characteristic of her no-fuss approach. Swifts captain Maddy Proud says her teammates are alerted only by the appearance of Klau’s Mimco diabetes bag at finger-prick times, when a favourite guessing game among the close-knit group is what number will come up.
But few knew the reading just hours before the major semi-final, when stress, anxiety and arousal levels leapt. “I thought, ‘What is going on? I’ve already put three doses [of insulin] in. Okay, I’ll wait an hour and see how it is,’ ” Klau recalls thinking at the time. “It only went down 0.5 or one, and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’
“So I put another three in and I was like, ‘Oh, I hope it doesn’t drop too much’, then I had some jelly beans and it was still too high. I just wanted to focus on the game but I had to focus on my diabetes first in that moment, which was a little bit annoying, but you have those days.”
Prepared to bench herself if necessary, Klau was aware of a fast-beating heart as her body experienced a parallel lethargy. By the first whistle, her sugars were down to about 11; afterwards, exhaustion was mixed with the disappointment of a 10-goal loss. “It probably wasn’t my best game but it was a blessing in disguise because I did learn so much from that performance and I was fortunate enough to change those things in the grand final.”
Indeed, two weeks later, Klau, with five interceptions and nine deflections, was among the best on court as the Swifts crushed the Lightning 64-47 for their first premiership since 2008.
Within days came the announcement of the Australian squad for this month’s four-Test Constellation Cup series against New Zealand, which began in Christchurch last weekend. Not so long ago, Klau had been the only Diamonds debutante chosen for July’s World Cup, having pipped Emily Mannix by what she calls “a toothpick” for the second keeper’s spot. In Christchurch she was the starting goal keeper. On Wednesday in Auckland, she demonstrated her versatility by coming off the bench at half-time into goal defence.
Yorketown, almost three hours’ drive from Adelaide, is home to fewer than 1000 people, with Klau’s grandmother’s “big old country farm” just outside town. The youngest of Sandra and Michael’s three children, Sarah relished the space and freedom, and was aware of sport’s role as both the community’s social glue and an antidote to boredom.
Sarah’s other love: music. “There’s not much to do, so I decided to pick up the piano at a young age, then the violin, then flute and clarinet,” she says. “I still have a piano in my house where I have a little tinkle sometimes. It’s a great stress reliever if I need to take my mind somewhere and focus on something else.”
She currently has a folder of new pieces to learn, with favourites including contemporary arrangements by Italian Francesco Parrino of songs from the likes of Lady Gaga. Then there’s that long-held ambition to take up the cello, if only time (limited) and the instrument’s price tag ($3000) would allow.
Is there anything the understated Klau, who is also studying for her master’s of occupational therapy, can’t do? Not according to Turner. “She’s amazing, Sares. She’s got so many cool things that people don’t really know about, because she does keep them on the down low.”
When Klau was a 15-year-old, that extended to a scholarship to board at Immanuel College in Adelaide, which was more for her musical talents than sporting prowess. She was identified after being invited to play in the school orchestra on its regional tour and looks back on the move as a “huge blessing” that would otherwise have been unaffordable. Doors opened, and soon enough of the netball kind, too.
“I think if I didn’t have that opportunity, I wouldn’t be here where I am with my netball. Obviously country netball can only get you so far,” she says. “I know a lot of people get homesick and struggle to move away from home, but I absolutely loved it. I mean, you get to live with 150 of your friends, and see ’em every day.”
Klau signed with the struggling Adelaide Thunderbirds for 2016 but court time was limited and she was initially offered just a training partner role for the following year. Enter Maddy Turner, her state defensive partner since 17-and-under days, who had flourished on debut for the Swifts under then coach Rob Wright.
Sharni Layton was among the mass departures as Super Netball dawned and Wright asked Turner if she could recommend any defenders. “I was like, ‘Well, actually, Sarah hasn’t signed yet, and she’s pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind playing with her,’ ” says Turner. “And it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened.”
Three years on, “incredible” is how Klau describes the result of her didn’t-think-twice decision to move states and her extraordinary 2019. What began with a life-changing diagnosis – and strategically placed tissue box from her endocrinologist – included the thrill of World Cup selection that ended with a tearful one-goal loss to New Zealand, and peaked with a Super Netball title.
Briony Akle believes the habitual self-critic can become the world’s finest defender, and although Klau’s innate modesty and her admiration for the “three-metre” arms of Jamaican import Shamera Sterling prevent her from agreeing right now, there is a telling concession: “I’ll work towards it.”
Certainly, despite some technical and tactical improvements, those in the inner sanctum credit much of her blossoming to an overdue injection of the confidence and belief Klau is aware she has always lacked. All that bench time in her year at the Thunderbirds led to self-doubt. Questions. Was she good enough? Was she doing something wrong? Was it just inexperience? Or was it more? In comparing herself to others, the young goal keeper inevitably came up short.
“This year I think I had a big turning point with the coaches and I think a lot of self-belief has developed,” she says. “It’s just the culture here at the Swifts … and a huge combination of everything: coaches, teammates, staff, game time.”
Off the court, Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander describes the 25-year-old as a fine role model for the way she has combined the demands of being an elite athlete with those of a chronic illness, and even Klau admits that, when she first waved away her specialist’s tissues, she did not fully realise what life as a diabetic would entail.
“It’s actually a 24/7 job and it does require a lot of decisions … but it’s probably become a little bit more subconscious now,” she says. “I’m always thinking, ‘Oh, am I nervous, am I shaky, or are my sugars low? Should I have checked them before training? Do I need to check them now? What have I eaten? How many carbs are in that muesli bar? Do you reckon it’s enough?’
“It can get pretty draining and a lot of people do get burnt out from diabetes. But I think you have to not be too hard on yourself if you don’t necessarily meet all your targets. You just have to do your best.”
Which, in so many respects, Klau is doing. In fact, should the Swifts fancy a new guessing game, they could do worse than to nominate mastering the cello as the box their diligent, multitalented teammate ticks next.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "The Klau factor". Subscribe here.