Netball

As the Melbourne Vixens compete for the Super Netball premiership this weekend, quirky defender Jo Weston will trade the jokes for a serious role in wearing down the opposition. By Linda Pearce.

Vixens defender Jo Weston gets serious

Melbourne Vixens defender Jo Weston in action during Super Netball’s Indigenous Round in Cairns last month.
Credit: AAP Image / Albert Perez

One of Super Netball’s smartest and quirkiest characters is unsure where she would be if not on court, but the 26-year-old nominated by her peers as the player most likely to become prime minister has a few ideas. A talented dancer and natural spotlight-seeker, Jo Weston’s career aspirations as a child included Disney star/interior designer/tennis player. Unlike professional netballer, at the time they were examples she could see. Even now Weston says she would find it hard to choose between a heavyweight corporate role and one that got her face on TV.

“Being the CEO of the AFL or something – I feel like that would be a good job,” says Weston, the Melbourne Vixens and Australian Diamonds defender, a former financial analyst at accounting giant Deloitte, current environmental activist and admirer of the ABC’s Leigh Sales. “I saw Gil McLachlan the other day up here [in Brisbane] actually, out walking.” So did she tell him she coveted his job? “No, but I should have. That was a rookie error. I should have used his Saturday morning coffee walk to try and elevator-pitch myself to him. What a lost opportunity.”

Weston’s renowned sense of humour and love of the ridiculous – her poker-faced “Weston’s Word of the Week” segment on social media was a favourite – is well known. Yet the dry humour coexists with a sharp intellect, fierce ambition and a thirst for knowledge, and the combination makes for a lengthy and engaging interview from the Queensland hub that has hosted a unique season scheduled to climax with Sunday’s Vixens–West Coast Fever grand final.

For Weston, it has been a busy, productive and sometimes challenging few months. The commerce graduate and master of communication student’s most recent report was on Indigenous incarceration – topical given the recent spotlight on the lack of First Peoples playing her sport at a high level. Weston is the player representative on the Super Netball’s competition committee and likely to succeed the newly retired Natalie Medhurst as president of the Australian Netball Players’ Association. With the union preparing to negotiate the new collective players’ agreement that will carry the sport into the critical phase beyond the current five-year broadcast deal that expires next year, there is much to consider.

“There’s bits and pieces that I’m hoping to really push for from a players’ perspective,” she says, nominating outdated contracts as an example. “But also really considering if being a semi-professional athlete is the best of both worlds, and do we really want to be a fully professional league? Is that what people want? Because it takes away opportunities to pursue things away from the court, potentially.”

While Weston is busier than most, she still offered her dog-walking services via Twitter to the people of Brisbane, given that, due to hub life, she is separated from her beloved Australian shepherd, Billie. Not only has Weston befriended a local border collie, she also converted the pooch’s family from Sunshine Coast Lightning to Vixens fans and 13-year-old Julia from shooter to defender. “Not all strangers on the internet are weirdos, which is nice to know!” she says, laughing.

Otherwise, TikTok routines with her roommate and fellow defender Emily Mannix have been a regular source of amusement. “We think we’re pretty funny and we hope that that translates … Some of it falls very flat but I always like to think I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal, so it’s all about trying to be serious when it really matters but the rest of the time just enjoying life,” says Weston. “I hope our team doesn’t get too sick of us.” During quieter times in the bubble, her reading list has included a Jane Harper thriller and political scribe David Crowe’s Venom, chronicling the Liberal Party’s last leadership coup. “I’ve just got to the chapter on Barnaby Joyce, so that’s gonna be a wild ride, I think,” she deadpans.

 

Weston’s own story began on her parents’ walnut farm at Eurobin, near Bright, before a relocation to Melbourne’s east led her to join her new school’s netball team as a way to make friends. Arriving at the Vixens in 2014 after a World Youth Cup appearance and two years at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, the 188-centimetre defender was both a member of the club’s most recent premiership team on debut and forced to bide her time on the bench behind senior circle duo Bianca Chatfield and Geva Mentor. So limited were the heir apparent’s playing minutes that her friends knew to arrive at Vixens games in time for the warm-up, for that would be the only time they’d see Weston on court. For such a high achiever, the fact that something did not come instantly was both frustrating and a blessing.

“It was a really big learning curve and in hindsight it’s something I’m really grateful for,” says Weston, who saw junior contemporaries Kate Moloney and Liz Watson vault into starting midcourt roles. “Even in high school and when I was playing other sports, I think I probably fell into the category of people who are quite naturally talented, and that sets the standard pretty high for what you think you’re going to be able to achieve ... And seeing both Liz and Kate have such a significant role in our team out on court, it was a really difficult thing for me to have to process at that age.

“But it’s like with any team sport: you do your time, and some would say for me getting into the Diamonds [in 2015] was a relatively easier route because there was a whole lot of retirements all at once after the World Cup. So I know in team sports in particular it’s about being in the right place at the right time. Obviously you have to do the work to get yourself in a position to be eligible, but I think it was a really good period in my life, which a lot of people don’t get to experience in this day and age of instant gratification. Having to wait. I’m sure some people in Melbourne are currently experiencing similar lessons right now in lockdown: you think you should be able to do something that you’re not allowed to.”

Simone McKinnis has been Weston’s Vixens coach throughout and knows no more competitive player. The former Diamonds great says Weston is a proud and relentless niggler who has developed into a more composed athlete during her most consistent season yet. “She has been mentally and physically tough and strong every step of the way [this year],” says McKinnis. “No matter how many minutes [on court], or how little time backing up for each game, she’s up for it.” And what is she known for off court? “Her great sense of humour,” says the coach. “Odd. Different. She just makes me laugh.”

For Vixens teammate Caitlin Thwaites, “pest” is the most apt description for Weston. In match-play sessions or one-on-one training drills, “when you hear you’re going to be up against Jo, you just go, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be in for it.’ She’s so strong, she’s up in your grill the whole time. I think she deserves more accolades than she gets because of how much hard work she does. She is one of those true grinding-down, hard-at-it defenders … and obviously a huge key to the success of this team.

“She’s got her quirks, but I love that about Jo,” the veteran shooter continues. “She’s incredibly intelligent. We can have some really serious conversations about current affairs and politics and all those things and then the next minute she’s doing stupid TikTok dances and posting silly selfies. She’s got a really great balance of having fun and taking on the serious issues, and she’s a great leader in that space for the entire netball playing group.”

And for leadership beyond netball? Weston admits she was surprised and flattered by the “Jo for PM” endorsement she explains away as “probably just because I like to voice my opinions – it’s just the look-at-me attitude potentially”. Describing the prospect of a career in politics as a “maybe”, she nevertheless doubts her ability to take life seriously enough to swap GD for MP.

Regardless, her current position is as a netballer in her prime – one who has earned Commonwealth Games and World Cup silver medals and on Sunday hopes to add a second Vixens flag. Which is a big enough job for now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "How the Weston won".

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Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.