Netball

As West Coast Fever’s goal-shooting machine, Jhaniele Fowler hopes to push her club to one spot higher in the domestic netball league. But the Jamaican’s ambitions don’t stop there. She also wants to be the best player in the world. By Linda Pearce.

Shooting star Jhaniele Fowler

West Coast Fever goal shooter Jhaniele Fowler in action in the 2020 Super Netball grand final.
Credit: AAP / Albert Perez

It happened once in a clothing store, once in a supermarket. Both times in her adopted home town of Perth. When Jhaniele Fowler entered, security guards did not see the gentle Jamaican who is among Western Australia’s most recognisable female athletes and one of the world’s best netballers; they saw a suspected shoplifter. A humiliating bag search followed.

Fowler recalls dashing in to buy an item forgotten elsewhere, “and the supervisor or somebody at the door, like, frisked me, all the way down to the bottom of my bags. There were so many other white persons walking in with bags that they did not get inside the shop, and I was like, ‘Um, isn’t it possible that they would have put something in their bag as well?’ A case like that, it’s very disgusting.”

It was one of two examples of racial profiling the West Coast Fever import can recall during her three seasons as Suncorp Super Netball’s leading scorer and triple MVP, yet Fowler refuses to dwell on prejudices that, thankfully, she has not experienced on the court. “It’s never been to a point where it held me down,” says Fowler. “I’m a very strong person, and whilst it’s never good to discriminate [against] anyone based on their race or how they look, and it’s something that I despise, I’ve never let it bother me.”

Fowler has other, deeply personal, challenges to deal with as she pursues her brilliant sporting career 18,000 kilometres from home. The 31-year-old spends many months each year separated from her daughter, Drehannah, who lives in Kingston with Fowler’s mother, Dorothy, during the school year. In 2020, the 11-year-old could not make her planned June trip to Australia due to Covid-19 border closures; in 2018, difficulties with visa approvals led to a frustrating delay; in 2021, with so much still uncertain, who knows? “I hope the minister will read this article and say, ‘Let’s approve Jhaniele’s family’s visas so they can come be with her,’ ” says Fowler, with a laugh. “If they get exemptions to come in, that would be ideal, and so helpful to my wellbeing.”

Sue Gaudion, a Channel Nine commentator, former Fever head coach and now the club’s general manager of pathways and performance, goes further, admitting she would be intrigued to see how Fowler’s playing level would be raised if her dearest were also her nearest. “I actually believe there’s greater capacity in Jhaniele Fowler than what the world sees at the moment, because there’s a percentage of J that’s inhibited by the circumstances. If we could get her family out here at the right time every year and she was surrounded by the most important network in her life, I’d be frightened as to how good she could be.”

Gaudion has firsthand experience of the Jamaican captain’s strength. During the second of Fowler’s three dominant SSN seasons, several members of the Fever’s coaching staff were needed to make up the numbers in a match simulation. Gaudion, a former national league midcourter, grabbed the GK bib and headed cheekily towards the imposing 196-centimetre Fowler. Okay then, time for some fun.

“There were no umpires, so I thought I’ll just get in and I’ll give her a really good push around. She saw me coming and she was like, ‘Right, I’m bringing my A-game,’ ” says Gaudion, 49, 175 centimetres, and just a fraction past her physical prime. “So, as the ball was coming, I’m pushing her and I’m shoving her. And I didn’t move her. I didn’t move her once. Then the ball came in and J simply put the butt out. I went flying on the court and she caught the ball and shot the goal. The house came down. It was gold. For me it was just like, ‘Holy hell – imagine playing on her!’ She’s pure strength, but the key is that she knows how to use it.”

Welcome to life as an opposition SSN defender, where Fowler routinely tops 50 goals a game. Talk to any coach or player and you’ll hear that the ball needs to be stopped before it gets into her hands, for – relative – containment relies on all-court pressure. If the feeders reach the circle edge and allow Fowler to execute her trademark holding game, good luck. Her personal pass mark is an accuracy rate of 98 per cent.

Asked for a self-description, Fowler replies with “hungry, hardworking and just a bit hard on herself sometimes”, while external critiques came from the Foxtel series documenting the 2020 season from the Queensland hub. Geva Mentor, the Collingwood goal keeper who has 146 Test caps with England to her name, described Fowler as “nearly unstoppable under the post, but she can actually shoot long, which is pretty phenomenal”. To Maddy Proud of the New South Wales Swifts, she is “probably the player of our time” for her “insane” scoring volume/consistency and unflappable composure. Proud’s Trinidadian teammate Sam Wallace asks how “the big dog” can be stopped.

But Fowler is also more than the sum of her centimetres, and while she says in her confident-yet-humble way that she refuses to allow negativity to affect her, she is also human. “So if I do hear that I might, I might, for a second think about it, but then I always bring myself back to the fact that, ‘Listen, you are who you are, you’re really good at what you do, and what the naysayers say it doesn’t matter.’

“I am six foot five inches, so definitely that is a plus for me, but also being 6'5" and being able to jump and being athletic and being able to move and being able to shoot that’s also a plus, and that comes with a lot of hard work and being determined to be where I am and who I am at this stage. There are other players in the league who are 6'5", and maybe even an inch or so taller than I am, so I would really love [it] if they would look at the other aspects of what I have to bring. But I just go out there and I do what I do and I prove people wrong all the time.”

The plain-speaking Gaudion puts it more bluntly. “It shits me as a commentator … when she’s targeted for being only good because she comes with height,” she says. “It is what she chooses to do with that height that makes her exceptional.”

And also what she manages when double-teamed in a defensive sandwich most weeks. “Her body takes a pounding, so I find it really disrespectful,” says Gaudion of the player most responsible for the Fever’s 2018 and 2020 grand final appearances after so many lean years. Round one of SSN, today, brings the rematch of the thrilling 2020 grand final, which Fever lost to the Melbourne Vixens, 66-64.

However badly it stung, the quest to go one better has already been handicapped by the loss of 12 premiership points for 2017-18 salary cap breaches. Yet just as Fowler says she is undeterred, the Fever has no doubt about what she has brought to what was a chronically underperforming club where everyone now stands taller. Head coach Stacey Marinkovich will finish at season’s end to work exclusively for the Australian Diamonds, and Gaudion says that not only does Fowler put “bums on seats” and boost the sport’s profile in Perth, she will also help attract quality candidates to what had not been considered a plum job.

“There’s an unbelievable value that goes well beyond stepping on a netball court and shooting goals,” says Gaudion. “What I love about J is that she wants to be the best, and she is quite comfortable about saying it. Where a lot of female athletes shy away from those sort of comments, she says, ‘I want to be the best in the world, and I’ll do what I need to to make that happen.’ ”

But will it continue? In Australia, at least? FaceTime parenting is not sustainable indefinitely, says Fowler, admitting that “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to go on if [Drehannah] is not able to be with me, you know, ’cause it’s very challenging. I’m a mum first and it is a big sacrifice.”

The last reunion was particularly special. In October, Fowler made the long trip back to Jamaica, was collected secretly by her partner at the airport, and then hid in the car to where her daughter was sent on a phantom retrieving errand. “She screamed and ran back into the house, and then she came back out and started to hug me,” says Fowler. “I had not held her for nine months, the longest I’ve gone without her, so all I could do was embrace her and just soak it all in. Neither of us cried. We just held each other and smiled.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Fever dream".

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