A little over a year ago, not long after her 21st birthday, Sunday Aryang made Australian sporting history. In debuting for the Diamonds, in their 60-40 defeat of South Africa, Aryang became the first African-born netballer to represent her adopted country. It was a big moment but don’t expect her to remember too much of it. “I think it was a week before, especially when I first got told that I was in the Quad series,” Aryang remembers. “I was so nervous. And then as the tournament got closer and closer, the nerves just got [worse]. And leading into that week, I was just very scared … I didn’t really know what to think and I kind of don’t even remember it very well … everything is just kind of like a blur.”
If those nerves have affected her memory, they didn’t seem to affect her performance on the court. An athlete’s nerves can be useful for focus, and in the game against South Africa, Aryang managed to harness them. “I was kind of scared that I was too nervous,” she says. “But I think when I went out there, the nerves were good nerves – they kind of got me thinking about what I need to do and what my role was.”
It was just the beginning for Aryang, people said, and she’s since had 10 Test caps for her country, most recently in the triumphant Quad series – the Diamonds’ seventh such trophy.
Sunday Aryang was not yet two years old when her parents decided to move from Ethiopia to Perth, Western Australia. For many refugees who arrive as children, it is not until years later that they come to appreciate the risks, anxieties and sacrifices their parents made with the move. It’s something Aryang is mindful of – and grateful for – now. “Back then, Ethiopia wasn’t in the best place,” Aryang says. “With education and for work, they just thought that it would be better for us to live in Australia and build a life here. So, when I speak about the sacrifices, I’m usually talking about the ones that they made to bring us to Australia, because that is a big choice and a big decision to make, you know, what they’re used to and what they’ve grown up with, having to just leave that and leave their family and move to a foreign country, which they knew nothing about. And especially for my mum coming to Australia, she didn’t speak English. So, it was a big move for them.
“My parents didn’t really tell us when we were young, but as soon as we got older and started asking questions, they just opened up and told us about what their decisions were, why we came here. Just kind of letting us know that it was a hard move, but now they realise that it was the best one for us. I think the first 10 years was quite difficult for them. The guilt of leaving your family behind, of getting that better life and they’re still stuck back at home. When my parents first came here, they were just kind of like focused on work, on providing that healthy lifestyle for us children, but then also providing for the family back at home. I think maybe that was their realisation: it was work, work, work, to provide not only for the family in Australia but also the family back in Ethiopia.”
Sunday Aryang started playing netball in primary school, but the sport wasn’t her first choice – that was basketball. But in the local inter-school sporting tournaments, basketball wasn’t available to her, and so she accepted the encouragement of a teacher to join the netball squad. Aryang says she wasn’t immediately good. “When I look back, I think it took time, because I had never played before and I didn’t know the rules. I think my height just kind of helped me, because, you know, they could just throw the ball up high to me. But, yeah, when I look back at my netball journey, it definitely took time.”
Aryang’s progression through WA’s netball development pathways was rapid and she developed a reputation as a tough, tall and athletic defender. In 2019, while still a teenager, she made her national league debut for her hometown side, West Coast Fever. The 2021 season was a breakout for Aryang. A record of 54 gains, 50 deflections and 24 intercepts marked her as one of the league’s best defenders, and commended her national selection in January last year. The Diamonds won that Quad series too, but it was the Commonwealth Games later that year – where the Diamonds beat Jamaica for the gold medal – that Aryang nominates as her career highlight so far. That gold medal also happened to be Australia’s 1000th in all Commonwealth Games, the first time a country has achieved that many. “That was the best experience that I’ve had,” she says. “It was just crazy. When I look back at it and think about it, I just still can’t believe it.”
The experience was likely preferable to the Tokyo Olympics the year before, which was conducted within a strict bubble with the absence of crowds and the athletes village. In Birmingham, things were more relaxed. “Team Australia was in a slight bubble, to prevent Covid from getting in and affecting athletes. But we could go out and walk around; we had the dining hall. It was [largely] unrestricted, but with slight rules. One of the coolest parts is introducing yourself to another athlete from a different country, speaking to them about their journey, or them asking you about your journey … you’re constantly talking to someone from a different nation.”
Last year was a dominant year for the Diamonds, and after January’s success in the Quad series, they retained their status as the world’s No. 1 team. But there’s one trophy that’s not currently in their cabinet, and that’s the World Cup, which is held by New Zealand. Taking place every four years, the tournament will next be hosted by Cape Town, South Africa, starting in late July. “[The recent Quad series] was just another tournament where we build connection and see where we’re at,” Aryang says. “And to try new things. I think we just all went over there with the mindset of getting another win, but also just focusing on what we can do to be better for when the World Cup comes. It was definitely like a trial period. I would say there was a level of experimentation.”
The World Cup looms large on the netball calendar but Aryang says she’s not getting ahead of herself. First comes the 2023 Super Netball season, with West Coast Fever beginning the defence of their domestic title on March 18. For Aryang, it seems some lasting memories are about to be made.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "Sunday’s best".
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