Queen of the Court

Queen of the Court

She may have first picked up the ball at 16, but Bongiwe Msomi is making up for lost time by dominating the world of netball. By Karien Jonckheere

The South African netball captain Bongiwe Msomi could have lived a wildly different life if she hadn’t discovered the sport in her teens. In fact, she doesn’t even like contemplating the prospect; growing up in a township outside Hammarsdale, there weren’t too many options for her.

The KwaZulu-Natal town was featured in the news after six people were massacred there earlier this year and, not too long ago, pupils at the school she attended, Luthayi High, had to write their matric exams under police guard following threats of arson. But Msomi’s life is removed from all that mayhem now: Somehow, the 29-year-old has managed to emerge as a shining light in the community – a role she takes incredibly seriously.

‘We, as role models, have to find ways of helping girls find and achieve their goals. Life is tough for females especially, and a little support from role models is what they need. It’s important that they know what we went through to become who we are today. This instils faith and hope where there previously wasn’t any,’ explains Msomi. She is proud to be part of a non-profit organisation called the Girls Only Project, which focuses on research, workshops and advocacy for women and girls in sport.

It has taken plenty of hard work for Msomi to get where she is now: Captain of the South African national team and being paid to play the sport she loves in the UK’s Vitality Netball Superleague.

It all started back at Luthayi High School where, in grade nine, Msomi was asked to fill in when her friends’ netball team was a player short. ‘Thinking back, I was quite a late-starter, considering the fact that I was already 16 years old. Most netball players would probably say they started at the age of six.’ She attributes her rapid rise in the sport to the influence of her school coach, Sthembiso Mncwabe: ‘There was not much equipment or facilities. The coach used his own money to buy balls, cones and shoes for us to be able to play. Even now, I know he continues to do that. Now and then, I help where I can.’

Despite only picking up the sport as a teenager, Msomi’s talent was quickly evident and she was soon selected for the eThekwini team, which brought about a change in position from goal-attack to centre. ‘I wasn’t happy with coach Marchelle Maroun at that time,’ she recalls, ‘but later on, I realised the move was probably due to my lack of height, and because she loved my speed.’

After representing eThekwini at the Salga KZN-DSR Games, the speedy centre was called up to the South African under-19 team and then eventually the under-21 team, which resulted in her first-ever trip overseas, to the Cook Islands, for the World Youth Netball Championships. A year later, she was invited to attend trials for the senior national team. She missed the cut on that occasion, but the following year – after plenty of training and disciplined focus – she made the team.

‘I was much more clued up and focused at this point. I grew a passion for netball and, since then, most of my time has been dedicated to the sport (either coaching, watching or playing),’ she says.

‘I made the team to represent the Spar Proteas at the World Netball Championships in Singapore in 2011. We were given a training programme to follow, but back then I had no gym to go to, so I’d have to ask for my programme to be modified in order for me to do it from home, using my own versions of the equipment.

‘People in my community used me as their timer. If they saw me in the morning coming to or from training, they would know exactly if they were early or late for work. I never looked back.

‘The feeling of being introduced as representing South Africa is overwhelming. I have always been amazed by how we can come together as a country with different cultures, ideas, challenges and backgrounds, and have one passion and goal as a team. There’s always a feeling of being grateful when wearing the green and gold, and there’s that little voice in my head saying, “Hard work pays off.”’

Two years after making the team, she was named vice-captain and, in 2016, when then-captain of the side Maryke Holtzhausen was forced to drop out due to injury, Msomi stepped in to fill her shoes. During that time, the quick-footed star was also spotted by English coaches, who invited her to play in the UK’s Superleague when not on duty with the Proteas – first for Surrey Storm and most recently for Wasps Netball.

‘A lot of great things have been happening in my life through the sport I love,’ she says. Speaking about the major influencers on her netball career, she keeps coming back to Mncwabe. ‘He always treats and monitors almost everything I do as if I were his own child. I believe I am the person I am today mostly because I feared disappointing him and my parents. I’m lucky to have him, as my dad passed away right when I was in the beginning stages of my career.

‘Even today, I still cannot believe how my life has changed through netball. All the experiences and opportunities I’ve had and still have were made possible through this sport – I get tears in my eyes every time I start thinking of where I have come from. I still get excited when it’s announced that I’m in the team going to represent SA – you’d swear it was my first time being selected!’ she says proudly.

‘Netball is my life. The respect I get from home and everywhere I go is from this unrecognised sport. Netball gave me a life most girls would look up to. I could never have seen this coming, because of the challenges I faced – and still face. I still fear going back to being a Bongi without netball. That is why every single day I strive to be better. This has everything to do with preparation and hard work behind the scenes, which I’ve developed as a habit. Today, I stand in front of people with confidence and share my story – something I would have been ashamed of if it wasn’t for netball, I reckon.’

Photography: Gallo/Getty Images, Courtesy Images

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