TE AO HAS NETBALL WORLD AT HER FINGERTIPS
By Suzanne McFadden
17 Apr, 2023
Growing up in Perth, Katie Te Ao always dreamed of playing netball in NZ. But she never expected the teen rival who lured her home would eventually become her Mystics midcourt team-mate, Suzanne McFadden discovers.
Katie Te Ao calls it a “full circle moment”.
When she made the starting seven of the Mystics for her first time on Saturday – coincidentally, her 22nd birthday – Te Ao was stepping in for experienced centre Tayla Earle, out of the match against the Pulse with a foot injury.
Few people know Earle, one of her earliest rivals, had played a major role in convincing a teenage Te Ao to return home from Australia five years ago and play her netball in Aotearoa.
Now the athletic, whip-fast midcourter is working closely with Earle to grow her game in a position that still feels foreign to the former circle defender.
“It’s so crazy,” Te Ao laughs. “Not a lot of people in our team knew Tayla and I had that connection before I came to the Mystics.”
Te Ao was born in Auckland, but at three, moved to Perth with her parents who were looking for a lifestyle change.
Although her mum watched the ANZ Championship on TV every weekend, Te Ao was a late starter to netball. A promising touch rugby player, she didn’t pick up a round ball till she was 11: “Then I was just jumping on the bandwagon with the other girls.”
Te Ao’s innate competitiveness meant she rapidly learned the sport – playing in defence for Western Australia age group sides from the age of 12, then making the Australian team to play in an international schools tournament in Fiji in 2017.
It was there Te Ao lined up in the final against Earle, captain of Aotearoa Māori, who ended up tournament victors.
“Tayla’s mum approached my mum and said ‘I see your daughter’s Māori, she should be playing for us’,” Te Ao, who’s of Tainui descent, recalls. “Our mums kept in contact for a year, and in 2018, I came over to play in a Māori netball tournament in Gisborne.
“I loved it so much, I rang my parents and said, ‘Sorry I’m not getting back on the plane; I’m not coming back to Australia’. I made the decision myself to stay. My dad wasn’t very happy, but he could see it was worth something.”
So Te Ao went to live with her grandparents in Tuakau, at the foot of the Bombay Hills. “It was so nice because I had them all to myself,” she says.
From them, she learned more about Te Ao Māori (the Māori world), something she missed out on growing up in Australia. She now has a tā moko on her right wrist – a taniwha designed by her uncle. “It watches over me, gives me a sense of guidance,” she says.
After a year at One Tree Hill College, Te Ao took up a scholarship to spend Year 13 at St Peter’s School in Cambridge. The school would create history that year, winning the New Zealand secondary schools netball title for the first time.
The paths of Earle and Te Ao crossed again when they were both chosen in the New Zealand U21 side to defend their World Youth Cup title in Fiji late in 2021. But the global pandemic ultimately cancelled the championship.
After spending 2022 as a training partner for the Magic in the ANZ Premiership, Te Ao was invited to join the Mystics side for this year’s league – finally getting to play alongside Earle.
“It’s so cool to come full circle and play netball with Tayla,” Te Ao says. “She’s so young but she has so much experience already. And it’s nice to have someone like her who I can follow, who’s happy to help me.
“Week in, week out I’m working closely with her to learn as much as I can, to make sure I’m able to fill her shoes, and add what I bring to the team as well.”
By chance it was an Australian – Claire O’Brien – who opened up the spot in the Mystics midcourt for Te Ao, when she decided to remain in Sydney this year.
On Friday, Te Ao got to meet and personally thank O’Brien – who was called into the side when Earle pulled up lame (one of four premiership players who suffered foot injuries over Easter Weekend).
“She’s a firecracker – she slotted into the team like she’d never been away,” Te Ao says of O’Brien. “It’s nice to meet her over a coffee and be able to say to her ‘Without you, I wouldn’t be here. Thank you’.”
Te Ao’s debut in the Mystics starting line-up against defending premiership champions the Pulse at home on Saturday is best described as a baptism of fire.
She started at centre, but found it hard to create space under the close attention of her Pulse opposite, Maddy Gordon (who was named the match MVP). When Te Ao moved to wing defence at the start of the second quarter – with the Mystics trailing by nine – and O’Brien stepped in at centre, she felt much more at home. And by halftime, the league-leading Mystics were just one goal in arrears.
But the steady Pulse attack held their nerve, winning 55-53, handing the Mystics their second loss at the halfway point of the season.
Te Ao played in every quarter, only coming off for the final five minutes with cramp.
“Welcome to the ANZ Premiership!” she laughed after the game with an icepack strapped on her calf. “In all honesty, it was scary. Playing centre is still foreign to me, so I’m just proud of the way I redeemed myself in defence. It felt like it flowed better which is why we came back.”
Te Ao certainly contributed at wing defence with two gains, one intercept and one deflection.
“Despite the loss, I’m glad I got to spend the day with these girls. There’s no other team I’d rather spend my birthday with,” she says.
Injured Mystics captain, Sulu Fitzpatrick, who sat on the coaches’ end of the bench through the game, was “really proud” of Te Ao’s performance on court.
“It was amazing for her first full game at ANZ Premiership level, and her first start in a position that’s not natural to her. At this stage of the competition, it shows what type of person she is,” Fitzpatrick says.
“She’s got a lot of heart, and she’s also really brave. She might be small, but she’s very deceptive – and she’s got hops. She can probably jump higher than any of us defenders in the circle.
“She’s also the fastest in our team and very agile. That’s why she’s able to get those balls in the pockets. What’s really great about her, though, is she’s very competitive, she doesn’t like to lose. Which is exactly what you want – that passion to win, in a skillful way.”
It’s one of the first things Te Ao points out about herself – that competitiveness.
“So having people around me, who are just like me, or even better, just makes me strive to keep getting better,” she says. “Being in a team where everyone breathes confidence, you feed off it and give it back.”
As a kid, Te Ao made rep teams in touch and was an impressive sprinter. There are remnants in her speed across the court, and her fast, flat pass.
“I think I was a bit old when I started playing netball, and I wasn’t very good at it. I got five minutes here and there. But the competitive streak in me took over and I decided if I was going to get better at this sport, I had to stop playing touch,” she says.
“If I’m not good at something, I’ll drill it into myself until I am.”
Te Ao’s taking extra time to focus on honing her game now she’s fully contracted to the Mystics and living in Auckland, with her partner and her younger brother, who’s still at school.
In her first year out of school, she stayed on at St Peter’s, working part-time assisting her old netball coach, Te Aroha Keenan, while playing for Waikato Bay of Plenty in the National Netball League.
“[Keenan] is a legend, so experienced on and off the court – it was amazing to have her guide me in netball and in life,” she says.
Now the Mystics have taken on that role. Te Ao has to pinch herself to believe she’s playing alongside Silver Ferns like Grace Nweke, Peta Toeava, Michaela Sokolich-Beatson and Phoenix Karaka.
“For now, my goals are just to soak up as much knowledge I can – from these coaches and players around me. You can’t get any better,” she says. “I don’t like to think too far ahead, I liked to focus on the now.
“But my parents always used to ask me, ‘If you got the opportunity, would you become an Australian Diamond or a Silver Fern?’ My heart always came back to New Zealand. I always wanted to come home and play. Of course, that’s still in my mind, but it’s still a while away.”