Sharelle McMahon: Pathway to the 1999 World Netball Championship

IN the second instalment of our chat with Australian netball champion Sharelle McMahon, we take a look at her netball journey and that 1999 gold medal.

PART 1 – Sharelle McMahon: Pushing the boundaries.

McMahon’s pathway to the top level went a little differently to how it goes nowadays, with the talented goaler introduced to some familiar names along the way who propelled her into the world of elite sport. 

“When I talk about my development and how I came to be in Melbourne playing netball, I have to talk about my athletics part of my story as well,” McMahon said. “I actually was lucky enough to be coached by [Olympic gold medalist] Debbie Flintoff-King for a period of time, she ran some coaching clinics throughout Victoria … out of that group of people that she worked with right across Victoria she selected about 15 of us to go up to the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) and train up there with her.”

“So I was 13-years-old at that stage, maybe 13 about to be 14,” she said. “I was really young and it was really the first time that I’d experienced anything like being at the AIS or seeing Debbie Flintoff-King and I took an enormous amount out of getting to know her and in many ways to me it kind of opened my eyes … she can do something amazing like that, why couldn’t I do something like that. “And so for me, that relationship with Debbie although it was only pretty short-lived was really significant for me.”

Fast-forward a couple of years and McMahon went on to debut for Australia in 1998, before sinking the winning goal at the 1999 World Netball Championships to catapult her into netball stardom. 

“Being able to take it (netball) further and I guess replicate what I saw Vicki Wilson do in some ways – I remember watching her in the 1991 World Cup and I’d never seen netball played at the elite level, never. I’d kind of never even realised there was an Australian team!” McMahon said. 

“I clearly remember thinking, I want to do that. “That looks so, so fantastic. “And so, to actually be named in the team alongside her for the first time, it was kind of surreal. “It was really like what am I doing here. But it was amazing.”

The 1999 World Netball Championships final against New Zealand was littered with contentious decisions by the umpires that are still brought up even 20 years later.

McMahon ‘controversially’ entered the court during the latter stages of the third quarter of the final amidst confusion from both teams and in a physical and close encounter against the Ferns, there is plenty that was questioned both at the time and still today.

Jill McIntosh, our coach, had come over to me, actually not long before I went on the court,” McMahon said. “So, I don’t even know how long I was on the court for that in the third quarter, a few minutes, I think. “But she had come over and said to me ‘you’re going on at three quarter time so that’s what I had expected.

“I had been told I was sitting on the bench and so I had put my mind into that and was fully into that, and possibly should have been a little bit more ready to go on court because when Jill did come over and tap on my leg it gave me a huge shock to think that I was actually going out on court so that was my kind of initial reaction, and then those couple of minutes in the third quarter were a bit of a blur.”

What was nerve-wracking for spectators was amplified on the court, and while Australia was down by a solid margin by the final change, the instructions on how to turn the match on its head were clear as the teams returned to the court.

“I will never forget the feeling in the three quarter time huddle when we were down by six goals, and I think then went down to seven early in the fourth quarter,” McMahon said. “But Jill was very methodical about what we had to do and it was only a couple of turnovers is the reality of that situation. “When I talk to the girls about that we clearly remember that message from her, don’t think about the bigger picture or trying to make up the – oh my god, six goals, how do you do that – let’s break it down. It’s only three turnovers, and that is easily doable and we actually did that really quickly.”

“We were all just single minded about being able to get this game back, so you know I just threw myself into the game, probably literally, really. “And I remember Jenny Borlase screaming at me that whole quarter, ‘drive! drive!’ and so that’s what I was doing. “Wherever I was going. I was going hard and I didn’t care who was in the way or what I was doing. That’s what I was doing.”

“It was goal-for-goal for quite some time because we got the margin back pretty quickly, and then Donna Loffhagen had the ball under the post of course with only 20 seconds to go – I know there was 20 seconds to go because we had a time clock on the bench and I looked over and I remember the scores were level and I knew that it was New Zealand’s centre pass next. “And so, I fully remember standing on the court looking down as she was taking that shot thinking, well that’s it we’ve lost the World Cup. “But she missed, and what an amazing rebound it was – when I see that footage of Liz Ellis jumping up and taking that rebound, that is not easy to do. Being able to get up and take that rebound.”

“Maybe we’ll talk about some of the calls that led up to that situation, I’m not sure but then the ball came down court; did Kath Harby-Williams step, possibly, I don’t know; did someone replay the ball, possibly; did I contact when I took the ball for that last time, I don’t know, possibly! AlI know is that when Liz got that rebound, I just switched back into playing. I wasn’t fully conscious about the dire situation we were in really, because I just went back to playing. So when I took that shot, the enormity of it really wasn’t on my shoulders because I was just turning and taking a shot. I didn’t have time to think about it, I put the shot up and that was that. And it was only when the umpire signalled full time that I realised that meant we had won the game.”

“I don’t know the right way to explain how I tackle that situation but the reality is for me is that I just put everything out there, I’m not going to think about the things that can go wrong, as much as I can I just I just wanted to get out there and do everything I possibly could, so that I knew that I’d left everything out on the court and not be able to walk off thinking ‘if only I’d done that’, that was my mindset and that’s how I kind of got to that stage, I guess.”

McMahon went on to play in three World Cups and four Commonwealth Games campaigns, collecting a combined four gold medals along the way. But an elusive fourth World Cup in 2011 evaded her as injury struck.

“I had watched Vicki Wilson play in four World Cups and there was part of me that thought I would love to do that… so that World Cup that we were preparing for, that I was going to captain the Diamonds, was only three months away,” she said. 

“You know, without probably making really firm decisions on it, it just felt like the right time to retire so I was ready for that … and then I snapped my Achilles – thought actually someone kicked me, I was very angry about that – and then I turned around and realised that no one was standing there, and that was bad news.

“I think kind of post that and when all the emotions settled down, I just didn’t feel right having my final moment on the netball court being carried off with a ruptured Achilles, it just didn’t feel right.”

While McMahon retired from the international scene with that injury, she made a triumphant return to the domestic competition with the Melbourne Vixens before retiring overall in 2013.

Thanks to Sharelle McMahon and the supervising team at Parkville Netball Competitions – Joel Owen, Juleen Maxfield and Penny Carlson – for giving Draft Central access to this session.

Note – All questions throughout the meeting were contributed by the aforementioned umpiring cohort and supervisors, with just snippets of the hour-long meeting making the cut and much of the conversation revolving around umpiring.

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