Sport

Firebirds champ Romelda Aiken ready to resurface

Romelda Aiken in control during a recent practice match.
Romelda Aiken in control during a recent practice match. Peter Burton

ROMELDA Aiken is one of the super women of Super Netball, who hasn't been without her own form of Kryptonite - water.

"Black people don't swim, man," the Jamaican international tells News Regional Media with a laugh. "Don't need to."

But, word of warning to the defenders playing in this year's new-look domestic netball competition - it appears there is now no stopping the Queensland Firebirds' already imposing 196cm goal shooter.

Not even the dreaded h2o.

The two-time ANZ Championship MVP (2008, 2009) was forced to confront one of her biggest fears on the Firebirds' now infamous pre-season stay at Canungra's Kokoda Barracks in the Gold Coast hinterland.

Most of the weekend's activities involved either going through, over or into some form of water.

As well as the fact Aiken didn't learn to swim while growing up in the Caribbean, she says "I hate getting my hair wet", so the 'boot camp' was doubly torturous for the 28-year-old.

But, spurred on by her competitive nature and determination to foster the high standards set each year by the Firebirds, she wasn't about to let any obstacle defeat her.

 

Aiken doing it tough at the pre-season boot camp at the Kokoda Barracks.
Aiken doing it tough at the pre-season boot camp at the Kokoda Barracks. Nigel Hallett

"As a leader in the group, I think most of the girls look up to me ... You know 'if she's not doing it, I don't want to do it'," Aiken says.

"And I didn't want to set that standard for anyone. It was about getting everyone on board really quickly... keeping ourselves accountable."

Even if it meant holding her head under water in order to both crawl through a tunnel and swim beneath barbed wire fencing ... or dropping 30 metres into Coomera River.

"Let's not get into too many details, but it was hard," Aiken says.

"I couldn't touch the ground to start with and I was worried about everyone else not touching the ground. But everyone else could swim.

"Thanks to (teammate) Binnian (Hunt), she was a good swimmer and she was really helping me across the water. I'm like 'thanks girl'.

"It took a massive team effort from everyone. We made the best out of all the situations. We found fun in everything we did.

"Personally, I just accomplished so many things ... and I actually enjoyed the abseiling. I think that was my favourite part, just quietly."

 

Aiken doing it tough at the pre-season boot camp at the Kokoda Barracks.
Aiken doing it tough at the pre-season boot camp at the Kokoda Barracks.

As Aiken and her fellow Firebirds are about to embark on a new campaign, it is an ongoing period of conquering her own personal demons.

While the Firebirds clinched their second successive - and the last - trans-Tasman ANZ Championship with a grand final win over the NSW Swifts in 2016, Aiken is the first to admit she had a game to forget.

The normally straight shooter suffered from a case of the 'yips'- as coach Roselee Jencke described them. She shot at just 65% in the first half while opposed to Sharni Layton, who's crossed to new franchise Collingwood.

As the first player in the competition to reach 5000 goals, Aiken has nothing to prove to anyone, but she is keen to put that performance well and truly behind her and be at her best in the first round of Super Netball action this Saturday night when the champs host Sunshine Coast Lightning at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre.

"That was a shocking game," she recalls. "They say you're only as good as your last, but it was just one out of however many I've played.

"Despite my wobbly hands - and while I might have a few more of those (bad games) because I'm getting on in age - I will definitely back myself out there on court.

"I just look at it as a learning experience ... laugh at myself and go 'it happens'. We're not machines. Of course we're going to have faults."

 

Romelda Aiken and Laura Geitz celebrate their 2016 ANZ Championship grand final win.
Romelda Aiken and Laura Geitz celebrate their 2016 ANZ Championship grand final win. Glenn Hunt

It's not dissimilar to the attitude she has towards a far more sinister game she was once dragged in to away from the court - when the victim of an online stalker.

Three years on from the unfortunate episode, Aiken is asked if she would eventually use the experience to warn others to be careful in the online world - particularly teammates as exposure of 'Super Netballers' increases with added coverage in media, including social media.

"That's a very good question," she says.

"I think I sort of went the other direction and into hiding. I haven't really spoken about it to anyone.

"(But) I think with us going out to schools, that's the sort of message I want to bring to school kids. We're all going to make mistakes. We're all not perfect."

That said, the Firebirds are embracing the hype that is accompanying the new-look competition, albeit treading carefully and trying to ensure it's business as usual. It's a dedication to "read the fine print. Making sure we're very much attention to detail," Aiken says,

"We've had this culture for a very long time. we never get excited until there's like seconds to go.

"The build-up around it, (new broadcaster) Channel 9 just pumping it wherever and however ... it's amazing.

"Everywhere you go people are talking about it.

 

Romelda Aiken in full flight for the Firebirds.
Romelda Aiken in full flight for the Firebirds. DAN PELED

"We are getting slightly more recognised when we go out. It's not just the netball mums, you get the dads as well talking about the game.

"So, yes, it's going to be exciting but what we need to focus on is what we need to do to win games.

"For us, and I know Rose (Jencke) will keep drumming it into us, it's about trusting the processes and then we'll see the outcome."

With champion defenders Laura Geitz and Clare McMeniman gone, and Gabi Simpson taking over the captaincy, it is a changing of the guard at the Firebirds, but it is testament to their depth and those 'processes' Jencke has in place that makes them the early season favourite.

"I wouldn't say we're the team to beat. But it's good to know a lot of people still have confidence in us, thinking we can win another championship," Aiken says..

"For our defenders we've got now, they're just improving week in, week out. They ask a lot of questions, which is great.

"Having the best attacking line-up (with Aiken joined by goal attack Gretel Tippett) to compete against gives them so much more experienced.

"It's going to be a massive step up, but we've said 'don't be afraid to make your own mark. You don't have to be like anyone else'."

 

Gretel Tippett and Romelda Aiken and formed a lethal combination.
Gretel Tippett and Romelda Aiken and formed a lethal combination. Hannah Peters

The Firebirds take on the new girls, the Lightning, in a blockbuster opening-round derby at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre while the Swifts play the Giants in an all-Sydney battle and the Vixens take on Collingwood in Melbourne.

"I feel for the fans," Aiken says with a laugh. "Some of them don't really know who to go for yet.

"When we played on the Sunny Coast this one girl was wearing a Firebirds hat, Lightning t-shirt and had both Lightning and Firebirds posters."

There is no doubt though with superstars like Aiken gracing the stage, netball is the real winner.

Go to Ticketek.com.au to book your tickets for this Saturday night's clash at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre.

News Corp Australia

Topics:  jamaica kokoda barracks queensland firebirds romelda aiken sportfeature super netball



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