BY MEGAN MAURICE
There is a subdued feeling casting a shadow over Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney. A week earlier, the NSW Swifts were confident about the new season and the opportunity to defend their premiership.
By the fourth quarter of their first game, that had all changed. Star shooter Sam Wallace left in a wheelchair and soon scans confirmed the worst – it was a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament rupture. Their premiership hopes seemingly in tatters, the home crowd is lacking its sparkle as the team falls further behind the Melbourne Vixens.
An 18-year-old sits nervously on the bench. Having only recently joined the team as a training partner and brought into the match day squad as Wallace's temporary replacement, Sophie Fawns is not expecting to do much more than hand out towels.
In the last four months alone, she has had to deal with the loss of her mother, moved five long hours up the highway to Sydney on her own and started her first year of a Bachelor of Science at UNSW.
With seven minutes remaining in the first half, coach Briony Akle wants something more. She sends word to the young player to warm up. She is needed.
There is no time to ease in quietly. Fawns stands in the substitution box wearing the goal attack bib and signals to her teammate Kelly Singleton. The two change over and soon Fawns drives out to take the centre pass. She offloads it to her captain Maddy Proud, creates space in the middle of the court, receives the ball back, before popping a pass over to goal shooter Helen Housby, then sprinting for the goal post to receive it back and shoot her first goal, her smile lighting up the arena and awakening the crowd. She has been on court for 45 seconds.
It all happens at a blistering, head-spinning pace. This young prodigy has appeared as if from nowhere to take this professional competition by storm. But in truth, it has been an incredible – and sometimes difficult – journey to get here. It is often said that stories are what make us human. The story of Sophie Fawns is one that has humanity at its very heart.
Fawns's story begins in the NSW town of Wagga Wagga where she joined a netball team with a group of school friends at 10 years old. From the moment she picked up a netball, she was hooked.
"I loved playing and my coaches were so encouraging," she said. "They were always telling me to try out for reps and academies, give it a go and see how I went."
The town of Wagga has always batted above its average in producing prodigious sporting talent. Cricketers and UNSW alumni Alex Blackwell, Geoff Lawson, Mark Taylor and Michael Slater all hail from the regional centre, alongside rugby league's Steve Mortimer, Peter Sterling and Jamie Soward and AFL's Neale and Terry Daniher.
It is a place where sporting opportunities are plentiful and Fawns was keen to try her hand at as many as possible. Dance and netball were the two that occupied most of her time and, although netball eventually won her heart, her graceful movement on the court contains whispers of her past life as a dancer.
Time to shine
Fawns’s netball opportunities began to snowball as the talented young player was noticed outside her region. From representative netball in Wagga, she progressed to the Southern Sports Academy, before being selected into the NSW 17 and Under State Team in 2019.
Although the Covid-19 pandemic created havoc in the netball world, Fawns stayed on the radar of netball’s powers that be. She was shopping for school supplies when her mother received a phone call that would prove to be life changing for Fawns.
“When we got back in the car, mum said she had some exciting news. They wanted me to try out the Swifts Academy. I was like, I don't even know what that is, but it sounds really cool!”
From there Fawns was selected into the Australian 17 and Under team in 2020, the Australian 19 and Under team in 2021 and continued to shine in the Swifts Academy. At the end of the 2021 season, another phone call paved the way to the next part of her journey.
“Bec Bulley [Swifts’ assistant coach] rang and said that she wanted to do an interview about becoming a training partner,” Fawns said. “It was pretty nerve-wracking, but it was only a week before she called me back and told me the good news – I was so grateful to get that opportunity.”
It was a hectic period in her life, but Fawns took it all in her stride with a maturity beyond her years. It was a maturity that was not only shaped by her sporting career, but by a significant blow to her family that required all her strength to get through.
Heartbreak at home
While Fawns was progressing with her netball, travelling regularly between Sydney and Wagga and keeping up with her schoolwork, the foundations of her family were shaken when her mother Maureen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
It’s a disease that is particularly devastating because the symptoms can be very difficult to spot and in many cases it’s not caught until it’s too late for treatment to offer a cure.
Maureen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2019 and started chemotherapy immediately.
“When anyone hears the word cancer, there’s obviously a lot of fear and you think the worst, but mum was always so positive,” Fawns said. “Whenever we’d cry, she’d tell us to stay positive too.”
However, after eight rounds of chemotherapy, scans found that the cancer had continued to grow. Maureen qualified for a clinical trial and began a new treatment, which initially worked very well. However, at the 12-month review, the news was quite different.
“When she had her 12-month scan they found out that the cancer had spread all across her body, so they said they were going to put her on a different treatment,” said Fawns.
“They said it was very unlikely to work but it was worth a shot. In August 2021, when she had a scan before the new treatment, dad found out that she was only going to have a few months to live. But mum never wanted to know, and us kids were never told.”
Maureen’s illness and treatment was further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While initially Fawns, her father Greg and her sisters Christina, Olivia and Katie were able to accompany Maureen to treatment, soon they were restricted to waiting outside the building.
“Then in mid-2021 when everyone was in lockdown, we weren't allowed to go with her to treatment anymore,” said Fawns. “At the start of the year, I'd stay for three weeks at a time and be there for all the treatment. But after we went into lockdown in August, I wasn't allowed to go with mum anymore, I was stuck in Wagga.”
Maureen died in November 2021, in the midst of Fawns’s HSC.
“It was really tough,” she said. “I was supposed to go up to Sydney for our netball preseason right after my HSC finished, but I didn't end up finishing my HSC. The Swifts were really supportive of it – they said come up when you're ready."
Grief and a way of coping
In the Buddhist tradition, family and friends observe a seven-week period following death to allow the person to reach enlightenment.
“After that seven weeks, we placed mum in the temple so that we could always go and visit her. And I decided to move to Sydney. I thought, I want to start and this is what mum would want me to do as well.”
While at first netball served as a distraction from her grief, Fawns eventually began feeling more at home in the club and felt it she was where she needed to be.
“Netball was such a great way to keep me occupied, I loved going in every day,” she said. “And I think now, it's not even about that. I want to be there. This is what I want to do.”
Though her grief is still fresh, Fawns has been quietly taking inspiration from fellow netballer Amy Parmenter, who plays for the Swifts’ crosstown rivals, GIANTS Netball.
Parmenter’s mother died of Mesothelioma – a rare cancer – in 2013 and she has since created The Tie Dye Project, which raises money for cancer charities through making and selling tie dyed clothes and netball bibs.
“I'd love to spread awareness about ovarian cancer,” Fawns said. “I think Amy Parmenter is amazing with what she does. Hopefully I can create something that has a big impact like that as well.”
Fawns’s story is unfortunately not an unfamiliar one to Associate Professor Caroline Ford, who leads the Gynaecological Cancer Research Group (GCRG) at UNSW. A/Prof Ford set up the GCRG after initially working in breast cancer when she learnt how little research was being done into ovarian cancer and how low the survival rates were.
A/Prof Ford’s team is in the process of developing an early detection test for ovarian cancer that will have the ability to save countless lives.
“Our goal is a blood test that people could have if they went to their GP,” she said. “In Australia we've been fortunate to have this great cervical screening test for a long time. So people are used to going and getting those kind of tests.
“An ovarian cancer screening would be akin to that, every few years you go and have your regular check-up with your GP, you would have blood taken and it would be assessed in a lab to look for DNA that is specific to ovarian cancer.”
Early detection is important because ovarian cancer’s symptoms can so often be misattributed or dismissed as a normal part of a person’s menstrual cycle.
“The symptoms are extreme pelvic pain, bloating or significant weight loss, there can also be changes in toileting habits – increased frequency to urinate is another key one, and so is feeling very full quickly,” said A/Prof Ford.
“Unfortunately, some of those are symptoms that many people who menstruate experience on a monthly basis, everyone has fluctuations in these things, feels tired or bloated or has weight gain.”
A/Prof Ford stressed that it is when these symptoms become persistent that it is time to take them very seriously.
“They'll last for more than a couple of days,” she said. “If it's a week or two weeks, then it's really important that people go and talk to their GP.”
As well as the early detection test, the GCRG is working on developing treatments for people who have already been diagnosed with ovarian cancer – which would allow people like Maureen to have a greater chance of survival and recovery.
“We're doing some very cool projects with collaborators on drug repurposing, which is about taking drugs that have previously been developed and shelved for different reasons,” said A/Prof Ford. “Using AI technology, we can look at, for example, a heart disease drug and see if it might hit this target that's important in ovarian cancer.
“Rather than starting from square one and taking the typical 15 to 20 years to take it through laboratory work to clinical trials, we can build on thousands of drugs that are available with well-known safety profiles and see if they can help women with ovarian cancer in the next few years.”
After an incredibly emotional and turbulent period of her life, Fawns had to muster up the strength and courage for yet more major upheaval as she moved to Sydney to start her life as a training partner for the NSW Swifts and a university student, studying a Bachelor of Science at UNSW.
“I've always had my eye on going to UNSW,” Fawns said. “My oldest sister went for an open day, and I remember her talking about how beautiful UNSW is and how nice everyone was. And mum really wanted me to go there as well.”
As Fawns was finding her feet in her degree, her netball ramped up unexpectedly when she was called into the match day squad for the Swifts’ first game of the season – a grand final rematch against their crosstown rivals GIANTS Netball. It was a surprise, but she saw a great opportunity to honour her mum.
“I rang the team manager and asked if it was okay to wear a black armband for the game and she said, of course and that the team was planning to do that anyway,” Fawns said.
“There were just so many emotions around that game for me – it's your first time sitting on the bench, and you could play, your family's there watching and it's the first game back. And then in the huddle all the girls were saying, ‘This game's for your mum’. It's hard to keep the tears at bay sometimes.”
The emotions heightened during the game when Sam Wallace sustained an anterior cruciate ligament tear. It was a difficult time for Fawns, who looked up to Wallace as a mentor. When she was named as Wallace’s temporary replacement the following week, she had mixed emotions about the opportunity, but Wallace was quick to allay her fears.
“Sammy, with everything that she's been through, she's still been so supportive of me,” said Fawns. “She came up to me and said if I get the opportunity to take it with both hands. She was just so happy for me. I think that made it easier, I wanted to do her proud as well.”
Fawns burst on to the scene when she debuted against the Melbourne Vixens and immediately won the heart of netball fans across the country. After a few weeks as a temporary replacement player, she was called to a meeting with coach Briony Akle and co-captains Maddy Proud and Paige Hadley.
“Mads pulled me aside, and just said that they wanted to have a little catch up, just to see how I was feeling,” she said.
Instead the leaders broke the news that Fawns had secured a spot as the permanent replacement player for Wallace and would remain in the match day team for the rest of the season.
“I definitely didn't expect the news,” said Fawns. “I was hoping it was me, but I was grateful for whatever came.”
Once she was catapulted so unexpectedly into the professional sporting world, Fawns struggled to balance her studies with her new life. Mentally she had prepared for training a few times a week and weekly match play in the NSW Premier League, with plenty of time to focus on her degree.
However, with a much more intensive netball schedule and regular travel for away games, keeping up with her degree was difficult and she struggled to find the time and energy to commit to her classes in the way she wanted to. While she was incredibly interested in what she was learning, she didn’t feel she was able to put her whole heart into studying under the circumstances. Eventually she decided to take term two off, focus on netball and return to her studies refreshed and ready to immerse herself – and this time she would have more preparation to balance sport and study.
“The term I had off was what I needed at the time,” she said. “Netball definitely took up a lot more time than I anticipated with uni. I think the most important thing was working with my time. When you come home from training, sometimes it's hard to get motivated to study. But it's a lot better doing it then, than having to do it on your day off. And doing a little bit is better than doing nothing at all.”
Support for elite athletes
UNSW Elite Athlete Program (EAP) Manager Helen Bryson will be a key support person for Fawns as she returns to study.
“The Elite Athlete Program is designed for students like Sophie,” she said. “Her first term at university was made more complicated when her netball commitments ramped up unexpectedly, but now she’s prepared for what lies ahead, the EAP will help her balance those two aspects of her life.”
Elite athletes have flexible study built into their degree to allow for travel and training loads, access to student support advisors, psychology services and onsite gym membership to allow them to cohesively combine sport and study.
Bryson is confident that Fawns’s return to the classroom will be as triumphant as her season on the netball court.
“Sophie is such a mature and conscientious young woman,” she said. “She brings so much enthusiasm to her studies and has a real desire to learn. I’m looking forward to seeing what she achieves at UNSW.”
Fawns also received plenty of support from her family during the season. With her two older sisters living in Canberra and her dad and younger sister in Wagga, there was a chance she might have felt isolated in Sydney. However they made sure that was never the case.
“I've been really lucky that my family have come down for every game – they've watched me and stayed for a few days,” she said. “My dad has come to all my games, except for the one in Perth. He's travelled around and it's been really good to have him close by.”
The start of Fawns’s professional sporting career was more dreamlike than most. At 18 years old, she was playing with the confidence of a more experienced athlete, while receiving rapturous applause and lighting up social media every time she stepped on court.
But she soon discovered not every moment in the public eye is so golden. The first inkling came from an incident with Sunshine Coast Lightning defender Kate Walsh. While Fawns was not the target of the social media pile on – she was positioned as the victim in a TikTok that received over 6.3 million views – it was a different experience of being thrust into the spotlight.
“That was probably my first time ever in the media where it wasn't positive,” Fawns mused, reflecting on the incident. “I know most of it was on her, but it was still hard.
“Because I'm starting out, it's hard to turn off the comments and not read things that come up. But I'm glad that most people had my back.”
While most of the attention did fall on Walsh, many of those who sought to stand up for the defender accused Fawns of a variety of offences, from playing the victim through to instigating the incident.
“I talked to our sports psychologist, and she said, ‘I know it's hard, but you can't afford to read those things, because it'll affect you without you even knowing,’” said Fawns. “Sometimes the mean comments stand out a lot more than the nice ones.”
A few weeks later, Fawns again found herself in the headlines – and this time the attention was squarely focused on her. In the Swifts’ second last game of the season, the team mounted a huge comeback against the West Coast Fever. With seconds remaining and the Swifts down by one, Fawns rebounded a missed shot from teammate Helen Housby. Rather than shoot the goal and take the game into extra time, Fawns passed to Housby, who attempted a two-point shot and again missed. The Swifts lost the match and took qualifying for the finals series out of their own hands, needing other results to fall their way.
While Fawns was disappointed, it wasn’t until the next day that she realised her decision to pass the ball in that moment was controversial. The News Corp press published a story with a headline quoting former Australian Diamonds player Catherine Cox calling it the “world’s worst decision”.
“I actually didn't even know there was an article until I was on FaceTime with one of my friends,” she said. “They were scrolling Facebook and said, ‘Oh, they've written a quite a mean article about you.’”
Against her better instincts, Fawns found the story.
“I think it didn't really affect me, because it was a lose-lose situation, I guess,” she said. “If I'd shot the one (point goal) and we went into overtime, and we ended up losing, everyone could have said why didn't I pass it to Helen and she would have sunk it and we would've won the game.
“If I had hesitated and thought about taking the shot, that article would have been pretty hurtful. But I didn't even think about it. You're going for the win. So it was just silly.”
It is a remarkably mature attitude for a young player – one that has seen her through an emotional year and will guide her in the years to come.
Destined for higher honours
After the Swifts’ Super Netball season ended in June, Fawns was selected in the Australian 19 and Under netball team and attended a week-long camp with young netballers from all over the country in July.
“To be able to go to an underage Aussie camp is amazing,” she said. “Being in the SSN environment, I'm surrounded by people who are a lot older than me. Coming back into the under 19s camp, everyone was my age, which was really cool.”
Fawns’s future was also playing on her mind. With Wallace set to return to the Swifts in 2023, she was not sure what her role would be.
“I had talked to my manager and he'd said, he’d try to get me a contract,” she said. “But he asked, ‘At the end of the day, are you happy to be a training partner?’ I told him I was more than happy – as long as I'm in the space again, I don't mind.”
However, returning to the training partner program was not what the Swifts had in mind for Fawns – they recognised the impressive performances she had already put out on court – as well as her long-term potential – and offered her a contract for the 2023 season.
While it would be a few days before Fawns could make the news public, she was allowed to tell her dad.
"Dad was very, very shocked,” she laughed. “I couldn’t believe it either.”
While Fawns knows it will be a different role she will play in the team with Wallace’s return, she is no less eager to dive in.
“I'm so excited to learn off Sam and learn off Helen even more,” she said. “As much as playing is great, I think there's a benefit being able to watch them as well. Talking to the girls, the second season is one of the hardest because everyone knows what you play like and it's about finding something different. So I'm a bit nervous, but I'm also really excited.”
It doesn’t always come easy
Fawns’s year in netball ended in the somewhat unglamourous surrounds of Traralgon in country Victoria at the main pathway competition to the Super Netball, the Australian Netball Championships (ANC).
Despite being the youngest player in the Swifts Academy team, Fawns was also one of the most experienced. While this should have instilled a great deal of confidence in her, the reality was a lot harder.
In the first game of the tournament, the Swifts were up against traditional rivals the Queensland Sapphires but immediately looked uncomfortable, falling behind by eight goals late in the first quarter. Fawns started in her preferred position of goal attack, but after the Queensland goal defence took an intercept in front of her, Fawns put her hands on her hips, struggling for breath. She made her way to sideline and asked to come off the court. It was a strange sight to see the usually joyous athlete appear so downtrodden. But in her typically mature manner, Fawns reflected on that difficult start.
“I think in that moment I was in my head too much,” she said. “I was putting too much pressure on myself. Coming back as one of the Suncorp (Super Netball) players, you've got a lot of eyes on you.
“Before the tournament even started I was worried that if I played badly, people were going to wonder why I got a contract for next year. I wanted to prove that I could play and I deserve a contract. So when I started to not play my best and was out of breath, I got into my own head."
Fortunately Fawns was immediately able to identify the problem and consulted with her coaches soon after.
“They put it into perspective for me,” she said. “They reminded me I was the youngest in the group and I was there to enjoy myself and play netty. Once they said that to me, I was like, ‘You're right. This is my time to just play.’”
The coaches took a different approach for the second game, allowing Fawns to come off the bench. With her team down by five goals at half time, she entered the game in a stunning fashion – shooting 18 goals from 18 attempts in 30 minutes of court time to take the team to within one goal of the win.
“I knew my last game wasn't very good, so for this one I wanted to just go out and play,” she said. “I learnt a lot during that week about working through strategies. If things like that happen again and I get in my head too much, I know what to do.”
While her team did not have as successful a tournament as they would have liked, finishing sixth out of 10 teams, for Fawns it was not the result that mattered, but the process. While she worried about onlookers questioning her worth, she now understands that outside noise should never distract from what she knows to be true – that her maturity and integrity are as important as her talent and skill in setting her value to her team so high.
In early September – with netball behind her for 2022 – Fawns took the opportunity to head back to Wagga for a few weeks before returning to university.
“It feels so nice to come home and see my family,” she said. “But it also feels a bit surreal. Sometimes when I walk down the street people ask me for photos, and I don’t feel famous enough for that! But I love getting to go to all the junior (netball) carnivals and grand finals.”
While it might seem unusual that an 18-year-old professional athlete would spend her rare downtime voluntarily visiting junior netball teams, it is nothing out of the ordinary for Fawns. When asked what her biggest highlight of the year was, Fawns didn’t name her Super Netball debut or receiving her first professional contract.
“I think it’s actually being a role model to all the young girls out there who want to play netball,” she said. “When I went to Campbelltown for State Titles, so many girls, especially girls from Wagga were coming up to me and saying, ‘You have no idea how much you've inspired me.’ Being a role model to such a young age demographic is amazing.”
Returning to study
Next on her agenda is readjusting to life at university. While her first term brought about some challenges, Fawns has learnt important lessons from her experiences.
“When I was in school, and even at the start of the uni year, I always saw netball as my priority,” she said. “Everyone says you've got to have a balance, but I thought I want to play sport now and I can always study later.
“But the last year has taught me that you definitely need something outside of netball and to be able to study at the same time is a privilege – it's really good for me.”
Fawns’s thoughts on her studies have also been shaped by the last year and the impact she wants to have on the world.
“Right now, I’m interested in exploring genetics,” she said. “What first interested me was back with my mum. What made her cells different and why we didn't inherit some of those things?
“I really enjoyed my biology subject in the first term. If I had more time to dedicate to it, I think I could see myself pursuing a career in that.”
Maureen’s positive attitude about her diagnosis and her determination have lived on in her daughter. Throughout this difficult and extraordinary year of her life, Fawns’s focus has remained on playing for her mum and not without her.
“That first day at ANC was so hard – I found myself thinking ‘Oh god, I wish mum was here,’” she said. “Looking up and seeing my dad sit alone in the crowd was a bit hard.
“But throughout the year, I felt like if I play for her, then it's worth doing.”
While ‘second-year syndrome’ is common parlance in the sporting world, in Fawns’s life, the phrase holds more meaning. Not only will she be returning to professional netball as a known quantity, with defenders having analysed her strengths and weaknesses, but it will also be her second year of university. Her second year navigating the world as an adult. And her second year without her mum cheering her on as she guides herself over these obstacles.
When asked about the most important lesson she has learnt from this year, Fawns was thoughtful for a few moments. It’s a big question for the year she’s had.
“It might sound a bit cringy,” she said and paused. “But I've learnt that I am stronger and more resilient than I thought I was.”
After hearing her story and understanding what she has withstood to be thriving in the professional sporting world at such a young age, it is doubtful that anyone could regard that statement as worthy of anything less than unequivocal admiration.
While on the surface she appears to be a confident, joyful young woman, exploding into the world of professional sport, the reality is a lot more complex. Fawns is a patchwork – each piece of her past having been stitched together with the lessons she has learnt and the way she has reacted to the turmoil she has faced. What the world sees is only the beautiful quilt she has created out of these sometimes messy and painful pieces.