I’ll never forget watching one of my first games of professional netball. I remember watching and witnessing one player in particular who brought a game as ferocious as any that I had faced in my professional basketball career. She fiercely hunted for the ball, was uncompromising in her approach and – by the expression on the faces of her teammates – I could tell they were relieved that she was wearing the same colours as them! 

That player was Renae Hallinan. 

I’ve always been impressed with Renae’s pure athleticism and how she played the game of netball. Simply, she plays the game the right way: competitive, honest and team (family) first – the same way she is in ‘real’ life.

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One of the other things that was apparent to me, after getting to know her, was how committed she was to it – to be a netballer and being the best player she could be. Nothing was going to come close to stopping her in the pursuit of her goals.

Renae and I were introduced to each other through mutual friends while I was living in Melbourne, playing for South Dragons in the National Basketball League (NBL). I was young and naïve, and what truly had an impression on me, even back then, was Renae’s professional approach to her craft. In fact, Renae was the first person to teach me what it takes to develop your talents through best practice as a professional in an elite sporting environment.

Renae is honestly the competitor that I aim to emulate and the quality I most admire in her is that competing was never about ”her” as an individual. She sees herself as a cog in the machinations of a team, as a willing participant to do what is necessary for the team to win, and perhaps most importantly she understands the value of personal sacrifice.

I must say that Renae taught me something else too, something precious. Self-belief.

I know that as a kid growing up that she wanted to play for the Vixens. She wanted to play for Australia. She had posters of all the most popular players on her wall. 

There was never any doubt in her mind that she was capable of playing for Australia. She didn’t let any obstacle stop her cracking the squad or the matchday team. 

Every time she received a call about being on the national team, seeing her face light up gave me so much joy and fulfilment, knowing the work she constantly put in.

She was just so determined to play for Australia. She never would have gone in wanting to win an individual award, she just wanted to play for Australia and make the team better. It is a credit to her to have an impact like she did and receive the Liz Ellis Diamond award (from wing defence no less!) too, it just shows how good she was as an individual player. 

Renae is a player who has realised her full potential and when she announced retirement from netball at the end of this season, we all knew she had left nothing behind. 

But there was a time when we weren’t so sure.

In 2016, Renae became pregnant and had to step away from netball altogether. That was tough. Not the pregnancy part, as this was a dream come true for us as a couple starting our new family. But as a gifted athlete and competitor, and only 29 years old, we both knew she still had so much more to give. In all honesty, I felt helpless at that time. 

Renae would be the first to say that becoming parents was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. Seeing her so happy going to the scans and seeing the heart beats and all the things that you see definitely made it worthwhile, but we would also come home and talk about whether she might never play again or maybe she does.

I think she did feel a sense of guilt for wanting to still be an athlete. Although she didn’t regret retirement, it was more about not being able to fill that hole that she had filled for so many years.

I remember the comradery of teammates and coaches was one of the things that Renae missed most when she opened up about their transition into retirement and motherhood, it’s something unique and special about sport that you can’t replace. 

It was one of the hardest years for her, we would have daily conversations about her transition and how best to work through it all.

At the time, all I could do was support Renae the best I could. But so often, I felt helpless because there was nothing I could say or do that could change the circumstances. We both felt as though she walked away from netball too soon, she still had so much more to give.

I’ve never even really spoken to Renae too much in depth about it, but for me the only time I’m ever really emotional is when it’s involved her or the kids. If it’s involving me or my career or whatever, it’s usually pretty easy for me to just forget about it or move on or work out whatever I need to work out to better myself. But whenever it’s involved her, or especially now with the kids, it’s the only time that I get emotional. 

You can’t help but ask questions: “What does it (retirement) look like?”, “Is she ever going to play again?”, “Is it a year or two off and she comes back again or what would we do?”. It was so unknown that we didn’t really know what to expect.

For her it was always me and the kids and that’s why she ended up deciding to retire, she wanted our family to be together. I still knew in the back of my head it just wasn’t over for her. I didn’t know how it would work out or if it would work out. I knew that if it didn’t work out, there was going to be a void in her in there somewhere that will never be fulfilled. 

As an elite athlete, you’re pretty selfish with your own career but you want to finish your own career when you want to finish it. You don’t want to be told or pushed out or through a pregnancy. You want to always go out on your own terms. I knew she obviously wasn’t getting to do that.

I kept on putting myself in Renae’s shoes. How would I feel if I had to give up basketball?

I knew she still had a burning desire to play netball, and I knew she could still compete at the highest level. I felt I just had to be there and support her as she stepped away from the game she loves to start a family.  

As history now shows, Renae was able to return to the court as a professional netballer eight months after the kids were born. Which I think everyone, and especially every mother, knows is absolutely unbelievable!

Throughout the pregnancy, I felt in the back of my mind that it just wasn’t over for her. I envisioned her out there on the court doing what she does best. But I didn’t know how it how would work out. I just knew she would get another opportunity to compete in an elite competition again.

Renae ended up moving back to Australia with the kids in early 2017 as she had been approached with an offer from a team in the national netball competition.

I was over the moon for her and said, honestly: ‘I’ll just quit the NBA and play in the NBL, we’ll have the kids in Australia, and at least we’ll both get to play professionally’. But it never came to that. She wouldn’t allow it. Renae didn’t want me to give up my dream of playing in the NBA.

If it got to that point, it would have been something I would have done. I would have come back to Australia, and we both could have played. But, as it is out there on the netball court, Renae is a selfless person who has sacrificed so much so I can play in the NBA.

Renae’s legacy to Australian netball and her contribution to the game will live on for years to come. From a netball player’s perspective, we’d always kind of even joke that she made playing wing defence a likeable position because it was always a position that no one wanted to play.

Before Renae, wing defence was a position few wanted to play, and even fewer regarded as integral to success. Through a stubborn desire not to let her teammates down, Renae’s style of play forced opposition coaches to plan around her and strategically counter her influence.

She revolutionised the position. She played with steel and determination.

To make such an impact, it’s something she never thought she could do as a kid growing up, she was just a young girl from ‘the patch’ that had a dream to be a netballer.

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I’ve even seen Kim Green write on her Instagram page the other day that Renae “was the toughest wing defender that she ever had to play on.” Renae wanted that – to be the hardest, toughest defender for people to play on. Obviously, that end result would be their team winning. 

One of the things that Renae has done, through coming back after having the kids and competing the way she does is that she has inspired other women and girls that they can do it. It’s an inspiration to me to see what she did to keep her own career growing and our family still running (trust me, she runs it!).

The amount of people that have told us that they were inspired by what she did and how she came back and the level she played at when she did come back is so unreal and true. Renae’s teammates, especially this year, saw how hard it was on her. But just like she has always done, she battled through it and excelled. 

I don’t think I could do what I do in the NBA were it not for Renae. All of the qualities that I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, she possesses; she’s tough and resilient, competitive and fair, and overall she is team and family first. 

Renae is consistently teaching and inspiring me, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be her partner, for our children to have her as their mother, and for a lot of young netballers and even the wider community to have her as a hero, role model and inspiration.

We’ve already shared so much; as professional athletes, marrying to become husband and wife, and experiencing the magnificent gift of parenthood; it’s been the most incredible journey and I want to thank you, Renae, on behalf on everyone in your life and who you have inspired in your journey so far.