Life & Style Weekend - - READ - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

Gretel Tip­pett is surely blessed with that rare, mag­i­cal ath­letic gene. At 192 cen­time­tres (6’ 3” on the old scale), she looks as though she could scale a rock face, hurl a javelin, dash a mean sprint or pull out a stun­ning triple jump with­out quite know­ing how to do one.

She comes from ath­letic stock. Her two older brothers played top-level AFL – Kurt for the Ade­laide Crows and Sydney Swans and Joel for North Mel­bourne. Now it’s Gretel’s star that’s on the rise.

The 24-year-old is a Su­per Net­ball league stand­out, fa­mous in net­ball cir­cles for her un­ortho­dox on-court style in­clud­ing her sig­na­ture shoot­ing move, the lay-up net­ball shot, co-opted from her early days as an elite ju­nior bas­ket­baller.

Re­spected Aus­tralian net­ball com­men­ta­tor Sue Gau­dion is a huge fan.

“She’s the most ex­cit­ing player in the game at the mo­ment,” Sue says. “I love what she brings. There’s no one else like her and I say the more of Gretel, the bet­ter.”

Gretel burst onto the elite net­ball scene in 2013, mak­ing Aus­tralia’s Un­der 21 team and the na­tional five-a-side Fast5 se­nior team in just her sec­ond year in the sport.

She’s been in the mix of the Aus­tralian play­ing group ever since, still work­ing on tam­ing her freestyle bas­ket­ball in­stincts to suit the de­mands of net­ball’s more stac­cato style of play. That Gretel found her­self even play­ing net­ball is a story in it­self.

“I played a bit of net­ball when I was six and seven but I’d al­ways played bas­ket­ball be­cause my brothers did,” she says.

“I idolised Kurt and Joel and I just wanted to do what they did.”

In­deed, Kurt was a tal­ented state Un­der 18s bas­ket­baller and only started play­ing Aus­tralian rules at 18. Gretel too was play­ing top-level bas­ket­ball by age 17 af­ter be­ing scouted by the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport in Can­berra to play in the Women’s NBL.

Al­though she shone on the court, she strug­gled be­hind the scenes, try­ing to jug­gle her fi­nal year school stud­ies and home­sick­ness.

“It was full on,” she says. “I was train­ing and play­ing and still try­ing to get high enough grades to get me into univer­sity.”

Her stel­lar bas­ket­ball ca­reer in­cluded rep­re­sent­ing Aus­tralia at three ju­nior World Cham­pi­onships and, in 2011, she was named the WNBL’S Rookie of the Year but some­thing had to give. Gretel came down with glan­du­lar fever and was forced to take a break.

In 2012, she was back on the Gold Coast study­ing a Bach­e­lor of Nutri­tion and Di­etet­ics at Grif­fith Univer­sity, a de­gree she’s still com­plet­ing.

But af­ter four months of rest­ing, the lure of team sport was draw­ing her back.

“I started play­ing net­ball with a friend,” she says. “I just missed play­ing sport and I didn’t have the en­ergy or the drive at that time to go back to bas­ket­ball. I thought net­ball would be a bit of fun and a way to keep fit.”

Gretel played in the lo­cal comp and even tried out for the dis­trict rep­re­sen­ta­tive tri­als, fun­nily enough not mak­ing the team. But word had got out. They very next day, Gretel re­ceived a call from the lo­cal state league team, the Gold Coast Jaguars, ask­ing her to play with them.

“I told them I didn’t make the dis­trict team,” she says. “But they told me to come along any­way.”

What net­ball coach worth a free pass wouldn’t want a 6’3” Aus­tralian rep­re­sen­ta­tive some­where in the ranks, even if their net­ball skills were some­thing of a wild­card?

Gretel cred­its Jags coach Paula Stu­art with launch­ing her net­ball ca­reer.

“She re­ally put me un­der her wing,” Gretel says. “I had to learn the rules from scratch.

I’d lost a lot of fit­ness and strength. I re­mem­ber they did phys­i­cal test­ing on us and I didn’t do so well.”

In one of her early games for the Jags, Gretel in­fa­mously threw 13 air balls dur­ing her shots at goal but no one could dis­count her pure ath­leti­cism and her sheer grit in want­ing to be bet­ter.

“I just loved be­ing part of a team again and the chal­lenge of learning a whole new game,” Gretel says. “I loved watch­ing net­ball on the TV and I just wanted to be bet­ter at it. That was my chal­lenge for my­self, to keep im­prov­ing.”

Af­ter mak­ing the Aus­tralian team for the World Youth Cham­pi­onships in 2013, the in­evitable con­tract with the big league fol­lowed. Gretel moved to Sydney to play with the Sydney Swifts in the then ANZ Cham­pi­onships.

“I was 20 and be­ing away from home, I strug­gled again,” Gretel says. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about my­self, it’s that I just like home.”

The vul­ner­a­bil­ity seems at odds with Gretel’s on-court per­sona, her trade­mark swing­ing blonde pony­tail and bold play­ing style a sur­pris­ing con­trast to her gen­uine sweet­ness off it.

Gau­dion dubs her the smil­ing as­sas­sin. “I think Gretel gets that white line fever,”

she says. “She as­sumes a new char­ac­ter when she’s on court.

“I say this with the great­est ad­mi­ra­tion – she’s like the smi­ley blonde bomb­shell but as soon as she’s on court, watch out.”

Inevitably, home drew her back. She signed with the Queens­land Fire­birds in 2015 where she was paired in the shoot­ing cir­cle with Ja­maican veteran Romelda Aiken – to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect.

“It was a fast ride,” Gretel says. “I loved it. She gave me so much con­fi­dence. She re­ally car­ried me that first sea­son.”

That first sea­son, the Fire­birds won their first na­tional ti­tle and Gretel was se­lected in the Aus­tralian Di­a­monds team for the Con­stel­la­tion Cup, the tightly con­tested tour­na­ment be­tween then world net­ball pow­er­houses Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

“We’d planned a fam­ily hol­i­day to Hawaii,” Gretel says. “It was all booked then I got the call-up for the Di­a­monds so we changed the trip to New Zealand.

“Ev­ery­one came, Mum, Dad, my grand­mother, my brothers too. It meant a lot to me to have them all there.”

In a coach­ing mas­ter­stroke, Gretel was in­jected into the sec­ond game of the se­ries out of po­si­tion as wing at­tack when Aus­tralia was trail­ing mid­way through the third quar­ter. Her un­ortho­dox style proved al­most im­pos­si­ble for the Ki­wis to de­fend, turn­ing the game Aus­tralia’s way. Her per­for­mance was lauded as “the best de­but any Aus­tralian Di­a­mond has ever had”.

Gretel has been a fixture in the Di­a­monds squad ever since. Her mav­er­ick play­ing style has won her a le­gion of fans al­though it hasn’t been with­out some snip­ing from the side­lines.

“Some of the net­ball tra­di­tion­al­ists can’t cope with see­ing some­one from out­side come in and daz­zle like that,” Gau­dion says.

“But they’re part of the old sys­tem and they’re on their way out. Gretel is a rare out­sider in net­ball, a cross-coder and we don’t get many of those. I love her. She’s play­ing within the rules and she’s a stand­out in our sport. That’s great for the game.”

Gretel says she would love to get a start­ing spot in the Di­a­monds one day. “But I’ve got a lot of things to work on, a lot of im­prov­ing to do.”

Can Gretel Tip­pett, the freak­ishly tal­ented bas­ket­ball in­ter­loper, re­ally be con­tent to just keep im­prov­ing?

“All I can do is per­form well and put my best foot for­ward.”

You al­most be­lieve her, that sweet blonde as­sas­sin.

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