Superstars change games. Think of basketball’s Michael Jordan, cricket’s Brian Lara, football’s Mia Hamm, volleyball’s Gabrielle Reece.
And so does Serena Guthrie MBE. Anybody who has watched the Vitality Netball Superleague in the UK, and prior to that the leagues in Australia and New Zealand, will be fully aware she is the most dominant centre-court player of a generation. We’ve seen her using her extraordinary athletic ability, strength and pure determination to overpower, intimidate and dominate games, helping her club (Team Bath) and country (the England Roses) to numerous important victories, culminating in the euphoric 2018 Commonwealth Games final in which the Roses defeated long-time rivals the Australia Diamonds, scoring the winning point on the final whistle.
“That was a historical moment for the game and for me as a player,” says Guthrie. “I always wanted to be the best and if I’m committing to something I’m 110%. I’m all or nothing. I’m either out till 5am or I’m in bed with a cup of tea at 7pm.”
Guthrie has always been excited about sport. “I tried my hand at athletics,” she reveals. “I found shot-put and javelin most appealing.”
Significantly, it was the team sports that had the biggest appeal.
“I just loved the fact that you could all help each other, and I made some incredible friends,” she says, citing England goalscoring icon Jo Harten in particular.
Guthrie was 13 years old when she first played for her country.
“I didn’t even know playing netball for England was a thing. I had no idea how the footwork rule worked, so there is hope for everyone,” she laughs.
A key moment for Guthrie was her chance meeting with coach Linda Andrews, who she says was able to see and unlock her huge potential. It was Andrews who selected Guthrie to represent her birthplace Jersey’s under-11s in her first taste of international netball. Her first senior international game was at the age of 18 against Malawi: “As soon as I came off the court I knew straight away this is for me… this is my bag.”
The heightened interest in netball is certainly no coincidence. Superbrands such as Sky Sports and Nike are proudly supporting the sport, giving netball bigger exposure specifically in the UK.
“We are athletes and have been putting hard yards in to push ourselves for so long and create a good product,” says Guthrie. “I think netball is in a really tight bubble still. We are not quite in the same space as football when that exploded with the Premier League. But I would like to think that as it evolves we can keep our values, as I think that’s what makes us unique.”
Netball is a premium product and until now the lack of exposure for these top-level athletes has been little short of embarrassing and disrespectful. There is so much more that other sports could learn from netball – in particular the incredible team spirit which manifests itself at the end of each game when they applaud or link up to congratulate each other on the performance. It’s a long way from confronting referees, or managers fighting in the tunnel.
Netball has also taken steps to tackle broader societal issues of diversity and inclusion, and Guthrie has been proud of the way that the community has supported all its members.
“I think one of the things we have been quite poor with in the past is being a bit scared to be political and put our thoughts and our opinions out there. It wasn’t just about BLM, but society in general making a stand about how you want to live your life right now.”
Warming to her theme, she continues, “I think it’s really important that as a predominantly female sport moving forward that we kind of take the lead on that and continue to be proactive. It’s really important to feel valued in a cultural sense and not just from a sporting situation.”
Talking of culture, Guthrie confirms that with every great athlete comes a great soundtrack, and jazz turns out to be her favourite genre of music: “Herbie Hancock, Ella Fitzgerald, Muddy Waters… I mean, he’s just like the greatest blues artist in my opinion. Also Lauryn Hill,” she says, smiling. “I think Lauryn Hill is probably my ultimate female rapper of all time.”
As dominant as Guthrie is in her profession, she still believes there are certain individuals who will always give her a really tough game. “There’s Laura Langman for New Zealand. I’ve had so many good tussles with her. Jade Clarke [of Leeds Rhinos], from years of playing in the Roses set-up and she is also our most-capped player, and Nat Panagarry
[of Loughborough Lightning] – she’s really small and quick which means you always feel you are checking your blindside.”
For someone that has achieved so much, naming her greatest achievement so far is tricky, but she answers: “Probably my MBE. That was pretty mindblowing. I mean, you never know the journey of life and which way it might take you. I think to be recognised for a contribution to my sport helps you realise the journey you are on.”
Serena Guthrie, a true trailblazer in her sport and a role model in society. And now she is well and truly seen.