There will be no shortage of emotion when the Queensland Fusion step on court for their opening Australian Netball League clashes.
Along with the obligatory nervous energy and excitement that comes with finally hitting the court after a long pre-season, the competition will also mark the return to elite netball of former Australian Diamond Chanel Gomes.
Gomes’ return to netball is equal parts incredible and odds-defying.
After all, hip replacements often rule people out of recreational sport for life, let alone top-level competition.
When Gomes takes to the court this season it will have been four years since she last played competitively, after experiencing pain in her hip while playing for the Diamonds, and later discovering extensive damage to the hip joint.
In those four years she’s suffered her fair share of bad news, had doubts about whether she’d ever make it back to sport, and endured more physical pain than anyone should ever have to deal with.
And yet not only will she pull on the Queensland dress in this year’s ANL tournament – she’ll captain her state, completing one of the most inspirational comebacks in netball history.
So for the ANL’s opening round, Gomes will allow make a one-off concession and allow her nearest and dearest to get along to watch her.
“I don’t really like people watching me play, but I’ve actually invited about 50 of my closest friends and family, because it’s going to be quite special,” she says.
“I mean, I haven’t played at a competitive level for four years. So yeah, it’s going to be a pretty big one, and I just wanted to have all those people that have been a part of my rehab journey just to be there and see, I guess, a happy ending.”
While all eyes will be on Gomes in her return, the 26-year-old points to some of her teammates as the ones to watch throughout Fusion’s ANL campaign.
“I’m going to say Chanel Dyer. We actually grew up playing together, so it’s nice to be able to step on the court with someone that I’ve grown up playing with, and she’s just fantastic. She’s also in our leadership group and brings so much to the team with her experience and knowledge,” Gomes says.
“Then there’s Leah Middleton, who’s one of the defenders. We have a really good connection in the circle together and I’m really excited to, I guess, showcase what we’ve been working on.”
Fusion head coach Tracey Jeans-Fraser says Gomes’ return has been an inspiration for her teammates, as well as a learning and growth experience for everyone involved in the program.
“In all honesty, to start off with I would say she was a little bit cautious in the sense of getting out there and being exposed to that higher level again. But she’s just taken everything in her stride and has gone ahead and tried to apply everything that I’ve asked of her,” Jeans-Fraser says.
“Not only that, it’s also challenged me as a coach to consider, I suppose, some of the limitations she’s had and how to transition her from that non-playing environment back into that high level.”
“She’s just so humble, but so dogged out there on that court. She’s ready to go, she’s itching, she’s just so keen to showcase what all her hard work has actually produced.”
Jeans-Fraser says her young team, which almost pulled off the upset of the tournament last year, going down by just two goals to minor premiers Victorian Fury in the semi-finals after finishing fourth after the round games and then pushing the Canberra GIANTS to extra time in the bronze medal game, has what it takes to shake up the competition in 2018.
“We were an extremely young team last year, and to get through to the finals was obviously very exciting,” she says.
“I feel like the team this year is even more dynamic and certainly has the ability definitely go another step forward. We’ve certainly got our eye on that.”
The Queensland Fusion open their Australian Netball League tournament with games against Territory Storm on Saturday 5 May, and Sunday 6 May at Ormiston College in Brisbane.