Maya Angelou’s renowned quote ‘If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change your attitude’, seems to encapsulate quite nicely Phoenix Karaka’s life to date. Funny, thoughtful and rather reflective, we discussed Phoenix’s choice to leave Auckland at 18 to pursue a netball career in Invercargill, her own battle with mental health issues, and how she’s navigating this chapter of her life of growth and self-discovery.
Instead of pursuing netball as a career after high school, Phoenix chose to work fulltime to give herself space to discover what she was truly passionate about. However, after working for a year she unexpectedly received an invitation to attend an Under 21 netball trial. “I was an invitee player so I was there to make up the numbers”. Despite being sick and playing out of position, Phoenix impressed the selectors and was chosen to travel with the team to Ballarat, Australia. From there she was selected for the 2013 Under 21 World Youth Cup in Glasgow, Scotland “I didn’t think I’d ever make that team but that’s where my netball career started”.
Seeing Phoenix play for the Wellington Pulse and seeing what a dominant force she is on the court, it was surprising to learn that she came close to not even pursuing netball at a professional level. “I finished high school for netball, which is funny because back then I didn’t even think I’d be a Silver Fern. I loved the game but not enough to put all my effort into it, especially the training and staying fit side of things which was a huge barrier for me”.
After returning from the World Youth Cup, the opportunity to play in Invercargill for the Southern Steel became an option and Phoenix jumped at the opportunity to leave her hometown of Auckland. At the end of her first season with the Southern Steel, Phoenix made the Silver Ferns squad to travel to England, originally as a travel partner, “I wasn’t meant to play; I was just going to see what the environment was like”. She was shocked to later hear that – due to injuries – she would be making her Silver Ferns debut on tour. “A lot of people say when you’ve made the squad, you’re a Silver Fern but it’s not until you actually play your first game that you consider yourself a Silver Fern; I got my first test cap over there” she paused slightly then laughed, “Even though it was only for a minute and I touched the ball once when I got an intercept, it was still the best moment of my life” she mentions proudly.
Finding her feet away from home
The first year down South was enjoyable but still a big learning curve for Phoenix, for on and off court reasons. The second year with the Steel was a defining moment as she moved in with Captain, Wendy Frew “I was fortunate to live with her because she had been through it all, having started playing professional netball at 18”.
Phoenix spoke highly of Wendy and her family for the guidance and love they showed her “Wendy is like my big sister. I don’t think I would’ve stayed if it weren’t for Wendy and her family. She took me under her wing and gave me the confidence to believe in myself. She made me want to play”.
Not only were the three seasons in Invercargill a blessing to Phoenix’s netball career, the time away from home also helped with her own wellbeing and personal growth. “Looking back now, I’m surprised I didn’t back out of moving to Invercargill. Whenever there was a challenge or things were getting too hard, I would give up. I was very immature then. I think my biggest achievement while down South was definitely my growth as a person”.
Being away from Auckland
Given that Phoenix was born and bred in Central Auckland, but has played her whole professional career away from the City of Sails, I’ve always wondered why? “There are a few reasons I stay away from Auckland” she says earnestly. There are things in Auckland that I know would not be right for me in order to grow as a professional athlete and young woman”. The social scene in Auckland is one “I choose to put myself in a safe environment if I go out in Wellington, that may not necessarily be the case if I was in Auckland”.
Her relationship with her parents was another. Issues that Phoenix endured whilst growing up; coming from a broken home and parents suffering their own personal issues, had strained a loving but complex upbringing. “It was easy to move and stay away and not let their problems impact on my life. Now that I am a stronger person, I try to put aside any conflicts and appreciate and love my parents dearly”.
She explained the experiences have made her emotionally more resilient and more appreciative of who comes into her life and their potential impact. “I don’t let people push me around anymore. I voice my opinion if I do not agree with things, whereas I never used to do that”. No family is perfect and Phoenix talks about her experiences as being her normal, something I found admirable given the sensitivity of the topic. “My family are incredibly strong people, and that’s where I get my appreciation of choosing who comes into my life. They’ve stuck by me in everything that has happened”.
Dealing with harsher times
Phoenix openly spoke about dark times growing up and times in high school which challenged her thinking. “I would ask myself, what’s the point of living? What am I doing with my life? Because I had a fear of failing, I decided not to try at all. I stopped going to school and found it hard to get out of bed. I didn’t like talking about my problems and thought people that were trying to help, were trying to tell me what to do which I didn’t like. With sound guidance, I became better at expressing myself and thankfully I had the right people to talk to who lead me back to focus on my future”.
Phoenix’s honesty when speaking about pivotal and emotional times during her life has led to people approaching her for guidance. “Unfortunately, I’ve experienced some really hurtful times in my short life but I like to share if it can help others. I am mindful that the low feelings don’t always go away, but I have learnt how to identify and manage my emotions, talk to my support people (friends, family and others I respect) and to not let a problem encompass all the other areas in my life or to dictate the road I choose to take”
Throughout our conversation, I found myself in awe of Phoenix’s willpower to keep pushing past obstacles in pursuit of her dreams. She spoke openly about two defining lessons;
- Finding a purpose – “I made a promise to friends that I would attend a church service with them if they picked me up from Hamilton”. From that one service Phoenix realised people are on Earth for a reason and her reason (at the moment) is netball. “It’s really weird coming from me because I’m not a Godly person”. The question that was so confronting for her during high school, the “what are you doing with your life” was answered in church. “That’s when I found my purpose”. She is still on her road to self-discovery but she acknowledges her friends, Nana and God as helping her understand the importance of finding her direction.
- Finding a way out of difficult situations – “I’m an open book now which could be a bad thing but I used to be so closed off and that helped no one”. For Phoenix, it was identifying people she was comfortable and confident in sharing her thoughts with when she was low, and knowing whether they had the capacity to take on what she had to share. “Because I experienced it so young, I’m able to identify when I’m going through a low bout and what I need to do to get out of it. For me it is talking to people”. When she’s feeling low she realigns herself with what is good in her life “I have a whole lot of good in my life that makes me happy and grateful”.
Where to from here?
Recent events have made Phoenix and her partner realise they need to look at options beyond their sporting careers “Pat (Tuipulotu) was studying Architecture but I have no excuse; I’m still finding my passion”. Not focusing at school or studying is one of her biggest regrets but as I listened I couldn’t help but think she is definitely making up for lost opportunities.
Phoenix has been working towards finding her passion and channelling it into something she can strive toward after netball. She has dabbled in work experience with an Early Childhood Education Centre and looked into becoming a flight attendant but quickly learned they were not suited for her long term. Although she loves kids and travelling it ultimately came back to the idea of wanting to help people; using what she has been through to help others feel good about themselves “I volunteered with Look Good, Feel Good and it was so cool to see women living with Cancer brighten up for a moment”. Witnessing the shift in the womens’ spirits during the pampering session is what Phoenix enjoyed being a part of the most. “I’m trying to find something to do in that space”. After the netball season this year, she will return to Auckland and attend a makeup course in working towards that goal.
In terms of goals on court, she is keen to get back into the Silver Ferns and stay there “I’m not a solid Fern, I’ve been dropped, but it’s a goal of mine to make the starting squad and eventually I’d love to establish myself as the Fern’s GD”, a position she feels suits her best.
Being looked upon as a leader figure in the Silver Ferns squad is another career goal Phoenix has set for herself. “It’s scary because people see me as the joker but I’m also wanting to be a leader so it’s been a little difficult to try and find a good balance”. In order to present herself as a leader, Phoenix has been working towards getting herself in the best position to be able to make the Silver Ferns after returning from injury this year “I was nervous coming back into the ANZ Championship so I made a conscious effort to focus on my off court preparations”. Previously, Phoenix’s off court circumstances were inconsistent but this year a positive headspace is helping in all aspects of her life “my attitude normally went to ‘nothing really matters’ when I was injured but this time round, the conscious effort to get more involved and active in our development as a team has helped immensely”.
As our chat ended, it was clear that Phoenix had been through a lot that could easily have broken her, but it didn’t – a testament to her strength of character and fighting spirit. Instead, she has continuously changed the things she could and shifted her attitude when needed, moves that have served her well so far and undoubtedly will for her future.
Photocredit: Sky Sport, My Netball