Netball World Cup 2019: Sam Wallace on ‘heartbreak’ of father’s stroke

Sam Wallace takes a deep breath, sighs and says: “My first real memory of being in Australia is of my dad having a stroke. I was heartbroken. But I knew I had to stay and play. For him and for me.”

February 2017 should have been a time of nervous excitement and pride for Wallace.

The Trinidad and Tobago shooter was preparing to make her debut for Sydney’s NSW Swifts in the world’s top domestic league.

But alone, thousands of miles from her father Hendrickson, she struggled to settle in Australia.

“After my first training session, I was ready to quit. I cried and called my mum and boyfriend saying I was ready to come home,” says Wallace, now 25.

“In my first year, I spent a lot of time complaining. But I was the main goal shooter and, regardless if I was sick, I had to play.

“It was the making of me.”

Things got easier for Wallace as she began to “gel” with England shooter Helen Housby, with whom she lives in the Sydney suburbs. Housby’s Roses team-mate Natalie Haythornthwaite moved in with the pair in 2018.

Wallace says she is now in a “better headspace” and playing her “best netball”.

“Last year I handled it really well, and this year I am all over it,” she says.

“Everything is perfect and having my team-mates and staff behind me makes me feel welcomed and loved, regardless of my situation back home.”

Wallace’s voice, so animated moments earlier, trails off and she pauses.

Earlier this year, 53-year-old Hendrickson had a second, far more serious, stroke. He is unable to walk, has had to give up work as a taxi driver and his 22-year-old son Okel is now his full-time carer.

“If I’d gone home I would be messing up my dreams to take care of him,” Wallace says. “He is proud and happy for me.

“Every time I video call him I can’t watch him for too long because I cry and it’s just so devastating.

“I feel hopeless and it’s so hard not being there physically to help my brother and my mum, but I know the support is there.

“There are times I sit in my room and cry, and no-one knows. I don’t like talking about it much, but all I can do is pray.”

Wallace says Hendrickson’s second stroke has made her “more mature”. She is now her family’s main earner and sends every spare penny back home.

“Knowing the kind of mobile person he was, always out in the bush doing something, driving taxis, building houses, it’s hard to see him on a bed,” she adds.

“He can’t move, can’t walk, can barely talk and can’t feed himself. It’s so hard and frustrating.”

Wallace – one of the top three shooters in Super Netball this season in terms of both goals scored and attempted – speaks to her father before every match.

Recalling their conversation before the Swifts’ season-opener against city rivals Giants, she says: “He said ‘win it for me’, and we did.”

‘It was ridiculous – I had the heater on all the time’

Wallace’s journey from Trinidad to Australia came via a one-season stint with Hertfordshire Mavericks in the UK’s Superleague.

She had been scouted by then Swifts coach Rob Wright at the 2015 World Cup, but did not feel ready for the move and instead moved to England.

Despite needing vitamin D tablets for what she calls “sun deprivation”, she thrived in England.

“It was ridiculous – I had the heater on all the time,” she laughs. “I didn’t want to go outside and my ‘house mum’, Karen, bought a pair of gloves and a beanie hat and told me to suck it up and go out in the back yard and practise shooting.”

A move to the east coast of Australia brought the sun back into her life, although she says she is “dying in the cold” of a 20C Sydney winter, while Housby will happily walk around in a vest top and shorts.

Wallace will return after the World Cup to a team top of the league, but whatever happens this year she will take most comfort from her pre-tournament return to Trinidad – because home is where her heart is.

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women’s sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women’s sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.

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