Cara Koenen remembers making tearful phone calls to family in Townsville after moving to Brisbane to chase her netball dreams.
Now the Sunshine Coast goaler is preparing for a successful north Queensland homecoming as a breakout star in the running for a spot in the Diamonds squad.
It’s a situation that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago when Koenen was a homesick teenager who moved to Brisbane, with her older sister Breanna, a Brisbane Lions AFLW player, from their home on Magnetic Island off the coast of Townsville six years ago to
chase their sporting goals.
But it wasn’t plain sailing for the 190cm shooter, who struggled to balance the demands of university study and elite sport while missing her other two siblings and parents at home.
“I definitely went through some really tough times,” said Koenen, who will head back to Townsville this week for the Lightning’s clash against the Collingwood Magpies as the Super Netball caravan rolls into
“Having my sister there was great but pretty early on I was missing family and my other siblings pretty severely, so it was difficult and there were definitely times where I would finish up training and
be on the phone an absolute wreck in tears to my mum going: ‘I just want to come home, I want to get out of here’.
“I wasn’t making any money, so I wasn’t able to pay my rent and I had to maintain a full-time study load to be eligible for government subsidy.
“I was trying to balance really pushing my training commitments and netball and trying to dedicate as much time as I possibly could to that while also trying to maintain good grades at uni and still set myself up for a career if things weren’t to work out (with netball).”
Koenen admits the stress took a toll and if she could reach out to her 17-year-old self, she’d tell her to give herself a break and reassure her the struggles would “absolutely” be worthwhile.
“I would say to her to look after herself a bit better and say it’s okay to have those bad days but also to lean on whoever I needed to lean on at the time,” she said.
“There’s that whole stigma around mental health (but) it’s okay to reach out and ask for help when you need it and when things weren’t going well, I think I probably needed to do that much earlier than I
“But I think looking back now, I’m so glad I stuck with it and I’m so glad I had to make the sacrifices I did because I’m pretty happy at the moment, things are going well.”
Koenen would go on to win a place in the Lightning’s inaugural squad and learnt plenty from their early
premiership-winning campaigns as back-up to current Diamonds captain Caitlin Bassett.
And while she wasn’t able to make the goal shooter spot her own last season despite Bassett’s departure to the Giants, the now 24-year-old has enjoyed a breakout season in 2020, averaging almost 32 goals
per game at 88 per cent accuracy against some of the best defenders in the world.
Returning to north Queensland this week, Koenen hopes she can spark the dreams of young girls in the crowd, whose journey to the elite level she hopes will be smoother than her own.
“I was never able to get the opportunity to go and watch such an elite level of netball, I was seeing it through a TV screen, so to be able to watch the product live, it’s fantastic,” she said.
“I’m really excited to hopefully ignite that fire in some of the young girls and decrease the amount of drop-off that we have in participation for regional athletes to show that it’s worth the sacrifice.
“It might be a bit of a more difficult and bumpy road than it is (in the metropolitan areas) but … there is so much talent in regional areas of Queensland, so I think it’s fantastic that we’re able to get
out there and show some female sport.”
The Lightning take on the Firebirds at the University of Sunshine Coast on Sunday before heading to Townsville for Wednesday’s opening Round 13 match.
The remaining three games of the round will be played in Cairns next weekend.