Every milestone match in Sulu Fitzpatrick’s nomadic career has been with the Mystics. Back from injury, she’s determined to give all she’s got towards another national title and a final act with the Silver Ferns at the World Cup.
Sulu Fitzpatrick calls it “a very colourful journey”.
Poised to play her 150th national league match on Saturday, against the Steel, the Mystics captain knows the longevity of her career – during some colossal highs and lows in her life – is a triumph in itself.
But what makes this special is no other player has had a career quite so cosmopolitan: those 150 games have been spread out across five of the six New Zealand franchise teams.
And, get this: In every one of her milestone matches – her debut in 2010, her 50th, 100th and 150th – Fitzpatrick has played in the Mystics blue dress. And across three different eras of the team.
“I’m so lucky I’ve got to experience netball across the country – different cultures and environments, coaches and players. That gives me a deeper connection to the game,” the 30-year-old defender says.
“Honestly, I believe it was God’s plan. I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason. I’ve been around in between, but it’s meant to be that every milestone has been with this team.
“It’s home. It’s where I got to start my career, and it’s where I’ll finish. I’ve gone full circle.”
This is Fitzpatrick’s of netball season, no ifs or maybes. She wants to give more time to her family – who are the reason, she says, her career has endured this long.
An injured left knee threatened to end her farewell party early – restricting her to the coaching bench for five rounds this ANZ Premiership season.
But she made her “90-second cameo” appearance (more like 19 minutes) in the Mystic’s 24-goal victory over the Tactix of Sunday, and the team visibly lifted at the return of their leader. They produced their most complete performance of the season, to stay on top of the table with three rounds to go.
Even after 150 appearances, Fitzpatrick is still willing to learn new tricks, says Mystics head coach Tia Winikerei.
“Sulu has a huge level of respect from everybody in the netball community, and she’s an incredible leader. But because she’s so selfless, focusing on herself is one of her biggest challenges,” she says.
“This year she’s taken real ownership of concentrating on her own game. And that’s shown in her determination to get back on court.”
The 150th hasn’t exactly snuck up on Fitzpatrick: “To be honest it feels like it’s more. I feel like I’ve been around forever.”
So we asked her to break it down, and list her most memorable moments in the five different dresses she’s worn.
Magic (2011-12) 16 games
“It would have to be in 2012, becoming the only New Zealand franchise to win the ANZ Championship. It was so cool to be part of that team.”
Steel (2013) 13 games
“A highlight that year was that it was first real season away from home. That was a special stage in my life, being able to leave my family and play netball. But I came back pregnant. That was the best thing too, having my kids.”
Stars (2017) 15 games
“Being part of the inaugural Stars team in the first ANZ Premiership was so cool and it means I have a piece of myself there, especially with the girls who are still there – Maia [Wilson], Holls [Holly Fowler] and Kays [Kayla Johnson].”
Pulse (2018-19) 32 games
“That came at a time when I’d made some life changes off the court, so I have very good memories at the Pulse. And to win the premiership, that team has a huge place in my heart. Same with Yvette [McCausland-Durie] as a coach. And just the way the franchise looked after me as a mum being able to commute. I was reinvigorated on the court as well.
Mystics (2010, 2015-16, 2020-23) 73 games
“That’s definitely winning the 2021 Premiership and doing that at home. But I’m hoping that won’t be my only highlight in the blue dress.”
Fitzpatrick has a good feeling about this season, even though the Mystics have been beset with injury and illness. And she even sees her injury as a “blessing” for the team.
It’s allowed other players to take the lead, and even take the court, and it’s given her a new perspective through a coach’s eyes.
Knowing this season would be her of, she’s had the team’s future wellbeing at the forefront of her mind, she says.
“I know I’m not going to be here on the court next year. So everything I’m doing and saying is with the thought of how can I make sure the environment is good, the players are good and the culture and our values are good?” she says.
“That’s probably why I didn’t react too much when I got injured. I saw it as part of the plan and it was meant to be that way, and I just went with it.
“And to be honest, it’s been a blessing for our whole team.”
She’s seen Michaela Sokolich-Beatson “stand up” as captain, and exciting 19-year-old defender Carys Stythe promoted to the starting seven and “excelling on the court”.
And her long-time defence partner, Phoenix Karaka, “taking the lead in the circle, reading the game in a different way”.
Fitzpatrick’s time sitting on the bench alongside Winikerei and assistant coach Rob Wright – or a lot of the time standing, enthusiastically screaming at her team-mates – gave her the rare chance to see games through a different lens.
Especially for a player who’s always said a future in coaching would never be for her.
“I’ve actually enjoyed it in a weird way. It gives a totally different perspective and it came quite naturally,” she says. “Coaching has so many different layers to it. The reason I’ve played so long is because I love knowing how people they tick and figuring out how groups of people work together. Coaching is the ultimate of that.”
Winikerei is willing to help her take that further. “If she wants to choose coaching, Rob and I will find spaces for her to learn the craft,” she says. “She will bring her deep understanding of the game, and she has the leadership and connection with people that will really help her,” she says.
“She has a really strong foundation to be a very successful coach if she chooses to be.”
Right through her rehab, Fitzpatrick stayed “supportive and highly engaged” with the team, Winikerei says. “Watching them play from the bench, and seeing it through the eyes we see it, has helped her to execute the things we’ve been talking about out on court.”
That time also reaffirmed to Fitzpatrick she was ready to call it quits after this season. “Sometimes you question or doubt whether you’ve made the right decision,” she says. “To be honest, if I wanted to, I could stay. But I know it wouldn’t be right, not just for me but for other people as well.”
Of course, she’s leaving room to first go with the Silver Ferns to the Netball World Cup in July. But the 27-test Fern is realistic her chances of selection may have taken a blow with the injury to her “good knee”, and the fierce competition for defence spots in the team (chosen after the ANZ Premiership grand final).
“But I will never say die. I’m going to give my heart and soul and everything I can physically to get there,” Fitzpatrick says.
“But since January, I’ve come to a place where I am at peace, knowing I’m comfortable with what I bring to the game. And if that’s something they want for World Cup, then I’m happy. If not, I’m happy to support those who go in my leadership role.
“I’ll still give whatever I’ve got to get there.”
When she plays her 150th game, Fitzpatrick will look to the crowd at the Trusts Arena and acknowledge her aiga. They’ve always been there for her: “Even when I wasn’t playing, they were there every week in their droves, supporting the team. And laughing at me yelling from the sideline.
“I 100 percent know my career has been because of my family and circle. The energy, time and support invested – me being able to take the court is the sum of that,” says Fitzpatrick, who got married of summer.
“I’ve learned not to take that for granted. When you have that much investment in you, you have no choice but to get out there and give it everything.”
* The Mystics play the Steel at home to start Round 10 on Saturday, 7.15pm; Magic meet Pulse in Hamilton at 2pm and Tactix play Stars in Christchurch at 4pm on Sunday; Magic take on the Steel at home on Monday 7.30pm.