SPAR Proteas netball star Vanes-Mari du Toit takes a walk down memory lane, as she prepares to head off to Australia for the team's sternest tour in a four-nations tournament including world no. 1, 2 and 3, Australia, New Zealand and England. Photo: Supplied

Vanes-Mari du Toit has made her mark in the National Netball team since being first called up in 2010 at the tender age of 21.

The 3rd year Bcom. Human Resource Management student at the University of Pretoria, who now has 15 caps for the Proteas, says it was a shock to her when she picked for the team.

“I remember it like it happened yesterday. I just turned 21 when I was called up in 2010; I was standing on the main beach in Margate, when I received the phone call from the selectors telling me the good news.”

“I jumped up and shouted in broad daylight, people thought I was crazy! I really didn’t expect it. Since that moment everything changed for me. My first cap was SA vs. Botswana in 2011,” she says with her characteristic cheerfulness.

Vanes-Mari has been playing Netball since she was in primary school, but she only fell in love with the sport while attending Afrikaanse Hoer Meisieskool in Pretoria.

The 23-year-old is also a part-time coach and motivational speaker. “I’m actually a very sociable person and enjoy meeting new people, and at the same time spending quality time with friends and family,” she says.

Vanes-Mari has many dreams, including one day captaining the national team.

She spoke to gsport ahead of the team’s departure to Australia for the Quad Series, also involving Australia, New Zealand and England.

Du Toit (right) is pictured with Leana du Bruin (left), Elize Kotze, two individuals who she credits as being inspirations in her life. Photo: Supplied

Vanes-Mari, how are you feeling ahead of the tour to Australia?

I’m really very excited, anxious and a little nervous, but READY!

What is the main aim of this trip an how do you rate your opponents – Aus, Eng, NZ

We’ll be competing in a Quad Series between NZ, Aus and England which will give us the opportunity to compete with the best teams in the World and see how we match up. The series is hosted by Netball Australia.

The current IFNA world rankings list Australia 1st, New Zealand 2nd, Jamaica 3rd, England 4th, Malawi 5th and South Africa 6th. So you can see it is going to mean a lot of International experience for us as a team. This is exactly what we need to grow and improve our game in preparation for the next World Cup in 2015.

Your recent training camp was at SAS in Stellenbosch. What was it like?

The SAS (Stellenbosch Academy of Sport) is such an awesome place to stay in and train. The facilities, food, equipment, staff, service etc is phenomenal. I was seriously impressed with how professional it was, definitely competing on international standards. As for the training camp, it was a tough weekend with vigorous fitness testing and trails, but we do manage to have some fun in between.

How did you enjoy your time with Dr. Sherylle Calder?

Dr. Sherylle Calder is such a visionary. Being on her eye gym program has certainly made a difference in my personal game, from my reaction speed all the way to coordination skills. She’s been analyzing our games, and really paying attention to what we as netball players need to improve our game. I’m looking forward to improving even more.

Du Toit prides herself in making a difference whenever the opportunity presents itself, and she is always keen to help aspiring netball players gain a few tips from a pro like herself. Photo: SuppliedHow would you rate the current SPAR Proteas team in world netball?

Well, IFNA rates us 6th in the world with all their points and calculations. But if I should give a ranking, I would definitely rank us higher than Malawi and Jamaica, since we beat them this year. We are currently the best team on the African continent.

But to be reasonable, I would say 4th for 2012. Next year is yet to come and by the looks of it, we’re definitely climbing the ladder. Our aim is to be the best in the world, and we won’t settle for anything less.

What has it been like working with Elize Kotze?

Elize Kotze being a former Protea player (and Silver medal winner at the 1995 Netball World Cup), gives her more insight towards the game and players. She is definitely more than a coach to most of the players; she’s a mentor, mother, and role model. She is an inspirational woman to say the least.

Have you always liked and played netball?

Netball was, is and will always be part of my life. I played my first netball game when I was in Primary School at the age of 10, but the love of the game started when I was in Afrikaanse Hoer Meisieskool with my late High school coach Melinda de Bruin.

She laid the foundation. I believe everybody has a special talent/ability, I’m lucky to have found mine in netball…

What has been your biggest career highlight?

One Career highlight to point out is kind of difficult for me, because every time I step out in green and gold it counts. But I must say, beating Jamaica in front of their home crowd in Jamaica for the first time in 45 years, playing 4 quarters against Jhaniele Fowler (1.96m Goal Shooter) and being part of history is an amazing feeling!

Another highlight for me was definitely the build-up and playing in the Netball World Cup held in Singapore 2011 where we placed 5th in the World.

Du Toit pictured with boyfriend Jacques Wessels. A top-flight athlete faces many challenges, and the support of those close by makes the road a little less difficult. Photo: SuppliedWhat are the challenges being a netball player?

Netball being a women sport, especially in a country dominated by men sporting codes, makes it difficult to be taken up seriously. Netball is also a non-professional sport, which means we don’t get paid. With that said, we have a lot of expenditures which we need to take care of ourselves, like medical bills, netball shoes, travelling costs, equipment and all other small expenses that add up.

Most of the girls work full-time jobs to support their Netballing dream, that said, the availability of the players depends on getting leave from work, which results in unpaid leave to go on Tour and represent our country.

Other players like me study full time at a University and take up part-time coaching jobs to fund our lifestyles, which has its own challenges when missing classes and test while touring. Another challenge would be for younger generations having to stay motivated to play.

All of us play netball because of the love and passion for the game that makes all the challenges worthwhile. Though Netball is an amateur sport in South Africa it demands a professional approach and commitment from me as a Protea player.

How would you rate the overall standard of netball in the country, in terms of participation?

The standard of netball in South Africa is high even if we are still amateurs. South Africa is seen as one of the countries with the most natural talented athletes. The bigger and taller physique of the South African players is seen as a huge asset for Netball in common.

The Minister of Sport Minister Mbalula stated that Netball is the most participated women sport in the country. Everybody knows netball or knows someone who plays/played netball at one stage in their lives.

In the overall ranking, there are more netball players in this country than rugby players. Soccer players dominating the participation levels. The standard of netball can improve a lot in this country if Netball can get the same support, marketing and profile as the dominant men team sporting codes.

Girls all over should be able to play netball and be seen, doesn’t matter where they come from. South Africa has a lot of undiscovered Netball talent.

Vanes-Mari du Toit collects a wide ball as she plans the next move forward.  "Though Netball is an amateur sport in South Africa, it demands a professional approach and commitment from me as a Protea player," says du Toit.What is it like having SPAR as a sponsor of the National team?

OUR SPAR – Good for us! That’s something we always say. I have a lot of respect for the brand, because of the fact that they saw the potential in Netball in this country and decided to support and put their weight behind us. Because of SPAR, netball development reaches to more girls every year. They’ve been fundamental in the growth of this sport, and I believe we wouldn’t have been the team that we are today if it wasn’t for the input of SPAR. We’re like family.

What can we do to raise the profile of women in sport?

I have a lot of ideas, in another interview maybe? I believe we have the talent; we have the people who believe in us, we have everything it takes to make women in sport known. We need to educate the people in SA about the great women sporting codes we have in this country! All top International women athletes have management that runs the sport as a business. We could learn a lot from them.

The work that gsport4girls are doing, is a great start and pioneer in what I believe will be only the beginning of raising the profile of women in sport. We’ll need financial aid as well as media backing all the way. SuperSport coming on board to broadcast Netball is a step in the right direction, getting the public aware.

What do you make of Minister Mbalula’s interventions to raise the profile of netball? How does it affect you as a player?

Minister Mbalula has really grown fond of netball, hasn’t he? What an amazing man! He surely knows how to get the country behind its athletes. He is very enthusiastic and excited when talking about netball; he also sees the potential in the sport being so widely participated. He introduced the Netball Premier League to be launched in April 2013, and it’s something all of us are very excited about.

Getting the opportunity to play netball in a professional league will have a long lasting effect on every player and spectator involved. It’s a big motivation for players to be a part of which I think can only improve the standard of netball in this country. I believe the public will also fall in love with the game of netball as I did once they get to know the game.

Du Toit lists her grandparents and her mother among family members who have influenced her life in a positive way. Photo: Supplied

Who are some of the sportswomen who inspire you?

Carrying the best surname, Natalie du Toit is definitely an inspirational woman and role model to so many! In the current world of netball I really look up to Leana (Vlooi) de Bruin who is South African born NZ Silver Ferns defender and off course the ever so famous Irene van Dyk , who both have inspired me in so many ways.

What is the best advice you ever received?

Three pieces of advice I’ll never forget. Elize Kotze once told me: “Never allow anybody to break your spirit, because that’s what makes you unique”. Secondly, at the Tuks Netball Club, our coach Jenny van Dyk introduced a saying: “The difference between what you are and what you become is what you do”. And lastly, my mother used to tell me to always stay positive no matter what, do my best and most importantly stay humble.

What is your advice to aspiring netball players?

Keep on keeping on, work hard and never give up! Beginnings are usually scary, endings are usually tough, BUT it is the middle that counts. Remember to turn your stumbling blocks into stepping stones. And always know where your strength comes from. Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world!

What inspires you?

My biggest inspiration is what Jesus did on the cross so that we can have life in abundance. My teammates, family and friends inspire me a lot, and last but not least, my country! I try to live everyday as if it’s my last.

Who are your role models?

Role models are real people, people who I look up to and who has an influence in my life. People like my mother, Vanessa du Toit, who has always supported me, my coach, Elize Kotze who believes in me and lastly my Grandparents who raised me.

What makes you proud to be South African?

The only time that you’ll probably EVER see me crying is before a game when we sing the National Anthem. It reminds me of the struggles our country overcame and how blessed we are in a country so rich in culture, beauty and diversity. There aren’t a lot of things that I’m more proud of than being a South African, none the less representing my country on the highest level. No matter which country I visit on tour, I’m always happiest to return to my own. The Proudly South African fighting spirit is what makes us unique!

Du Toit celebrates with her SPAR SA Netball team-mates after securing a sought-after win over perennial competitors, Jamaica. Photo: Supplied

What is your greatest ambition?

I would love to further my degree and becoming a Doctor in Business Psychology and eventually start my own business. I hope to be playing netball full time as a Professional sport in South Africa, maybe one day even captain the National Team.