If you were asked whether netball was an Olympic sport or not, I’d imagine many people would think it was.
Remarkably, while it is an Olympic recognised sport since 1995, and therefore eligible to be played at future Games, netball has never been played at the Summer Olympics.
That makes the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in Australia in April the ‘Olympics of netball’.
And Barrowford’s Natalie Haythornthwaite is determined to make the squad and help bring home a medal.
Last year, the 25-year-old starred as Wasps won the Netball Superleague, and then helpedEngland win the Fast 5 World Series in October.
She also played a big role in the 3-0 Test series whitewash against Malawi, and the goal attack, who can also play wing attack, is looking forward to what could potentially be a bigger year.
Speaking from England’s training camp at the Copper Box Arena at the Olympic Park in London, where preparations are underway for the Quad Series which opens next weekend, Natalie said: “It’s been a good year, it still feels like it’s the same season though!
“We won the Netball Superleague in Wasps’ first season as a franchise, had some good performances in the Quad Series –we beat New Zealand for the first time in a long time – we won the Fast5 World Series, and then beat Malawi 3-0 in the Test series.
“This is the second year of the full time programme, and you can see how we are all improving.
“Getting that contact time is so important, on and off the court, week in, week out.
“We’re all in the same place, getting to know each other better, and these little things have such a big impact.
“It’s a special time and everyone is excited about the Quad Series and then the Commonwealths.”
Being on England Netbal’s world-class training programme at Loughborough Universitysince 2016 has been a big boost: “We’re all getting better, playing the sport we love, and all the competitions keep us in check and remind us what we’re working towards.
“We’ve done some really good work and we’re showing we can have fun and still perform and achieve.
“It’s a great environment, which helps when you come to compete. I’m still working on my game, and being on the full-time programme is good for me and my development.
“Living and training with the best players in England is where I want to be, and I’m lucky enough to do that.
“I like testing myself, and it’s very hard, but it’s good!”
The Quad Series will be England’s – ranked three in the world – last competitive action before the Commonwealths, as they host New Zealand, ranked second, a week tomorrow, and world number one Australia on the 22nd, both in London, before taking on South Africa on the 28th in Johannesburg.
That is the focus for now, but Natalie can’t help think about the Commonwealths: “We keep pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves, and I think it will be a close Quad Series. It’s exciting, we’re getting the chance to see where we are at.
“For now, we’re just thinking about the Quad Series, but we’re all doing what we can to make sure we’re on the plane to Australia.
“It’s a definite aim to get a medal there, even you mentioning the chance of doing that makes me smile.
“Because netball isn’t in the Olympics, the Commonwealths and the World Cup every four years is the pinnacle for us.
“But at the Commonwealths, you are in the athletes village with other sports all coming together, and it feels like the country is united behind you.
“Netball being part of that is brilliant.”
If she makes the plane as expected, she would join another former Pendle AC athlete at the games, with Sophie Hitchon – the Olympic bronze medalist at Rio 2016, competing in the hammer: “I used to do athletics at Pendle when Sophie (Hitchon) was there, she was always in the nets.
“She’s an inspiration. I remember watching her in the Olympics, and follow her on social media – to see someone from your own area, having seen her training on your own track, it’s a huge inspiration, and it makes me want to do well like her.”