SAM Poolman has driven in from East Maitland, negotiating the car-unfriendly road projects in the Newcastle CBD, to have lunch at the Blue Door Cafe in Hunter Street.
But a 30-minute drive is nothing to her.
“I live in my car, but that’s OK,” she chuckles. “I have pretty much everything I need in my car.”
To forge her career as a professional netballer, Sam Poolman has spent more time in cars than she has on courts.
As a high school student, she was driven by her parents, John and Robyn Poolman, to Sydney and back most days of the week for training sessions and games. The 27-year-old is now behind the wheel herself, shuttling between Newcastle and her western Sydney-based team, Giants Netball.
Although this is the off-season and she’s home, Poolman spends her days travelling around the Hunter and beyond for Aspire, a development program she created to help young local netballers.
“Everyone talks to me about holidays, and here I am driving more,” Poolman says, as she orders smashed avocado and sips water, a meal that indicates she never really clocks off from her sport.
“I’ve always travelled, so distance doesn’t really affect me.”
How many kilometres does she drive in a week?
“I’ve never actually calculated. I don’t think I want to,” she replies, laughing.
Poolman laughs a lot, and she has a sunniness in her voice as she tells her stories. Yet what Sam Poolman says about her road to the elite level of netball shows that, with or without a car, she has been driven to succeed.
SAM Poolman was born in March 1991 - “I was one of the first babies born at John Hunter Hospital!”
She didn’t come into the world tall, but she would grow to be. Poolman stands 190 centimetres high.
“I was always tall for a girl, but I wasn’t gigantic,” she says.
Poolman was the sister amid three brothers: “So typical story. If I didn’t want to play with them outside, they weren’t going to come and play Barbie dolls with me. But I wasn’t a tomboy. I was very girly.”
From the age of seven, she played netball.
“I wasn’t overly talented as a netballer. I was in the B team for my age group. I didn’t crack into the A team until I was 12.”
Her first love was ballet. Poolman dreamed of a life on the stage, “but obviously the height factor doesn’t really work for being a dancer.”
If height was seen as an impediment for a would-be ballerina, it helped once Poolman was selected for the Newcastle representative netball team. Robyn Poolman suggested her daughter take a term off from dancing: “I had a break, and I never went back.”
In the team, she said, “I was around girls who were better than me, I just thrived on that. I improved a lot when I was 12.”
The first and last thing young Sam saw each day was her potential future in netball. Her mother had printed out a “pathway”, tracking a journey from the club level to state and national teams. That sheet was stuck on Sam’s bedroom wall.
Within three years, Sam Poolman had followed that pathway, being selected for both state and Australian schoolgirl representative teams. She had also been awarded a scholarship to the NSW Institute of Sport.
“That was the first taste of like a professional team or environment, and I loved that,” she recalls. “And that’s when the drive started.”
“Drive” in two senses. All of that commitment meant an almost daily trip to Sydney straight after school for Sam and one of her parents, often her mother.
“I’d do my assignments on the way down, and I’d sleep on the way home,” Poolman says. “When you look at what they did. Imagine Mum, going to work all day, then driving to Sydney, sitting there, then driving home while I slept.”
After she finished Year 12 at Lambton High - “I don’t know how I made it through school to be honest” - Poolman was determined to keep following the pathway to be a professional netballer, with the full backing of her parents.
“I just remember people all the time, my parents, were like, ‘How many people can say they’ve played professional sport. They were like, ‘For the rest of your life, you can work nine-to-five’.
“They’re the best! I was really lucky!”
A career in netball while living in Newcastle had seemed attainable. For four seasons from 2004, the Hunter Jaegers were part of a national netball competition. As a 16-year-old, Poolman was invited to training a few times, and her desire was to join the team when she finished school. But then the Jaegers folded.
“I was pretty upset, because I thought maybe in another year or two, I could have potentially been in the Jaegers squad and got an opportunity in a professional team a lot earlier than what I did.
“It was just a shame for our region we couldn’t sustain a professional team.”
The Hunter still has no professional netball team in the national competition.
“We definitely have the talent. But it all goes back to money and facilities,” she says. “We don’t have the resources.”
Poolman believes the region needs and deserves more indoor courts, and a stadium that can regularly attract big games: “I’m playing for the Giants and we can play at Qudos [stadium] in front of 20,000 people. Newcastle can’t host a netball game and seat 20,000.”
Poolman’s journey to being a professional led to Canberra. For almost a year, she was at the Australian Institute of Sport. It was an intense experience.
“You’re constantly having meetings, being told what you’re not good at, and tested,” she recalls. “As a 19-year-old, it’s pretty tough. To be honest, no matter if it’s a good or bad meeting now, whenever I go into a meeting with a coach, I’m scarred from that year!”
Poolman returned to Newcastle in 2012, uncertain if she would ever make it to professional netball. She asked loved ones when she should stop chasing her dream.
“That’s probably when I had a lull of a year, questioning,” Poolman says. “I’d done all of that work, I’m so close, how long do you sit around for?”
Poolman was in a car - where else - when she missed a call. It was from the Adelaide Thunderbirds. She finally spoke with the coach, who offered Poolman a spot as a defender.
She still remembers the excitement of warming up for her first professional appearance in 2013 - “Oh my God, oh my God! Is this happening?!” - and that season turned into a “fairytale” for a rookie, as the team won the premiership.
But it was hardly a fairytale existence. Her first professional contract was $12,000 for a year. She couldn’t live on that, so Poolman held down a string of jobs in Adelaide. These days, she can live off her earnings as a player, but “we don’t have savings. Our money just pays us to live really.”
It reflects the general gap in money, and way of life, between sportsmen and women.
“What the challenge is with female sport is we don’t get paid that much at all. And we still don’t compared with the boys.
“But with that, which I find is really positive, you get so many more opportunities, because you have to, to work, to get money,” she says, explaining how those opportunities have led to public speaking roles.
“We should be getting more money definitely. But you have to take it as a positive, because if you don’t, what are you going to do?”
After four seasons in Adelaide, Poolman wanted to return to NSW. So it was back to Newcastle. There were no offers, and no guarantees.
Still she kept training – “But what am I training for? I might not get a professional contract.”
But she did.
The acclaimed coach Julie Fitzgerald phoned to say she was assembling a new Sydney-based team and was after a defender. However, Poolman was second choice. If the first pick declined, the job was Sam’s. After a sleepless night, the coach rang: “I’ve got a spot for you, if you want it.”
Sam Poolman saw the offer as not only a dream job, but a reward for being persistent and resilient.
“I tell my younger girls that everything you do, everything you learn . . . put me in that position,” Poolman explains. “I wasn’t the best defender in our league, so she could have had any defender she wanted, and she - second - picked me.”
Poolman is preparing for her third season with the Giants. She is part of the team’s leadership group. Her leadership experience was recently given a boost, when she captained the Australian team in the Fast5 Netball World Series. The enormity of the appointment struck her as she stood on the court.
“It’s one of those hard things, because you try and not get overwhelmed in the moment,” she says. “You try and still you do your job. I’m the worst at celebrating stuff, because I always then want to look at the next thing and want more.”
The “next thing” she would love is a spot in the Australian Diamonds national team.
“But I think now I’m at an age where I have to be realistic about national selections,” Poolman says, adding she wont’ give up. “I want to make it as hard as I can for them to leave me out.
“I’ve probably played my best netball in the past two and a half years, because I’m back here, I’m happy, I’m loving what I’m doing.”
The source of that happiness is home, family, and her partner of four years, former Newcastle Jets and now Central Coast Mariners goalkeeper Ben Kennedy. They may be both professional sportspeople, but, Poolman says, their characters balance each other.
“He keeps me quite grounded, because he’s the opposite to me, he’s quite chilled,” Poolman says, describing herself as a “stress head”.
Sam Poolman is working towards the future. She set up Aspire just over a year ago, because she realised young local netballers needed more encouragement and development. She passes on the playing and life skills she has learnt.
“I love it and put all of my time into it. But I can see the rewards and the people they’re becoming from it,” Poolman says. “They’re our future leaders, they’re the people who are going to have an influence - maybe build an indoor netball stadium!”
As for her own future, Sam Poolman is studying PE teaching part-time, and she hopes Aspire continues to grow. But she has no “pathway” stuck to her wall. She’ll keep driving herself.
“I don’t know how much longer I get to play professional netball, so I’m just enjoying this time, because of all of the work that goes into it,” Poolman says. “I’m sure doors will open when I finish as well.”