Ex-England star making herself known
Venture down to Bernard Park on any given weekend and little would you know that you could be rubbing shoulders with a former World Cup silver medal-winner.
Unbeknown to most, fans, officials and players alike, hiding in plain sight among the Bermuda Netball Association senior league, is former England captain Naomi Taylor, who is using her skills and experience to help improve the island's netball scene.
“People don't know my background,” Taylor said. “I haven't really told anyone, my boyfriend didn't know for the first six months, it just never came up in conversation. It always seemed a funny thing to broach, like, ‘Hi, I'm Naomi and I used to be England's captain'!”
Despite her modest demeanour, Taylor's achievements are certainly nothing to be ignored with success following her through every stage of her sporting career, helping to build the foundations of the wave that the England netball women's team are presently riding.
Having grown up on the island of Guernsey, in the English Channel near the French coast, Taylor moved across to Bath and demonstrated her prowess from an early age as part of the full-time high-performance programme, captaining both her university and the British University team, as well as playing in the Netball Superleague for Celtic Dragons.
Taylor was on the move again in the following years as she helped co-ordinate a sports programme in Zambia, Southern Africa, with government agency UK Sport, before returning to England and more notably the netball court, taking part in three Indoor Netball World Cups with her most memorable moment as captain coming in 2014.
Having beaten one powerhouse in the form of South Africa in the semi-finals, Taylor and her England team-mates battled bravely but narrowly missed out winning gold, going down to a 45-30 defeat to the highly-fancied Australia.
“That silver-medal moment was incredible and really helped to push the sport on,” said Taylor, who, four years on, like many in England were gripped to their screens to watch their nation, including some of Taylor's close friends, overcome Australia to win Commonwealth Games gold on the Gold Coast in April.
“For me then, it was a little like what we are seeing in England now following the Commonwealth gold. You have to achieve results for people to take notice and listen.
“Back then it had an impact on the game, domestically, and that will have an even bigger impact, especially with a home World Cup coming up in Liverpool in 2019.
“Over the last few years they have beaten some of the best teams in the world but the Commonwealth gold is a huge defining moment, with armchair fans now loving the sport. Just for people to be discussing netball is a huge step forward.”
Following on from her own medal success, Taylor somewhat surprisingly took a step away from playing and turned her attention to coaching, taking up a role with Superleague side Surrey Storm.
“After winning that silver medal at the World Cup, I stopped playing really,” explained the 32-year-old. “I got an injury and after trying to play through it for a little while I just thought I was done with it.
“I got involved with Surrey Storm as assistant coach first of all and loved it. It was a different route for me to go down but still meant I could be involved in the game and that was the main thing for me.”
Fast forward to April 2016 and an opportunity arose for Taylor to move to Bermuda to work with children with special needs. On arrival, Taylor conceded she had reservations about getting involved with netball again before being introduced to the Robin Hood team by a housemate.
“I wasn't going to play when I moved over here,” Taylor added. “I lived with a girl who coached Robin Hood and so got roped into it a little. She's since left the island, so I coach Robin Hood. I'm fully back involved with the sport now.”
Despite many not knowing the true extent of Taylor's playing credentials, she has been able to pass on her expertise not only to her Hood team-mates but also to the senior national squad where she has featured for Bermuda.
Having played and coached on the island for the past three years, Taylor has watched the game in Bermuda come on leaps and bounds, particularly within the youth leagues, largely down to the hard work of the BNA
“I've noticed a massive difference over the past three years here in the standard,” she said. “The people behind the scenes are putting in so much work with the youth side of things and it is really showing.
“They're really trying to create a new culture to how Bermuda plays netball and that's brilliant. England are probably ten years behind Australia in terms of development and infrastructure and Bermuda are perhaps a little bit further behind that, but the country is certainly heading in the right direction.”
However, despite the promising progression, Taylor conceded that for all the positives within the junior game, the culture surrounding the senior side of netball still has a lot of work to do to ensure a bright future for the sport in Bermuda.
“We need a senior team for the younger players to aspire to be like, but unfortunately no one really seems to know who these players are,” Taylor added.
“There are some outstanding players here, but there's a bit of a disconnect between the seniors and the youth. Unfortunately, the senior side of the game is arguably behind the junior side of things, which isn't ideal. The juniors is where your future players will come from but you need to have a set-up in place for them to come into and want to be involved.
“We have great under-21 players and then a group of women over the age of 35, but that in-between age group is the key to having a strong national senior team. The impact here is greater as well because it's a smaller pool of players to choose from.
“The issue we have is that you lose a lot of girls at college age because they go off to study and then that under-21 group gets ripped apart. What we need is that age group of 22 to 23-year olds, when they return, to want to still be involved in the game.
“However, we have to be realistic and be aware that these women have jobs, families and other responsibilities, so to give up their time and dedicate themselves to netball for free is hard.
“That's why the youth set-up is so important because if you can get the younger players to buy into something at a young age then there's a good chance they will carry that through with them.
“There has been a culture here that other sports are seen as giving you the opportunity to go further, but in the three years I've been here the growth has been promising and there are things we are doing to help continue that growth.”
One such initiative which Taylor has used her connections and helped implement is to send youngsters over to England to train with Superleague side Wasps Netball, a move which she hopes can help replicate the impact of English players going away to play and learn in Australia.
“Every year a player from here will get the opportunity to go over and train with Wasps in England,” she said. “We are trying to open the eyes of those young players that netball can give you opportunities. We also have a player at Hertfordshire University at a high-performance centre and so it is about networking and creating opportunities.
“We want it to be similar to the English girls going out to Australia and coming back better players. There is no reason on a smaller scale why Bermuda can't do something similar to what has happened in England and here you can make names out of players who are so relatable within the community.”
Taylor's input has already started to show rewards as, alongside the tireless work of Kimale Evans, president of the BNA, and Gina Benjamin, the national team coach and BNA vice-president, the Bermuda senior team have regained their world ranking, with opportunities in the new year to improve their placing further.
“They are 29th but we need to play a number of games next year to keep that,” Taylor added.
“In comparison, the United States are 33rd in the world and although they're relatively new to the game, when you compare the sizes of the two nations, Bermuda have a good starting point to improve.
“Being around the national squad has been really refreshing and being part of netball is great again for me personally.
“When I played in Guernsey, we didn't have the opportunity to play as a nation but here, Bermuda can go away to the Caribbean next year and play in tournaments for world ranking points. That is an incredible opportunity to continue growing the game. Making those strides forward is certainly achievable and with all the hard work being done I think we'll keep seeing improvements.”