Local netball team travels to South Africa for competition

When Jordan Keen was twelve, she sprained her knee while she was skiing. It caused severe pain that enveloped her body. Doctor after doctor could not figure out what was wrong.

“The pain felt like shards of glass tearing my body apart and my doctors and I couldn’t stop it,” Keen said. “As an athletic twelve-year-old, it devastated me to be sidelined from basketball and other sports. By high school, I struggled to get around without a wheelchair or [to] hold a pencil.”

Keen, who’s interested in transferring from Washtenaw Community College to Eastern Michigan University’s sports management and nonprofit administration program, struggled with a disease called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, which is a disorder of the nervous system that causes severe pain out of proportion to an injury.

After finding a treatment at the Cleveland Clinic, Keen was implanted with a spinal cord stimulator that keeps her body free of pain. However, she had to refrain from contact sports.

“On the way up to the gym to coach one day, I saw a poster for this sport called netball. It advertised that it was like basketball, but was a ‘non-contact’ sport. I was sold before I even touched the court,” Keen said.

When thinking about the sport of basketball, people don’t typically think of each team having seven players on the court and not being able to dribble at all, which is what the sport netball entails.

When James Naismith created the game of basketball, the rules were interpreted differently for women than they were for men, because women wore skirts on the court back then and so the game was modified.

Netball is actually the original women’s basketball. There is no running with the ball; it is simply passed from one player to the other, which is why there are seven players on each team. You can find the game being played in 70 different countries around the world.

Keen is now team captain of a netball team that plays at the Ann Arbor YMCA. The team, which includes a few girls from Ann Arbor, traveled to South Africa to compete in the World University Netball Championships in July. Prior to the Championships, the team had a chance to play against the West Coast Representative team in Seattle June 22.

“As one of the toughest teams in the U.S., it was a great gauge to see where we were at as a team before we hit the court in Africa,” Keen said. “One of the best parts about playing this team is that we played them before the [Seattle] Storm hit the court, so we were able to share the game with all of those seated in the arena that seats 17,000. It was great.”

For the six months before the championships, the team went through an intense training program. Each player had to train five to six days a week and follow a sports nutrition plan. They also went to weekend training camps around the country.

“We were up against a few huge obstacles between us and winning gold,” Keen said. “This game is popular for kids to play growing up, like basketball is in the U.S., so these girls we’ll be playing against have been playing all their lives. For us, it’s not so much winning gold but it’ll be a gold medal in itself to be the first all-American netball team and come out as a competitive group amongst these superstar teams.”

While they were in Africa for the championships, the team had the privilege to visit Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls in Henley on Klip, in the Gauteng Province of South Africa. They had lunch with the Varsity netball team before playing them in the afternoon.

The team also had the opportunity to lead coaching clinics for girls in underprivileged areas in Cape Town.

Keen said the main focus of the trip was for the team to play their best, but she came away from the experience with so much more.

“I’ve learned so much from the other countries we played against, from the school girls out of the beautiful South African culture and from our coaches,” Keen said. “We walked away from the tournament having played our hearts out on the court, and our team is now ranked 8th in the world out of the 70 countries who had the opportunity to play.”

The team did not come home with a medal, but Keen says they certainly made an impact on the sport. Keen said she would love to play netball for as long as her body can handle and wants to start a university netball club at EMU.

“Netball is an all-inclusive game; it is a game for those who are tall or small, fast or slow. There is a place on the court for all players,” she said. “When I stepped onto the court at the [YMCA] for the first time, I found coaches who saw me as a player with potential and not a patient with a problem. That was magic for me.”


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