Weekend Interview: Natalie Haythornthwaite hoping to turn Commonwealth gold into a financial future for netball

LIFE is pretty sweet for Steeton-born netballer Natalie Haythornthwaite, who is naturally cock-a-hoop at present.

Helen Housby and Natalie Haythornthwaite, right, celebrate with their gold medals after winning the Women's Netball final against Australia, (Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)
Helen Housby and Natalie Haythornthwaite, right, celebrate with their gold medals after winning the Women's Netball final against Australia, (Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

If anything, the only thing stressing the 25-year-old out has been avoiding any possibility of misplacing her new pride and joy of a Commonwealth Games gold medal.

In the aftermath of England’s thrilling defeat of host nation and strong favourites Australia last Sunday, Haythornthwaite gave her golden gong to mum Paula so the netballer would not lose it.

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The plan backfired when the wing attack was faced with an impromptu media scrum and subsequent team photo on their arrival at Heathrow Airport.

“All the other girls had their medals round their necks and I was like oh no my mum has got mine because I was too scared to lose it,” laughed Haythornthwaite.

“I had to Tweet a picture of it on Wednesday saying ‘don’t worry guys, it’s actually here.’ Since that, I have not taken it off.

“Just so everyone knows, I have got my medal and I love the feeling of it being around my neck.”

Yet Haythornwaite hopes her team’s golden moment on the Gold Coast of Australia leads to an even more satisfying feeling in the long term with the netballer praying that becoming Commonwealth champions can help secure crucial funding for her sport.

England's Natalie Haythornthwaite celebrates winning the Commonwealth Games gold medal match with coach Tracey Neville

Haythornthwaite played a pivotal role in helping England’s netball team savour the finest moment in their history last week when Tracey Neville’s side beat hot favourites Australia 
52-51 in an epic final.

The Commonwealths, after all, is netball’s Olympics with the sport not currently competed for in the Games, something else that Haythornthwaite naturally hopes will eventually change.

Yet more pressing is the need for England netball to secure crucial funding with coach Neville admitting in the aftermath of Commonwealths glory that her sport still had a “noose around our neck” over funding issues.

English Netball is funded by Sport England through a combination of National Lottery money and Government cash, with the sport awarded £13.9m for development last February and £3m for the national team to cover the next four years.

England's Natalie Haythornthwaite celebrates winning the Commonwealth Games gold medal match with coach Tracey Neville

Despite receiving the largest investment from Sport England for the 2017-2021 cycle, netball suffered a 34 per cent reduction in their grant from the previous wave.

England netball chief executive Joanna Adams has said that funding will only keep the full-time athlete programme going until 2019, after England’s staging of a home World Cup next summer.

UK Sport funds elite sport in the country, and does not currently contribute to netball, due to it not being an Olympic sport.

In short, it means that as things stand, the sport is looking at a situation where it will have to create its own revenue.

With netball in need of a shot in the arm, Haythornthwaite and England provided it and she is now hoping that claiming that wonderful Commonwealth Games gold in Australia can prove the catalyst for even more important developments to come.

Haythornthwaite told The Yorkshire Post: “We are so lucky for the past two years that we have been funded by Sport England and the National Lottery and without that we wouldn’t be able to be full-time athletes.

“We have got the big sponsors in England Netball like Vitality, but ultimately after 2019 and the World Cup, our funding is uncertain.

“It has been spoken about a lot recently and for me it would be absolutely devastating to see our funding go because we are moving forwards and in such a positive direction right now that we don’t want anything to stop that.

“Ultimately, we do need to keep the funding so we are so grateful that Sport England and the National Lottery do fund us right now but we just need to keep it and keep it going to be in the medals again.”

Reflecting on her Olympic dreams, Haythornthwaite added: “The Commonwealth Games is technically our Olympics because we are not an Olympic sport and it’s the only time we are part of a multi-sport event.

“I would love netball to be an Olympic sport and I think the recognition we have had at the Commonwealth Games and the way we have performed out there, I feel like we should be knocking on the Olympic door.”

Having shone on the Gold Coast of Australia, Haythornwaite only returned back home to England on Tuesday but there has been precious little time to settle down.

After constant media attention and the return to action in Superleague tomorrow, the netballer is set to move house next week to her boyfriend Josh Metcalf’s home town of Doncaster.

Metcalf coaches basketball at York school Queen Ethelburga’s and another of Haythornthwaite’s long-term wishes is to see a Yorkshire netball side back in the sport’s top division.

While studying in Leeds, she played for Leeds Carnegie who then became Yorkshire Jets, a club that ultimately had to fold as a result of England Netball’s decision not to award a Superleague franchise to the region in the summer of 2016.

Former University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University student Haythornthwaite then moved to Manchester Thunder before switching to Coventry-based Wasps Netball who were crowned Superleague champions last year. They resume action tomorrow at home to Team Bath, a fixture screened live on Sky Sports.

As part of a whirlwind week, Haythornthwaite and her boyfriend are then set to move into their new home next week with Yorkshire netball remaining a cause very close to Haythornwaite’s heart.

Haythornthwaite explained: “I grew up playing for Leeds as before Yorkshire Jets it was Leeds Carnegie and I had been doing that a long time, since I was 15 or 16.

“I think it’s sad for the younger girls now who don’t have a Superleague franchise to aspire to in Yorkshire.

“If you are playing, you always want to aspire to play for the biggest club so hopefully I would love to see a franchise back in Yorkshire, because it’s such a great place.”

A decade after first joining Leeds Carnegie aged 15, Haythornthwaite is now setting the ultimate example as a Commonwealth Games champion, although the feeling is yet to fully sink in.

Indeed, the girl who graduated from Leeds Beckett University with a degree in speech and language therapy was almost lost for words.

“It just feels insane,” said Haythornthwaite, reflecting on becoming a Commonwealth Games champion.

“It just feels surreal and it still hasn’t properly sunk in yet.

“We’ve got a WhatsApp group and every day someone has been putting like ‘guys, we still won, remember we won gold’.

“We are all reminding each other that it actually happened and it isn’t just a dream.”