Three young girls bashfully make their way to us, pushing each other forward nervously across the empty netball court where we’re standing.
“Do you play for the Firebirds,” says one, ribbons perfectly lining her ponytail as wisps of hair escape the crown of her head. She giggles nervously before casting her eyes down to the bitumen of the court.
“I do,” answers Beryl. She’s dressed just in her black running shorts and T’shirt. The purple dress of her Firebirds uniform tucked away out of sight in her bag.
I love being Aboriginal not many people can say they’re part of the oldest culture in the world
“Can I have a selfie?” another in the trio asks as they all chorus in giggles and grins.
There’s no doubting the pull and popularity of Queensland’s favourite women’s sports team, and some may argue, favourite team. The ANZ Netball Champions sell out home games, feature heavily across media platforms and even have a catamaran on the Brisbane River in their honour.
But few know the story of their shooter, Beryl Friday.
The 21 year old is the only Aboriginal player in the ANZ Championship and one of two Indigenous athletes along with Torres Strait Islander Josie Janz-Dawson from West Coast Fever. It’s hard to believe that the most popular sport for girls in the country has so few Indigenous athletes at its highest level and even more staggering to believe that only two Indigenous players have ever represented Australia in netball and none since Sharon Finnan retired in 2000.
And that’s one thing Beryl wants to change.
Born in Ingham in North Queensland, Beryl was one of five children. With her mother and two older sisters keen netballers, at eight years old little Beryl was taken to the local netball courts.
“Mum had to drag me out of the car.”
“I was crying and was like ‘No I’m not playing, netball, it’s too girly’.
“Two weeks later I’m down there half an hour early with ribbons in my hair and oranges cut up and I just loved it,” Beryl tells Sportette with an infectious enthusiasm and laugh.
So when did you realise you wanted to play for Australia?
“As soon as I realised I was half decent at it… so when I was 8 and a half,” says Beryl bursting out in laughter, her sarcasm revealing a charismatic self-confidence.
The next part of her story reads a bit like a modern day sporting fairytale. It was during a coaching clinic in Townsville, she caught the eye of Australian netball great Vicki Wilson. A patron of netball at Brisbane’s prestigious girls school St Margaret’s, Beryl was soon offered a sports scholarship for the final two years of her schooling.
The only indigenous girl in her year and one of only a handful in her school, Beryl admits it had its moments.
“Growing up because you’re the only Indigenous girl, you would see people having protests and think ‘I’m so embarrassed to be Aboriginal’ and I think that’s how society looks at us,” Beryl tells Sportette.
“Mum and Dad used to tell me stories about my grandmother and she would be so political and into it, marching down the street kind of thing and I used to think ‘that’s so crazy. Oh my god I can’t believe my grandmother did that’ ”
“But now I’m older and more educated I’m like ‘good on her we should be doing that!’ ”
Beryl’s grandparents were part of the stolen generation, taken from their homes in North Queensland at an early age to the mission on Palm Island. The 21 year old has been on her own journey to understand and learn more about her identity and culture. She speaks about her heritage with such passion, there’s no questioning her pride.
“I love being Aboriginal not many people can say they’re part of the oldest culture in the world.”
“But even Australia doesn’t celebrate its past enough. You think Stonehenge in England, it’s an icon that was built 5000 years ago, Indigenous Australians have been in Australia 50,000 years, we’ve got cave paintings that date back to then.”
And the Adam Goodes controversy this year really rammed that home for Beryl. “We’re a multi cultural nation and we want everyone to know that and we’re happy to support Chinese New Year and we’re happy for the New Zealanders to do the Haka before the rugby but we ‘re not happy for our first Australians celebrate kicking a goal by doing a dance and throwing an imaginary spear.
“I think that goes to show how uneducated society is.”
And that inspires Beryl. After a disappointing season cruelled by 2 slipped discs and ankle injuries, 2016 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for the goal shooter.
Currently a reserve shooter for the Firebirds, Beryl has already been warned by Firebirds coach Rosalee Jencke, one of her greatest supporters, to prepare for a big year.
“Rose wants to really push me – so I’m expecting this season to be a lot harder than last season.”
Whether or not that purple skirt one day becomes a green and gold, Beryl hopes she’ll continue to inspire and teach the next generation of Australians, no matter what the colour of their skin may be, to have the same pride for our indigenous past.
“I think just being proud to be Aboriginal and if enough of us have a voice then hopefully there can be change.”
Judging from the way the giggling trio is looking up to Beryl on these lonely netball courts on a Wednesday night, she’s already causing plenty of that.
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