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Courtside with Silver Fern Kayla Cullen

Kayla Cullen opens up about how netball enriches her life and how she has found balance and time for a personal life, despite a rigorous training schedule

Kayla Cullen first swept onto New Zealand’s netball centre stage when she made her Silver Ferns debut against England as a bright-eyed 19-year-old.
Five years on, the striking Aucklander’s star continues to rise. Despite a major knee injury, which put her on the sidelines for a year, and more recently a foot injury, the versatile player (she’s played every position on court) made a successful court comeback last year.
To top it off, Kayla also signed with Nike as an official Nike athlete, was named New Zealand and Australia’s Favourite Sports Star at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award (beating Richie McCaw!), and there’s also her high-profile relationship with rugby league player Shaun Johnson.
Good Health Choices caught up with Kayla to find out more about her training schedule, how she gets through the tough times and what she eats to stay fit and healthy. And it’s not all celery sticks and kale for this 24-year-old, who regularly indulges her sweet tooth.
Q Growing up, you were active and played a variety of sports. Why did you decide to pursue netball over other sports?
I’ve always been super-competitive and love playing most sports, with basketball, athletics and netball being particular favourites. In the end, I had
to make a choice and it was netball.
Q What have been some of your proudest career achievements since making your debut with the Silver Ferns in 2011?
Without a doubt, playing at the Netball World Cup in 2015 and making the final was a highlight! Of course we were all bitterly disappointed to lose in the final. However, beating Australia in the pool game and playing in front of a world-record netball crowd, while representing New Zealand, is something I’ll always remember.
Q To be ready for anything on court, how many times a week do you train during the season?
This varies week to week depending on our travel schedule and game day. However, we train most days and even on my days off you’ll find me shooting hoops with friends or doing recovery at Next Generation gym in Auckland. Circuits, the spin bike and swimming endurance have been some of my favourite workouts this year, due to an injury in my foot. I also do plenty
of skill-specific court training, as well
as ball-to-wall work.
Q With all the training that you’re doing, what do you eat to stay fuelled and healthy?
Everything! In all seriousness, like most people I really love my food and have a wicked sweet tooth. Breakfast is a really important meal for me, so I always start off with something substantial and nutritious. Lately, I’ve been enjoying porridge mixed with yoghurt and honey on cold mornings to help warm me up. I’m also a fan of a good açai bowl or salmon, eggs and avocado on toast. Lunch depends on where I am but, again, something with lots of protein, like chicken or beef and some greens. By the time dinner arrives I’m looking for something light and more than likely a treat – chocolate or a scoop of ice cream to satisfy my sweet tooth. It’s all about balance; I don’t feel guilty when I treat myself. Although, occasionally I have been known to have one too many desserts. Oops!
Q How about post-workout or post-game? What do you eat to aid recovery?
Straight after a game, the adrenaline is still pumping through your body and at times it can be hard to eat. Normally, I’ll have plenty of fluids and something light like fruit and maybe a few lollies to get glucose into my system. Then, once I’ve showered and changed, if it’s a home game I’ll head out for a nice meal with family, friends or teammates. When we’re on the road, we normally head back to the hotel and eat together. This could be pasta, steak, fish, rice and vegetables – a variety of food prepared by the hotel.
Q What does good health mean to you?
I naturally live a very active lifestyle, due to the nature of my sport. However, I’m a big believer that you have to have balance and enjoy life, so I have no problem treating myself to a dessert or a less-than-healthy meal. If you eat well and exercise regularly, then don’t be afraid to order that dessert – you’ve earned it!
Q How has playing netball enriched your life?
From an early age, netball has given me so much, including the ability to be part of a team and to ensure I have a healthy lifestyle, not to mention the amazing friends I’ve made. To be able to live each day as a netballer is a dream come true.
Q It must be tough at times when you’re representing New Zealand and can feel the weight of the country’s expectations on your shoulders. How do you mentally prepare for a big game?
I try to not work myself up too much over a game or over-think things, as I do believe that I play my best when I’m relaxed and focused on my own role. I find a good playlist of relaxing tunes tends to get me in the zone.
Q You’ve overcome some injury setbacks with your knee and foot in the past few years; what helped you get through these challenging times?
Injuries are the worst part of being a professional athlete and any athlete who has had a serious injury will be the first to tell you that there can be some very dark days. The key is to stay positive and know you’ll be back better than ever and to lean on those closest to you. My family and friends have always been there for me and to support me through thick and thin. Also, my teammates and support staff at the Northern Mystics are always in my corner. Last but not least, the medical team who spend hours and hours helping a player rehab an injury – they don’t get much credit, but I know all the girls appreciate everything they do for us on a daily basis.
Q How do you manage to juggle a busy sporting career and your relationship with your boyfriend, Shaun Johnson?
I’m really lucky that my partner is also a professional athlete, so we both understand the challenges that come with this and we just make it work.
Q How do you stay fit during your off-season?
I love being active and playing sport. Even in the off-season I’m constantly playing basketball with friends or heading outdoors to explore some of the great spots that we have here in New Zealand. Despite there being an official off-season, as a professional sportswoman you’re training year-round in some capacity. It’s part of the job and also living a healthy, active lifestyle.
Q What words of wisdom do you have for young players who are starting out?
Work hard, as talent without hard work will get you nowhere. And most of all, believe in yourself!
Q You were given the opportunity to design your own Nike shoe to tell the story of who you are as an athlete. What inspired your design?
The green laces represent the first team I played for; Meadowbank Primary, where my netball journey began. I chose the Nike Flyknit because the woven/knitted concept of the upper part of the shoe represents all the support networks, such as teammates, coaches and the hard work and sacrifice it takes to achieve your goals. You’re not as strong alone as you are together. The black sole of the shoe represents the black dress I wear when I play for the Silver Ferns and how proud I feel when wearing it. The silver speckles and silver Swoosh represents the fact that I’ve not yet achieved the ultimate goal of gold at a World Cup, but rather the silver medal we gained at the 2015 World Cup. It’s a reminder of why we’re putting in the hard yards now, so in the long run it all pays off. I'm certain the next pair of Nike shoes I design will have the gold Swoosh!
Q What are your go-to training outfits at the moment?
I love my colourful tights, like Nike’s Epic Lux Tights and Power Speed Tights. They’re so comfortable and great for training in. I’m also loving the training singlets – the Elastika tanks – with the elastic backs.
Quickfire questions
What's the last movie you saw?
The Legend of Tarzan.
What's your favourite breakfast food?
At the moment, it's coconut porridge.
What's the one gym exercise you loathe?
Upper body or any arm-specific exercises.
Who is your favourite netball player of all time?
Irene van Dyke. I was so lucky to have been able to play with her – she is an absolute legend!
What are three things you love about winter?
Eating delicious warm food to warm your insides. Sleeping when it's raining and stormy outside. Wearing sweatpants every day because it's so cold.
Where would we find you on a Friday night?
These days, it’s at home on the couch watching a movie.
What’s your favourite workout song?
You & Me by Jupiter Project.
Article by Indiana Turner.

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