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Hoop dreams: Kayla Cullen holds court

The Fern favourite is finally calling the shots

It’s a wild and windy day as Kayla Cullen stands on an Auckland beach, her long blonde locks flying as she tries to manoeuvre into a position to stop her hair completely covering her face.

“We’re on a beach – there are worse places to be!” she says, wriggling her toes in the sand as she flashes our photographer a huge smile. Kayla is most definitely a free spirit. It’s how the 24-year-old prefers to describe herself, though she concedes others may, in the past, have used the terms “always late” or “unorganised”.

“I was the most told-off Silver Fern there ever was,” she admits with an ever-so-slightly bashful look. “I’m just trying to be me and sometimes not everyone agrees with me. But I’m learning quickly and I’m doing everything I can to be the best netballer I can be. I’m definitely working on it!” Kayla, who debuted for the national side in 2011, when she was just 19, says she’s definitely on a steep learning curve as she deals with both her skyrocketing netball career and her burgeoning celebrity.

The past six months have been crazy for the Northern Mystics star. After winning the Woman’s Day People’s Choice Award at last year’s inaugural New Zealand Netball Awards, Kayla also recently took home the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award for NZ and Australia’s Favourite Sports Star, beating out Richie McCaw.

League love

She’s also just started a hosting gig on Maori TV’s new sports show Play – and to top it all off, she’s in a relationship with 25-year-old rugby league superstar Shaun Johnson, which has brought significant public interest.

“It’s been a crazy few months,” Kayla nods. “My Instagram followers have grown so fast in the last six to eight months. I wonder why!” she laughs, referring to her 27,000-plus followers. “Half of them I should just give back to Shaun – they’re not even mine!” But Kayla is much more than one half of one of the country’s highest-profile sporting couples – she’s an immensely gifted athlete. Plucked straight from high school to trial for national teams, Kayla’s netball career has been nothing short of extraordinary and even she is surprised at how things have worked out. She actually had dreams of becoming a florist.

“I never thought I wanted to be a netball player,” she explains. “When I was growing up, I played every kind of sport imaginable – basketball, volleyball, touch, softball … Anything that involved running or a ball. I had a lot of energy; I was really hyper. “But not long ago, I found this little profile piece I did at school when I was seven or eight and one of the questions was, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I wrote, ‘Professional netballer or basketball player.’ So obviously, I wanted this all along!”

Kayla’s had huge support from her entire family since the beginning – and it’s a big family. Her mum Pamela, who is originally from the Falkland Islands, met her dad James, who has both Ngapuhi and Cook Island ancestry, later in life, and both already had two children. Kayla is the middle child of the three they had together, but she says theirs was a happily blended family.

“I have five brothers and one sister. We’re all not full brothers and sisters, but we act like it!” Like thousands of Kiwi kids, Kayla began her netball career on Saturday mornings at the local courts as a seven-year-old. Pamela was her daughter’s biggest and most vocal fan.

“One of my first memories is of a game where my cousin was on the other team,” Kayla recalls with a grin. “A girl contacted me really badly – she grabbed my arm and apparently almost broke it. “My mum ended up having a fight with her mum, it got out of hand and I think my mum actually got banned from the courts! She’s passionate, my mum. She’s still the same at Silver Ferns and Mystics games – she’ll be there screaming her head off. None of my family wants to sit with her.”

Life lessons

Kayla also has some pretty fervent fans outside her whanau and with great influence comes responsibility, as Kayla is growing to understand. “I don’t go out to be a role model, and I’m definitely not going to try to change and be someone I’m not, but I get that there’s a responsibility there. I don’t want to be going out into the public and doing stupid things.

“People can follow me and unfollow me if they want. I’m just going to keep posting things I like. I’ve always done that – sometimes I’ve got in trouble for it! “I’ve had to grow up and learn a lot in an environment where there are a lot of adults who have already done their learning experience, and maybe they forget that I’m still young and I’m going to make mistakes.”

She reckons she’s made great strides in the punctuality department in the last four months or so – “I always think I have way more time than I do!”– and she hasn’t brought the wrong uniform to a game or team appearance in ages.

“Once, I did have the wrong coloured dress for a Mystics game,” she admits, shaking her head. “I thought we were playing in our home strip, but then everyone else started pulling on the away one. Luckily, we found a spare!”

Kayla’s looking forward to her most challenging year yet on the court, as she’s once again thrust into an unfamiliar position for the Mystics. Dubbed the most versatile player in the competition, Kayla has played every single position on court and while she’s best known for her defence skills, she’s now trying her hand at wing attack. “At first, it bothered me a little bit that I was getting moved around so much,” she admits. “But now I see it as a compliment and a challenge. I’m not too fond of the position, to be honest, but hopefully I will be in time because I know I’m not getting moved!”

And if there’s anyone that can rise to the challenge, it’s Kayla. Her latest confidence injection is only sure to help matters once the whistle blows. “I’ve only really come out of my shell in the past year or so,” she explains. “Before then, I just felt like a youngster and that my opinion didn’t matter, and that I didn’t know anything about netball. I was so shy – I definitely wouldn’t have done anything like Play! My confidence has definitely grown.”

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What you didn’t know about Kayla Cullen

It’s a wild and windy day as Kayla Cullen stands on an Auckland beach, her long blonde locks flying as she tries to manoeuvre into a position to stop her hair completely covering her face.

“We’re on a beach – there are worse places to be!” she says, wriggling her toes in the sand as she flashes our photographer a huge smile.

Kayla is most definitely a free spirit. It’s how the 24-year-old prefers to describe herself, though she concedes others may, in the past, have used the terms “always late” or “unorganised”.

“I was the most told-off Silver Fern there ever was,” she admits with an ever-so-slightly bashful look.

“I’m just trying to be me and sometimes not everyone agrees with me. But I’m learning quickly and I’m doing everything I can to be the best netballer I can be. I’m definitely working on it!”

The past six months have been crazy for the Northern Mystics star. After winning the Woman’s Day People’s Choice Award at last year’s inaugural New Zealand Netball Awards, Kayla also recently took home the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award for NZ and Australia’s Favourite Sports Star, beating out Richie McCaw.

She’s also just started a hosting gig on Maori TV’s new sports show Play – and to top it all off, she’s in a relationship with 25-year-old rugby league superstar Shaun Johnson, which has brought significant public interest.

Cute couple! Snaps with boyfriend Shaun have won Kayla thousands of followers on Instagram

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