"I hate the ThunderStix," Sandra Thompson says, shaking her head as the pounding of hundreds of plastic, air-filled tubes rumbles throughout the arena. She loves the New Zealand netball games, but 5,000 fans' ThunderStix drive her crazy.
The top women's sport in New Zealand and Australia, netball is closely related to basketball, with several major distinctions: no dribbling, just continuous passing; players have only three seconds to pass the ball to another teammate; and there is no backboard behind the net.
Sitting with Sandra, Frances Tagaloa ignores the noise at the FujiFilm Force's game, focusing on the players and calling them by name. As Athletes in Action staff members, the women are doing much more than just cheering at the games. Frances is the Force's chaplain, meeting with the players on a regular basis. Her friend Sandra is a chaplain for a different team. They are investing in the lives of women athletes throughout Auckland.
Frances is a mother of two and has a Bible study with the Force women every week at a local fitness club before practice. Five out of the 12 team members show up one Thursday, gathering around a table near a closed snack shop.
They study about having a winning attitude from a biblical perspective, and it starts to sink in for goal-shooter Julie Kelman-Poto, or "JK." She relates the study to her experience of sitting on the bench through most of the games. "It's like how I didn't feel cheated last week when I wasn't on the court," she says, "because I knew the girls out there were doing a good job."
Goal-keep Linda Vagana joins the group late, after an interview with a reporter about her upcoming retirement from netball. In her 10 years playing professional netball, Linda has been especially vocal about her faith, and influential in leading several of her teammates to Christ.
Later that evening, Linda was re-reading the lesson, and her coach came by and grabbed it out of her hands. "What's this?" the coach asked. So Linda told her it was the study they did with Frances; the non-Christian coach had been wary about it.
As Linda explained about the study, the coach jokingly said, "Maybe I should come too." Linda emphasized that she should, assuring her quite seriously that she would be welcome.
"Frances has helped me realize how influential I am as a netballer and as a Christian -- to realize my purpose," Linda says. "Frances is a good friend to have."
On Monday nights, Linda joins a few of her fellow netballers and some Rugby League women for a deeper Bible study with Frances. Rugby League player Luisa Avaiki attends regularly, and she, like Linda, carries a strong Christian influence on her team. One night when many of the other women are busy, Luisa and 2 of her teammates still show up.
One of them is Tea Lome, a new believer who has grown steadily in her relationship with Christ. "I knew about the Bible, but I didn't know Christ," the tall 38-year-old says. "So I decided I would take that step of faith and see where the journey took me. And it's been good," she says with a smile.
"Tea prays for our team now," adds Luisa. "On Easter she announced to our team that she was a born-again Christian and said she wanted to dedicate that day to the Lord," Luisa says, still surprised at Tea's boldness.
"If I can't tell my team," Tea says with a shrug, "who can I tell?"
Frances and Sandra both hope that all the players they mentor will feel the same as Tea, telling their team and everyone they know about Christ. Because of their celebrity status, the players' influence spreads far beyond those they personally know.
At the end of the Force game, with parents carrying bundles of ThunderStix, hundreds of young girls surround the players, clutching autograph books. The players are patient, smiling and signing each adoring fan's book. One in 5 girls in New Zealand play netball on a team; Frances and Sandra understand the effect these athletes have on the next generation. The ruckus from the ThunderStix has died down, but the Christian testimonies of the women netball and rugby players echo throughout New Zealand.