Grace Nweke’s latest milestone on her meteoric rise was her first game as a Silver Fern. With a loss to England of 55-45, it was not the spectacular debut that many were hoping for. Grace came on in the second half, just as England’s Roses were ascending, playing a tight disciplined game. Simultaneously, the Silver Ferns had lost momentum and were becoming more disjointed. The passes to Grace were often too short or too deep, so she didn’t get as much ball as she could have done. Despite that, she got 16 goals out of 20 shots. That 80% rate reflected some nervousness at the step up to international competition. It is lower than her success rate in the ANZ Premiership which was 90% and 852 goals.
Grace and her twin brother were born in NZ. She is one of six children, including two sets of twins. Her Nigerian parents, Fortune and Chidinma, immigrated here, via South Korea. “My dad always tells me they were living in South Korea the year Helen Clark came for a visit. He saw pictures of New Zealand in the newspaper and thought ‘Wow, what a beautiful place to raise a family’,” Grace Nweke says. “Before they knew it, they were on a plane to New Zealand.”
Grace Got an Aspire Scholarship for years 9 & 10 for AGC Sunderland in Henderson. Other than that, she did all her education in the Whau. Starting at New Lynn Kindergarten she went on to New Lynn Primary School. Then it was onto Blockhouse Bay Intermediate, ACG Sunderland and finally Avondale College.
After making a start playing netball in Y4 at New Lynn Primary, Grace went on to make the top team at Blockhouse Bay Intermediate School. In Y8, she missed out on the top netball team. At Avondale College in year 11, she gave basketball a go. That didn’t work out so well when she played like it was netball, stopping and standing under the hoop to shoot. In year 12 she was in AvCol’s premier team, being coached by Racheal Rasmussen. Racheal was a NZ U21 world champion.
At only 16 years old and a student at Avondale, Grace was spotted by Helene Wilson at the national U17 tournament and later at the North Island School championship. “I saw her holding and creating space for herself to catch the ball,” Wilson says. “And I could see she had a really long arm span, that she could jump, and catch the ball at the height of the hoop. “Those are things you can’t coach a player to do; she does them instinctively. I knew I could work with that and make her into a high-performance netball player.”
After consultation with her parents, teachers and coaches, Grace was invited to become a Mystics training partner. That is when she really came into the public eye. At 16, she was nervous on her first day with the Mystics. “I’ve always struggled coming into new team environments, not knowing anyone,” Grace says. “I was dropping all the balls and stepping. I couldn’t pass properly. I was second-guessing myself.”
Grace met her idol, Irene van Dyke, at a national development camp. “She’s gorgeous and so humble,” van Dyk said at the time. “She’s honestly like a sponge – everything you ask her to try, she gives 100 percent. She needs to stay grounded and do a lot of shooting so it becomes comfortable, and work on her range and movement in the circle. She has so much to learn about, but with her pure natural ability, she’s carving it up already. The sky is the limit for this chick!”
This year saw Grace dominate at the ANZ Premiership, helping propel the Mystics to the grand final win. She made 58 out of 62 shots. Then she got the rebound three of the four times she missed. Her coach, Helene Wilson says, “In the two and a half to three years that we've had her, to come from being someone who didn't feel like they belonged in this high-performance environment to where she was today, I just think that is a testament to her ability to learn, but also her maturity to have performance conversations with the girls.”
Now Grace is with the Silver Ferns, we can look forward to her really finding her feet after the nervous start, and successfully growing into her role in the team. Her dad and family are very proud of her as she represents well the community that she grew up in.