Towera Vinkhumbo lets out a laugh that dances on the edges of nervousness and excitement. It’s the middle of the Vitality Netball Superleague’s second bye-week, which has fallen roughly at the season’s halfway point.
All of the first-round contests between teams have now been completed, and we are discussing other defenders who have made their mark on this year’s league.
Within our conversation, familiar names are cropping up; Razia Quashie, Layla Guscoth, Eboni Usoro-Brown and Vinkhumbo’s own defensive partner, Emily Nicholl.
“They don’t know I admire them. Sometimes I copy their skills,” Vinkhumbo says, as if she is sharing some wicked and great confession.
I cannot help smiling back. For, while the 30-year-old Malawian may see herself as some great imitator, who is inspired to keep transforming her own craft, in truth, there is no one quite like her.
Ninth born of 11 children, sporting prowess runs through the Vinkhumbo veins. Her late brother Aubrey Vinkhumbo was a leading defender for ‘Be Forward Wanderers Football Club’ in Malawi. One of her sisters, Salome Vinkhumbo, is a football international, captaining the Scorchers in the 2018 COSAFA Women’s Championship.
Her own athletic capabilities in both sports came alive during her teenage years. A young Vinkhumbo was selected to represent her country in football at the tender age of 14, making her the youngest player ever in the squad. Her netball calling came a few years later, when she was picked for the Malawi U21 team.
Football, however, ended up becoming something of a side hustle for the national player, after the Malawi Football Association suspended international fixtures for their women’s side. Sponsors subsequently abandoned ship, leaving Vinkhumbo’s talent and hunger wanting.
“That’s when my sister said may I should go and try my luck at netball,” and try Vinkhumbo did.
Under the tutelage of the late giant of Malawian netball Griffin Saenda, former head coach of the Malawi Queens, the defender grew in strength. While Saenda urged her to move on from football and trust her potential in netball, still Vinkhumbo continued to stand up for both teams when called upon.
“‘Towera, we want you to come; can you just come and play for us this game? Then, you can go back to netball,'” Vinkhumbo fondly recalls the familiar approaches of the Malawi national football team coaches.
“There were other girls who did the same, who were going for football and netball, but I think it is only me who has been able to do both sports at the national level.”
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If her originality needed further evidencing, proof can certainly be found.
We then moved on to discuss Vinkhumbo’s impressive international netball career. The geography of which, holds great importance for the Malawian, as she proudly lists off the three Commonwealth Games and three Netball World Cups, she has attended by date and location.
I could sense her pride at the mention of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, a standout tournament for any Malawian. To the surprise of the world, the Queens dismantled a declining New Zealand team Ferns in truly glorious fashion, it remains as one of the sport’s greatest upsets.
But while the superlatives poured down on a New Zealand in crisis following their Malawi meltdown, other lesser-known, remarkable moments were being made on the Gold Coast.
Vinkhumbo had successfully played in every game of the tournament just four months after giving birth to her first child.
Towera Vinkhumbo – Impact at recent major competitions
“I really wanted to attend the Commonwealth Games because of the support that I was receiving from the national team coaches and the Malawi national players,” she explains. “They were all supportive of me; they were encouraging me saying, ‘We need you; we need you!'”
Her family were also ready to support. The Malawi Queen left her baby in the care of her mother and began her preparations for the Games just one-month post-partum.
On pregnancy, and what she overcame in order to compete in Australia, Vinkhumbo was absolutely clear it would not be career-ending, nor should it ever be for any female athlete.
“It doesn’t mean that if you get pregnant during your career that you won’t be the same person as before. As long as you work hard to recover your body and your skills, everything is possible.”
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Following the two successful back-to-back campaigns of 2018 and 2019 for Malawi, Vinkhumbo was picked up by Superleague side Severn Stars to bolster their defensive unit. It was, for the Malawian, the fulfilment of a lifelong wish.
What Vinkhumbo, like every person around the world, could not have predicted was the turmoil that 2020 would bring.
The disappointment of a Superleague season being halted in its infancy is still something that weighs down on the defender, and when Stars decided not to progress with her, everything seemed lost.
Then the all too familiar call came… “Towera, you need to come here. We need you at Sirens.”
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Very few could have predicted the colossal impact that Vinkhumbo’s last-minute signing would have on the 2021 season.
Given the way the stars aligned for her arrival, it would be tempting to put her meteoric rise down to chance or to fate intervening. Except, when you reflect on everything Vinkhumbo has shared, such language denies her autonomy and the force of her will to constantly keep excelling and seizing whatever opportunity might enable growth.
“I said ‘yes’. This was another opportunity for me to go and play so I will go and play my lungs out. I’ll go and perform. I’ll go and show everyone what I am capable of.”
Am thankful for this award, and Credit to my @SirensNetball Teammates for the great effort they put into the game we played against @TeamBathNetball.🤗 https://t.co/zVEp0DD3We
After Round 11, the Sirens goalkeeper has more than demonstrated her enviable skillset. She currently sits atop the Superleague standings for interceptions and turnovers; statistics that no doubt put her in the good stead in the battle for the league’s most valuable player.
Vinkhumbo admits she draws much encouragement and reassurance from her numbers, but was ever so quick to stress the role of her team-mates in her achievements.
“I just thank all my team-mates who I need because I know that I can’t do all of this without my team-mates.”
Certainly, this season’s Strathclyde Sirens have been nothing short of inspiring.
Once well-known for rounding off the bottom of the ladder, the Glasgow-based set-up have won over the hearts and minds of netball fans old and new in their clinical and decisive play.
Twice now they have come achingly close to taking a ‘big-name’ scalp, something which Vinkhumbo admits might be harder to achieve come the second half of the season. Everyone, she is sure, will have them pegged as a team to prepare for.
As for whether the Malawian believes she’s playing her best netball, her answer was definitive.
“I can say ‘no’ to this question. I still need to keep up my performance. For now, I just want to play my game and help my team to win. I know that when I’ll go home, at least now I’ve shown my skills here I’ve shown people what I am capable of doing.”
Sky Sports is your home of netball. The Vitality Netball Superleague continues on Sunday with Round 12 and four matches back-to-back streamed live on the Sky Sports YouTube channel from 12pm.
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