HOCKEY was the biggest sport at her school, rugby ran in the family, and rowing came close to capturing her at university. But for Gemma Sole, from her earliest years, it was always going to be netball.
Like the rest of the Scottish Thistles squad, the 22-year-old has to fit her training around a full-time job – in her case, with Sainsbury’s Bank in Edinburgh. But every spare minute is devoted to preparing for a summer that she hopes will culminate in her representing Scotland at the Commonwealth Games. There are no guarantees. The current squad of 19 will be cut to 12 in June, and there is fierce internal competition to get one of those dozen places. Yet there is also an awareness that, although seven players will not make it, the hard work put in by everyone now will help the team when the ten-nation tournament begins.
“It’s amazing how we’ve come together as a larger squad over the last few months,” says Sole who, like her team-mates, is supported by the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport. “I’ve never played in a squad with such unity and depth. We’re all very supportive of each other. Essentially, you’re competing with your best pals, so it is tough, but it’s character-building as well. Each time you get selected for a match you feel yourself getting one step closer. You can’t really say that anyone’s a definite member of the final squad. A lot can happen. I wouldn’t go to training if I didn’t think I had a chance of getting in. Everyone has to have that mentality. If you train to lose, you will lose. We train to win and we train for selection every day. You’ve got to keep that winning mentality.”
That winning mentality is something Sole had first-hand knowledge of from infancy. She was born in September 1990, just six months after her father, David, pictured below, had led Scotland to a Grand Slam at Murrayfield. As she grew, she steadily began to appreciate the esteem in which he was held, though now that she is making her mark in her own sport, it is his ability to balance work and play which is proving useful to her.
“I’ve heard plenty about dad’s rugby , mainly from others. He’s very modest about his , so it’s only if you ask him questions, he’ll answer them. We were on holiday once, when I was maybe five or six, getting a ferry over to France. We got out the car and someone came up and shook dad’s hand. I asked ‘Who’s that daddy?’ and he said ‘I don’t know’. ‘What do you mean, you don’t know?’ That was when I realised that he was quite cool.
“Now, everything that dad has gone through, he’s able to share his experiences with me. He was playing rugby when it was still an amateur sport, so he was working full-time. And he can completely sympathise with the challenges that I face working full-time and also having a nearly full-time training schedule. I can say ‘Well, dad’s done it, so can I’. He’s played on the biggest platforms, and I can take comfort from the fact that he’s able to advise me and share his experiences. I just want a chance to have even a flavour of the excitement and energy that he felt playing in that international arena.”
Scotland had a women’s international rugby team by the time Sole went to school, but, perhaps because she had three brothers, she never felt drawn to the oval ball. “As soon as I got a netball in my hand that was it. I developed a real passion for it at a really young age – I first started playing when I was seven or eight and I absolutely loved it.
“At school, hockey was our main sport, but, from a young age, it’s always been netball. When I arrived at Bath University as a young fresher, I was spotted by the GB Rowing development scouts. They saw this lanky, tall girl looking for my halls of residence, and they thought ‘Oh, have you done sport before?’
“Initially, I was very interested in it, and it could have gone either way, but the netball trials clashed with the rowing testing so I went to the netball instead. I’ve never looked back since.”
While Sole is uncertain of selection for Glasgow, she is sure of one thing: this Scottish Thistles squad is making strides in the right direction.
They are ranked 12th in the world at the moment, with every team above them being in the Commonwealth – including eighth-ranked Trinidad & Tobago, opponents at the Emirates in two friendlies this week, the first of which the Scots impressively won 44-34. Going from 12th to the top three is too much to ask this time, but they know they are a team on the rise.
“We’re not aiming for medals on this occasion,” she accepts. “To have a top-six finish is our aim: that would be our gold medal. The best we’ve ever been ranked is sixth in the world, so to get back up to that ranking would be fantastic.”