As the ninth of 11 children born to hard-working Maltese immigrants, young Judi Buhagiar used to walk the 5km or so from the family dairy farm in Morwell West to her local netball courts.
Her trip – usually both ways, if her dad was busy, and a few kms further when the netball centre moved to the other side of town – each Saturday took her across paddocks and a railway track, up hills and down.
It also took her somewhere else that she loved to go.
“I found such enjoyment and such pleasure in being involved in a sport, and back then girls only played netball,’’ recalls Buhagiar, now 58.
“Growing up on a farm we didn’t have neighbours and our house was frantic – but fun, don’t get me wrong – and I just found that netball was a place I needed to go to that gave me a different experience.
“I remember a girlfriend of mine saying once ‘let’s not go to netball today, let’s go and do something else’. And I just looked at her and said ‘what are you? Why wouldn’t I want to go to netball? That is not cool. I want to go to netball!’
“It was such an opportunity for me to learn… I was captain of my school team at one stage, and that’s a big deal, and I didn’t understand what I was learning, but I was developing life skills and things I didn’t even realise.’’
Buhagiar has never left netball. Nor has she moved from the LaTrobe Valley. As Netball Victoria’s Eastern Region manager for the past five-and-a-half years, she oversees facility and game development, coach and umpire education, school programs, player pathways and participation growth. She not just an advocate for the sport, but for all women’s sport.
Her previous roles including managing state junior teams and the Melbourne Kestrels in the former CBT. Buhagiar currently coaches three local teams – and other coaches – at the Churchill Football Netball Club, and forgets for a moment that she is also the head coach of Gippsland Sports Academy program, and assistant coach of the Hawks 19/U VNL development side.
In her, ahem, “spare time”, the mother-of-two teenagers still umpires and plays in a masters team – or at least she will, again, after an ankle reconstruction. She laughs that her team’s nickname is the Cougars. “Seeing I’m so old, that’s really funny,“ she says. Judi Buhagiar laughs a lot.
She also marvels at how she has fallen into this sporting life, having been studying sport, recreation and administration at TAFE – and playing soccer more than netball, at that stage, about 20 years ago – when a teacher encouraged her to apply for the job as program manager at the then Eastern Zone Academy.
“I thought ‘oh, I don’t really know what that is… but I’m gonna have a go at it!’. I got the job – I don’t think anyone else applied, to be honest,’’ she says, recalling that the coach at the time was a certain Lisa Alexander, and going on to tell an amusing story about a potential disaster being secretly averted on the very first training day. It involves a key, a wedding, and a hairdresser. And a few laughs.
It was while managing the state 21/U team a few years later that another Victorian coaching identity, Jane Searle, suggested she apply for the Kestrels’ job. “I said ‘have you got the right person?’’’ Buhagiar laughs. Over the next five years, she did the four-hour round-trip commute to training with her young children, feeding them dinner and putting on their pyjamas at the courts and carrying their sleeping bodies inside after the long drive home.
Then there was the night she was breast-feeding newborn son Declan as she arrived at state training. “He was hanging off my breast and I was carrying a bag, and the coach was yelling at the girls going ‘someone go and help Judi, she’s in trouble!’
“So it was a real positive environment for me to be in – someone who fumbled their way through parenthood, I’ve gotta say! – because everybody was there to support everybody.’’
Now, Buhagiar considers it her turn to repay the favour to the regional community that provided the outlet that was so important in her own childhood. She is often asked why she continues to coach kids when her own don’t play.
“I want to be able to share something with people, and I love coaching kids and I love the idea that when you first start with them some of them honestly can’t throw a ball, but when you’ve finished with them, they still might not be able to throw a ball, but their confidence has gone through the roof,’’ she says.
“That’s the bit I love. I don’t necessarily care if they can play or they can’t play netball. It’s the impact that you have on them as a person. When you get parents ringing you and saying thank-you for what you’ve done for my daughter, I love that.’’
Having worked at the elite level with some of the game’s best, including as a liaison officer at the 2006 Commonwealth Games (where she was offered a job by Jamaican coach Maureen Hall, which is another whole story), Buhagiar has taken great pride in returning home to country Victoria to share what she has learnt.
“I couldn’t wait to be here and to show people and to talk to people and to impart knowledge to them, and the beauty of it was that they all wanted to learn,’’ she says. “And that’s what I find the most rewarding out of the whole lot of it, is that I was able to keep my area, my region, my people, proud and strong in this sport.’’
Written by Linda Pearce