Working as a doctor, moving countries and competing in the Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL), those are just some of the things Surrey Storm’s Niamh Cooper has been up to during the last year, writes Sophie Reynolds.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic Cooper was travelling between Belfast, to work at Mater hospital, and Surrey to compete for Storm.
“I would travel over to Surrey on a Tuesday and stay from Tuesday to Friday morning here and train, and then I would go back over to Belfast on a Friday morning and work.”
However, when the Wing Defence re-signed for Storm this season, she had a tough decision on her hands.
“It wasn’t going to work out as easily this year as there’s the risk of me bringing corona into the training environment if I’m on a train, a plane, and working in an A&E (Accident and Emergency) department in another country.
“So, I have actually moved permanently to Surrey this year.”
Since re-locating in Surrey, the Northern Ireland International has continued to fulfil her role as a doctor, only this time 0.8 miles from Surrey Sports Park at Royal Surrey Hospital.
Speaking on the move Cooper said: “I’ve been working there since October, and they’ve been really good. They know my situation, that I play netball, and they’re very flexible around my shift patterns and that kind of thing.
“There’s days where I work maybe eight until six and then go to training at seven.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’s times where I definitely don’t want to have to go to work in an A&E department after training, or the day after playing a hard match, but on the grand scheme of things It’s a bit easier than doing the traveling I did last year.”
Despite the logistical challenges, for Cooper giving up her career as a doctor has never been an option.
“People have asked me in the past, what would you want to do if you had to pick one (out of netball and working as a doctor), what would you pick?
“I actually don’t think I could because I’ve done both for so long. There are real positives in both, both help me with the other, but the girls keep me going big time. They’re really fun.”
Not only does the 28-year-old get to train with her teammates every week, since moving to Surrey she has also been able to live with fellow Storm players, Leah Middleton and Ellie Kelk.
“Just having the company is really good and knowing that a few other people are in the same situation as you, and you can talk to them and they understand immediately. It’s really, really helpful.
“I’ve been so lucky to live with the girls this year, they’re good fun.”
The friendship Middleton and Cooper have created as housemates is now certainly evident on the court too.
“I definitely think it does develop your bonds on court, I know from in the past any team I’ve been on where I have felt like I’m really good friends with other players, we’ve done better.
“So, playing with Leah when she is Goal Defence and I’m Wing Defence, I feel like there’s a very strong connection there.”
In the opening weekend of the VNSL the defensive duo played in exactly that combination and contributed to Storm’s 42-40 victory over London Pulse.
“Even the simple things like, if I give her the wrong pass Leah is not going hesitate to say, ‘Niamh that was rubbish, do this the next time’ or, ‘you need to get to that line quicker’ or whatever, and I’m not going to take it to heart because I know she’s my mate, and later on we’ll probably have dinner together.”
In that same brutally honest fashion, Cooper didn’t hold back from telling us what she has learnt about Kelk and Middleton since living with them.
“Leah Middleton is the is the messiest person you could ever live with. Honestly, she’s a very clean girl, but I would say the living room, the dining room and the kitchen are just filled with her stuff.”
Whilst the third and youngest musketeer of the netball house, Ellie Kelk, is the one that keeps them all in check.
“Ellie’s fantastic, because she’s from here as well, she knows how everything works. So, she’s the one that organises all the bills, and, and texts us saying ‘girls the Wi Fi it due’, so she’s really good in that aspect.
“So, yeah we take Ellie under our wing, but her wings are pretty big, and she takes us under hers as well.”
The camaraderie between Storm’s experienced players and young rising stars isn’t something exclusive to the netball house though.
Last weekend we saw 16-year-old Sophie Kelly take to court against Pulse to make her VNSL debut, in which she was crowned player of the match.
Cooper had nothing but praise for the young Rose, she said: “She performs like that every week in training and we have nearly taken it for granted to an extent because it’s like ‘oh yeah Sophie does that she’s really good’.
“For her to stand up and do that in front of a 38,000-person online audience, and against one of the most experienced Goal Defences she’s probably going to come up against, fair play to her and we have so many more players who are able to do that in all the different positions.”
Despite what other teams may think, for Cooper having a young team at Storm isn’t something to be seen as a negative.
“I think we are a team that people perhaps underestimate.
“They don’t know an awful lot about us, because we have a lot of younger players that have come through pathways and have joined us this year, but together it’s really working.”
Storm travel back to Studio 001 in Wakefield this weekend, the current centralised venue for the VNSL season, to take on newcomers Leeds Rhinos in round three on the competition.
For Cooper this means coming up against some familiar faces from the Northern Ireland national team set up.
“Dan Ryan is the coach of Leeds Rhinos and Northern Ireland national coach and a couple of Northern Ireland players are there too.
“It’s a big game that I would really love us to win, and I think we’re more than capable of winning.”
You can watch Storm take on Rhinos at 12pm this Sunday, live on Sky Sports.