Iona Christian: Journey, Challenges and the Future

Iona Christian: Journey, Challenges and the Future

Iona Christian is a powerhouse within the netball world. An illustrious career so far and currently expecting a child soon, Iona is looking to challenge and change the conversation around pregnancy and motherhood within sport. She talks to Gilbert about her journey, challenges and what the future brings for her and for the sport...


Hello, I’m Iona Christian. I play netball for Sirens and the Scottish Thistles. I’m a Gilbert netball ambassador and I’m going to be sharing a few thoughts on various different topics around being a female athlete.  Some quick facts about me - I grew up in Handforth, Cheshire with my parents and brother and sister, but now I’m living in Penrith, Cumbria with my lovely husband.  In my free time I love to explore the outdoors, hiking up a mountain or paddling on a lake. I’m a coffee lover and my favourite food is pancakes. I’m a Christian (not just by name!), and my faith is so important to me and guides me each day. And if you haven’t guessed already, I love netball!


My Journey

Growing up I played so many different sports in school. It’s what I was passionate about and it’s what I enjoyed. My parents always encouraged me to be active and they are a huge reason as to why I’ve been able to progress in Netball. They took me to training, financially supported me, emotionally supported me and were (and are) my number one supporters. I can’t thank them enough!


When I was younger I played a lot of football and I remember going along to Saturday morning football sessions where i was the only girl there. It’s great to see so many more opportunities now for girls to be part of teams and really get stuck in. It’s so important to try out lots of extra curricular activities at school and I’d really encourage any young person to go and explore and find out what they enjoy. I started playing netball when I was 11 at Wilmslow High School and I joined my first netball team (Wilmslow Lightning) in year 8, after a few of my friends that I played with at school asked me to go along with them. I loved it! I progressed in both football and netball until training and matches started to clash and at about the age of 16 I had to make a decision which one to stick with. It was so difficult to choose, but netball it was and I haven’t looked back. It’s amazing now to see the growth of not just netball but all sports, particularly for young girls…but there’s still a lot more that can be done.


Throughout school so many girls drop out of playing sport for various reasons. This happened with a lot of my friends and I find it so sad that there are still many barriers to girls sticking with sport. Netball has been huge for me - friendships, exercise, mental health, success, dealing with failure, teamwork…the list goes on. There’s so many positives and life skills that I learnt through playing sport and that I’m still developing now. I grew up near Manchester playing county netball for Cheshire, then progressing to play regionally for the North West and U17s/19s for Manchester Thunder. I’m a bit biased but I think the North West pathway is the best in the country and I was super lucky to be part of that. Be sure to check out what your local team is if you’re interested in joining. There’s more and more opportunities popping up such as new grass roots teams, back to netball clubs, walking netball, para-netball, summer leagues etc. More information for Scotland and England can be found here -

I moved away from home for university to Worcester, where I studied illustration (another passion of mine). At the age of 18 is when I got my first taste of Super League netball playing for Severn Stars. I hadn’t played in front of many crowds before but I remember stepping out on to court for my first Super League game in front of what felt like thousands of people (it was just a few hundred aha)! I think the growing fan base is one of the biggest developments I’ve seen during my time in NSL. More and more people are wanting to watch netball, both on TV and turning up to games. Yes, there’s more to do to get more bums on seats but it’s brilliant to see fans turn up week in week out and support their team.


As an athlete, fan engagement is huge - the supporters really are the eighth player and create such a buzzing atmosphere in the arenas. I always enjoy meeting the fans after games and seeing some of them come along to community netball events. This engagement really has grown so much and it’s brilliant to see for a predominantly female sport. If you’re not sure who to support, check out your local Super League or Premier League team and go along to a game. You won’t be disappointed!


I’ve been lucky enough to play for several Super League teams and be coached by some of the best coaches in the county. Karen Grieg (Thunder head-coach) was particularly influential for me and my netball development growing up, so to have her coach me again last year in the Super League was great! Sam Bird gave me my first Super League opportunity and really built my confidence as a young player in the league. Internationally I spent some time in the England programme before making the switch to Scotland three years ago. Tamsin Greenway (Thistles Head-coach) has had a massive impact on my netball over the last few years, she has helped and inspired me to challenge myself, developing my game on and off the court. When I was younger I had so many positive role models in sport, now more and more female athletes are getting put in the spotlight which is great to see.


I looked up to the likes of Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Faye White and Bethany Hamilton and in netball Laura Langman, Serena Kersten (Guthrie) and Pam Cookey. All incredible women and inspiring role models. They helped me grow my love of sport and gave me something to aspire to. My biggest inspiration has always been my mum; she shares my love of sport and encouraged me to pursue not just my netball career but other things in life as well. It’s so important to keep a healthy balance…the elite environment can be quite intense sometimes and yes there’s so many highs in sport but there can be lots of lows too (injuries, selections, bad results etc). So to have a good group of friends and a support network outside of sport is something I’ve relied on a lot, as well as my church family and my faith. Knowing I’m loved despite my netball performance not because of it, is such a freeing truth and helps me keep perspective.


Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games was amazing! I was honored to be selected for the Thistles for my first major competition, it was so great to have family and friends there watching, since it was so close to home. After navigating our way through Covid to be part of a major sporting event with spectators was very exciting. Seeing how netball in the UK had grown after the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool, having the 2022 games based in Birmingham only helped the game grow even more. Media coverage is on the rise, along with fan engagement online, membership uptakes and general uptake of women in sport! Its awesome to see and goes to show how these big events help propel and promote sport.


The following year I was then picked for the Netball World Cup in Cape Town. Wow, what a great experience! I had a slightly unusual experience compared to most, which I’ll mention below. But a rollercoaster for the Thistles in terms of some of the results, however we have an incredibly exciting team and the future of Scottish netball is looking bright and I can’t wait to play a small part in that.


My Pregnancy

The menstrual cycle, puberty, pregnancy, menopause, bras, pelvic health (and much more) - these are all things that can relate to being female. I think the conversation is growing around these subjects but the correct support isn’t always available, particularly when it comes to being a female athlete. You can read a bit more about these topics here -


Me and my husband have always wanted to have a family so falling pregnant was an exciting time for us. It’s important to stress that planning to have a family can be very tricky and doesn’t always go to plan. There are so many things to consider and the support and conversations around this, particularly for females in sport needs to get better. When I found out I was pregnant, at first I was worried about the conversations I needed to have with Sirens and Thistles, having just signed a contract for the 2024 season. But after I’d had those chats I realised I didn’t need to be worried and felt so supported.


I don’t think having a family along side your playing career is normalised, although there are a few athletes that are brilliant mothers that I look up to. In the Super League I’ve played with and against some super inspiring mums like Claire Maxwell, Sophia Candappa, Lauren Nicholls, Eboni Usoro-Brown, Emma Harrison (Dovey)…the list goes on! To see it’s possible to have children and still pursue netball as a career has really helped me feel motivated to get back on court after giving birth. I think it’s important for young girls to see they can have sporting careers and a family; it doesn't have to be one or the other. I don’t think the support has always been there but it is certainly taking steps in the right direction and I feel very lucky to be surrounded by a great support network because unfortunately that’s not always the case for pregnant athletes.


The Netball Scotland Doctor, head coach Tamsin Greenway and the Thistles physio were the first people I told I was pregnant. Being in the middle of the build up to the World Cup I was slightly apprehensive but they were all super helpful and made sure I was safe and supported going in to that competition. Whilst in South Africa I was experiencing quite bad morning sickness and fatigue so that was quite difficult to manage; I’m not entirely sure how my lovely roomie Cerys didn’t realise what was going on aha! During the matches everything felt fairly normal and I could focus on the netball which was great! It was my first World Cup so although I maybe had a different experience to many, it was still amazing.


I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to go and play in a major competition in such a beautiful welcoming country. I had decided to tell my parents afterwards because I didn’t want them worrying, but mid way through I felt like I needed that extra support and they had come out to SA to watch. After we played England I got my husband on FaceTime and sat with them in the hotel lobby (my dad still had his Scottish blue face paint on!) and told them they were going to be grandparents. I don’t think they saw it coming at all! They were quite surprised but so so excited and I’m really glad I told them whilst we were there.


After getting back from the World Cup I then had conversations with Sirens and the NPA. I was probably the most nervous to tell Sirens because I didn’t know what would happen with my playing contact for 2024. I made the presumption that I wouldn’t be involved but Karen Atkinson and Lesley MacDonald were so happy for me and kept the door open at Sirens for this season which took me a bit by surprise. I’m very grateful that they are willing to support me on this journey and keep me as part of the playing group (just in a slightly different coaching role for now). I’m aware not all pregnant athletes have that same experience of being supported but I think it’s so important to have that all the way throughout pregnancy and during the return to court as well.

The NPA really helped me navigate my way through decisions and conversations, they provided me with a contact for a pelvic health specialist which has been so informative. Pelvic health is another area I think female athletes could have better access to information. I wish I’d known more about it before being pregnant.

Physio, Nutrition, Physiology, Psychology, Lifestyle etc are all areas of support that athletes should have access to. In the Super League this support has got better and better each year, I think it’s really changing the game on court, by allowing athletes to better themselves and put their best foot forward. The information, education and research for this type of support for female - and more specifically pregnant athletes - at the moment is considerably less. However, I am in a fortunate situation where I have access to staff at the Scottish Institute of Sport (SIS). They have a bit more knowledge around working with pregnant athletes and can guide me in my training pre and post birth.

So to sum up being a pregnant athlete definitely comes with challenges and I’m sure I’ll face a few more! But I am extremely luck to be surrounded by great people and support to help me on my journey of becoming a mother and playing netball.

I’m looking forward to what the future brings both in netball and becoming a family of three.