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Fowler joins exclusive umpire’s club

Entwined in netball from an early age, Gareth Fowler found his true calling as an umpire and after an 18-year odyssey, has completed his 100th national league match.

Fowler becomes just the fourth New Zealand umpire to achieve the milestone, following Kristie Simpson, Jono Bredin and Angela Armstrong-Lush in joining the centurions club, after whistling his first match at the elite level in 2016.

With his first outing coming in the former trans-Tasman league, Fowler’s 100th took place in his home region in the ANZ Premiership clash between the Pulse and the Mystics in Porirua on 10 June.

Grateful and proud of where he’s been and where he’s landed, Fowler does not gloss over the trial and tribulations in what is one of the most challenging and thankless roles in high performance sport, his story littered with potholes and perseverance to eventually reach the rarest of milestones.

“It makes me reflect on the effort that I’ve put in over my 18-year umpiring career, the sacrifices that I’ve had to make from a personal and work life perspective, the hours that I’ve toiled in terms of being physically fit enough to do this and the effort of ensuring that I’m operating at the best of my ability over a long period of time is incredibly overwhelming,” he said.

It also makes me think about the people that I have met and the lifelong relationships that I’ve developed in netball and the friendships. Netball is a core part of my sense of self and being.”

Fowler first became interested in umpiring as a player, and while playing in various men’s national tournaments, umpired on behalf of his team. That led, in 2006, to joining the umpire’s group at Netball Hutt Valley, the appeal being almost instant.

I was really lucky and can’t thank the crew at Netball Hutt Valley enough,” he said.

“I’ve been a huge benefactor of their support over a really long period of time. They had a really good environment where we could learn and develop and that supported me in terms of getting my New Zealand Badge in 2008.”

Quickly rising in the ranks, Fowler was selected as part of NNZ’s high performance umpiring programme in 2010 before his progress stalled.

I really struggled for a number of years where I’ve needed more time to develop as an umpire and as a human, which meant I didn’t umpire my first ANZ (Championship) game until 2016,” he said.

I’d been to tournaments and not done that well, done a few internationals in the Pacific and not done as well as I had hoped. And it all took a long time to click.

Because your mistakes are so obvious and clear, umpiring is a very lonely sport. You’ve got to put a lot of graft in, be quite self-critical but you can be overly self-critical and that can have a detrimental impact on your performance, too.

So, getting to grips with the balance of all of that over that six-year period, took me quite some time with a lot of introspection, reflection and learning to go on and be able to feel comfortable operating at that more elite level.”

Having umpired two Netball World Cup semi-finals, a Netball World Cup final, a Commonwealth Game semi-final and final and several ANZ Premiership finals, the status of the game does not sit front and centre for Fowler when he’s got the whistle in hand.

His biggest driver is for players to be able to demonstrate their skills to the best of their abilities in a spectacle that people want to engage in, is exciting and which draws people to netball.

Netball has gone through significant changes during Fowler’s time as an umpire which has also meant changes to the way the game is officiated.

The game has changed a lot in a really good way,” he said.

“It’s not only the physical conditioning and strength of the athletes, but the rules have changed. And the rules have changed in a way that’s sped the game up and made it quite different.”

Having a natural affinity for the game, an intuitive understanding of what’s being done in a game and why, and making sure you’re in the best place to see as much as possible at the right moment are key ingredients for umpires but mental capacity remains at the forefront of ultimate success.

The natural ability and learning the techniques only gets you so far because it’s the resilience and the mental fortitude which gets you from being good to great to excellent,” he said.

I’ve had a number of difficult experiences through my umpiring career on and off the court and I’ve made some clangers of errors, as well. You’ve got to be able to bounce back from those things and break through what can be a really challenging barrier to break through.

That takes a lot of resilience and a willingness to do the hard yards, and be persistent and be not only self-critical but also kind to yourself. So, not put so much pressure on yourself to deliver but to develop at your own rate.

That top two inches is what differentiates the top umpires from those that only get so far because it gets really hard at a certain point for everyone, and the ones that make it are the ones that can break through that barrier.”

Now perched at the top of his game, Fowler has stood the test of time through his dedication, resilience, honesty, support network and sense of humour to forge a remarkable career.

Umpiring his first national league match in the ANZ Championship in 2016, stands top of his career highlights, “even though I made a clanger of a mistake” after going through a rough patch and thinking he was never going to make it that far.

Being presented his international umpire award in 2017, an emotional moment, and umpiring the extraordinary ANZ Premiership match between the Mystics and Stars in 2023 which went to extended extra time are also personal highlights.

That was a tremendous game to be a part of,” he said.

“There was a 15-minute odd stint where it went goal-for-goal with no turnovers. I’d never seen anything like it. It was clinical netball, had a good feel to it, was really exciting and I felt how Kristie (Simpson) and I contributed to that game, added to the spectacle, so that for me, was a huge highlight.”

Fowler is a Director of Community Operations for the Department of Corrections, where he has worked for 17 years.

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