This month, netball's Marie Little Shield will return for the first time in three years, after the 2020 and 2021 editions had to be cancelled due to COVID-19.
The national competition, named after leading sports administrator Marie Little, offers netballers with an intellectual disability the chance to represent their state or territory.
This year's event will run from October 26-28 at Sydney Olympic Park and the players are eager for its return.
NSW midcourter Melissa Gallagher has been competing in the Marie Little Shield since its inception in 2013 and has experienced plenty of success with her beloved Blues during that time, winning four of the past five tournaments.
"Back in the beginning, there were only three state teams competing: NSW, Victoria and South Australia," Gallagher told the ABC.
"It's grown from there and now we have seven teams playing … It gets harder every year and I love coming back and being able to push myself."
This year, Gallagher has been appointed captain and will lead the side under the watch of head coach Therri Ellison and assistant Gill Bennett.
"I'm excited to be captain. I feel like I'm actually a very quiet person but Therri and Gill see something in me," Gallagher said.
"I think the Marie Little Shield is important because it inspires others with a disability to give sport a go and challenge themselves.
"We've really missed playing together over the past two years and we know we can win it this time because we've got a strong team that has done it before."
Many sporting activities and events have been cancelled over the past two years, but studies have found people with a disability have been disproportionately affected.
Both Sport Australia and the ABC reported in 2021 concerns experts had regarding the potential decline of these people's mental health during lockdown, suggesting the challenges and barriers they faced participating in sport were likely to be compounded by things like the closures of day programs.
Overseas, research conducted by UK charity Scope and shared by ESPN late last year found 48 per cent of British people with a disability had become less active since March 2020.
The same ESPN article referred to a study carried out by the Special Olympics that discovered 42 per cent of its registered athletes with intellectual disabilities (approximately 2.3 million people globally) lost access to its sports programs in 2020.
The good news is that the Marie Little Shield will return for keen Australian netballers.
Another long-standing member of the NSW team, Nalyn Sirivivatnanon is excited to return to play.
A handy shooter who can also occupy the midcourt, Sirivivatnanon's versatility has been an ongoing advantage for NSW since she made her debut in 2016.
"The Marie Little Shield is my favourite netball competition because I get to play with some of the best netballers in Australia," she said.
"I love representing NSW and it also gives me an opportunity to meet people from interstate.
"The last two years have been hard for everyone and I really missed catching up with my friends but we were lucky that we could still keep in touch over Zoom, and we even did some fitness workouts together."
Sirivivatnanon said she was hopeful the NSW team could win back the shield from the South Australians, who have had their hands on the title ever since 2019.
"There are going to be some tough games, especially against Victoria and South Australia, but we really want to bring home gold, so we'll try to play our best and make everyone proud," she said.
Elite netballers increase support in disability space
NSW Swifts midcourter Allie Smith has recently started her journey with What Ability, an NDIS-registered disability support service that utilises professional and semi-professional athletes as support workers.
She joins fellow Super Netballers Maddy Proud (Swifts), Lauren Moore (Giants), Jess Anstiss (Fever), Rudi Ellis (Fever) and Sasha Glasgow (Fever) in the program, alongside various cricket, rugby league and Aussie Rules stars.
Outside of their sporting commitments, these athletes are now spending their days off hanging out with children with a disability and keeping them active by facilitating exercise and fun activities.
Although not directly linked to the Marie Little Shield, Smith is passionate about this space and is particularly looking forward to watching the netballers take the court.
"People with a disability are just like any regular neurotypical or abled body in the sense that they deserve the opportunity to play sport and experience the enjoyment it brings," Smith said.
"It's all about breaking down the stigma that surrounds disability, so to me the Marie Little Shield represents happiness and to see these players chase their dreams really lightens our spirits and makes us happy too."
The What Ability team has just launched its service in Melbourne, inviting more netballers like Kelsey Browne (Magpies) and Rhani Samason (Vixens) to get involved.
"The reason why I started working in this space is that I think happiness comes first and that's a huge slogan that drives What Ability," Smith said.
"Whether it be the kids or the athletes playing in the Marie Little Shield, it's great to see that everyone can play sport and get that same smile on their face."
The 2022 Marie Little Shield is a free event that will be open to the public to watch and support. You can attend matches at Sydney Olympic Park or keep up to date with the competition via the Netball Australia website.