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Fran Williams vs Storm

Fran Williams joined Loughborough for the 2022 season and hopes to help them defend their title (Credit: Ben Lumley)

If there was a United Nations of women’s sport it might look something like Unlocked.

The Women’s Sport Trust programme gathers elite athletes from across the UK sporting spectrum for a year of mentorship, development, interaction and, perhaps most importantly, conversation – a rare chance for a centre to discover what she has in common with a centre-back, or a rally driver with a rower.

Loughborough Lightning defender Fran Williams is one of two delegates who will represent netball in this year’s cohort, joining Pamela Cookey alongside 33 other athletes from a range of sports including athletics, swimming, skiing, cricket, rugby, wheelchair fencing and more.

“It was such an exciting opportunity for me,” said Williams, who was selected after an application process that began in January.

“I’ve done a lot of different, exciting opportunities within netball, but I really wanted to kind of start learning and hearing from other athletes to just start sharing our knowledge, our experiences that we face every day being female athletes, and if we can help each other and create one big kind of family network as female athletes then that just stands us in a good position for us all improving ourselves and our sports.”

Williams, who joined titleholders Lightning from Wasps ahead of the 2022 season, was also appointed player chair of the Netball Players Association in December.

While her Unlocked group, which also includes Paralympic champions Laura Sugar and Charlotte Henshaw, rugby star Simi Pam and GB hockey young gun Holly Hunt, come from a wide range of sports, they’re already starting to realise how much they have in common.

“I think there’s a lot around widening access for female athletes at the grassroots, and then ensuring that those girls coming through playing sport believe that they have the opportunity to do that all the way to the elite level if that’s what they want.

“And I think just making sure that we’re continuing to widen access to women’s sport from the grassroots level is really, really important, then just increasing participation levels but also sustaining them as well, because I think that’s the hard thing to do.”

And Williams is delighted to be doing it all with fellow netballer Cookey.

“Pam was one of my netballing idols I used to watch growing up,” she said. “So being alongside her on a programme like this is amazing. And I know she’ll add such good wisdom to the kind of conversations we’re having, she already is.

“I bumped into her at the Spring Showdown in Birmingham over the Easter weekend when we were playing and she was commentating, so we’re both now seeing the sport from different angles, which is quite nice.”

Williams will be in the unique position of representing a sport that has always been led by women and girls, something she fully appreciates.

“We’re in a really strong position in that it’s such a female-dominated sport, in terms of its women helping other women, and I feel like that’s a really powerful place to be.

“What’s being showcased and covered is really the top flight of the game and I think that was just a really exciting place to be as well.”

That female allyship is something she has experienced her whole career, from Tamsin Greenway giving her a first taste of Superleague netball in 2016 to her own mum supporting her throughout her career.

And the top flight of course, includes her title-defending Lightning squad, currently second in the VNSL, who sewed up a Top Four spot on Monday evening.

“Being new to the squad this season and not being a part of their championship-winning campaign last year, I guess it’s just exciting for me to have the prospect of coming in and helping the club defend the title, something they’ve never done before,” said Williams.

“I think for me it’s just that opportunity to be able to add what I can to the squad and help them with that and see what I can bring towards doing that.”

With the temporary departure of Sara Francis-Bayman as Director of Netball during the season break, Williams has thrived under former assistant coach Victoria Burgess, who stepped into Francis-Bayman’s shoes in November.

“Her passion and enthusiasm for the sport and her belief in us as a squad has really shined through in the way she’s coached us,” said Williams.

Williams has just finished her degree at the University of Birmingham and will be headed back to Brum as part of Jess Thirlby’s Roses side as they look to defend their 2018 Commonwealth Games title this summer.

But first, another VNSL trophy wouldn’t hurt.

“I think winning back-to-back titles is super special for any club,” added Williams. “And I know there’s such a long way to go, but I really believe this team is special, and it will be amazing to share such an incredible achievement alongside such great players and staff here.”

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