From suburban Lynfield to big time Berkeley, Penina Davidson isn’t your cookie cutter 21 year old Kiwi. Breaking the mould of New Zealand Women’s Basketball, her perseverance to overcome trials of mental illness and societal changes in her new home of California State, is definitely one for the history books.
Standing at 6 ft 3, it was inevitable. The Missy Peregrym - ‘Stick it’ look alike, was born to be an athlete. Like many basketball athletes, Penina grew up with a ball glued to her hand and knew no different.
“Mum seems to think I went to a YMCA camp when I was 4 but my first memory was around age 8 - so we’ll stick with that number”
Coming through the New Zealand development ranks for basketball was no foreign feat for her. Repping in all the highest teams of every school she attended, Penina took out top-scoring games at regional and national representative levels. With her Dad as one of the best coaches in Auckland at the time, she was driven to strive for the best she could be in her basketball career.
Sport threw a bit of a spanner in the works during her high school years at Rangitoto College, when people began to notice how well she could finesse her body around any sporting arena she was challenged with. Netball slipped in to consideration when she was offered an invitation to trial for the New Zealand Secondary Schools team in 2011. After re-considering which code to persue, Penina was invited to another basketball camp - this time, overseas.
“Netball’s really dope and I love New Zealand but it all changed in high school when Mum and Dad sent me to a Stanford camp in Cali with the words “go get seen”. As brief as that was, it was an experience that reminded me that I couldn’t give basketball up”.
The camp itself was a hard hitting encounter for her. After missing the memo to take her own blankets, pillows and duvets, she was left shivering in the night with expectations to perform during the day. To add to the hype, she broke out in a rash of hives from being allergic to dogs.
"I have a love/hate relationship with the sport, but that experience taught me a lot about how much I'd be willing to sacrifice for it"
After coming back and finishing school in 2012/13, it was time to make the big move. The first offer in, was from Stanford University - an offer she was unable to accept due to the scholarship criteria. Although it was an opportunity not taken, none of it mattered to her knowing that Stanford was one of her first.
“It was pretty epic. I never dreamed about opportunities like that when I was back in New Zealand".
With offers popping up left, right and centre, Penina was sure about one thing - she was staying in California.
“There were two moments in my life where I remember thinking ‘I don’t care if this feels like a job, this is where I’m supposed to be’ - 1. Was when I got to play for the Tall Ferns where my first debut was at home in front of all my friends and family and 2. Was when I came to America and saw for myself that Basketball could actually take me places - I just fell in love with Cali”
Penina accepted a 4 year basketball scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley. The beginning of a journey that would challenge her in ways she didn't see coming. Having to pick up her work ethic, be away from family situations, adjust to the culture shock of American life and perform physically all at the same time, really began to manifest and take a toll on her body. It was in her junior year of college that she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.
"I had a really bad problem with self harm and I didn't really know what was going on. For practises I’d have to wear long sleeves and one day I turned up with open wounds and my sleeves started to bleed. That’s when a close mate of mine decided that enough was enough and admitted me to hospital.”
After being in a psychology ward for 3 days, the doctors assessments confirmed that she was suffering from fluctuating thoughts.
“I think I’m just grateful to now know that I’m aware of them. That was a big part of it, not being able to recognise myself with all of the medication I was on. Now I’m able to tell what triggers set me off, what calms me down and what to do. I’m still learning but it’s manageable.”
With the pressures of having all aspects of her life take a turn at one time, it was important for her to come to a place where she knew she could sustain a healthier lifestyle for her own well-being.
“When everything was turning to custard, I would climb up to my bed on the top bunk, that sat on the 8th floor of an 8 story building with a broken elevator and look out my window. I remember being able to see the whole city with the sun setting over it and thought “it’s going to be ok”.
With a fresh perspective on life and a stronger head on her shoulders, the future is only looking brighter for Penina. Due to the rules and regulations around being able to talk with professional teams about drafting during the season, Penina is focused on her final season with Berkeley, who recently gained their 20th win for the season as well as a solid 5th place for Conference.
“A couple of weeks ago we had ‘Senior Night’ which means your last home game …We played Stanford and beat them for the first time on our home turf since 2009. To top it off, they played our anthem in Maori too. It was pretty beautiful. I had both of my parents standing side by side in the stands that I hadn’t seen in a while… my team mates were crying… I was crying - it was the best.”
“My culture has taught me how to carry myself in love, to show respect to those around me and with all of that, it’s allowed me to learn how to navigate not only myself, but this big world we live in too.”
By Hanalei Temese