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Julie Nykiel on life, basketball and her fight for health


From breaking every bone in her face to nearly dying on the operating table, there is not much Julie Nykiel OAM hasn’t endured. As she emerges from a hard-fought battle with depression, the soon-to-be Sport SA Hall-of-Famer hopes her experience will give strength to others.

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Nykiel, 61, dominated Australian basketball in the 1980s.

A skilled inside scorer with elite speed to match, the 183cm Noarlunga Tigers star left an indelible mark on the WNBL – leading the league in scoring for five seasons and winning Most Valuable Player in 1984 and 1988.

Her domestic dominance would take her to the international stage where she played for the first-ever Australian women’s basketball team to qualify for the Olympics – the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. She went on to represent her country at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, and three FIBA World Cups.

Nykiel is already an Order of Australia medallist, WNBL life member and Australian basketball hall of famer, but she said her South Australian roots make this hall of fame induction a particularly special achievement.

“I’ve been a passionate South Australian sportsperson and South Australian person all my life – I’ve been here all my life,” Nykiel said.

“To be recognised as one of the best sportspeople in the state, well, you know, you couldn’t get much better than that. I’ve got national awards; they mean a lot, but this is particularly very special to me.”

The Sport SA Hall of Fame was introduced in 2010 to recognise the outstanding achievements of athletes from South Australia.

Since then, 76 SA sportsmen and women have been inducted, with five of them – Sir Donald Bradman, Bart Cummings, Barrie Robran, Victor Richardson and Gillian Rolton – awarded “legend” status.

Last week, InDaily profiled Norwood powerlifter Heidi Taylor (Wittesch), who – along with Nykiel, fellow basketballer Michael AhMatt (profiled today) and two others – will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame this month.

A WNBL pioneer

One of the many remarkable facts of Nykiel’s career is that she was only introduced to basketball at the age of 13.

Despite her status as a latecomer, Nykiel was quickly recruited to the Glenelg Tigers and would make the under 18 state basketball team as a 15-year-old. Three years later, in 1977, she was selected to play for Australia. The girl from Port Noarlunga had no problem adjusting to a new sport from her netball and athletics background.

Nykiel had come to basketball at an exciting time. Women’s basketball made its first appearance at the Olympics in 1976, and the formation of the WNBL was just around the corner in 1981. When her state league Glenelg Tigers (later renamed the Noarlunga Tigers) stepped up to the newly formed national league, Nykiel stepped up – leading the competition’s inaugural season in scoring.

“When the WNBL was formed in 1981, I mean that was just magical to be able to play this sort of standard week in, week out,” Nykiel said.

“Once it sort of formed to be a real national league, that was the best part, and that’s why we had a rise in international standard as far as for Australia, because we were having great competition every week.”

In 1982, Nykiel scored 53 points in a game against Bankstown – a WNBL scoring record which would stand until 2005.

She finished her WNBL career with the second-highest points per game average in league history, earning her a spot in the WNBL 25-year anniversary team. Despite her individual success, Nykiel’s beloved Noarlunga Tigers would never win a WNBL title, falling two points short against Coburg in the club’s only grand final in 1985.

But the highlight of Nykiel’s career came representing Australia twice at the Olympic Games.

The Olympics and beyond

At Los Angeles in 1984, the Australian women qualified for their first Olympics by default after Cuba boycotted the Games. Fortuitous entry aside, it was a landmark moment for Nykiel and Australian basketball.

“I just knew the whole world was focusing on it,” she said.

“You were on the world stage, you were playing for your country, and I remember how proud I felt being an Olympian playing for Australia. It was such a big thing to carry, but it also egged you on – it made you play better.”

The Australians would manage a fifth-place finish in 1984. Four years later in Seoul, they would fall one point short of the gold medal match after a devastating 56-57 loss to Yugoslavia.

A ruptured tendon at the twilight of Nykiel’s career would change her life forever. After playing with this injury at the 1988 Olympics, she returned home to have tendon repair surgery. This forced her out of basketball for a year and left her with permanent nerve damage in her ankle.

After making it through a gruelling 12-month recovery, Nykiel then broke every bone in her face in a horrific bike accident. She underwent 10 operations to repair a fractured skull, shattered nose and a broken jaw.

Remarkably, the Noarlunga athlete recovered from this accident to not only play another season in the WNBL, but also to represent South Australia in senior netball and win two state league grand finals with the Contax Netball Club in 1990 and 1991.

Although her top-level athletic career ended shortly after, Nykiel still had a huge post-sporting life ahead of her. She was an active public figure as a sports commentator, columnist and MC, and ran coaching clinics across Australia and the world while spearheading Adelaide’s 1998 Commonwealth Games bid as assistant director.

But Nykiel’s life would be turned upside down again in 1995 when she underwent a femoral osteotomy: an orthopaedic procedure which realigns the thigh bone by removing part of it and inserting temporary plates.

Nykiel’s left leg collapsed a few months later.

The regrafting process to repair it would leave it an inch shorter than her other leg.

Suddenly debilitated by a “botched” surgery, the outgoing athlete retreated into a state of isolation which would last more than 20 years.

“With the (bike) accident, with the ankle injury, and with the knee being mangled, that’s what pulled me down into depression,” she said.

“I was always athletically very strong, and then next thing it’s taken away from me.

“It was a very difficult time to go out and mix with people when you get invited to stuff, when I did occasionally get really pushed into going out I did, but you got sick of putting on a front that you’re okay when you’re not.”

Yet Nykiel, like she did so many times in her playing career, found a way to bounce back. After she “doubled [her] size” during her depression, she gradually regained her fitness and managed to lose a lot of weight through “hard yakka”.

She then had a knee replacement at the beginning of 2019. This procedure, which she was ineligible for in 1995, brought promises of a “new life” with a longer-term solution to her chronic problems.

But her leg would collapse again just a few months after the replacement. This setback would have much wider ramifications.

“There was a chance I could’ve lost my leg,” Nykiel said.

“I got very unwell, I had kidney failure, and I had to have it (my leg) rebuilt at the end of the year.

“And then when I had that done, I nearly died on the table. I had a pulmonary embolism in my lung… a clot in my leg, and I had to have seven blood transfusions.”

After fighting for her life, Nykiel’s medical funds were exhausted. More than 30 years of dealing with her devastating leg problem had taken its financial toll.

To help her make one more comeback, members of Basketball SA last week set up a GoFundMe campaign for Nykiel’s medical treatment. As of November 2, the fundraising drive has raised more than $16,000 from 125 donors.

“[It’s] overwhelming, I can’t even put it into words,” Nykiel said.

“To see people I don’t even know just donate money…I can’t believe it.

“It’s just given me hope that people do care, they really want me to be better.”

She also said her entrance into the Sport SA Hall of Fame has been a bright spot in an otherwise tough period.

“It’s a wonderful honour – so unexpected,” Nykiel said.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time; I was so stoked to get the call about a month ago because I’m still recovering…the last year has been hell on earth for me.

“I didn’t think that I’d ever get in that group of people that have got in there…to be included with the best sportspeople in the state, it means the world to me.”

Searching for a brighter future

As Nykiel fights to exit the world of chronic pain and depression permanently, she is armed with the lessons of her past 25 years of experience.

“The last two years would be the biggest learning curve for me because I’ve had to fight like hell to get back – again,” she said.

“I learned that you shouldn’t shut yourself off from people, that’s not a good thing even though you think you’re protecting yourself.

“You gotta let people know you’re hurting, you know, you’re not doing too well and reach out and let your friends know.”

It is a message Nykiel hopes to find the physical and mental energy to deliver in the next chapter of her life.

“I want to be able to make a difference,” she said.

“Whether it’s to talk about mental health, whether it’s talking about bullying with kids, whether it’s to go out and just talk about my experiences if that could help others…I just want to be able to make a difference and tell people there is hope there.

“There’s always somebody out there that can help you, and I just want to get that message out because it can happen to anybody.”

As to what her dream future is, her response is simple.

“I think to be happy,” she said. “To be at peace and to go out there and help other people.”

She is currently taking it “day by day” while living at home with her “gorgeous” cat Phoenix.

 Note: Due to new COVID-19 restrictions, the induction event planned for November 27 has been postponed.

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