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Match Analysis

Coyte's personal victory inspires Sixers

From the outside, she seemed to be living an athlete's dream. But the bowler was hiding a secret that weighed on her and made her announce retirement at the age of 25

Sarah Coyte celebrates a wicket with team-mates  •  Getty Images

Sarah Coyte celebrates a wicket with team-mates  •  Getty Images

When the body checking started it was only through a glance at my reflection walking past a window or a quick look in the mirror. You know how you walk past a shop and see your reflection and you're like yep I'm looking real good today, yeah that didn't happen for me. I'd walk past and think 'god my legs look big in these pants' or 'I shouldn't have taken my jumper off you can see my stomach in the outline of my shirt'.
From the outside, Sarah Coyte seemed to be living an athlete's dream. As a regular member of the Australia line-up at a time when the women's game was exploding into the general sporting consciousness with opportunities to travel and make a decent living from cricket, Coyte had found the career she had envisioned since she was a girl.
But the talented medium-fast bowler was hiding a secret that weighed on Coyte as much as the imaginary extra pounds she feared she was carrying. Training had become an obsession and vomiting after meals a ritual. The looming cloud of dreaded skin-fold tests was always creeping closer and, with it, the overwhelming and excruciating bouts of severe anxiety. As she wrote in her blog post.
When I think back now, I'm actually surprised I'm still alive or that I didn't cause an accident. I remember when I would drive to work some mornings I'd have no recollection of how I actually got to my exit off the freeway or if I'd listened to my favorite song on the way. I had to start writing things down to remember what I was doing and even sometimes why I was doing it. My mind was completely occupied by my next training session or how my body felt or how I thought my face looked or how hungry I was but too afraid to eat. I was a prisoner in my own mind with absolutely no idea how to escape.
At the close of last summer, the stress became too great and, aged 25, Coyte announced her retirement. What followed was a year of self-healing, a process helped by her searingly honest writing on how anorexia nervosa had taken its hold and the struggle to wrest control of her mind and body back from the disorder.
For someone who had grown up surrounded by cricket - Coyte's brothers Scott and Adam have played professionally - watching others play the sport proved tougher than she had imagined. After a year out of the game and watching her partner playing grade cricket in Sydney's west, she decided to pull on the whites once more and see if she could once again enjoy the game.
On the other side of Sydney, the Sixers' coach Ben Sawyer was keeping tabs. He had just lost South African internationals Marizanne Kapp and Dane van Niekerk to international duties. The Sixers needed a replacement bowler and Sawyer picked up the phone. "It was a call out of the blue," Coyte said. "Ben said that he noticed I'd played a grade game of cricket back home in Sydney and I had but only like one or two.
"I thought 'oh okay yeah hmm'. I hung up and I just mulled it over for a bit, I called my Dad. I had a lot to weigh up and think about how it would affect my mental state, how it would affect work. I'm not really sure why I agreed to do it but it has worked out pretty well. I can't complain about it. Part of me was just curious to see what I still had left in the tank and if it would rekindle a bit of love for the game."
"Pretty well" is an understatement. Coyte took 2 for 14 in her first game for the Sixers against the Adelaide Strikers at Hurstville and backed that up with three wickets in the following match. Those two victories helped the Sixers secure first place on the ladder and Coyte then chimed in with two wickets in the semi-final victory against the Strikers. Coyte had gone from retirement to the WBBL final in the space of a few weeks.
But the return came with challenges and the threat of a recurrence of anxiety. Coyte turned to Sarah Taylor, the England international who took time out of the game to deal with anxiety, for advice. Taylor suggested Coyte should just stick with whatever made her comfortable and draw from the routines that had been helpful in the past.
"I had some pretty sleepless nights leading up to the [first] game" said Coyte. "With the support at home I managed to get through that pretty cruisy. It took me a few overs to get into the game, my mindset wasn't there but once I started moving, it came back to me naturally.
"It was good to get those two games out of the way and coming into finals, weirdly enough, I didn't feel that nervous for these last few games. It's the same game of cricket and once I started getting back into it, nothing has to change, it's not a complicated game."
As the Sixers squeezed the life out of the Perth Scorchers' batting in the final with a tight all-round bowling performance, it was Coyte who made the vital initial breakthrough, beating the bat of an advancing Elyse Villani, who was stumped by Alyssa Healy. Coyte snared two further wickets to help restrict the Scorchers to 99 and was awarded the Player of the Match for her efforts. She couldn't have asked for a better return to the game but this time she has been fighting her battles on the field and not on the scales or in the mirror.
"It has been more fun but only because I've found more of a balance within myself and all the training around cricket and being away from my family," said Coyte. "Having a strong support network at home has really helped me transition back in to the last couple of weeks."
Her form has already sparked questions of a return to the Australian side but, for now, Coyte is determined not to put pressure on herself with such speculation. She is unsure whether she wants to make a more protracted return to the professional game.
"I really like the life I have now, I love my work and going home at the end of the day not having to pack a bag and go to the airport," Coyte said. "You never know what the future holds. I'm not putting any ideas in people's heads, I'm not getting anyone's hopes up, even my hopes up. I'm just going to take each day as it comes. For now, enjoy the rest of the day with the girls and go back home back to reality."
Reality involves working as a personal trainer and educating others on the danger of mental health and eating disorders for girls and young women in sport. Coyte believes her story is not uncommon and has encountered others who fret about skinfold tests in a way she finds both familiar and alarming.
"I just think as a female and playing at elite levels, I think it happens everywhere," said Coyte. "I've been asked to do a talk in Melbourne at an event called Disguised. Hopefully we can raise a bit more awareness around the anxiety and the mental side of games for females in particular."
Standing on the outfield of Adelaide Oval as the celebratory magenta streamers were being swept up, wearing a winners' medal around the neck and her Player-of-the-Match trophy in her hand, Coyte paused thoughtfully and gestured to the middle of the ground.
"I didn't win my battle out here. I won it when I walked out at Hurstville."
And with that, she turned and walked off to join her team-mates celebrate a title that, while significant, pales in comparison to her own, personal victory.

Melinda Farrell is a presenter with ESPNcricinfo