Challenged to the extreme in her young career, Central Manawa midcourter Ainsleyana Puleiata is finally back and now weaving her special brand of magic in the National Netball League (NNL).

An exceptional talent, Puleiata had the netball world at her feet when first making the Manawa team in 2017 as a St Mary’s College schoolgirl which coincided with the team winning their first of three straight titles.

Named as a contracted training partner for senior sister team Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse in 2018, Puleiata’s dream was quickly shattered before it had really begun.

In what was to become a horror run, Puleiata ruptured the ACL in her left knee while playing sevens rugby which ruled her out for the whole of 2018. Worse was to come when after being named captain of the Manawa team for 2019, she suffered the same injury to the same knee.

Puleiata has shown her mental fortitude by getting through the gruelling regime of coming back from two major knees surgeries at the ages of 18 and 19. It hasn’t been without its low points but there’s a lot to admire about her courage and determination.

Ready to hit the ground running in 2020, the crafty little specialist wing attack was stymied once again when the arrival of Covid-19 resulted in the NNL being cancelled.

Now 20, Puleiata cuts a relaxed figure, laughing readily while exuding a wisdom born from setbacks and challenges. Already blessed with speed, power, creativity, vision and deft feeding skills, she can also add mental resilience to the list.

``When I did the second ACL, the mental side of that was really challenging for me,’’ Puleiata said. ``People say the mind is stronger than the body and that’s what happened with me.

``I found it hard watching from the side-line while people I had played with were continuing to develop and I was left just building up my strength.’’

But she broke through the mental barriers, has just about put the injuries on the back-burner and now for the first time in three years, is back playing competitively.

``The support I’ve had from the Manawa team and Netball Central has been amazing,’’ she said. ``Being out for three years, I didn’t know how much I’d missed it all, the team environment and playing with some of the same players, it’s just really nice to be back.

``Fitness-wise I’m way better than I was before and netball smart as well. Learning while being away from the court has been huge. Viewing from the side-line has given me a very different perspective which is good.’’

Studying a Bachelor of Health, Puleiata is in her third and final year at Victoria University in what could also be viewed as a silver lining.

``That was one of the positive sides of my injuries and Covid, it got me to focus on school,’’ she said.

Despite going through so much, Puleiata is still in the infancy of her career and with the new Netball New Zealand Open Champs and NZU21 squad fixtures on the horizon, there is plenty to play for.

For now, however, the focus is with Manawa, who are keen to clinch a fourth straight title in what is shaping as a tight race to the final, a win against Mainland in Christchurch on Sunday being top priority.

``The plan against them is that we need to treasure our ball, that’s the most important thing,’’ Puleiata said. ``We seem to start games well, then we have a dip in the middle, so it’s about trusting each other and playing our game.’’