Netball star Romelda Aiken reveals scars of horror stalking
IT HAS taken Romelda Aiken a long time to trust again.
Sitting here, holding her partner Daniel George's hand tightly, with her head resting on his shoulder, she is the picture of happiness.
But it's been a long road.
The notoriously private Queensland Firebird, 31, is at her most candid, talking tenderly of marriage and starting a family with George, 37, whom she lives with in Oxley.
The Jamaican-born athlete is, it must be said, glowing.
"We're very much in love," says Aiken, as the pair sits down to talk to U on Sunday in their first interview as a couple.
"Every day I learn how to trust him and allow myself to feel those emotions and know wherever I am, I'm safe with him."
For anyone in the blissful beginnings of a relationship, they're common feelings.
But for Aiken, she thought she'd be incapable of feeling those emotions again.
It's been seven years since Aiken was the victim of a horror cyberstalking incident that left her vulnerable, exposed and scared.
The 23-year-old physiotherapy student Jayke Williams, whom she'd been flirting with online, turned out to be Stephen Grott, a married builder and father-of-two from Toowoomba.
She thought "Jayke" was harmless fun, but he was a sick creep who, when she felt something was off and cut off communication, sent her threats, abuse and racist comments. And, shockingly, posted a naked photo of her on an Instagram account in July 2013. She was blindsided.
In January 2015, Grott was sentenced to three years jail under numerous charges including unlawful stalking. When it happened, she was embarrassed and shocked: How could she be so naive?
"I was scared," she recalls. "I wanted to go home to Jamaica … I wish I didn't know what social media was."
She feared she'd never be able to love or trust again. That was until George, a former NBL player for the Brisbane Bullets and Cairns Taipans, came into her life.
Now, as she prepares for the Super Netball season to begin, with the first Firebirds game on May 2, Aiken says life is finally falling into place.
"Sometimes I get overwhelmed with the feelings I get for him and Daniel is always telling me 'allow yourself to feel it'," she smiles.
"I feel content … I feel great, it feels like a burden has been lifted off my shoulders."
Together, the couple - who have been dating for almost two years - are a formidable presence, they tower above everyone in sight as they stroll through the Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens.
They're relaxed, happy and erupt into joyous laughter as they fire banter at each other.
"I just felt sorry for her dating all these short guys and thought this has to change," laughs George, who at 205cm stands (impressively) taller than his 196cm powerhouse girlfriend.
Aiken adds, "I like to think I'm as tall as him but I think he's taller than me."
"With your hair and heels, we even each other out I think," smiles George, a financial planner, referring to Aiken's braided bun, wrapped effortlessly on her head.
Looking back, "about five or six years ago" to when they first met, when George went along with a friend to watch a Firebirds game, they can't believe how drastically their lives have changed.
At the time, George was in a relationship and Aiken was still reeling from her stalker and warding off any man that came near her. Back then, neither ever imagined anything romantic would happen.
They stayed friends for years, catching up for coffees every now and again. It wasn't until April 2018, just after the Commonwealth Games, when things changed, or, Aiken laughs, she gave in.
"He was very persistent," she jokes. "I played the hard-to-get card for a long time, right?"
George laughs: "It was like The Matrix, she was ducking everything for a while."
But a fiercely independent Aiken found herself falling for George.
"He would drop everything to help me or see me and at the start it went over my head, I thought he was just being a really nice person but no, he was onto something bigger than that," she says.
"I love that he is so caring and very patient with all of my mood swings and everything that I throw at him. He's so calm, loving and finds the positive in everything …
"He's super supportive on and off the court and ensures he puts everyone else first."
And George is just as gushing.
"I think Romelda is physically gorgeous to start with, but beyond that she's the most caring, empathetic person I've ever met," says George, who left Brisbane at 17 to play basketball at a college in the US, before playing a few games (before getting fired) with Slovenia.
Aiken's smile widens as she visibly falls deeper for George with every word he says. She can't stop smiling. And she never wants too.
To understand the joy and confidence behind this smile is to know how far Aiken has come. To remember the girl she was - shy, nervous and playing netball with cardboard lining in her shoes - to now, the ballsy, determined athlete who is one of the world's greatest netballers.
Born in Jamaica, Aiken grew up with her two siblings, Nicole, 34, and brother Vivian, 28, in May Pen in Clarendon in the south of Jamaica.
The close-knit family lived in a modest three-bed house, "nothing fancy" says Aiken.
Her mum, Erimina, made money cleaning and let Aiken and her siblings tag along to her jobs for fun. Their lives were all about routine, that's the way Aiken, and her mum, liked it. If Erimina knew where they were, she could protect them. Church, school and home.
But mostly, Aiken would be found in the backyard shooting goals, practising and dreaming of owning more than one pair of shoes.
Her netball talent was scouted early and she made her test debut for Jamaica in 2005, only to have her dreams crushed a year later when she didn't make the team in the 2006 Commonwealth Games. She was devastated. The selector told her she wasn't good enough and never would be. Aiken threw her first ever pair of netball shoes in the bin in a defiant signal she was done.
But, quite obviously, she wasn't. Aiken's life changed in 2007, during the World Championships in New Zealand when she was scouted by Australian netball legend Vicki Wilson.
The following year, she'd arrive in Australia for the first time to play netball with the Queensland Firebirds.
"When mum got laid off and dad (Uriel) left (he and Erimina separated), we had nothing but ourselves so I think when I got the opportunity to come here (to Brisbane) I was very excited," she says.
"It was another way to get income in our household and I was now the breadwinner," she smiles proudly. "I had to do something."
That "something" has turned into playing 80 tests for Jamaica, winning Commonwealth Games and World Champion medals, making five grand final appearances with the Queensland Firebirds, with three championship wins and being the longest serving player in the most successful elite netball side in Australian history.
From the moment she joined the Firebirds she worked tirelessly to prove that selector wrong.
She wanted them to know she was good enough. She was more than good enough, she was (and is) a star. Her gritty rise to the top is nothing short of impressive.
It's what made it even more crushing when the confidence she'd fought so hard for was stripped away in an instant. In 2013, she was unstoppable on the court. She was at the height of her career.
She was young, single and went online looking for fun. She'd been messaging a man she thought was "Jayke" for a little while but she cut off communication when something felt off. And when she did, what came next was a reaction she never saw coming.
After threatening and blackmailing her, "Jayke" posted a naked photo of Aiken on Instagram, which she discovered moments before taking the court for the final quarter of the grand final against Adelaide in July 2013.
"When it happened, my friend Demelza (McCloud) was with me and I was in shock, all
I was doing was crying," she says.
"You can hashtag pictures and they can come up on the big screen of the game, so he was threatening to hashtag it to make it come up on the screen at the stadium.
"I went back on to play and as you can imagine, I was playing with a lot of aggression. We only lost by two … It was taken down by the time the game was finished.
"At the end of the quarter, I looked at Demelza and I was in tears but Netball Queensland were so good, they were onto it."
Aiken shut her social media accounts down for about four months and tried to forget it ever happened.
But she couldn't; she still can't, especially now Grott has been released from jail.
"I watch my back and really pay attention to my surroundings," she says.
"We'll go out to breakfast and I'll be scanning the room because I want to make sure I see everything and recognise every face.
"I'm still a bit scared."
Aiken, who for a long time was reluctant to talk about what happened, decided to open up in a bid to help other young girls and educate them on online dangers. Now, she's passing on the lessons her stalker taught her.
"One of my major learnings was you can't judge or think something is what it is, you have to know more, know the person or do some research," she says.
"Don't just put yourself out there because your friends are doing it and you want to do it.
"I pay very close attention to who likes, tags or comments (on posts) and any red flags, I block straight away," she says.
It was a heady time for Aiken but while she was living through the worst months of her life, in an odd twist, so was man she'd end up falling in love with. George was staring death in the face.
On April 30, 2012, when George was 29, he was diagnosed with stage two testicular cancer.
He'd played an NBL game for the Brisbane Bullets against Tasmania in Brisbane on the Friday night, feeling fit and healthy - and by the Monday, he was diagnosed with cancer.
"I had no symptoms at all other than a slightly swollen testicle, it felt like a rock," recalls George, who played his last NBL game in 2014.
"I had surgery two days later and started chemotherapy two weeks after that.
"I remember driving home, and I have little kids (to a previous relationship), so I was crying thinking, ' I'm not sure if I'm going to be here in a year's time or not'."
The cancer was aggressive and spread into George's stomach. He feared the worst with the tumour doubling every 30 days.
"I've been on the brink and it could've gone either way," he says. "I feel like I've walked up to the cliff, looked down at death and thought, 'I'll come back'."
Eight years on and now "perfectly healthy", George says he's grateful to be alive.
"The result of that is I feel quite fortunate because I got lots of people reaching out and helping," he says.
"I'm happy it happened because it gives you a beautiful perspective on things and helps you not to stress about the small stuff I probably otherwise would have."
Aiken, who was recently awarded Australian citizenship, listens intently as George details his health journey, some of it she's hearing for the first time.
"It makes me sad to know that such a beautiful person like him could get cancer. And to be able to go through it and come out on the other side and help other people, it shows there are many good people in the world," she says.
"He's done really well and is still pushing forward, he sees the positives in everything, even on the bad days."
They've both suffered some of the cruellest misfortunes life could dish out. And for Aiken, it's taken a long time to rebuild and learn to trust again. For George, he's grateful to be alive at all.
But living through what they have, has given them a clarity they never knew they needed.
Clarity on how they want to live their lives, who they want to share it with and what's important. But mostly, they've learned how finding the right person can infinitely change their lives for
"I want to be with her until we're 90 years old," muses George, "She's gorgeous and I love her a lot.
"I'd love to have kids with Romelda."
She laughs: "It will be an NBA baby."
"Romelda has a good few years yet of netball so we have a bit more stuff to do before we cross that bridge but
I hope at some stage that happens, it will be great," says George.
Aiken looks at George, holds his hand tighter and smiles, "It's all been worth it."