For years, people have worked to prevent gender from limiting career paths, and 2017 has seen a major breakthrough in Australian sport. I’m talking, of course, about the introduction of the AFL Women’s competition.
Marquee player Sabrina Frederick-Traub (like countless other girls across the country) struggled to play AFL into her teenage years.
“I was told if I would like to continue to play another year, I would have to apply for a permit,” she explains.
Thanks to the AFL Women’s competition, little girls around Australia can now pull on their boots and hope to one day follow in the footsteps of their new female sporting heroes. And if that’s not something worth cheering for, what is?
“I want girls to be able to see me and think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it’,” Sabrina grins.
The inaugural round of the AFLW was a smash hit to say the least. Spectators spilled from jam-packed arenas, keen to get a glimpse of history in the making.
— Clementine Ford (@clementine_ford) February 3, 2017
The first game ended with a nice big W (win) on the board for the Lions ladies (as well as a goal for Sabrina) – a testament to their incredible effort and a feat their male counterparts sure hope to emulate come April.
When asked to describe how they felt during their first game, both Sabrina and Captain Emma Zielke were almost lost for words.
“Running out wearing the Lions [guernsey] for the first time was pretty special to me,” Emma says.
“Stepping onto the field to play the sport you love at the highest level - no one can take that away from you,” Sabrina agrees.
But this euphoria once seemed entirely out of reach; the formation of the AFL Women’s competition was an uphill battle, driven by unrelenting advocates for equality.
“I never thought I’d be playing in a semi-professional league and getting paid for it,” Emma admits.
Represented by females on all fronts, the club is bursting with inspirational role models. CEO Breeanna Brock’s success reminds the players that their quest for equality is not limited to the playing field.
The girls’ manager, Nat Drake, also added her two cents on the topic.
“I remember a couple of years ago hearing Emma speak at a Women of the Pride lunch,” says Nat. “They were talking about the possibility of a women’s league in the future but she thought she would miss out on playing because it wouldn’t happen quickly enough for her.”
As the daughter of a former Lions CEO, wife to a Lions recruiter and one of the few female player managers in the AFL, Nat is constantly immersed in the world of football and she loves every minute of it.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she assures me.
When asked to explain the difference between managing her male and female clients, Nat provided incredible insight: “Having never had the pathway that was available to the boys, the girls are just so excited to get out there and grow the game and build something great for the girls coming through behind them.”
Sabrina and Emma each had a different pathway into the AFLW. Sabrina played from a young age and went on to become instrumental in the formation of the league. Emma first pulled on her boots at the relatively mature age of 19.
“[I] decided to join a local AFL club when we moved to Brisbane and never looked back!” Emma says. “It was the best decision I have ever made.”
The AFLW is combating male sporting stereotypes one incredible pack mark at a time, opening up the game and the entire AFL culture to a wider, more female-inclusive audience.
“I think we are slowly seeing a shift in the way the AFL is being talked about,” Emma says.
“I feel like [the perception of women] has changed over time and I can see the same happening with AFL,” Sabrina adds proudly. “[We are proving] that women in AFL can be strong, physical, empowering athletes.”
The Brisbane Lions boys have already jumped onboard, pouring out their support on social media and in the real world, making an effort to catch every game.
— Harris Andrews (@HarrisAndrews31) February 5, 2017
In the AFL Women’s competition, it’s just as important to inspire others as it is to win the flag. Young ruckmen will cherish a photo with Nic Natanui and Sabrina, and young midfielders will love the opportunity to chat with Sam Mitchell and Emma, the team captain. These amazing women will serve as strong female role models, empowering young girls and showing them that they too can achieve greatness in their chosen field.
“We are the pioneers of this league,” Emma says. “[Being] able to create a pathway for the next generation is very important. The goal is to keep inspiring women of all ages and young girls to grab a footy as early as possible so that we can one day put AFL as the number one women’s sport in Australia!”
Nat couldn’t be happier. “I think it’s great,” she says. “If [my daughter] wants to play footy, she can play footy. That would be the case if she was a boy, so why shouldn’t she have the same opportunities?”
As of today, the Brisbane Lions AFL Women’s team has secured four wins not just for footy fans, but for women all over the world. These unsuspecting champions have taken the competition by storm and are well on their way to much-deserved success.
Stars lighting it up ✅
Capacity crowd ✅
Clutch performance in a tight game ✅
— AFL Women's (@aflwomens) February 12, 2017
But in the whirlwind that is the first season of AFLW, Sabrina insists that there is one goal that surpasses all others; all she wants to do is enjoy every moment of the experience.