Almanac AFLW: Glimpsing oblivion – taking life in their hands

On seeing footage of Ebony Marinoff’s facial injuries (courtesy Rounds 5 and 6), the venerable Roy Masters on ABC’s Offsiders (11 March) was understandably concerned as to whether that sight would make mothers wary of encouraging their daughters to play footy.  Like many of us, I watched my young daughter in her too-large shorts, dashing gleefully about the soccer fields, lacrosse pitches, and doctors’ waiting rooms of the universe.  It’s a part of every parent’s rite of passage, to learn to hold our breath, put away our overwhelming protective instincts, and watch our kids have a go at life – with the first aid kit in the glove box and limb immobilisation short course certificate at the ready, just in case.


Sport teaches resilience and courage, for the parents that is, most kids throw themselves naturally into the fray, and learn about risk and reward in the process. The girls played like happy maniacs and I was shocked, and very impressed, hers was going to be a generation of brave have-a-goers.  There were just a couple of minor injuries in her sporting career, including her 8-year-old nose stopping a fast moving soccer ball in its tracks, admittedly it was hard for her to see it coming as it was hailing at the time. She was annoyed that she hadn’t successfully headed it goalwards for the team, I was more worried about her nose being somewhat closer to her left ear than it was at the start of the game.  The huddled mass of sodden parents wanted to call off the game given the torrential conditions, but the girls refused to leave the park, and had a lot of slippery fun  … and salute to all the volunteer umpires of the world, he stuck it out with a wet grin to the very end.  As the officiating offside umpire I was out of my depth – literally.


In her twenties now, she tackles more artistic pursuits, which is a bit of a relief, but I know that her experiences playing some (mildly) competitive team sports was a part of growing up that she enjoyed enormously (and so did I).   I was far more concerned when she headed out onto the roads with her L Plates – having lost a young family member to a car accident, I can assure Roy that a cut to the face as a result of a sporting endeavour, or an ACL or ankle injury, is an unfortunate but manageable health risk for a young woman, given the many other much scarier hazards that she will encounter in life.  There are 40,000 hospitalisations every year in Australia from car crashes, and a woman dies every week from assault – usually at home.  Show me a sport-induced corkie any day, or a black eye of the Mel Hickey variety, caused not by a controlling or uncontrolled man or car, but by her valiant attempt to take a mark – and importantly – of her own volition ( ‘volition’ is the power you have to decide something for yourself; the act of exercising the will; the faculty or capability of conscious choice, decision, and intention – Collins Dict.)


Because of the relative invisibility of women’s sport for many decades, we have the misconception that women have only just started to suffer injuries of this kind.  Marijana Rajcic who is now playing in defence for the Crows, has been playing W League soccer for many years, and had already undergone three full knee reconstructions before she touched a Sherrin, but who knew.  Unfortunately, injuries are the norm in not only women’s sport but of course in men’s amateur and pro-league competitions as well.  Roy Masters’ own face reads of a life well lived, no doubt his visage has been painfully re-arranged once or twice by an errant rugby ball, or elbow, or shoulder, but I’m sure he doesn’t regret one second of his playing life.  Or is it that we don’t care as much about our sons’ faces (and the concussable brains behind them) as our daughters’ ? – I doubt that’s the case.


Victorian footy player (and now coach) Julia Chiera wrote that ultimately the joy of playing footy is simply the palpable freedom of running across the grass in the open air, cleanly gathering up that misshapen bouncing ball, and singing the song with linked arms after the game.*   Its that grounded, and sometimes painful, physical reality that can be affirming and uplifting, and which many of us are out of touch with in our mostly comfortable worlds.


But I’m also fascinated by those people who take it a step further and voluntarily put themselves into more extreme positions of danger and risk in order to test their own resolve, and to experience an intense physical reality.  They have an urge to look over the edge and briefly glimpse oblivion, and thereby somehow affirm life. Most of us are attuned keenly for the flight instinct, to flee from danger and risk, a very sensible evolutionary survival technique, but maybe some of us are meant to go to the edge, physically or intellectually or spiritually, and maybe that has also been of evolutionary benefit in showing the rest of us what is possible if you are a bit brave.


Every time a young man or woman heads knowingly into a collision on a footy field, my heart is in my mouth to see if they get back up in one piece.  And we (perhaps morbidly) appreciate that spectacle because its reassuring to watch each generation take its turn to produce these strange and extraordinary humans who will go to the edge on our behalf.  Why do they do it ?  Is there an element of dangerous self-harm, or is it simply a desire to briefly dance on the high wire and see what it looks like down there, at least for a moment ?  In the recent GWS Giants and Adelaide Crows game when the colossal Courtneys Cramey and Gum collided a trillion atoms at high speed with little thought for their own safety, and gracefully flew apart through the air like ballet dancers, they must have felt the scary reality of the clash and inevitable crash, but also knew the sheer ecstatic abandon of giving themselves up to the fates, whatever the consequences. (As quantum physics would have it, their particles held together, and they played on undaunted).


March 18th is the birthday of one of those people.  Sue Fear was a mountaineer who climbed several of the 8,000 metre summits on this rocky planet, and was one of the first to climb Mt Everest via the more difficult north face from Tibet.  My favourite photo of Sue is as a very young person on her way up Everest for her first time (the ‘easier’ south route on this occasion), a small figure alone, surrounded by a vast, magnificent, and humbling landscape of massive white mountains and blue universal sky that went on forever.  I prefer this photo to the shots of her reaching the peak, because it says so much more,  she is simply taking life in her hands, and freely heading off up the hard mountain in the searingly cold air to experience that tangible physical place where life and death might briefly look each other in the eye and see who blinks first.


Sue would play down her achievements in interviews, saying that we all have our Everests.  She worked for the Fred Hollows Foundation for many years, and one of their clinics in Nepal is named in her honour.  She died falling into an unfathomable crevice on her way down Mt Manaslu in 2006, and had left strict instructions that no-one should risk their life to rescue her, if that should be her fate – so embedded in that beautiful mountain she rests.  In 2010, after working on a building programme in Nepal, I walked with some friends for a few days on a trail along the Himalayas and exhaustedly reached a point one perfect evening where we could see the whole range of eastern ‘hills’, including Everest.  Nearby was Mt Manaslu, and I sent a few words of appreciation Ms Fear’s way – I think she would have been content with the idea of now being physically part of those breath taking mountains, forever.  She met her chosen oblivion prematurely, but by going to the edge she has inspired many like me to be a tiny bit braver in our lives.


When I watch women playing footy or rugby or other sports where they take their fate into their own hands, or play with a physical abandon that astonishes me, I see the same inspiration.  Happy Birthday Sue – and cheers to all the women who look over the edge, and then step back and turn to encourage the rest of us to go a little more bravely into our day, or to face our demons, or to enjoy riding a bump or a wave, or to walk for days across a dangerous but beautiful landscape.  Never mind the cuts and bruises.


*…“ this is my game, the gossip pales in the shadow of my joy as I gather the ball, kick it down the wing, sing the song with my mates.”  (Mama Mia 4 Feb 2017)


  1. Yvette Wroby says

    Amen. Beautifully written. I will remember this in my everyday.

  2. Kasey Symons says

    Wow Verity, this is an incredible piece of writing and I couldn’t applaud it more. I grimaced when Roy made that comment last week and brushed it aside not wanting to let another off-the-cuff remark about women getting hurt ruin my day, so I’m glad someone could so eloquently respond to it in such a inspiring way. Well done.

  3. What a wonderful piece this is, Verity. So beautifully paced.

  4. That second half of the article…phew! You took us up the mountain, Verity. Food for thought. As for Eb, she’s an absolute jet and unsurprisingly wouldn’t let two unfortunate injuries get in the way of that hunger for effervescent on-field freedom.

  5. DanielleSpicer says

    Absolutely wonderful. Thank you!

  6. Well said Verity! If only Roy could have experienced the pride I felt when my beautiful, brave daughter Sophia played her first season for North Hobart last year!

  7. bring back the torp says

    Had to read this twice -so good!

    QUESTION: Females know it is inevitable they will regularly feel pain/experience fear playing AF; & will occasionally be hurt & have to leave the field/seek medical attention.
    Is one part of the reason they want to play is the “need” (conscious, or subconscious) to show they are physically “tough & resilient” ?

  8. Yvette Wroby says

    Hi Bring Back the Torp,
    I don’t think the females need to ‘show’, I think this is a place where they just ‘are’. Women and girls playing footy just love the physicality, want the ball, want to win, want what any footy player wants. To play footy (and along with that comes….injuries, medical attention etc). Nobody wants that, whether female or male.

    No-one who isn’t tough and resilient pulls on a pair of footy boots in a competitive game.

  9. Les Everett says

    Walked past Fremantle Park this afternoon – 60-70 young women training for South Fremantle… freedom indeed.

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