Footy Town: Kick like a girl, score like a lady

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By Stephanie Holt

America had a bemused flirtation with Australia’s game in the ’80s, when cheaply bought footage was a staple of the fledgling ESPN. “We don’t know the rules either,” they’d claimed, advertising, “if you would like to know the rules, send us a postcard.” They received 50,000. But after a while, ESPN had got its act together and Aussie rules faded from prominence.

Today’s USAFL dates from 1997. Since then, a loose alliance of local, expat- dominated clubs has become a highly organised body promoting the sport throughout North America. Originally a male-only competition, in recent years there’s been slow, steady growth in women’s footy in America, driven in part by a post-college wave of American sportswomen, beneficiaries of America’s landmark Title IX equal opportunity legislation, which forced schools and universities to improve sporting opportunities. Though the Boston Demons had been part of USAFL annual Nationals carnival since their founding in 2001, the women’s team was making its debut in Austin.

Talk to Jen, and she’ll make their story sound straightforward.

“I joined the Demons in March 2010. I had a lot of changes going on in my life. I’d just recently divorced and moved to Boston. I met P.J. at a work barbecue.”

An American bloke who’d started playing footy in Montreal, P.J. had recently moved to Boston and joined the Demons. And so Jen, at thirty-five, new in town, with a demanding job as a scientist with a pharmaceutical company, decided that playing an unknown sport with an all-male team was just what she needed. That might seem a daunting prospect, but she had form – during her time at Eastern Illinois University, she’d successfully pushed for the inclusion of women’s rugby as one of their teams in the National Collegiate Athletics Association.

“I started going to training,” she recalls, “and four weeks later I was playing with the New York women in Louisville at Nationals.”

She had spent the following year building the Lady Demons. it hadn’t been easy, of course – there was indifference or niggling complaint from some of the men, as established ways of doing things were disrupted, priorities challenged, scarce resources shared – but there’d been leadership and support as well.

“I started figuring out what we needed to do to get a women’s team going. And the New York women really helped push it.”

With encouragement from New York’s Drea Casillas, who’d faced the same challenge a few years earlier, Jen had been determined she wouldn’t be the only Lady Demon at the 2011 Nationals. She’d started recruiting.



AS SEASON 2011 PRESENTATION night’s formalities drew to a close, the club president announced one more award, and called Emily Riehl forward. A pint-sized Amazon with an MVP medallion already dangling against her brick-red sheath, Emily was given the USAFL’s Paul Roos Medal for the best woman player at the national championships. The applause was loud and long.

Now, Emily is what my mother would call “a slip of a girl”: slender, elfin-faced and – even with a brush of gelled-up hair – not very tall. But she’s also a beautiful kick, a fearless, focused competitor, and a briskly efficient reader of the play.

Another convert from women’s rugby, twenty-seven-year-old Emily had arrived in Boston part-way through the 2011 season as a Postgraduate Fellow in Mathematics at Harvard, where she works on various topics in category theory related to homotopy theory. She’d done a spell of postgraduate study in Sydney and there tracked down the Bondi Shamrocks, a women’s team dominated by Irish expats who practised footy on Bondi Beach.

“I didn’t know anything about it, except that it was a contact sport,” Emily recalls. Back in the US, hooked, she’d sought out footy wherever she could, playing with Milwaukee and qualifying to represent America at the 2011 international Cup. By the time she hit Boston she had a clear set of priorities.

Jen broke in as I heard this story. “She literally moved to Boston and came to training the next day”. And, turning to Emily, “I remember it. You were so bleary that day…”

Emily protested “I was still unpacking!” but could go one better, adding “I flew to Australia the day after that.”

Both Jen and Emily have experienced first-hand what a team sport can offer – not just fitness, competition and challenge, but focus, support, companionship – especially for those in a new place, making a fresh start, building a new life. Both are passionate advocates for women’s sport, and for this strange Australian game.

“I like the physicalness, the constant movements, the aggression, the rawness, the adrenalin. I just love it!” says Jen, as relentlessly single-minded in her words as in her actions. Emily, by her own admission more of an analyst, grew to prefer footy to rugby. “It’s definitely more aerobic, I’m definitely testing my fitness more, my body more. Footy’s a beautiful game. It’s very free-flowing, you’re making decisions in the moment.”

Somewhere between Jen’s obstinate drive and Emily’s inspiring talent, these women had forged, if not a team, the core of a team, and the belief that more and better awaited in 2012. They had taken eight women to Austin; now they would need sixteen. And their own coach. Somewhere better to train. Their own jumpers.

Presentation Night was over, and they’d convinced themselves of that familiar footy refrain. Next year. Next year would be their year.


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