'We're Warriors': Meet Australia's First Professional Female Football Players
They're kicking goals for women in sport Down Under—despite also working busy day jobs. We talked to some of the women making AFL history.
Photos by Jessica Clark
"Australian rules" football, officially known as Australian football, is a staple Aussie pastime—and has been for over a century. Die-hard fans follow the Australian Football League (AFL) with fervor from March to September every year. But while spectators are as diverse as the country's population, playing the sport has always been a man's job—until now.
The AFL will unleash its female league in 2017, featuring eight teams from across the country. Monique Hollick, Justine Mules, Courtney Cramey, Deni Varnhagen and Chelsea Randall are among 27 players drafted to Adelaide Football Club, more commonly known as "The Crows". When they kick off on Saturday 4 February, these elite athletes will make history as the first women to play Aussie rules professionally.
What inspires them to hit the field (and sometimes each other) for this full-contact sport? What stereotypes are they ready to smash? And will they be paid as much as their male counterparts? We went to a practice for the answers.
Justine Mules, 22, civil construction worker
"I remember being in Year seven [sixth grade] at school, and starting a petition for us girls to play football. The principal didn't want to know about it. Not until two years ago did I even realise females could actually play football.
"Even getting my apprenticeship, I didn't know that women were allowed to do [construction]. I had no idea that other girls did concreting. Young girls need to have that awareness, that they can go out there and achieve what they want to do.
I've always dreamt about being able to play AFL.
"I'm here training with the Crows three times a week, then I train with a personal trainer once a week as well. I've got a good routine at the moment: I'm up about 5am to get my breakfast and lunch ready. Then 6am till 3pm is work. Then I come home from work, have a nibble, and sometimes I have a nap—because I need it, I'm so exhausted. Then I go to training.
"It's exciting; I've always dreamt about being able to play AFL. It's actually a real live thing—we've never had that before. We don't know what's going to happen. This may break it or make it, y'know?"
Monique Hollick, 27, satellite engineer
"I'll be playing in the mid-field, number 18. I chose that because it's my dad's number. He played for Richmond in the 70s. He was pretty happy about that.
"To get where I've gotten, I've had to work pretty hard. When I dedicate myself to a goal, I'm 'all or nothing' about it. I usually get pretty nervous before a game, although I don't like to tell people that. You don't want to shows signs of weakness to your opponents. I get in the zone.
"I think we're going to surprise people with our level of skill and fitness. That'd be a nice feeling. They've got pretty low expectations from what I've read on social media—some of them, anyway.
"I was thinking, 'How cool would it be to be a male AFL player?' and my mom said, 'But then you wouldn't be a satellite engineer. You'd just be a football player until you're 30. Wouldn't you prefer to be both?' And I thought, actually, yeah, I would prefer to be both. This is awesome."
Deni Varnhagen, 24, nurse
"The typical stereotype is that women can't play football as good as men. But we've got different bodies, we're not made like they are. We're not going to play their of football. We're going to play our own brand of football. It's going to be hard-hitting, it's going to be fast, and it's going to be skilful. I really think we're going to take them by surprise.
We've got different bodies. We're going to play our own brand of football.
"You have to question the men['s motives]— sure, they love the game, but they're getting paid. Think of the men's amateur leagues: Even from my age, playing in their local community, they all get paid.
"With females, we've never been paid, up until now. We've genuinely played for the love of the game. That's why it can be so disheartening when you get people who bag women footballers. It's like, we love this game. We're definitely a force to be reckoned with when we're together as one."
Chelsea Randall, 25, Adelaide Crows' female community programs officer
"When I first started playing footy I was 11, over in Western Australia, playing on a boy's team. Out on the field, I'm standing there with my socks pulled up and my shirt tucked in, with my blue mouthguard. Grandpa and everyone's come down to watch me play my first game, and I'm standing there in line.
"In footy, you face your opposition while they check your boots and everything. All the opposition started to belt out laughing [but] I couldn't work out why, so I was looking around. Then I was like, Oh. It's because I'm a girl. I'm the only girl here. They're pointing at me. Is it because I've got a ponytail?
"Well, the fella next to me had a pretty long ponytail too. Nobody was laughing at his ponytail. That was a moment I'll probably never forget. I found the guy who was laughing the hardest, he had the ball, so I just ran up to him and decked him. I was like, that felt pretty good. I'm here as well."
Courtney Cramey, 35, ministerial liaison officer
"Growing up, I barracked for the Crows, so to be drafted by the Crows was a dream come true.
"As a kid I tended to look up to male role models, purely for the fact that that's all I had around me. The visibility of women in all areas of life—on boards and committees, in CEO positions, earning fair and equal pay—it's really important. The AFL introducing the women's league is another step.
"We've been juggling work and trying to become professional athletes—and motherhood and family for some girls as well. I think we're all warriors. We have different challenges to men but it's nice to finally get those doors open for us, especially in the AFL space. We can pave the way for generations to come.
"That first game, that first bounce, that's just gonna be epic. We've all waited for it for such a long time. That's gonna be the reality moment of, it's here."