Eyes will be on me. I know they will. Olympian makes her AFLW debut. It’s a story.
I’m more nervous going into a footy training session than I was before an international hockey game. When I play hockey, I know what I’m doing. You’re always running to the right spot. After playing it for 20 years, you just know it.
With football, it’s different. I’m second-guessing myself with everything. I’m excited, but very nervous about the weekend.
I don’t want to do a disservice to hockey. I don’t want to do a disservice to being an Olympian.
And I don’t want to do a disservice to Collingwood for picking me and have other people thinking, ‘She’s just getting a token game’. I don’t want that.
This pressure isn’t coming from external factors. It’s me placing it upon myself. I wanted to earn my spot. The coaches have stressed to me that I’ve done that. It’s really reassuring.
I don’t care about stats or anything like that. I just want to play my role for the team. It won’t be a big fancy role. It will just be to help the other girls do the best they can, then go from there and see how I play.
I hope people say, ‘She’s strong, fearless, and uses her body well’. I don’t want them to be surprised by me. I just want them to be thinking, ‘We expected that of her,’ in terms of my physicality.
It’s probably more about what I don’t want them to say. ‘Oh well, that was embarrassing.’ ‘Not quite what we expected!’ Those kinds of things.
I’m feeling good. I had a lot of hope when I first signed with the Magpies – wanting to play, and not sure if I was actually going to get the opportunity. So it’s nice that the hard work over the past few months of training has finally paid off.
The rookie list is a hard position to be in because you’re training just as hard and as much as everyone else, but you’re kind of waiting for an injury. It’s not a nice feeling. You’re not wanting it to happen but you’re needing it to happen to actually play a game.
It’s really bitter-sweet, but at the same time it’s an opportunity for me and I have to take it and play as best as I can.
I do think it’s going to be a weird feeling. It’s as if I’m going to debut for Australia again. But even on a bigger scale.
FROM ANTWERP TO COLLINGWOOD
As a kid, I played hockey because I was too rough for netball and there wasn’t any other sport where you could run on a big field and be pretty physical. So mum put a hockey stick in my hand and I’m forever thankful for that. It was an amazing career.
After Rio, I was living and playing for a club in Antwerp when I decided to call it quits on international competition. You think in four-year blocks. The next Olympics in Tokyo are in 2020 and I was like, ‘I’ll be 31, 32’. The Hockeyroos had a new coach coming in, I didn’t really want to commit for another four years, so I thought, ‘I’ll stop now, so I can enjoy my time in Europe a little bit more than if I had a regime I had to stick to in terms of international stuff’.
I love hockey. It’s played all around the world. Being a Hockeyroo is an amazing achievement, and the things I did at that level were just amazing. But I would have played footy. That’s no disrespect to hockey; it’s just that football’s always been something I loved, and part of my life. I was born into it.
I was a Crows fan since I was little. Dad’s actually a Port supporter, which is embarrassing. The whole family is footy mad.
Mum remembers when I was about seven or eight and I was the only girl at a footy clinic. My favourite thing was the hip and shoulder. Mum was like, ‘You just loved it, but there wasn’t an opportunity for you to play’.
Then, come 2017, there was this amazing event: AFLW.
I was on a pre-season ski trip in Switzerland with my hockey teammates from Belgium – so, yes, it was a terrible life I had over there! – and I was making everyone watch it online. They thought the sport was crazy. There were 30,000 people at that first Collingwood-Carlton game and that’s how many people I had at my 2014 World Cup final, let alone at a normal hockey match.
The success of AFLW took everyone by surprise. No one thought it was going to be as big as it was – me included. I didn’t know whether it was going to be a token thing or not, so having the full support of so many clubs was amazing.
Watching it last year I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, I wish I could have done that’. But I had no desire to play super-high-level sport again. I actually didn’t go to the clubs; the clubs came to me and said, ‘Look, you’ve just retired, you’re clearly able to play high-level sport, have you ever thought of playing AFLW?’
And I was like, ‘Well, not really. I didn’t even know I was going to retire’.
But I did, and I thought I could satisfy eight-year-old me, because eight-year-old me would have loved to play this. So to not take the opportunity and give it everything I could seemed a bit selfish. And here we are, a little over a year later, and I’m about to play my first game. It’s pretty cool.
I would have played footy. That’s no disrespect to hockey; it’s just that football’s always been something I loved, and part of my life. I was born into it.
When I first got the approach from Collingwood, I said to my partner, ‘Have a look at this message, this is funny’. He’s a Collingwood supporter, so he was like, ’Do it!’ and it kind of went from there.
My stepbrother, Nathan Bock, played AFL for Adelaide and Gold Coast, so I had a laugh with him about it. He said, ‘Just give it a crack. Why not? You’ll be all right’. It wasn’t on my agenda to stop hockey and then be a code switcher to lift my profile or anything like that.
I had a really big think before I said yes, because I didn’t want to do it half-arsed. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it properly.
The main thing that’s surprised me is the hype around it, especially in Melbourne, because I wasn’t here to appreciate it in the first season. It’s a really good time to be a female athlete. If you’re 14, 15, you can see yourself doing that as a job and that’s exciting.
When I was 15, you did it because you wanted to do it, not because you saw a career in it.
HOCKEY VS FOOTY
It’s been an interesting transition.
Physically, I’ve been able to slot right in. As one of the rougher hockey players – the one who was getting too many yellow cards – it’s nice to be able to use your body a bit more in football. The running, the speed of it, I’m fine with all that. Hockey’s a very fast aerobic game.
It’s more the skills. I thought I’d pick them up quicker than I have. But I haven’t, so, combined with the rookie list situation, that’s probably why it’s taken a little longer to play.
The skills are so unique. It’s not like basketball, where you’re catching and throwing all the time in normal life. This is a different-shaped ball – it’s not like rugby, it’s not like soccer, it’s unique to our game, and so I have found it quite hard to pick up the skills.
But they’ve improved dramatically in the past month. It’s just time. The more you do it, the more confident you become.
I don’t want to do a disservice to Collingwood for picking me and have other people thinking, ‘She’s just getting a token game’. I don’t want that.
In my first month’s training, I’d maybe kick the ball twice in the whole session, whereas now I’m looking at kicking and not trying to dish it off with my hands.
When you’re first learning sports as 10-year-olds, everyone’s on the same level, so you can sort of blend in and you’ll all learn at similar rates. Now I’m 28 and learning a sport with people who’ve played for 10 years. It’s very different.
I have to learn much faster or I don’t survive. I’ve had to really switch on my brain. I’m more tired mentally than I am physically. It’s really weird. It’s like your first week of school, or uni, or something.
But there’s still a lot of similarities between hockey and football that you don’t even think about. We had AFL coaches coming in all the time, from Hawthorn, the Swans, the Crows, talking to our coaches about player movements and presses and structures that we had that they took into football. So although I didn’t have the skill set when I transferred over, I did have the knowledge of structures.
My two baes finally meet 🏑❤️🏈 Fun times shooting with @shockdoctoraustralia to launch their new women’s super fit mouth guard now available at @rebelsport. Legit though, without that bad boy I would be missing my 4 front teeth after my mouth lost to @soph_casey22’s head… please please please wear your mouth guard, kids(both big and little)!!! #mouthguard #teeth #wearit #shockdoctor #AFLW #hockey @shockdoctoraustralia @shockdoctor @mazonhockey @justhockeyaus
Netball and basketball are played on a really small court, so they don’t have that game awareness of the whole field like hockey and soccer do. That’s been really, really helpful. I don’t get overwhelmed by where I’m meant to go or worry that I’m in the right spot. It’s more when I’ve got the ball that I’m stressed about the skill I have to execute.
Having been an elite athlete in another sport, it is a hit to the ego. I’ve got such high expectations of myself and my standards are so high because I’ve been one of the best in the world, and I’ve been part of a team that’s been one of the best in the world, so it is a bit humbling when I have to ask 18-year-olds, ‘What’s the best way to do that?’ You have to put it aside and think, ’I’m here to learn, and anyone’s got something to teach’.
I might be physically superior, faster, stronger and fitter, than a lot of the girls – not all of them, clearly, but some of them – but that doesn’t mean everything.
And why I get so mentally tired is because of the decision-making that comes so naturally to the girls who have been playing for a long time. So I might make the same decision, but my brain’s having to do a lot more work.
I love the physicality of footy. It’s known throughout the world as being one of the most physically demanding sports. It’s got everything: power, speed, agility, aerobic capacity. I love being able to tackle people and use my body. The full spectacle.
People ask if it’s a good thing that I’ve been able to come straight into the league without any experience. In five or six years, players won’t be able to do that – although there will be more teams, so potentially the very top athletes still could.
I look at my teammates and Ash Brazill, with netball, and Jess Cameron, with cricket, are both juggling two sports. Ideally, you don’t want that. Ideally you want athletes to be paid enough that they can concentrate on the one sport, just like the men.
But in five or six years, when you’ve got a fully professional program, when you’ve got kids who’ve been playing since they were 12- or 13-years-old until they’re 20 and getting drafted, you won’t be able to do what I’m doing, because there will be too much talent available.
That’s probably where a lot of the criticism comes from – especially from a lot of men who go, ‘Oh, it’s the same as an under 13 boys game’. Well, yeah, it’s true that it isn’t the same as an AFL men’s game because these girls haven’t been playing for that long.
This will be just my seventh game ever – I’ve only played practice matches and I’ll be playing AFLW. I only started six months ago, so of course I’m not going to be as good as someone who’s been playing for 10 years. And that’s the same for a lot of us.
I can understand the criticism, but at the moment the league is still in its raw stages, and at the same time it’s still getting a lot of publicity – more so than all the other female sports combined, basically, so that’s encouraging in terms of the bigger picture.
Some people have been comparing us to the men. They’ve had a competition and pretty defined pathways for more than 100 years. Their comp started out like ours – men working all day, then heading to training a couple of nights a week in winter.
They, too, had inspirational stories about balancing work and sport. They, too, were lacking in skills and fitness. They, too, were playing this sport for the love of the game.
But even when the AFLW is fully established – when those stories start to filter out and we are doing this as a fulltime job – the game still won’t be the same as the men. I don’t think we want it to be. We want to create our own brand of football, something unique to us. In the end, you don’t compare featherweight fighters to heavyweights. So why compare us women to the men?
So, yeah, I shouldn’t really be able to do what I’m doing, but at the moment I can use my athleticism to counteract my lack of skills, while some of the other girls have the skills without the real athleticism. It’s great that there’s a pathway now for the girls who aspire to have a career in football.
As long as I can keep the nerves under control on Saturday I should be fine, and I know my old hockey teammates in Belgium will be watching. They’ve said they’ll put it up on the screen in the club. They’ll have no idea what’s going on, but they’ll laugh at the size of the field and the shape of the ball.
And the fact that you get a point for missing? They’ll like that, too.
Georgie Parker - Contributor