Sabrina and the Lions are training on Yeronga oval, their home turf in Brisbane, only a few weeks out from their first league match. One of the girls explains to the camera that there’s no half effort in training, it’s 100% all the time. The camera operator attempts to get in the thick of a game play and admits to finding their brutal knocks and speed daunting. On the sidelines David Lake, the Lions Women’s Assistant Coach, tells me a story of his first encounter with Sabrina’s essential character. As an out of state draft pick, she was a late arrival to pre-season training, not happy with her level of fitness. It’s an understatement to say she likes to do well. Lake says they were doing a 2 km time trial and he walked with Sabrina to the starting line, while she explained how the race was playing out in her head. She finished 7 minutes later, in the top three, a time she had no right to given her fitness preparation. “She had clearly won it with her mind, she keeps achieving things beyond what she should because of her application and commitment to self.”
Digging for the inside word on Sabrina, it seems most take her athleticism as a given and instead want to stress the greatest of her attitude; as Starcevich puts it, being “gob smacked by what a quality person she is.” She’s only 20 but has a generosity and maturity that is just as essential to team sport as any ability on the field. Lake describes a scene from the inside team negotiations at Brisbane Lions. There were some complaints from the girls about pay for media commitments. Sabrina quietly listened to everyone then spoke. She didn’t criticize anyone but she called them on it. She said it was their responsibility to the women coming up to do everything they could for the success of the league. They shouldn’t be measuring hours or money; they’d been given a great opportunity and they needed to do what is right for the next generation. “That was the moment she won the room over,” he says.
This natural leadership extends to Sabrina’s work with AFL diversity, including her role as a multicultural ambassador and coach for the All Nations team. She describes how moving from England and finding football gave her a feeling of belonging to something. She wants to give that to other people, to make them feel like they aren’t any different. She coached the All Nations team to a season win, with young players from places like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Japan playing their first ever games.
For the Australian public, the women’s league seems to have emerged in a flash to a now rapturous reception. Those working hard behind the scenes to develop the female game find it hard to understand why it’s taken this long. Elder suggests the reason is not necessarily sexism but fear: “fear drives a lot of things… fear of the unknown.” People just don’t like change and for 150 years men ruled, footy was for boys and netball for girls. There will still be opposition but Elder says the decriers are dwindling to a minority:
And, as it turned out, the Australian public was more than ready for the women’s league. Its historic first match, Carlton vs Collingwood, played to a lock in crowd of more than 20,000. People were turned away at the gates, they sold out of beer, and social media users made sure their support was heard. They posted comments like “finally it’s ok to run like a girl” and, sarcastically, “yeah, no one is into women’s footy.” Others asked “so how does one pick their team if they have a new interest in football?”
We’re only just coming to terms with the real significance of this cultural shift. In Australia, sports stars are our true heroes. AFL, especially for Victorians, is deeply embedded in contemporary culture, shared across ethnicities, class and age. These women are the new role models, part of a seismic shift towards equality for women across sport, business, art and leadership. During the weekend launch, the on-the-ground effect came through in the smallest details: in my own daughter’s fervent reaction to players celebrated on billboards, and in the enthusiasm of young women on the sidelines as they discussed their favourites. Role models were always a massive motivation for Sabrina; she cites Serena Williams and Nic Naitanui as the stars who pushed her to be the best she could be. She confesses she’d love a little boy to look up to her as she looked up to male figures. “When you ask a little boy who his role models are, I never see them say a female athlete. I’d love to change that.” For Sabrina, this is what true equality looks like.
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