Sabrina’s the most easygoing, ruthless fighter you’re likely to meet. Warm without a touch of arrogance, but when she steps over that white line she transforms into a superhero, a fierce competitor with a will to dominate. She wears these contradictions with absolute ease. Taking to the field as a marquee player for the Brisbane Lions she will be unmissable: her height, her strength, and her trademark long braids that whip and whirl as she powers across the green. Sabrina Frederick-Traub is one of the new breed of heroes who will be born out of the NAB AFL Women’s Competition.
It’s a typical Australian family scene with Sabrina’s family in Mandurah, an hour outside Perth. Their home nestled on a bush block amongst Australian scrub, BBQ sizzling on the patio, all the family come together for the Christmas break; her brother, sister, mum, dad, grandparents as well as the extended members, six rescue cats, a dog, chickens and geese. It’s a strictly vegan household her Grandfather explains, while flipping chickpea patties which he names as Sabrina’s favourites. The Fredrick-Traub’s are immigrants from England, her Australian Mother, siblings and step-father moved to WA when Sabrina was just seven. She inherited her striking Caribbean looks from her Father, who still lives in the UK.
Sabrina was three and befriended a group of boys around 8 or 10 by telling them she was 5 and she could swim. “She couldn’t swim and wasn’t five. That’s Sabrina all over really, she makes up her mind and does it regardless if she can do it or not.
They’ve invited me to dinner as part of filming Sabrina’s documentary. There’s no need to ask them to act natural; there’s an easy warmth amongst them as they reminisce about Sabrina’s formidable talent and her early aptitude for tackling. Her grandfather teases that he wouldn’t like to run into her a dark alley. They’ve been part of her success at every step: her parents providing transport to games all over the state, siblings cheering from the sidelines, and her grandfather taking hundreds of team photos every year. Her mother is matter-of-fact proud. Sabrina’s physical ability has always been a given, apparent since birth: “she stood up at 7 months, walked at 9 months, climbed and ran at 11 months,” Jane explains. She remembers a family holiday when three year old Sabrina befriended a group of boys around 8 or 10 by telling them she was five and could swim. “She couldn’t swim and wasn’t five. That’s Sabrina all over really. She makes up her mind and does it regardless if she can do it or not.”
There’s a trophy cabinet in her bedroom, shelves packed with awards, ribbons and memorabilia. In her first team photo, with the Pinjarra Tigers, she’s the only girl— like almost all the AFLW leaguers, Sabrina grew up playing footy with the boys. She didn’t have many female friends and coming from the semi-rural town in WA many of her male friends were indigenous. She remembers arriving as an immigrant, an outsider, finding herself connecting to Australian culture while learning about dot painting with the aboriginal kids. Digging deeper into the cabinet, she finds a self-portrait drawn when she was nine. She’s emotional as she remembers an art teacher asked the class to draw themselves how they’d like to be in ten years. She drew herself in an AFL guernsey. With the launch of the AFLW season just a month away, the significance of this dream-come-true hits her. How grateful she is to the people working behind the scenes who fought for the pathway.
Leigh Elder, Football Development Manager for AFL Tasmania, is one of these people. Elder was a major figure in female football in WA at the time: “I owe a lot of my footy to him,” Sabrina says, “a guy who is passionate about women’s footy and threw every opportunity at me.” He first met Sabrina as part of the Female Talent Academy in WA. She was getting quite of bit of attention; at only 11 years old, her athletic ability was already remarkable. On her first fitness beep test she scored an 11.4, a result that made him roll his eyes and think “you’re kidding me. I struggle getting senior players to do that.”
Legally Sabrina had to quit playing with the boys before she hit fourteen— a rule born to protect girls from changing physical capacities during puberty that historically lead to scores of aspiring girl footy player exiting the code. Fortunately, Sabrina found a women’s team, the Thunderbirds. She was by far the youngest at 13 years old, playing alongside women in their twenties and thirties. Elder fondly remembers the team as a force to be reckoned with; they wore pink uniforms and dubbed themselves “the glamour girls” but they were tough, known for tackling and constantly putting pressure on the opposition. Sabrina remembers how empowering it was to see other women who went hell for leather and weren’t judged for being strong.
It’s the code’s intense physicality that attracts girls to the game— ironically the very reason they’ve been locked out of contact sport. Jan Cooper, Manager of Female Football development for the AFL, has the research to prove it. She knows that women want to get a bit aggressive in the contest, with bumps and tackles within the laws of the game: “It’s about challenging their bodies, their spirit, their physical side of themselves.” Sabrina describes it as a freedom in the moment fueled by adrenaline, to pushing her limits to do whatever it takes to get the ball, score a goal, win the match. “Knowing the only person holding you back is yourself” which is cool for Sabrina, because holding herself back is not her style.
“When it’s hard or when it’s really really good, it’s just part of the journey of doing something you really love.”
Cooper is another of those influential people who encouraged Sabrina’s AFL career behind the scenes. She remembers first seeing her in that bright pink Thunderbirds uniform – running like an emu, taking massive strides, bouncing the ball like a professional – and asking herself, “who is that girl?” Sabrina excelled at every sport: athletics and swimming, playing state level soccer and basketball. Those codes had a professional pathway for women when AFL still didn’t. Sabrina was one of the up-and-comers and Cooper worried the AFL would lose her because they couldn’t offer that pathway. Sabrina remembers Cooper telling her to stick with it, that there’d be a women’s league in 2020. She held the dream in her sights.
The moment when the women’s league became undeniable was the fourth exhibition match, the first to be broadcast and the first year Sabrina was included in the all-star women’s matches. It was a ratings smash and jump-started the will to get a genuine women’s league into play. Before this women’s matches were seen on local grounds, in the flesh or in basic broadcast: one camera angle, live streamed. Lions Women’s Coach Craig Starcevich says when people saw female players on mainstream TV with multiple angles and close ups it legitimised them: “It just looked more like a men’s game.” Stars like Moana Hope, Daisy Pearce and Sabrina were made overnight. Cooper credits the broadcasters for taking this risk.
Shannon, Sabrina’s partner of 18 months, describes the moment Sabrina discovered she was selected as a Brisbane marquee player. They had just driven two hours and pulled into the driveway of a holiday house when the phone rang. It was Breeanna Brock, CEO of Lions Women’s, asking if Sabrina wanted to get on a flight to Brisbane the next day for an orientation. Sabrina’s commitment was absolute and they turned straight back and jumped on the flight. Two weeks later they moved to Brisbane together.
Five months on, Sabrina’s life is entirely transformed. Searching for a word to describe the feeling of finally arriving at her dream she pinpoints “special”: “when it’s hard or when it’s really really good, it’s just part of the journey of doing something you really love.” Sabrina would play football Women’s League or not, but admits that being acknowledged as a professional athlete is uplifting. She can’t quite hold back the emotion as she tries to explain the feeling of having an income from playing the sport, someone respecting that you want to play as a career.
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.”
“She had clearly won it with her mind, she keeps achieving things beyond what she should because of her application and commitment to self”.
Lions Assistant Coach
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: “The greatest critics of women's football became the greatest fans as soon as they’ve seen their daughter play one game.”
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.