Before the 18th of June 2016, Libby Birch had never kicked a football. She certainly didn’t own a pair of footy boots. She was a netballer. A good one. And netball was exactly what she planned on pursuing when the “gun of football” Daisy Pearce called out of the blue in the middle of winter.
The 18-year-old had never heard of Pearce, and to this day has no idea how the footy star got her number; she was too busy captaining the Victorian Under 21s side at nationals and dreaming of playing netball for Australia to give it much thought.
“Footy wasn’t on my horizon at all,” the Western Bulldogs rookie explains. “I hadn’t even kicked a ball.”
After missing out on the Aussie netball squad in 2015, it was “a mixture of love and sadness” – along with a gruelling 12-month training schedule – that got her to the exact same place with netball again: rejection.
“Straight after the state grand final I can remember sitting there – they read the names in alphabetical order – and I can still remember the moment when they skipped ‘B’,” Libby reminisces.
“I can remember just biting my top lip because I still had to be captain the whole way home and I couldn’t burst out crying in front of the girls.”
When Libby missed out for the second year in a row, she was done with competitive sport.
At least, she thought she was.
Footy wasn’t on my horizon at all, I hadn’t even kicked a ball.
Libby’s mum and dad, a cultural consultant and a former national water-skier respectively, and her little brother Harry have always inspired her to be resilient.
Harry suffers from a debilitating life-long lung condition, but has never let it hold him back from his dream of being an AFL umpire or from supporting his big sister.
“We grew up with that in the family and I remember him coming to some netball games with an IV in. He would always be there to support me. He’s a little trooper.
“I would come home from netball sometimes, disappointed, and I’d say, ‘Mum, I didn’t train very well’ and she’d say, your brother is trying to survive, you’ll be fine.’”
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Just two days after returning home from nationals and having her aspirations crushed, Libby decided to pick up the phone.
“I rang Daisy back up and said, ‘Can I come down for a session?’ and she said, ‘Yep, we start on Friday’.
“I didn’t have any boots so I went to her house and – I’d never met this woman before, I didn’t know who Daisy Pearce was – I said, ‘Daisy I don’t have any boots’ and she said, ‘here, you can have these boots’ and they were her boots and they fit perfectly.”
From the first training session the Melbourne teenager was hooked. She was having fun again.
“I found it hard at first because it’s a completely different sport. It’s a round ball compared to a curvy ball that can bounce anywhere.
“It’s a small court compared to a massive field.”
To get herself up to scratch, Libby would show up two hours early for every training session, often kicking to herself in the dark before the lights came on.
“One morning, I started smelling something and the ball must have fallen in dog poo. I ended up with dog poo all over me,” she says with a grin.
“The perks of working hard, I guess.”
In those same borrowed boots she played 11 games – including a premiership – for the Darebin Falcons in the VFL Women’s. It wasn’t until Libby signed with the Western Bulldogs in September and the club gifted her first-ever pair of footy boots that the prospect of a new dream set in.
What I think is a really beautiful thing about AFL Women’s is that everyone is different and everyone’s got a life outside of footy.
On February 4, Libby made her debut in the first round of the AFL Women’s competition, donning the red, white and blue as the daughters of the west unleashed on the Fremantle Dockers in front of a capacity crowd at Footscray’s VU Whitten Oval.
Libby still plays netball with the Victorian Fury but, like many other multi-talented, multi-faceted women in the league, now considers herself a dual athlete.
At present, she’s balancing twice weekly five-hour long training sessions for both sports with the second year of her physiotherapy degree.
“What I think is a really beautiful thing about AFL Women’s is that everyone is different and everyone’s got a life outside of footy,” Libby explains.
“We’ve got a doctor in our team who comes to training in her scrubs.
“We’ve got some police women, teachers – I think that’s really beautiful in its own way.”
The half back relishes being in a team - what she calls her “family” - and since joining the AFLW, believes she has finally found her sporting home.
“I’ve thought since day one that this was the start of something brilliant.”
We think you might be right, Libby.
Melbourne-based digital journalist. Currently News Producer at Mamamia, Australia's largest independent women's website and editor of Mamamia Cares. Previously worked as a journalist for Our Community, the go-to centre for excellence for 600,000 Australian not-for-profits and schools and has had work published by Crikey, the Herald Sun, Meld and Beat. Completed the Graduate Diploma of Journalism at RMIT in 2013.