The AFL Women’s competition is already a dream come true for its players. The desire to make something more from something they love had eluded the players until the announcement of the competition in mid-2016.
That was certainly the case for Greater Western Sydney ruckman Louise Stephenson.
But her dream is on hold, for now.
Stephenson suffered an MCL injury to her left knee during the Giants’ practice game against Brisbane and will spend up to the next six weeks on the sidelines, leaving her first AFLW campaign in doubt.
— Ant Wingard (@AntWingardFP) January 21, 2017
She was one of five Victorians to make the move to Sydney to play for the Giants, but already she has made plenty of sacrifices to pursue her dream.
Prior to her devastating injury, Stephenson told Footy Prophet that as soon she picked up a football, she wanted to be a footballer.
“It’s a dream come true for sure,” she said.
Stephenson was chosen as one of three priority picks for the GWS Giants, making her one of the first female athletes selected by teams for the newly established competition. And in 2014, at just 18, Stephenson played for the Western Bulldogs in the exhibition series against Melbourne.
Stephenson’s journey to the big time started in Bundoora, a northern suburb of Melbourne. She’d often spend her time in the backyard kicking the football with her brother and best friend; trying her best to emulate her favourite player – Matthew Richardson, for whom she still wears number 12 like a badge of honour.
A career as a footballer seemed dormant. Unlike most football fans in Victoria growing up, Stephenson didn’t participate in Auskick as a child. Not that she didn’t want to of course, she didn’t realise girls were allowed to.
“Looking back now, I would have loved to join in. I didn’t know there was an opportunity because I didn’t see any other girls doing it,” she said.
Instead, Stephenson played soccer, basketball, little athletics and gymnastics as a child, but dismissed them all once she was presented an opportunity to play AFL. Her primary school, St Damien’s, was advertising for a new youth girls football team. And with friends spurring her on, she registered and hasn’t looked back since.
“As soon as I started playing, I gave every other sport up and went full pledged into footy. I really would have loved if I had started earlier and played a bit of footy with the boys.”
Yet as a female footballer, Stephenson wasn’t exempt from the contrived stereotypes that plague high school courtyards. In their eyes, females playing football was something that simply wasn’t worthwhile.
“It became a bit of a laughing stock about the fact that women do play football, just from the boys.
“It was a bit of a challenge. We were the minority and it wasn’t something that was taken too seriously by the community or the AFL at that stage.”
She was adamant that girls in footy would take off, and laughed the ridicule off with an ‘I’ll show them’ attitude.
The growth in women’s football has been enormous thus far, culminating in a 4000-strong crowd at last year’s VWFL Grand Final. Stephenson featured heavily in that game, and she hopes the new AFL Women’s league could soon become a fully-fledged full-time league.
Ahead of the opening round of the inaugural season, the buzz around the AFL’s newest competition is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.