For nearly three decades (28 years), I have been an active participant in women’s sports (and sometimes men’s sports). Starting at age 8, I had such desire to play soccer. No one in my family had really even heard of it let alone played the game or knew the rules. I clearly remember my first training. I didn’t have cleats (boots) and showed up in a pair of Chuck Taylor Converse tennis shoes. It didn’t matter. I loved the game the first second. I was not a very good player … at first. It took me a couple of years before I really grasped the concepts and mastered the basic skills. But I did, and my abilities continued to improve every week.
All along the way, I had family, friends, teammates, coaches, other parents cheering me on. Empowering me. I didn’t realise this then. I was too focused on trying to be my best, earning starting positions, leading the goal scoring, winning our games. I switched to union rugby at age 16, and immediately excelled at that sport. I made the under 19 national team within my first year of playing, played under 23s, trialed for the women’s sevens program at age 17, played semi pro, and so on and so forth. My competitive spirit took over, and for the following 25 years that was the only aspect I focused on.
It wasn’t until 2018 when my mindset shifted from winning at all costs to teaching skills, using personable skills to empower women, and focus on the aspects of sport that make outstanding people – not the focus that winning is the only important part of sports. I switched from rugby union to footy in 2013 and didn’t have much to do with the operations until 2018. Our team went through a major change, and I assumed team operations. Our player list was decimated. We couldn’t keep new players because of team atmosphere and attitudes, and something needed to change.
That was the moment I realised that there won’t be a way to win any games if we can’t even field a team. That year we brought close to 20 brand-new women to our annual USAFL national tournament. Many of them didn’t even have a game under their belts until that tournament. But through connections, positive attitudes, empowerment, and hard work, our team performed better than most expected. We knocked off the projected national champions in the first game. We overcame a 10-point deficit in the second game to win in the last seconds, and we lost by a goal in the third game.
I saw so many changes manifest in these women, some who never played team sports in their lives. They dropped weight, got in shape, improved their self images, gained confidence, changed their lifestyles, made friends, found purpose.
From there I saw an opportunity to expand this movement of women empowering women through sport—specifically Australian rules football. In 2019, my mom, my sister, a couple of close friends, and I decided to start our own women’s team. Our focus would be strictly on the women’s game and growing the sport locally. Within the first year (which unfortunately took place during a 100-year global pandemic), we welcomed 40 women to the club—and some men at times—secured a coaching staff, brought in $15,000 USD in sponsorship, and came onto the USA footy scene in roaring fashion, which by the way is very fitting seeing how we named ourselves the Centennial Tigers.
I was shocked at how many local and international businesses got behind us. But I think it was all perspective. What I saw as a group of women playing an obscure sport, others saw as a revolutionary concept to empower women of all ages. And they wanted the be a part of it.
The evolution of women in sport has drastically changed even in the past 20 years. When I was in high school in 1999, the girls were forced to play sports separate from the boys. I will tell you it is not fun to play gridiron football with five total women or sit there on the sideline and watch the boys play. It was frustrating. In elementary school, I was the only girl playing soccer with the boys at recess. In middle school I’d play tackle football with the boys at lunch. In high school and in college, I would train with boys teams to improve my skills. And in footy I would train with the local men’s teams. Being told I couldn’t play with the boys simply because I was born with different anatomy was upsetting. I can’t even imagine the anger and disappointment so many women before me experienced when it wasn’t acceptable to play certain sports.
As I learn the history of footy in Australia and how, for the most part, girls played coed footy until puberty then were told “no more,” it really shocked me. We’re in the 21st century and still witnessing the bias of what women (and men) should or shouldn’t do. Seeing the birth of the AFLW and watching the women’s skills change overnight has been so inspiring. It’s like what the Centennial Tigers are going through a similar transformation but on a much smaller scale.
Organisations like The Footy Factory are making a difference in so many girls’ and women’s life locally and abroad. They see the value of what sports can do for women, and they want to be a part of it. What I’ve learned about myself and the other girls and women in my life the past several years is to never be afraid to try something new; be a good teammate and raise each other up; and try to be a part of the greater good (whether through sports or other aspects of your life). You will find yourself to be a happier, more-complete version of yourself, and you will make a positive difference in others’ lives.
Be the change you want to see in the world.
- Sara Rohner, Founder and President of the Centennial Tigers Australian Rules Football Club (Centennial, Colorado, USA)