Hawthorn is one club, many teams, including a wheelchair footy and an AFL Blind team. With lots of time to be spent at home over the coming weeks, we thought it was the perfect time for Hawks fans to learn a little bit more about the players that make up these teams. Hawthorn’s Wheelchair and Blind football teams are made possible by the club’s social inclusion partner, Afford, one of Australia’s longest-serving disability service providers.

Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do outside of footy?

I am a mum to a 4-year-old girl and have gone back to university to Sports Science. As I am a stay-at-home-mum, I wanted another activity to keep my mind stimulated and have found that in university study. I was a marketing manager for ten years before I had to stop work.

So, you play wheelchair AFL. What made you pursue AFL and how did you get involved? 

I have a friend who works for Disability Sport and Recreation. They posted a bit of information about the sport. I wasn’t quite sure if I would be able to play because my disability is a bit more minor compared to other people I knew who were also going to play but the league is open to, and includes, everyone so I decided to give it a go and loved it. I was very lucky to get picked up for Hawthorn. I am now headed into my third season in the sport. I joined wheelchair football only three months after surgery in my first season, so I just trained with the team in year one and last season was my first year of playing. 

Can you briefly explain how wheelchair AFL is played and what it means for you to play?

I often describe it as like netball but in a wheelchair and with a footy. It is quite a bit like netball as we play in three zones. A regular AFL handball is deemed a kick and an underarm throw is deemed a handball in our game, we play on a netball court with footy goals at each end. Then all you have to do is add five players from each team to the court, in wheelchairs, and you have wheelchair footy!

Wheelchair sports have a wide range of people who participate, with various stories and challenges. What was your pathway into wheelchair sport and what are some of the challenges you face daily and in sport?

Almost eleven years ago I hurt my back at work which resulted in nerve damage down my leg. This means I can’t control my left foot properly and have to wear a brace, so I don’t drag my foot, and fall over my foot.

I am not too affected when I am in the chair. The bigger challenge for me is the rods and screws that are in my back. They limit my ability to bend down to pick up the footy off the ground. 

What do you love the most about Wheelchair AFL?

It’s a bit hard to describe, but the thing I love the most is being around people who don’t judge you for your injury or disability. A lot of people I used to play sport with before my injury used to know me as Jo the swimmer, but that changed to Jo with the back injury and the leg brace. At footy no one cares. Everyone just accepts you for who you are and doesn’t question what’s wrong with you. You’re a whole person not just a disability. I didn’t think my injury would affect me as much as it did, but I love that footy makes me feel so included.

Have you played any other sports? What level?

I was a national level swimmer and played state league water polo, but my injury meant I couldn’t play water polo anymore. I played footy and rep level basketball throughout my school years. I did pretty much everything when I was growing up.

Since my injury, I still swim but not as much as I used to, and I play wheelchair basketball for Kilsyth, wheelchair softball and, of course, wheelchair AFL

Do you have any heroes or people you aspire to be like?

Growing up swimming I always loved Susie O’Neil because she was a butterflier and that was my stroke. I also absolutely loved Dipper growing up. Dipper was my nickname in school footy because I ran through people as he did.

What is your ultimate sporting goal and what is a life goal of yours?

Before I got injured, my ultimate goal was to go to the Sydney Olympics, but I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue in 1998 and missed out. Nowadays, my aim is to keep playing sport and keep active. A life goal, which I would just love to achieve, is to get back into full-time work.

If you could encourage someone with similar challenges to you to try your sport, what would you say to them?

Basically, just give it a go. You are never going to know if you hate or love anything unless you give it a chance. It’s a really supportive environment and a great way to stay active, so just give it a go really.

What does it mean to be drafted to Hawthorn football club?

The biggest thing is I have been a member of Hawthorn for 22 years so to be able to play for the club I have supported my entire life is amazing! I still remember telling my brother that I was playing for Hawthorn and he didn’t believe me at first, but then I showed him the email from the club and he lost his mind that his sister was playing for Hawthorn, so that was pretty cool. I don’t think I could’ve played for any other club I’m that committed to the Hawks.

It is a childhood dream really. I played footy in Year 12 and that was well before women’s footy is as big as it is now, I thought that girls would never play footy for Hawthorn or any other AFL team because that just didn’t happen so it’s amazing playing for the club I love and I would do anything for the club.

What has been the best part about being a member of the Hawthorn family and what are some of the experiences you have had?

I think the best part is how we have been brought into the fold of the club. The acknowledgment from the club that there are people who want to play sport and footy at the highest level but are unable to because of injury or disability, the club has recognised that and has made a huge effort to celebrate us and connect with the community which is just awesome. Things like being invited to the Peter Crimmins medal was really special.

Find out more about Hawthorn’s Social Inclusion Partner Afford by heading to their website.