Louise Stephenson: a woman of great courage

This article was first written for and published by Siren Sport

GWS Giants utility Louise Stephenson is a woman of great courage.

Stephenson is preparing for her fifth year representing the GWS Giants in the AFLW and is hoping to take the field from round three onwards. While Stephenson, just like her teammates, loves playing footy, right now playing AFLW is not a full-time professional job. For Stephenson and her teammates, that means juggling footy training and all other footy commitments with other parts of life including study, family and employment.

Most women who pursue a career as an elite athlete, do so with the knowledge that they will not be paid as full-time professional athletes, but do so anyway. They do it because they love it and often make tremendous sacrifices for this love of their sport. For me, that is the very definition of courage.

For Stephenson, not only is she dreaming of the day when playing in the AFLW is a full-time job, but after an intensive 14 weeks, she has also recently been promoted to a Firefighter at Fire and Rescue NSW. This is a job which also takes tremendous courage and compassion as we saw last year during the devastating bushfires which wreaked havoc across the country and particularly NSW.

Footy has always been Stephenson’s number one priority, so it was certainly a change to focus intensively on her career for 14 weeks.

“I wanted to make sure I had  accomplished my promotion before pre-season,” said Stephenson.

“Usually it’s just footy, footy, footy and everything else fits around that, but it has been different this year.”

Her commitment to Fire and Rescue NSW has also been a welcome distraction. Given the changing situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been a pre-season for the AFLW teams like no other. Stephenson has not seen her teammates since last December and this has been challenging, given this is usually the time when the team reconnects after six months of being apart.

This pre-season has also had extra significance, given that for many of the players competing in the AFLW this year, the round one games will have been their first opportunity to play footy  in over a year. After the 2020 season finished early due to COVID-19, the lockdown in Melbourne also prevented the VFLW season taking place so there is tremendous excitement about this season from players and fans alike.

Photo supplied by GWS Giants.

For each of the AFLW teams, the pandemic resulted in unique challenges. But for the Giants, the memory of one special woman has brought a beautiful closeness to the squad.

Each time the Giants take the field this AFLW season, the memory of Jacinda Barclay will never be far away. Barclay was a larger than life woman who dedicated her life to sport, playing elite baseball, American football and AFLW. Tragically, Barclay died at the end of last year and her loss was felt deeply not just by the AFLW family but the international sporting family too.

“It was a pretty awful time for everyone,” said Stephenson.

“It brings you together and shows you what is important in life. We all learnt a lot in the most tragic of circumstances.

“She was so big in the sporting world and in women’s sport in particular, it was hard for all of us.”

While the dedication that our female athletes have to their sports is something that inspires us all, we must never forget the pressure it can place on these athletes; to manage their finances, their mental health and the rest of their lives.

This is something that is a focus at the Giants.

“Footy has always been my number one priority and I have always tried to get part time work where I can leave at 3pm to get to the footy field on time,” said Stephenson.

“It’s a conversation we are always having with our younger players; we love AFLW and it is a brilliant sport to be part of, but you have to make sure that you are looking at other study and career options that will help you in the future.

“We aren’t sure when this will become a full-time professional career.”

That sense of uncertainty is one of the reasons that Stephenson chose a career in fire and rescue. It is a career option that she can pursue at the same time as her footy.

It comes as no surprise that she is not the first elite female athlete to pursue this path given the days off and the flexibility allowed by the role; in fact Stephenson’s first shift was alongside former Australian Jillaroos captain Ruan Sims.

“We were driving past rugby 7s training and she was telling me stories about the World Cup,” said Stephenson.

“It’s incredible that we were sharing those stories about our experiences as athletes, whilst at the same time doing our job as firefighters.”

It’s women like Stephenson that are changing the game, one person at a time so that one day we live in a world where pursuing a career as a professional female athlete does not require quite as much courage.