A Ballarat mother of two is gearing up for her first international flight to play American football.
Sarah Stephens is set to represent Australia in Finland as part of the Women’s Outback team
The team will face off against Canada first in the Women’s Football World Championships
Stephens and national gridiron coach Len Lawlor are encouraging more women to get involved in the sport
Sarah Stephens, 32. said she remembered watching gridiron on TV about five years ago and having “minimal interest”.
“I didn’t even know any rules,” she said.
But with persistent encouragement from her former partner – a gridiron player and enthusiast – Stephens decided to take up the sport.
“I thought, ‘what’s the worst that could happen if I give it a go?'” she said.
The Department of Justice worker quickly discovered she was a natural at the fast-paced game and played a season for the Ballarat Kestrels in 2018.
She represented Victoria at the Australian Gridiron Championships in Perth during the same year.
Stephens then pulled on the navy blue and aqua jersey for the Geelong Buccaneers in 2019.
As was the case with most sports, the 2020 gridiron season was halted due to COVID-19.
Despite the unexpected hiatus, Stephens – who prefers to play defence – has this year reached new heights as a player.
She participated in sessions with a small team of other women in Reservoir, Melbourne, under Gridiron Australia’s elite pathway program.
The team trained together every week in the hope of being selected for the Australian National Women’s Gridiron Team, dubbed Women’s Outback.
“We had to do regular training, send in film of us doing drills every week to have the opportunity,” Stephens said.
In May, she was one of 45 women from across the country picked for Women’s Outback.
“I can’t put it into words,” Stephens said.
Countdown to Finland
Stephens and her teammates will unite for the first time on July 21 for a five-day training camp in Sydney before they fly to Finland.
Women’s Outback will play three games over the 11-day knock-out tournament in Vantaa, near Helsinki.
Their first opponent will be Canada.
Women’s Outback offensive line coach, Len Lawlor, said he expected a “super hectic” schedule.
“There are no days off for us to go out and go sight-seeing,” he said.
Lawlor said he had “realistic” expectations given the high calibre of the eight other international teams.
“What we define as success will need to be something different against some of those big nations such as Canada,” he said.
“But we’re ranked ahead of Germany, so the expectation is if we end up playing them in the last game we’d win that game.
‘All shapes and sizes’
Stephens and Lawlor agreed that gridiron was a great sport for women to get involved in.
“It doesn’t matter what your body size is — whether you’re a size zero or a size 20, they’re a position for everybody,” Stephens said.
“That’s the same for your fitness level.
Lawlor said there was “a lot of competition” from AFLW and soccer, but American football was a “unique offering”.
“We’re hoping the tournament will spark interest in [more women] playing,” he said.