On Friday morning, 100 women and men gathered around decorated tables in a decorated ballroom to listen to three decorated female sports stars open up about ‘the moment they knew’ their lives had changed forever. The event was held by Future Women and the ICC T20 World Cup in Sydney’s CBD; the sports stars were cricketer Alyssa Healy, Collingwood Magpies AFLW player and retired netballer Sharni Layton, and para-triathlon world champion Lauren Parker; and the answers we expected to receive are the answers sports stars are so good at giving. Vulnerable but guarded, scripted enough to seem off the cuff. The type of answers that appear to say so much, but upon second listen, say nothing at all.
They were not the answers we heard on Friday morning.
When an audience member asked the three panellists what women sports stars could teach male professional athletes, Healy jumped to her microphone: “How to not be a dickhead!” The room erupted with laughter and applause and Layton responded with “I love this chick”. Healy continued: “I feel really lucky that I grew up in the generation I did. We had to fight for a lot of stuff, it wasn’t just handed to us. And so, to go out on a night on the piss and throw everything away is just ridiculous to me.” As women’s sport grows in both popularity and scrutiny, Healy believes female sports stars will not be free of scandals, “but I think we’re more realistic as people about what we’re throwing away. And that’s something hopefully they [male athletes] can learn.”
Layton believes professional codes like the AFL and NRL – particularly, the men’s leagues – have “gone too far and too professional” that the players are no longer able to have lives. “These athletes, they don’t have life balance,” Layton said. The former Australian Diamonds captain said sports leagues need to “come back a bit” and allow players to live their lives so that they can appreciate life in a holistic sense, but also gain perspective on the game. “I try to tell [this to] the AFLW girls, which is just so funny, because they’re like, ‘We want to be full-time professionals’ and I’m like, ‘Noooooo. Don’t do it.’ Because the thing I love most about football is playing part time because you get your life and sport as well. So yes, [women] do need more money to be able to support that training and to recover, but to be able to work and have a life outside of that is, holistically, so much better for you as a human being – and that’s what the male athletes lack at the moment. Just that life perspective.”
The inequities that appear to be problems holding women in sport back – the lack of funding, the lower pay, the smaller crowds, the coinciding smaller commercial deals – have been flipped on their heads by the women they’re impacting and repositioned as a force for good. A force, maybe, for change. An approach to the game they hope their male counterparts – who are often thrust into stardom around the time they can have their first legal drink – adopt. As the commercial success of the women’s leagues begins to (and should) change for the better, it is a humble mindset and holistic perspective they hope the young women coming through the ranks will maintain.
“To be able to work and have a life outside of that is, holistically, so much better for you as a human being – and that’s what the male athletes lack at the moment. Just that life perspective.”
But you’re probably wondering about ‘the moment I knew’ moments: Healy was a “reluctant athlete” whose love of cricket was driven by a desire to escape problems off the field. She became a professional cricketer, almost by accident. For Layton, “netball chose me” but she was carried by her goal-oriented persona. And after writing down each goal, and achieving every single one of them, she feel “empty”. The success was supposed to mean everything but she felt nothing. After months of regular breakdowns, she was sent to a psychiatrist and discovered she had depression. She soon realised it wasn’t something she couldn’t “fix”, but something she could learn to live with. “It’s not about being fixed. It’s who you are,” she told the crowd. She has since retired from netball, and makes time to give back to herself. Speaking about it honestly is now something that drives her. For Parker, she was a swimmer who became a triathlete who began competing in Ironman championships professionally. While on her final training for the Port Macquarie Ironman on April 18, 2017, she was involved in an accident leaving her paralysed from the waist down. Her entire life changed “in a split second”. She spent six months in hospital, she worked through rehab, she continued to push herself, and she is now a Para-triathlon World Champion. Finding para-triathlons, she said, saved her.
“Always believe in yourself, because if you don’t have that belief in yourself then you won’t reach those goals that you have set,” Parker told the room. “For me, if I hadn’t believed in myself that I could make it, that I could overcome what I’ve overcome, then I wouldn’t have become world champion… It is important for younger kids to know that there is no such thing as ‘can’t’. And to always have that belief in yourself and to never give up on your dreams.” As the room sat in awe, Layton leaned over to Parker and said, “I have a question.” Parker has had a “rougher trot” than “the rest of us”, and no doubt has bad days. How does she get through them?
“I do have those days, and a lot of days that are a struggle. I put it down to the support I have around me, and the amazing team around me, because I wouldn’t be able to do it without them,” Parker said. “It’s hard to start the day and get up in the morning and know that I can’t walk, that I can’t do the things that I used to be able to do. But I just have to get over that. You know there’s nothing I can do about that. I just need to move forward, and just get on with it. But yeah, pretty much every day is a struggle being in a wheelchair. Everyday life is a struggle.”
She has a red feather tattooed on her arm that means strength, vitality and health, and another tattoo that says ‘Forever Strong’ in Maori. “I’ve got a friend who is Maori that gave me those words the week I had my accident and they really meant a lot to Brad and I… I got them tattooed on my arm as a reminder to always have that belief in myself, and you know, that gives me strength. And when I’m in a race or having a down day, I can just look at my arm and get that reassurance to be strong and that helps me every time in every circumstance.”
As the panel discussion came to its end, the three women had discussed their most vulnerable moments, their advice to younger women, their hopes for the future of sport. Healy had laughed at Layton’s “cute” enthusiasm for her upcoming wedding, warning her it gets worse but “It’s a beautiful day…” After listening to Parker’s grueling 7 day a week training schedule, Layton and Healy started “to feel like I’m not an athlete”. They had learned as much about each other, as we had learned about each one of them. “When I was growing up, sports people were put on a pedestal, so I am loving sick sitting in the middle of these two incredibly, authentic, genuine human beings who are being completely themselves today,” said Layton. “Because I remember watching the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games or whatever it was and you’d get all the cliche answers and I was like, ‘I am never going to fit into that world’… Now, whenever I go out into the community and see kids, I say, ‘I am still a human just like you. If you work your ass off, you can be what I have done too.’ So it doesn’t matter who you are, what your personality is, what your values are – actually, values do come into it because you need to train hard – but it’s about embracing who you are as a human.” And as young women around the country can now see these honest women, and believe they can one day be them, I was reminded of another phrase as well. It was one comedian Dave Chappelle once told Oprah: “Success takes you where character cannot sustain you.” These women have had the time to build their characters before the public eye caught sight of them. And this morning, it appeared they still had character in spades.
Hopefully, young women can hold onto that.
The T20 World Cup is aiming to break the 20-year attendance record for a women’s sporting fixture, by getting over 90,000 people to the MCG for the final in March. Purchase your tickets and support the movement here.
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