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A league of their own

Erica Fowler doesn’t do things by halves. She rucks for the most famous AFL club in the country. She performs one of the most demanding jobs in our society. A former Rugby 7s player, the Queenslander packed her bags and relocated her life to a state where Australian Rules is something akin to an obsession.

Like so many other AFL Women’s (AFLW) players, she is a late bloomer and only a recent convert to the sport. But her rugby grounding was significant. She brought the aggression and athleticism the game demands. Standing 1.8m tall, she brought much-needed height. And, as a paramedic, she brought the ability to handle complex and high-pressure situations.

Fowler has certainly done it the hard way. Last year, she regularly commuted from Brisbane to Melbourne to play in the Victorian Women’s Football League (VFLW) competition. She earned a spot on the 2019 AFLW list after the Pies lost Chloe Molloy to a foot injury. From the get-go, she’s been a sponge – constantly learning and improving, the sort of footballer coaches love.

“I’ve taken every opportunity that has been presented to help further my development,” Fowler says. “I’m continually asking questions, practising my skills and seeking feedback to ensure I’m accountable for my own performance and that I’m having a positive impact within the team.”

Being at Collingwood helps. Sure, the Pies have not set the competition on fire this year. But they’ve cultivated a highly professional and supportive environment, one befitting perhaps the most passionately supported sporting organisation in the land. For someone relatively new to the game, she couldn’t be in better hands. “The Collingwood AFLW program, and the AFLW as a whole, is one of the best experiences I have had in sport,” she says. “And the level of professionalism displayed by our club and the league is only going to grow.”

Suffice to say, Fowler has more on her plate than most. Like so many high achievers, she admits that she’s an overthinker, particularly when it comes to her sporting career. “For me, in the small period of rest I do get, my brain switches straight back to footy – analysing a game, training performances and areas of improvement.”

It’s a dilemma faced by elite sportspeople everywhere, and one that is exacerbated by today’s hyper-connected and fast-paced world. It’s why football clubs are increasingly utilising mindfulness experts and encouraging their players to meditate and practise yoga. Indeed, Fowler emphasises the importance of switching off, taking stock and avoiding overstimulation.

“To me, the biggest challenge of balancing work and football is ensuring I give myself a mental break,” she says. “As a paramedic, I am also continually on the go – thinking, moving and doing things.

“My quick escape has always been through music. When I was younger, it was through playing my cello or guitar but these days I just pop my earphones in, listening to mostly country tunes.”

Even so, she admitted to a few nerves prior to her debut game against the Cats at their homeground in Geelong. Though the Pies were beaten in a heart-stopper, she acquitted herself well and has held her form in subsequent weeks. In a competition where the standard of play continues to improve, Fowler is one of a new cohort of stars bringing their unique skill sets to the league. And as someone relatively new to the game, she’s uniquely placed to comment on where the league is at, and what the future may bring.

“I definitely see the speed, skills and physicality of the game increasing,” she says. “Right now, the AFLW has set a standard both on and off the field – a standard that’s being filtered down to the grassroots level. Future players transitioning into the AFLW will be stronger and bring a different set of knowledge and skills to the game.”

In so many ways, footballers like Fowler are sporting pioneers. They have all trod infinitely more unusual paths than their male counterparts. (When we look back in decades’ time, we may be astounded that a twenty-something who saved lives by day was by night plucking marks for the Collingwood Football Club.) In doing so, these players have already captured the imagination of a generation of young girls – girls who, in the past, may have had their footy pathways scuppered.

The term “role model” is sometimes thrown around too loosely in elite sport. But to sit in the stands at an AFLW match is to witness a sporting revolution – one that has as much meaning for the players as it does for the young girls enamoured with them.

“I had a young girl tell me that when she grows up, she wants to be a paramedic and play in the AFL,” Fowler says. “It’s so humbling to see the positive impact we as a playing group can have off the field. It demonstrates the importance of what we’re trying to create and the positive influences we can have within society.”

Erica Fowler was one of four Collingwood AFLW players to have been immortalised in art on two new street murals commissioned by CGU Insurance. The artwork was created to celebrate the women's sport and shine the spotlight on the ambitious women that play professional AFL, many of whom also work second jobs.

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