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How Australian football is helping Denver girls feel tough, confident and accepted

The sport is a mashup of soccer, basketball, volleyball and Ultimate Frisbee, and every body type is celebrated.
Australian football is helping girls and women in the U.S. to find inner strength and confidence that were there all along.
Australian football is helping girls and women in the U.S. to find inner strength and confidence that were there all along.Courtesy Jay Pascua
/ Source: TODAY

School wasn’t a happy place for Sara Edwards Rohner.

“I was unmercifully bullied throughout my adolescence and into my teens,” Edwards Rohner, now 37, told TODAY Parents.

Edwards Rohner, a writer who lives in Centennial, Colorado, said her shyness made her an easy target. 

“I was a really quiet, sensitive kid and it was hard for me to engage in conversations,” she revealed.

On Sunday evenings, she was plagued with dread at the thought of the week ahead. Her tormentors were relentless. She recalled how one female classmate poured water over her head on a freezing cold day. 

“It felt like I didn’t have anything to look forward to,” Edwards Rohner said. 

Sara Edwards Rohner
Sara Edwards Rohner founded the Centennial Tigers Australian Rules Football Club for female players. The minimum age is 16.Courtesy Sara Edwards Rohner

Then, as a high school junior in 2002, she discovered women’s rugby, a tough-as-nails sport that blends soccer with the ball-handling skills of football. It was such a life-changing event that Edwards Rohner can recall the exact date when she first stepped on the field — or the pitch, as it’s called.

“That’s when I realized how physically and mentally tough I was. I wasn’t wearing any padding or protection and I was tackling people and they were tackling me," Edwards Rohner, who is 5 feet, 5 inches tall, shared. “The sport unlocked this inner strength and confidence that I didn’t know I had.”

The other players accepted her without hesitation. 

“Everything got better. I made a whole slew of friends, and I felt like I could open up and start being myself,” she said, her voice cracking. “I get emotional when I think about it.” 

Edwards Rohner would go on to play semi-pro rugby. 

GALS students in Denver play Australian rules football.
Sara Edwards Rohner introduced Australian rules football to the students at an all-girls charter school in Denver, Colorado.Courtesy Sara Edwards Rohner

Now, Edwards Rohner is paying it forward. Last year, she introduced Australian rules football, or footy, to the Girls Athletic Leadership Schools (GALS), a charter school in Denver that enrolls middle and high schoolers

Footy, like rugby, is full contact without pads. Edwards Rohner, who has competed internationally, described it as a mashup of soccer, basketball, volleyball and Ultimate Frisbee.

"It has the structure of soccer with defensive, midfield and offensive lines and the full-contact tackling without pads found in rugby," Edwards Rohner said when she was interviewed by a local newspaper in 2019. "It requires kicking like in soccer but carrying the ball in your hands like in rugby. It also has some basketball moments like jump balls, in-air contests and high-scoring games."

An instant hit

Just as Edwards Rohner predicted, the students at GALS were eager to try footy. More than 120 girls showed up the first day to see what it was all about. Then they kept coming.

“Australian football is huge in Australia — it’s like the NFL,” she said. “But here in the United States it’s something obscure. All the girls start at square one.”

Edwards Rohner said that’s part of the appeal.

“With soccer, you have kids who’ve been playing since they were 3 years old — but with Australian football, everyone is a beginner,” she said. “Nobody knows what they’re doing.”

She added that footy is one of the most body-type-inclusive sports around.

“You don't need a certain stature to play. There’s a position for everyone, regardless of weight or height,” Edwards Rohner said.

Naomi Peables, a rising seventh grader at GALS, said she hopes Australian rules football will start to gain more momentum in the United States. She appreciates the emphasis on sportsmanship and camaraderie.

Naomi Peables
GALS student Naomi Peables, who excels at volleyball, started playing Australian rules football in sixth grade.Courtesy Sara Edwards Rohner

“It's a real team sport and I really do love that we started our journey at the same time,” Naomi, 12, told TODAY. 

Naomi hopes to participate in the summer program that Edwards Rohner is running with former Australian rules footballer Daniel “Dannie” Seow. Seow also coaches footy at GALS.

“It’s definitely been a confidence boost for her,” Naomi's mother, Virginia Castleberry, told TODAY.

A scrimmage at GALS.
A scrimmage at GALS.Courtesy Sara Edwards Rohner

Edwards Rohner and Seow are in the process of introducing Australian rules football to other schools in Colorado.

“We’re not getting paid for this. I have a full-time job. It’s totally pure love for the sport,” Edwards Rohner said. “I can’t think of anything better than helping young girls find their inner strength.”

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