Julia Chiera is the President of the Darebin Womens Sports Club, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. This is a huge achievement for a club that primarily represents and encourages women to participate in male-dominated sports, such as Australian football, soccer and cricket. Julia started playing AFL in 2010 and has not looked back since, a stark contract to being encouraged to play more ‘girly’ sports when she was a child.
When and what motivated you to first get involved with the Darebin Falcons?
I first turned up at a football training session in January of 2010 as a 27 year old. I had played a couple of games of football at age 7, but my parents took me out and put me in a more girly sport, tennis. To be fair to them, I was fairly gung-ho and the only girl in the team and I think they were worried I was going to get my head ripped off. It took me many years to shed the shame associated with that incident, that is, that I wasn’t a proper “girl” and should have been aspiring to be one. I ended up living in Thornbury in my mid-20s and came across the club, but it still took me a couple of years to get to a training session. I knew nothing about the world of women’s football, that the Falcons had won the preceding 4 grand finals, that they were an all women’s club with female coaches (a rarity!) and that they had taken it upon themselves to professionalise the sport. I joined them by chance, and it has changed my life.
After that first training session I was hooked and I’ve probably only missed a handful ever since. I had never met a group of women like the Falcons before in my entire life. They were down-to-earth, tough on field, sensitive off it, encouraging, fun and supportive. They weren’t bitchy or catty and they genuinely liked being around one another. Being in a group of 50 women who behave in that way is pretty rare.
I also had certainly underestimated how challenging Australian Rules Football was going to be. It’s a game of endurance, technical skill, strategy, communication and team work. I had some skill, but the rest was a foreign language. I felt incredibly challenged by the game and still do, but it was a fun challenge in a supportive environment, and that kept me coming back as well.
How has your involvement changed over time?
I played in the Reserves the first year and somehow snuck into the Seniors thereafter I’m having a rest from playing this year but will continue my committee responsibilities. I joined the committee after my first year playing as a general member, became Secretary in November 2012, then President in November 2013. None of these appointments have been particularly planned! I’ve just seen a job that needed doing and put my hand up to do it.
It’s fairly unusual that a football club has a playing President, but relatively common in women’s footy. It has plenty of challenges, as you are wearing many hats at the one time, but I’m surrounded by passionate Falcons who are striving for the same things, so that makes it easier. We’re still a grassroots club so the Presidential role is wide-ranging and a bit of a catch-all. There is plenty of administration and planning that I won’t bore you with, lots of negotiation between our wide array of stakeholders and then pretty simple stuff like picking up toilet paper on the way to the club.
THE WOMEN WHO PLAY HARD: JULIA CHIERA
The club is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2015. That is a HUGE achievement for a women only, grassroots club that focuses on AFL (Australian football) soccer, cricket and 8Ball. How is it that the Falcons have managed to first survive and secondly thrive in such a male-dominated domain?
If you can imagine the type of women who would start a women’s football club in 1990, they were pretty tough, on and off field, and stuck to their guns. They also existed in a time when they could proudly say that they were a feminist organisation without it being a mark against them.
That core group of women made sure that they made strategic decisions based on their values of equality, mutual support and respect. In the late 1990s they were wise enough to diversify the club from just football to include soccer as well, then Cricket and 8ball. Each code has gone through periods of fluctuating success so they have been able to keep the club afloat as a whole and buffer one another; economy of scale and all that. Some women’s footy clubs pop up with just one team and they, unfortunately, can fold after 1 or 2 seasons if the couple of volunteers who do everything walk away. Right now we are big enough to withstand a few people and players moving on.
We are also making a concerted effort at the moment to steer away from the usual revenue-raisers for football clubs, i.e. alcohol and pokies. We have an enormous junior program, and are endeavouring to position ourselves as both a sporting club and a health promotion organisation that parents are happy to let their girls grow up in and amongst. This is a challenge but one we are meeting at the moment as we continue to be more creative about how we raise the funds to keep us going, whilst keeping our fees reasonably low and accessible. We’re still adhering to those values established in 1990 and that keeps our culture thriving, even whilst our members move on.
What have been your personal highlights with the Falcons over the years?
I should say the winning Premierships I have been fortunate enough to play in. There is certainly nothing like the feeling of pure exhilaration, relief and love for your fellow teammates when that final siren sounds.
But really the things I carry with me are the little moments of joy that have peppered my 5 years at the club, on field and off. Our home ground is nestled in a quiet, leafy pocket along the Merri Creek, so I’ve had many moments after a stressful work-day where I get to train with my teammates on a lovely Melbourne evening and life feels suddenly easy.
A lot of the girls and women at the club would be considered “misfits” in the wider world, but in the club there is a place for them. The camaraderie on field and off field as a member of the Falcon community is something I cherish. That is a constant highlight for me.
Photo credit: Falcons Facebook