Aussie rules help Denver girls find their inner strength and confidence
School was not a happy place for Sara Edwards Rohner.
“I was bullied callously throughout my teenage years and my teenage years,” 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 very quiet and sensitive child and it was difficult for me to strike up conversations,” she revealed.
On Sunday evening, she was tormented with dread at the thought of the coming week. His executioners were relentless. She remembers a classmate pouring water on her head on a freezing day.
“It was like I had nothing to look forward to,” Edwards Rohner said.
Then, as a high school student in 2002, she discovered women’s rugby, a tough sport that combines soccer with the ball-handling skills of soccer. It was an event that changed her life so much that Edwards Rohner can remember the exact date she first stepped onto the pitch – or the pitch, as it’s known.
“That’s when I realized how strong I was physically and mentally. I wasn’t wearing any padding or protection and I was taunting people and they were taunting me,” shared Edwards Rohner, who is 5-foot-5. “The sport released this inner strength and confidence that I didn’t know was there. I had.”
The other players accepted it without hesitation.
“Everything has improved. I made a bunch of friends and 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-professional rugby.
Now Edwards Rohner pays it forward. Last year, she introduced Australian rules football, or footy, to Girls Athletic Leadership Schools (GALS), a charter school in Denver serving middle and high school students.
Football, like rugby, is full contact without pads. Edwards Rohner, who has competed internationally, described it as a mix of soccer, basketball, volleyball and ultimate Frisbee.
“He has the structure of football with defensive, midfield and attacking lines and the full contact, padless tackle that you find in rugby,” Edwards Rohner said when she was interviewed by a local newspaper in 2019. “It requires kicking like football but carrying the ball in the hands like rugby. score.”
An instant hit
Just as Edwards Rohner predicted, GALS students were eager to try soccer. Over 120 girls showed up on the first day to see what it was all about. Then they kept coming.
“Australian rules football is huge in Australia – it’s like the NFL,” she said. “But here in the United States, it is something obscure. All the girls start at square one.
Edwards Rohner said that was part of the appeal.
“With football you have kids who have been playing since they were 3 years old, but with Aussie rules everyone is a beginner,” she said. “Nobody knows what they are doing.”
She added that soccer is one of the most body-inclusive sports.
“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 seventh grader at GALS, said she hoped Aussie Rules football would start to pick up steam in the United States. She appreciates the emphasis on sportsmanship and camaraderie.
“It’s a real team sport and I really like that we started our journey at the same time,” 12-year-old Naomi told TODAY.
Naomi hopes to take part in the summer program that Edwards Rohner runs with former Australian footballer Daniel “Dannie” Seow. Seow is also a football coach at GALS.
“It’s definitely been a confidence boost for her,” Naomi’s mother, Virginia Castleberry, told TODAY.
Edwards Rohner and Seow are introducing Aussie Rules football to other schools in Colorado.
“We are not paid for this. I have a full time job. It’s pure love for the sport,” Edwards Rohner said. “I can’t think of anything better than helping young girls find their inner strength.”