Having a spinal cord defect hasn’t stopped Alex Gale-Grime from becoming the first woman to be drafted to the Hawthorn Hawks for the Victorian Wheelchair Football League (VWFL).
She was just one of two women in the newly formed team, as part of the first mixed gender Draft Combine, which tested 32 Victorian athletes.
Alex described herself as “pretty nervous” before her debut match against Richmond, in the season opener of the inaugural Robert Rose Foundation VWFL season last Sunday.
“It was very daunting when you’re on the court and there’s a lot of skilled guys around who are a lot taller,” she said.
Video: Caroline Tung
Although AFL Wheelchair has existed for the past three years, the past three months saw the VWFL dream become a reality through a close partnership between AFL Victoria and Disability Sport and Recreation (DSR).
The adapted version of traditional Australian rules football provides disabled players a chance to compete in an officially recognised league while being managed and receiving support from DSR.
Alex said participating in wheelchair football enabled her to make new friends, have fun, and show people that she can still enjoy life as a disabled person.
“It’s good to try out a new sport, especially a team sport because you get to meet a whole new lot of people, and you gain a lot more skill in your wheelchair,” she said.
It’s still early days, and Alex said it’s “fun” getting to know fellow players and becoming familiar with their sporting abilities.
“You always don’t know what to expect from the other team,” she said.
“I felt like (the Richmond team) had a bit more chair skills going on.
“They had some pro basketballers on the team so, we’re coming from not much.”
Alex was born with spina bifida, where spinal chord formation is incomplete, leaving the nerves exposed.
At almost 26 years old, she began her sporting journey with DSR more than 15 years ago.
Football is the latest addition to her line-up of wheelchair sports. Alex began participating in sports as a child with a wheelchair program for kids, and participating in wheelchair sports camps.
Her personal football journey is “incredibly short” compared to eight years of basketball followed by years of handcycling with DSR’s Cycle Power.
“(Football) happened very quickly,” she says. “ It was very sudden.”
Alex decided to “give (the game) a go” after being encouraged by members of her Cycle Power Sri Lanka team earlier this year, two of whom were wheelchair footballers.
“I went down to the skills training a few weeks ago to learn the game,” she said.
“The week after, we did the (VFWL) Draft Combine, so we got professionally tested for all these different skills and times, and then the next day, I got drafted.”
In two training sessions, and with no prior experience playing football, Alex began training alongside a team of mostly males to improve agility skills.
Sessions include racing up and down the basketball court and going through cones for warm ups, handballing drills and learning positions through mock up games.
“I just really want to get out there and challenge myself with a new sport, see if I can handball a few goals, that would be nice,” Alex said.
Although a beginner herself, Alex encourages aspiring young footballers with a disability to pick up a ball and try out the game.
“Buy a football, start handballing,” she said.
The Basics — Some VWFL Rules…• The game is played between two teams of five, and follows the same scoring system as traditional AFL, six points for a goal and one point for a behind.• No kicking is allowed. A handpass is equal to a kick, and an underarm throw counts as a handpass.• Each game is 40 minutes, divided into 10-minute quarters.• Assigned players stay within their designated zones (forward, centre and defence). Players wear coloured armbands to identify their position on the court.• Remaining rules are similar to traditional AFL rules.