Akec Makur Chuot vividly remembers the first time she held a Sherrin football in her hands.
“It was very different to the soccer balls I’d grown up playing with and there were challenges with how to bounce the ball. It was strange at first but really exciting to learn different ways to bounce and kick,” she says.
She’d been introduced to this quintessential Australian sport – with Indigenous origins – when her family moved to Perth after spending years growing up in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya after fleeing the conflict in what is today South Sudan.
She’d grown up playing soccer and had big dreams of one day playing that sport at a professional level.
“When I was young, I was a really good soccer player and I wanted to be a soccer star,” says Chout.
But that all changed in high school when she took part in all-girls carnival.
“It wasn’t until I got to Year 10 when I played in my first footy tournament with the East Perth Football Club, which was really cool, and I really enjoyed that day and I think that was the reason I thought I’d switch over to footy,” she says.
But despite her enthusiasm for the sport, her start wasn’t without it’s challenges.
“When I started playing, I wasn’t the best at it and there were a lot of learning of new skills, but when I got picked for the state team in my first year in 2013, I thought to myself that I had a really good opportunity to showcase my natural abilities,” she says.
Prior to the AFL Women’s League being founded in 2016, there any weren’t opportunities for women to play the sport professionally.
For the 26-year-old, playing the sport at an elite level came as a surprise.
“I honestly didn’t see myself playing AFLW. When the league was created it was really exciting and I didn’t think I’d get picked,” she adds.
Akec Makur Chuot also made history herself – by becoming the first woman of African descent to be drafted into the AFLW.
She was picked by the Fremantle Dockers with pick 139 in the inaugural AFLW draft and later moved to Melbourne. She played a few games with Carlton in the VFLW and currently plays for the Richmond Tigers in the VFLW.
The ruck-woman says the sport gives her a sense of belonging.
“When I play Aussie Rules, I feel part of the Australian culture to embrace the new country that I now call home,” she adds.
She recognises that because of her barrier breaking carrier as an athlete, she’s become a role model for many in the South Sudanese Australian community.
“The reception from my community has been really positive – for them to see a woman of an African background can play footy, it’s meant that they can say ‘my daughter can do that!’. I think it’s encouraging my community to step outside the norm and see this is available for everyone,” says Chuot.
And Chout believes that her presence in the league can help break down barriers not just around sexism, but racism as well.
“Obviously, it needs to be a continuous conversation [about racism] and not reactive conversation. I find with a lot of institutions that once an incident has happened, that is when people react, but in order for things to be eliminated, it needs to be an ongoing conversation,” says Chuot.
She’s quick to applaud the AFL’s zero tolerance stance on racism and hopes other sporting codes do the same.
“The more young African girls they see, the more Asian girls they see being represented on a level playing field normalises it. The more [diverse] communities reflected in the AFL, the easier it becomes,” she adds.
As for her own personal ambitions, Akec Makur Chuot says she hopes to encourage more young girls from migrant backgrounds to play the sport.
“I’d love to see a few more girls from multicultural backgrounds, getting into the pathway programs. I’d love to see more African girls having those aspirations,” she adds.
And that’s a goal we’d all like to see kicked.