Chyloe Kurdas: Terrific women can really play a strong role in football

At five-years-old Chyloe Kurdas knew she would never get to play professional football; she knew that door was closed to her. But she has worked, instead, to make sure that door will never be closed for any other five-year-old girl, and her dedicated efforts will reap their rewards next year with the opening bounce of the new national women's AFL competition.

Joining AFL Victoria 10 years ago, Kurdas was given the role of growing grassroots participation in women's football as well as developing a high-performance program and a high-performance structure. Add her 15 years as a player and coach, eight years on a club board and four years on the women's league board, and she has spent most of her life on her journey to the creation of a professional women's AFL league.

"I always wanted to make sure that that door didn't remain closed for those little five-year-old girls at some point in the future, and I think I've been able to facilitate that by making it all really normal for girls and women to participate in [Aussie rules football] as players," Kurdas told ESPN.

Kurdas' involvement in the growth of grassroots participation has seen he develop football academies throughout Victoria, and there are now more than 300 women's teams in community competitions. Eight academies have been developed to involve more than 500 girls across Victoria.

"The national competition wouldn't be possible if we didn't have a critical mass of players at a grassroots level in Victoria, which is where 50 percent of the talent is going to need to come from," Kurdas said.

"My role has been growing this grassroots participation base and then alongside that I've been growing a high-performance program and high-performance structure to introduce female footballers to high performance footy, build a structure that's going to be sustainable and continue to grow the participation of girls, and develop girls' abilities once they're in the academy."

Kurdas believes the new competition is vital for Australian women in sport, saying "the AFL is one of the most critical sporting organisations in the country and I think one of the most critical change agent's in the country".

"I think its tremendous for women within our game, but I think when the AFL put their hand up and said 'we'll do this', I think a lot of other sports had to go 'geez, we have to be really competitive as well', so they've all really upped the ante and look at what basketball, netball, cricket and now rugby sevens are doing.

"I like to think that our willingness to put our hand up and say we're going to do this has actually helped drive to open more doors for girls in other sports."

It was never going to be easy to build a women's competition in a male-dominated sport, and Kurdas faced many obstacles along the way.

"Certainly early days [there were doubts]," she told ESPN. "At my football club at Melbourne University, we had a few issues trying to access training facilities and playing grounds, accessing change rooms that were appropriate for women and girls. Absolutely back then we had to fight tooth and nail to even borrow a football to train with. Back then I never thought a national competition, when I first started playing football 20 years ago, would happen this quickly.

"Having said that, what I've always found as soon as people see us playing, see the passion and how much we love it and engage, people fall in love with it. It was just a matter of time before we got the right people to fall in love with it. So we knew once we found the right people to fall in love with it, then it would happen.

"Certainly, along the way I definitely thought it would take longer than it has. At times it felt like people were dragging their heels and I always thought 'why are you taking so long to do this?'. But it's certainly the right time now and we all get to celebrate wonderful athletes and also we get to acknowledge the work of a bunch of key women around the country who have been driving this through for a very, very long time."

Kurdas says she isn't jealous of the coming opportunities for young women, accepting that her role was to give them a chance she never had.

"I think when your potential or when a dream of yours is not achievable, when you realise that something you're brilliant at and something you could do great things with, when you realise that door's closed to you, there's a pain that occurs, a residual pain that lingers.

"People have asked me, am I jealous? And I'm not, I really accept my time and place in history, and I feel really wonderful that that little five-year-old girl went through the heartbreak of realising that wasn't going to be a dream she could achieve.

"I feel, for me, watching those women going out there and playing, there's a bit of healing going on, and that little five-year-old girl is somewhat satisfied and somewhat pleased that her pain at missing out has somehow facilitated other girls not having that pain. That in itself is somewhat comforting for that little five-year-old girl and also for me where I'm at right now; I'm really proud of my contribution to the game and in my role in helping this wonderful experience.

"I don't need to play because so many of those girls have come through my program where I've been involved in their journey in some shape or form; whether it's been keeping them in the game, helping them to fix their kicking, or putting a really great coach in front of them to help them get better. The bit of my work that's reflected in what they do on the field.

"Your playing career is finite, but when you invest in the future of others that's when your legacy is infinite and I feel very proud and very comfortable with my contribution over all."

Kurdas believes the national competition is just the next step in her job, saying there is plenty more to come from women in football.

"Putting 200 and then eventually 400 or 600 of the most talented and promising female athletes in the country, across all sports, putting them into those AFL clubs is the next step.

Kurdas believes the AFL clubs will be surprised at the ability of the young women "in so many different facets of life, and they have so much more than their playing abilities to offer".

"They'll see that when you invest in their understanding of the game these women don't only want to play it; they want to lead it, coach it, facilitate it and lead the organisation and the industry, and not just only in female football. We have some terrific women and we have amazing leaders and future leaders who could really play a strong role in male football and other parts of life, in business and government and so on.

"I think what this does is not only open doors for women to play the game, but it also provides an opportunity for women to showcase what else they're great at. Therefore these AFL clubs and the AFL industry as a whole will be able to value them for far more than just their playing abilities, but to also move them into leadership roles or management roles or coaching roles; and they'll absolutely be able to provide support in men's football, and there's no doubt that AFL clubs will discover brilliant coaching minds in our female rank.

"I absolutely have a responsibility ensuring that those doors are open for women and girls in the future, in whatever facet of the game and in life."