Hockeyroo legend to footy lover: Nanscawen's joy of becoming inaugural Bomber

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Arnell hopeful of rapid AFLW professionalisation (0:47)

Former Brisbane and Carlton player Lauren Arnell says she's hopeful the AFLW will soon attract more money and staff as the league hurtles towards professionalisation. (0:47)

Georgia Nanscawen, an Olympian-turned footy star, made history this March by becoming the inaugural AFLW signing for expansion club Essendon. For the club, it's something that's been 150 years in the making. And for Nanscawen herself, it's been quite a journey to get here.

The 29-year-old has spent the majority of her sporting career with a hockey stick in hand, not a Sherrin; at 16, she was signed to the national hockey team and played her first game for Australia the day after turning 17.

She was the youngest Australian to register 100, then 150, caps for her country and has proudly represented the green and gold at the Olympics - one of her finest achievements.

However, the former Hockeyroo put down the stick in 2017 after losing some of the love of the sport.

"I'd been going since sort of the age of 16 pretty full on and I just got to the point where I actually wasn't enjoying it as much as I used to," Nanscawen tells ESPN. "I'd always been told to do something because you love it and I sort of came to the realisation that I actually wasn't particularly happy doing that anymore."

The transition, she notes, was a scary one.

As she'd been a sportsperson for 10 years of her life, it became part of her identity, and choosing to step away from that wasn't an easy decision.

"I guess I wanted to sort of play sport for the love of sport again," she says.

Which is what led her to footy.

Despite enjoying kicking a football around as a kid, in that time "those opportunities weren't around for girls". But now, after a successful hockey career, which she "doesn't regret one bit", she saw playing footy as a second opportunity to do something a bit different.

While playing in a local district in Perth in 2017, she got a message from the North Melbourne AFLW recruiter asking if she would be interested in coming to play at Arden Street.

"It was kind of like, 'why not', let's give this a go," she says. And her bags were packed for a move back to Melbourne.

However, after playing one season for the Kangaroos in 2019, she was delisted. She notes this "wasn't a big surprise". She'd only played a handful of games, was quite fresh to the sport and was in a team that was "extremely strong". But she'd well and truly caught the footy bug and wanted to keep playing - even if only for the fun of it.

"My mindset changed a little bit from 'I have to be competing at the highest level [and] I have to be doing everything' to 'let's just enjoy it and have fun playing sport'."

This landed Nanscawen at Essendon's VFLW program after she was put in touch with their coach Brendon Major by fellow Bombers teammate Courtney Ugle.

Here, the club helped to craft her footy. At the Roos she was played as a small forward, but at The Hangar she got to try an inside midfield role -- where she flourished and is now a mainstay. She attributes the VFLW coaching staff, including Major, Wayne Schultz and Natasha Hardy to helping her get both tactically and technically better.

And it's a role she's clearly excelling in. Her first season culminated with 2019 VFLW Team of the Year selection and a club best and fairest award.

In 2021, she captained the the Bombers, won the league's highest individual honour, the Lambert-Pearce Medal, and was named the captain of the team of the year squad. And this year, she's co-captain with Mia-Rae Clifford and reached the 50-game milestone earlier in March.

Given this rise, other clubs began showed interest. In her breakout 2019 year, some AFLW clubs came calling but Nanscawen decided not to nominate for the draft. She was just "really happy at Essendon".

"At that point in time, my mindset was very like 'well, I finally found somewhere I'm really happy. I don't think I need to change that'. Yeah, I could potentially get an opportunity to go back and play at the highest level, but I'm almost more prioritising a place that I know I'm feeling good and feeling happy," she explains.

Then, COVID hit and footy was off the cards for an entire year. Nanscawen was keen to get back to playing the game and the quickest opportunity for that would have been AFLW, so this time, she nominated for the 2020 draft. However, a combination of the cancelled AFLW season and uncertainty around Nanswawen as clubs hadn't seen her play for another year meant she was overlooked.

"There was that initial rejection and disappointment... but it was kind of like, okay well, I get to stay where I know that I'm happy," she says, claiming that the rejection spurred her on even more and made her focus even further on developing her footy at a club that became her home.

So, when 2021 rolled around, she decided to shun the draft again to stay put in the red and black - especially as Essendon's licence for an AFLW team had been granted and they would be coming into the league with four other expansion sides the following season.

"It was a pretty clear answer in my mind and in that I didn't really want to [nominate again for the draft]," she says. "I sort of had the conversation with Brendan Major and said the fear wasn't being rejected again - that's not the problem. The fear is going somewhere that I then don't feel happy ... and I'd prefer to stay at Essendon and continue to do what I'm doing [there].

"I love the group that's developing there and love the program that's in place, so why do I need to go elsewhere? There is where I feel like I should be."

It was a decision that on reflection is working out well, with Nanscawen asked to be the first player signed to Essendon's AFLW list.

"It's such a proud club and to be starting this new chapter and to then be the first to be part of this chapter is yeah, really really special and quite a huge honour," she says.

"I think a lot of my personal values align quite closely with the club values, which again, confirms you're in the right place."

There'll be a quick turnaround time for her finishing the VFLW season and then heading into AFLW land if a potential August season start date is confirmed.

But as to how that's managed, Nanscawen says the necessary conversations will be had to make things work. For example, if Essendon qualify for the VFLW finals, the series would be played in June - the same time preseason may start in the AFLW.

"There's going to be a lot of changes that we just have to be flexible with it," she says. "And I think what COVID has taught us is that you just appreciate while you're still playing and enjoy it and yeah, you just go along with it."

And for Nanscawen, one of the most important parts of Essendon's upcoming inclusion into the league is that everyone now gets to be included.

"It's such an exciting time: individually but more so the club," she says.

"I think a lot of people who are Bombers supporters and haven't had a team to support in the AFLW now feel really included - which is lovely.

"There are so many people who are like 'now it's all happening' and it's quite special."