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Caught In The Spider’s Web – April Lewis (Essendon VFLW)

  • Sunday, March 10 2019 @ 10:06 am ACDT
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“I played both club and school soccer through U17’s. During my youth games, I ran in the mids/forwards and was a natural goal scorer. After exceeding a score limit set by my coach, I was put into goalkeeper, so everyone had an equal opportunity to play.

"During one game, I was so bored in goal, I was cartwheeling, dancing and leg-swinging to the point I got my cleat stuck behind my body in the net of the goal. In attempt to free myself, I also managed to pin both my arms in the net.”

“My mom loves to describe the next part of the story with enthusiasm, because as one might guess, the other team had a sudden chipped ball over the last defender and is then on a breakaway toward me. With a lot of struggle and some miracle, I yanked my body from the net in time to make a diving save. I remember the eruption of parents on the sideline, and the deep scolding I got after the fact.

"The moral of the story, continuing to affect my sporting career, is to stay involved in the play and the closer I am to impacting the ball, the better.”

These are among the first steps April took on route to her Australian Rules football Originally raised in the small city of University Place, Washington, April moved back to Washington in 2016 and settled in Seattle.

When asked how she managed to become involved in Aussie Rules footy, April replied that it was “truly, a stumble-upon story. After moving back to Seattle, one of my first priorities was finding a gym. I had been lifting for almost nine months before one of the personal trainers at the gym approached me.”

“Without any background (and what may have been a poor attempt at a pick-up line), he said that I looked tall and strong. I was really confused. He followed up with a description of AFL, why I would be perfect for the game, and an invite to a metro with the Seattle Grizzlies USAFL team. I had never even heard of the sport. That Saturday (Australia Day 2017), I played with the Grizzlies during their annual USA vs AUS match. I fell in love with the sport on day one.”

From there the journey continued with the Seattle Grizzlies (United States Australian Football League – USAFL and British Columbia Australian Football League - BCAFL) before arriving at the Essendon Football Club in the Victorian Women’s Football League (VFLW).

There were many attributes of the game which appealed to April. “The first day I played AFL, I loved the fact that it required incredible athleticism, endurance, skill and technique. I feel so much passion and intensity on the field. It is the hardest, most competitive, and most fun sport I have ever been a part of. The culture and family around AFL and every club, draws me in. At this point, I can’t even imagine my life without football.”

“After graduating college in 2012, where I was on a full athletic scholarship to run cross-country and track, I thought I had officially retired from elite sport (aged just 22!). That was until I found footy. The transition back to competition has been so exciting. I love to challenge myself and am currently striving for goals bigger than I ever imagined possible (i.e. having the opportunity to be a professional footballer, by being the first American drafted to the AFLW). I enjoy the skills/craft work as much as I enjoy the gym/conditioning required for success in footy.”

Positionally, April is going through a period of adjustment to new roles in a new game. “As other articles have blatantly stated, (at 177cm) I am short for a ruck. In Australia I will be playing other positions.”

“Rucking in the USAFL/BCAFL has taught me several transferable skills including bodywork, tackling, and disposals under the pressure of a contest. Rucking the entire ground has also allowed me improve my overall fitness and athleticism in contests. These are definitely transferable skills that I plan to take into a key position at Essendon - primarily as a half forward, and rotating through key positions in the work line of the ground.”

“At Essendon, I am refining my kicking technique and contested marking since those skills will be crucial for success in the half forward roll.”

Whilst at face value, April is living an exciting dream. But beneath that exterior, April’s sacrifices to play at elite level football have been great. “The transition to Australia (I’ve been in the country just over a month) has been harder. The only way to imagine it is to take a snapshot of all the things one could possibly value in life (family, partner, friends, job, pets, places, possessions). That snapshot is familiarity and comfort. Suddenly and abruptly, all those ‘valuables’ are gone.”

“Football is the only remaining life constant. It’s a damn good thing I love football, and it’s a good thing the football standards in Victoria, and Australia, are so high! The football opportunities, whether it is training with Essendon, going to live events, or just watching (AFLW, AFLX, and soon AFL) has been the highlight of being here so far.”

“Outside of football, there are minor differences in the food and the driving, but I’m adapting without issues.”

April’s take on the game openly highlights the reason’s women worldwide are leaving behind previous sports and lifestyles to play. “The game is very fast pace. It requires the combination of more skill, technique and fitness than any other sport I have ever played. The competitors are fierce and passionate. I love the fact that you can absolutely crunch each other on the field, but after the final siren you also hug the same competitors, because it is a football family. The culture and community surrounding AFL are unique, unlike any other sport. The fact that it’s so inclusive and welcoming cements a place in my heart.”

The future is already mapped out in April’s mind. “In planning for the future, I will spend this season in the VFLW with Essendon. An individual playing goal would then be to gain enough visibility to be drafted into the AFLW competition for 2020. Come October, I’m sure I’ll know more about what the future holds, but my football performance is 100% dictating my life path. Like I mentioned before, I’ve put everything from the USA on hold, and am committed to giving football my undivided attention.”

“My pathway to Australia has been a rollercoaster, filled with both adversity and highlights. Having to fund my own travel/accommodations/transport to trials on multiple occasions, while taking earning potential away from career, and still performing at a top level has been a difficult undertaking.”

“Although there was significant disappointment with the 2019 draft, I have a refocused mindset and I am building upon the feedback I received from AFLW and VFLW trials this past September and November, respectively. I would hope, the pathway for athletes wanting to come overseas for competitive sport will get easier.”

April already stands as a role model for future generations of women and girls just starting a sporting journey. “If there is anything young girls can take away from my personal experience so far, it is the importance of perseverance. Life and sport are not defined by my failures, but rather the actions I can take to overcome and learn from them. Determination and a positive attitude will continue driving my actions and football endeavours.”

“As a football player, passionate about the game, I think it is important to encourage youth participation. Not only will this develop the game and quality, but also advocate for more opportunities for women in sports. One day, when I am back in the USA, I plan to help the USAFL with the development of the game.”

April came to Australia as part of last year’s CrossCoders initiative to offer opportunities for women across the world to be drafted to an AFLW list or simply get onto the AFLW radar.

“As an international athlete, the exposure of actually playing in Australia is paramount. CrossCoders was a great introduction and gave a glimpse into the world of elite football. Being invited to participate in the program, and performing well while I was here in September, fueled my confidence to chase a dream.

“Thus, I came back in November to trial for VFLW clubs, and now I’ve transitioned into living and preseason football in Australia.”

And women’s football, as well as football in general, is so much the better for April’s journey, caught in the wonderful web of Aussie Rules footy.