Footy is a game that has the potential to take players on an incredible journey and at just 26 years of age, dynamic and supremely-fit ruckman Aasta O’Connor has experienced more than most footballers could even dream about.
Having travelled to Perth with the Queensland state team as part of the Women’s National Championships to gracing the hallowed turf of the MCG – twice – Aasta’s football career began as a nine-year-old playing amongst boys on the Sunshine Coast.
“I started playing with the Northshore Jets; we wore the blue and white stripes of North Melbourne,” O’Connor said.
“I spent my early years playing around the ground, developing the skills all footballers pick up at a young age. A lot of the girls grow up playing netball and sports like that. AFL is very different so it takes a couple of years for girls to develop the necessary skills.”
O’Connor continued her development after moving to Brisbane as an 18-year-old, playing in four premiership-winning sides with the Logan Cobras. As a Queenslander, she represented her state five times and became a three-time All-Australian.
“Nationals are a really mentally draining week no matter what team you play in. You’re playing every day for a week,” O’Connor said.
Since making the move to Victoria in 2010, Aasta has added to her already impressive list of achievements by earning All-Australian honours in both of her National Championships-winning appearances for Victoria. She has also won a further two premierships in 2010 and 2013 with current club the Darebin Falcons.
“I came down in about March or April so I didn’t get to have a preseason,” O’Connor commented on her first season at Darebin.
“I remember starting off the bench in my first game at Darebin and I got a bit overexcited when I got on the field and gave away a few free kicks, which my coach at the time Peta Searle wasn’t too happy about.”
Despite their close relationship, O’Connor only spent one year under Searle before her transition to the Port Melbourne VFL side to take on the role of backline coach.
“I felt a bit robbed, really. I’d come down to play with the Falcons and Pete had all of a sudden gone and I just thought ‘Oh Pete, what are you doing to me?'” O’Connor laughed.
“She had her reasons and she’s moved on to bigger and better things. I still talk to her most weeks and spend time with her at Nationals. She’s been a big part of my development as a player.”
Although leaving behind friends, family and a career in Queensland to move down to Victoria wasn’t an easy task, O’Connor has always had the bigger picture in mind.
“I ride my bike to work every day and I roll past the MCG and think ‘this is why I’m here, this is why I’m in Melbourne’.”
It would only be a few years before O’Connor’s time in Victoria would lead her to the MCG, gathered with a number of her peers and anxiously waiting for her name to be called out as part of the first ever AFL women’s draft.
She wouldn’t have to wait long as O’Connor was selected with pick four by the Western Bulldogs, their second overall pick, to represent the Bulldogs against the Melbourne Demons in the inaugural AFL women’s exhibition match, held as a curtain raiser for the men’s game during Women’s Round.
“On a personal note, it was enormous,” O’Connor said, later being appointed as captain of the Bulldogs side.
“The emotion, the feeling, the buzz in the room – you didn’t know what you were walking into.
“You just hope in years to come that these sorts of things will become a year-in-year-out event for young girls to aspire towards.
“Daisy Pearce, who was drafted at number one and is also the captain of our team the Darebin Falcons, she teared up. The emotion just hit you and all of a sudden you were wiping the tears from you eyes.
“We get to play at Etihad (Stadium) this year. Who knows, they might close the roof and I can tell my grandkids that I got to play on Etihad and the MCG.
“I wouldn’t have cared if I was pick four or pick 44; people will pull that apart but for me, it’s about how you perform on the day.”
Whether it be Big V, the navy blue, white and red of the Darebin Falcons or the red, white and blue of the Western Bulldogs, O’Connor always does her best to ensure her skills and physical fitness are at a high level.
“Coaches hate me saying this but I don’t like to think on the field. As long as I prepare my body and my mind, I think my footy takes care of itself.”
Despite all her achievement in football, Aasta O’Connor’s passion and love for the games means that her eyes are firmly set on the future and contributing towards raising the standard of women’s footy, as well as hoping to bring it to a permanently national level.
“My hope is that year-on-year we build a product that people want to watch,” O’Connor said.
“If I talk to someone on the street, I don’t want them to be shocked that I play footy. It becomes the norm – it’s part of the mainstream.
“For me personally, we need four more AFL clubs on board and we become contracted, listed players to those clubs.
“Six AFL teams involved; whether they’re all Victorian-based or there’s some interstate is something else to look at.
“Everything costs money and nobody is shying away from that.”
O’Connor was quick to mention those that have paved the way for women to play the game now, especially praising vice-president of the Western Bulldogs Susan Alberti.
“You look at Susan Alberti and the funding she’s put forward to make girls’ dreams come true as footballers and you’re forever indebted to her. She’s an amazing, inspirational woman.”
With all that she has achieved in football, from multiple Nationals appearances to multiple premierships to captaining an AFL side to being part of numerous AFL academies and programs, Aasta O’Connor is well and truly one of the most talented and dedicated players women’s footy has ever come across. With a national competition seemingly in the works and plenty of playing years to come, there’s no limit to what she can go on to achieve.