Darcy's pride with no prejudice

The story of a Victorian country girl of Italian descent who is developing a career as a professional player in women's Australian football and is a staunch promoter of gender equality in all sports.

Darcy Vescio is part of thefirst wave of professional female players taking to the field and changing theface of women's football in Australia. Though her career started humbly inMarkwood in country Victoria, her future is looking bright and prosperous atthe Carlton Football Club. She describes herself as laid back and easy going,but very competitive on the field. Acutely aware of her current power andsocial influence, Darcy's perspectives on life, football and women in sport arefascinating. Her outlook is refreshing and positive, and in all honesty, longoverdue. 2017 signals a change for women in Australian sport.

The new women's footballleague is breaking down all preconceived ideas and prejudices against women inthe AFL. The players stand united in this new adventure. "“If people haven'tseen women play before they assume that our bodies aren't equipped to handleit," Darcy comments. "“They think that being tackled to the ground and beingthrown around, being so 'feminine', you can't deal with it. How will your nailscope? How will you keep your hair in place? But it's not like that at all."These women are professional athletes with years of regional footballexperience under their belts. She clarifies, "“We are playing against otherwomen, it's not like we're up against big huge guys. If you're playing from ayoung age you know how to protect yourself."

Darcy's own football journeybegan at a young age, playing Auskick when she was just five. Darcy admits thatshe was heavily influenced to play football by her brothers Zeb and Louis, andmembers of her father's extended family, who also played regional football. Darcyacknowledges the support received from her parents, Chris and Paul over theyears. Speaking of her mum she laughs, "“She was always there. As long as we'rehappy, she's happy. As long as we don't come off injured, she's happy."

Darcy played football as longas she could in country Victoria. "“I stopped playing footy when I was 14 becausethere weren't any opportunities to play in Wangaratta." She played in mixedteams with the boys, at a ratio of 22:1. During this time Youth Girls teamswere only just developing in Melbourne, which forced her into hiatus in theabsence of country teams. "“When I stopped playing football I honestly didn'tthink I'd ever play again, and I just sort of accepted that that's what girlsdid. They played up until 14 if they wanted to, and then you moved ontobasketball or tennis." Reflecting she adds, "“It's a great sport for girls andwomen because there's not really that many spaces where women are encouraged tobe physical and to use their bodies, to not only tackle, but protect otherpeople. I think it's really empowering for girls from a young age to be taughthow to use their body, in a safe way, of course."

Eventually fate brought Darcyto Melbourne to study. Little did she know at the time, that this move to thecity would also reunite her with the game she loved so much as a child. "“I justlove everything about footy. I think it's just such a raw game. I like theunpredictability of the way the ball bounces, the way you can use your body." Forthe past six years she has played for the Darebin Falcons, winning the lastfour Premierships. Given their incredible success the team formed the VFL Women'sand went on winning the Premiership, being awarded 'Team of the Year' in itsinaugural year. Darcy was also awarded 'Best on Ground' for their last twoPremierships.

Darcy's latest adventure hasbegun at the Carlton Football Club. At 23, Darcy brings a range of exciting andenviable qualities to her new roles at Carlton. She studied communicationdesign at RMIT Univeristy in Melbourne, before transitioning into furtherstudies in furniture design. "“I'm a fairly creative person. Some people saythat I'm creative on the field as well, but I don't know. I'm just unorthodox,perhaps." Both a graphic designer and football player, Darcy is able to bringtogether a mix of her two greatest passions. "“I'll not only be able to play forthe club but use my creativity to project the brand and show my emotionsthrough that."

Most recently Darcy has beenheavily involved in the branding of the Carlton women's team, the 'GameChangers'. "“With the AFL going down this different pathway," Darcy explains,"“the club is branching out into something it has never experienced before. Withall the girls coming in to be part of this game changing experience we thoughtit was a fitting term. Everything we are doing is changing the way thatfootball's ever been. We've all got a responsibility to project the women'sleague in a positive light, we know there are so many people out there thatalready feel very negative," she says.

The culture amongst thefemale players is respectful, brought about by playing exhibition matches, theinterchangeability of players and the fluidity of the teams in the women'sleague. "“We understand there's a bigger picture happening," she starts. "“We alljust want to grow the game to another level so that the girls coming throughafter us have a really awesome pathway. We are very rough and very competitive,but everybody understands the responsibility we have together." There's a realsense of community and awareness of the bigger picture in this culture shiftinto women's AFL, and it's really exciting.

Across the journey so far,despite its early days, Darcy has cherished the relationships and friendshipsshe has made with her teammates. "“You want to know them as best as you can,because then you'll play even harder for them," she says. Relationships haveproven to be key for Darcy, both on and off the field. But challenging thestatus quo and leadership are two things that can test working relationships. Whenasked about leadership, Darcy's humility shone through. "“I've always beensurrounded by great leaders. It's easy to be led, but good leaders also teachyou how to lead."

Throughout our conversation Darcymade it very clear that she's a team player and is driven to see the teamsucceed. Similarly, she's also excited by the positive social implications shehopes will come from this game changing culture shift. "“It's a really inclusivespace. I feel like growing up in the country you had to fit a certain mould tobe at the footy and to play in a footy team, whereas women's footy is a superinclusive space." When discussing the opportunities women's AFL presents shenoted, "“Everyone who comes to the footy feels really welcome, regardless oftheir gender, sexuality, race"¦ I feel that with all these people flooding intomainstream AFL it's only going to change things for the better."

Sportsmen and women are oftenglorified and revered in Australian culture, and with that comes responsibilityand self-awareness. "“Even though you are just one person, everything you saywill paint many people with the same brush," she says, highlighting that womenplaying AFL are very aware of the critical role they play in launching this newleague. Darcy won't shy away from being a role model for women in Australia, asshe appreciates the position she is in. "“I don't think I shy away from thatkind of term," she says, "“because I'm proud to be in this space. I am proud tobe able to talk about things that other girls might not want to talk about."Using the media coverage and public interest garnered in recent months, sheadds "“Women playing AFL "€œ it's going to make some people uncomfortable. Peoplehave got to get used to it. If you don't see it then it's really hard to acceptit. Introducing this league is such a huge step forward. It will have a trickledown effect. The AFL players have forever been heroes in this country. TheAFL's going to create female heroes. That will automatically empower peoplewatching, who work at the AFL, who work at individual clubs."

So far, Darcy has enjoyedworking at Carlton. Her work on the field and behind the scenes has reallyhelped foster a passion for all things navy blue. Darcy beams with pridetalking about the club, "“[It's] in such a great spot at the moment. They aredoing so much work off the field to create an environment where everyone feelsso welcome, with the 'Carlton Respects' program and the work they are doingwith 'Our Watch'." She's looking forward to working closely with the men's teamin 2017, which she notes has been particularly supportive of the women's team."“There's genuine excitement about what this team would bring to the club, andwhat the club could give to these women as well." Perhaps more exciting is theknock-on effect that the new women's teams will have on a grassroots level. "“Littlegirls at home being able to flick on the TV and see women playing football ["¦]that in itself will be really powerful."

But what's Darcy's ultimategoal? "“Right now, the focus is on this initial season. Every team wants to winthe first ever Premiership. Beyond that, it's being part of the body of womenthat will drive this forward. Eventually we want to have a full-time gig, aswell as the boys, and for people to understand that this is different comparedto what the men are doing. We don't want women's footy to be seen as asecondary product. It's its own product." Darcy's dream of raising the profileand establishing solid roots for the AFL women's clubs is one shared by manyworking closely with the players and clubs. She hopes in the near future all 18AFL clubs will have a women's team, with every woman paid as a full-timeathlete, with equal respect, equal media coverage and equal marketing.

Darcy has an interestingcultural background herself. Her father, Paul, is of Italian descent, withCalabrese roots, and her mum, Chris, is of Chinese descent. We discussed herItalian heritage at length, which led her to reminisce about not only herchildhood in Markwood, but also about some of her family's Italian traditionsand stories. Darcy laughs, admitting, "“I don't speak Italian "€œ I'm a big letdown in that area. Nonna tried toforce Italian onto us, but I think she gave up after a while. I can understandwhat she's saying by her expression. She might feel like I understand Italian,but I am just reading her face most of the time."

Despite the linguisticbarrier, Darcy does indeed feel a connection to her Italian heritage. "“Growingup in Markwood my nonna and nonno lived across the paddock "€œ 100macross the paddock. That's where we would go after school, or if mum and dadhad to do something we would always go to nonnaand nonno's. So, I feel like I prettymuch grew up at their house eating all the food." This is a sentiment echoednot only by Italo-Australians living in country Victoria, but by so many acrossthe country for whom nonno and nonna were a second set of parents.

The Vescio family carries onmany other Italian traditions, such as sauce and salami-making days, memoriesof which remain dear to Darcy. "“I've got good memories of coming home at acertain time of the year and there would be a pig split right down the middleopen on the table in the shed. It would be sitting there. Nonna and her friend Maria would be cleaning out the guts, gettingready to prepare it for salami. Nothingwent to waste." Darcy's tone changes, "“They are slowing down a bit now, so nonna gets really sad talking about foodsometimes because she reminisces about all the things she used to make."

Growing up with her Italianrelatives in Markwood has given Darcy a strong sense of family and respect,echoed in her latest experience at Carlton. The club, with its significantstrong Italian heritage and identity, both culturally and amongst the staff,will be Darcy's surrogate family for the foreseeable future. Based on arelationship of trust, high expectations and mutual determination, Darcy Vescioand the Carlton Football Club will go far together in establishing the brand,identity and first heroes of the women's AFL.