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 the first wave of professional female players taking to the field and changing the face of women’s football in Australia. Though her career started humbly in Markwood in country Victoria, her future is looking bright and prosperous at the Carlton Football Club. She describes herself as laid back and easy going, but very competitive on the field. Acutely aware of her current power and social influence, Darcy’s perspectives on life, football and women in sport are fascinating. Her outlook is refreshing and positive, and in all honesty, long overdue. 2017 signals a change for women in Australian sport.

The new women’s football league is breaking down all preconceived ideas and prejudices against women in the AFL. The players stand united in this new adventure. “If people haven’t seen women play before they assume that our bodies aren’t equipped to handle it,” Darcy comments. “They think that being tackled to the ground and being thrown around, being so ‘feminine’, you can’t deal with it. How will your nails cope? 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 football experience under their belts. She clarifies, “We are playing against other women, it’s not like we’re up against big huge guys. If you’re playing from a young age you know how to protect yourself.”

Darcy’s own football journey began at a young age, playing Auskick when she was just five. Darcy admits that she was heavily influenced to play football by her brothers Zeb and Louis, and members of her father’s extended family, who also played regional football. Darcy acknowledges the support received from her parents, Chris and Paul over the years. Speaking of her mum she laughs, “She was always there. As long as we’re happy, she’s happy. As long as we don’t come off injured, she’s happy.”

Darcy played football as long as she could in country Victoria. “I stopped playing footy when I was 14 because there weren’t any opportunities to play in Wangaratta.” She played in mixed teams with the boys, at a ratio of 22:1. During this time Youth Girls teams were only just developing in Melbourne, which forced her into hiatus in the absence of country teams. “When I stopped playing football I honestly didn’t think I’d ever play again, and I just sort of accepted that that’s what girls did. They played up until 14 if they wanted to, and then you moved onto basketball or tennis.” Reflecting she adds, “It’s a great sport for girls and women because there’s not really that many spaces where women are encouraged to be physical and to use their bodies, to not only tackle, but protect other people. I think it’s really empowering for girls from a young age to be taught how to use their body, in a safe way, of course.”

Eventually fate brought Darcy to Melbourne to study. Little did she know at the time, that this move to the city would also reunite her with the game she loved so much as a child. “I just love everything about footy. I think it’s just such a raw game. I like the unpredictability of the way the ball bounces, the way you can use your body.” For the past six years she has played for the Darebin Falcons, winning the last four Premierships. Given their incredible success the team formed the VFL Women’s and went on winning the Premiership, being awarded ‘Team of the Year’ in its inaugural year. Darcy was also awarded ‘Best on Ground’ for their last two Premierships.

Darcy’s latest adventure has begun at the Carlton Football Club. At 23, Darcy brings a range of exciting and enviable qualities to her new roles at Carlton. She studied communication design at RMIT Univeristy in Melbourne, before transitioning into further studies in furniture design. “I’m a fairly creative person. Some people say that 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 bring together a mix of her two greatest passions. “I’ll not only be able to play for the club but use my creativity to project the brand and show my emotions through that.”

Most recently Darcy has been heavily involved in the branding of the Carlton women’s team, the ‘Game Changers’. “With the AFL going down this different pathway,” Darcy explains, “the club is branching out into something it has never experienced before. With all the girls coming in to be part of this game changing experience we thought it was a fitting term. Everything we are doing is changing the way that football’s ever been. We’ve all got a responsibility to project the women’s league in a positive light, we know there are so many people out there that already feel very negative,” she says.

The culture amongst the female players is respectful, brought about by playing exhibition matches, the interchangeability of players and the fluidity of the teams in the women’s league. “We understand there’s a bigger picture happening,” she starts. “We all just want to grow the game to another level so that the girls coming through after us have a really awesome pathway. We are very rough and very competitive, but everybody understands the responsibility we have together.” There’s a real sense of community and awareness of the bigger picture in this culture shift into women’s AFL, and it’s really exciting.

Across the journey so far, despite its early days, Darcy has cherished the relationships and friendships she 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 have proven to be key for Darcy, both on and off the field. But challenging the status quo and leadership are two things that can test working relationships. When asked about leadership, Darcy’s humility shone through. “I’ve always been surrounded by great leaders. It’s easy to be led, but good leaders also teach you how to lead.”

Throughout our conversation Darcy made it very clear that she’s a team player and is driven to see the team succeed. Similarly, she’s also excited by the positive social implications she hopes will come from this game changing culture shift. “It’s a really inclusive space. I feel like growing up in the country you had to fit a certain mould to be at the footy and to play in a footy team, whereas women’s footy is a super inclusive space.” When discussing the opportunities women’s AFL presents she noted, “Everyone who comes to the footy feels really welcome, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race… I feel that with all these people flooding into mainstream AFL it’s only going to change things for the better.”

Sportsmen and women are often glorified and revered in Australian culture, and with that comes responsibility and self-awareness. “Even though you are just one person, everything you say will paint many people with the same brush,” she says, highlighting that women playing AFL are very aware of the critical role they play in launching this new league. Darcy won’t shy away from being a role model for women in Australia, as she appreciates the position she is in. “I don’t think I shy away from that kind of term,” she says, “because I’m proud to be in this space. I am proud to be 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, she adds “Women playing AFL – it’s going to make some people uncomfortable. People have got to get used to it. If you don’t see it then it’s really hard to accept it. Introducing this league is such a huge step forward. It will have a trickle down effect. The AFL players have forever been heroes in this country. The AFL’s going to create female heroes. That will automatically empower people watching, who work at the AFL, who work at individual clubs.”

So far, Darcy has enjoyed working at Carlton. Her work on the field and behind the scenes has really helped foster a passion for all things navy blue. Darcy beams with pride talking about the club, “[It’s] in such a great spot at the moment. They are doing so much work off the field to create an environment where everyone feels so welcome, with the ‘Carlton Respects’ program and the work they are doing with ‘Our Watch’.” She’s looking forward to working closely with the men’s team in 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, and what the club could give to these women as well.” Perhaps more exciting is the knock-on effect that the new women’s teams will have on a grassroots level. “Little girls 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 ultimate goal? “Right now, the focus is on this initial season. Every team wants to win the first ever Premiership. Beyond that, it’s being part of the body of women that will drive this forward. Eventually we want to have a full-time gig, as well as the boys, and for people to understand that this is different compared to what the men are doing. We don’t want women’s footy to be seen as a secondary product. It’s its own product.” Darcy’s dream of raising the profile and establishing solid roots for the AFL women’s clubs is one shared by many working closely with the players and clubs. She hopes in the near future all 18 AFL clubs will have a women’s team, with every woman paid as a full-time athlete, with equal respect, equal media coverage and equal marketing.

Darcy has an interesting cultural background herself. Her father, Paul, is of Italian descent, with Calabrese roots, and her mum, Chris, is of Chinese descent. We discussed her Italian heritage at length, which led her to reminisce about not only her childhood in Markwood, but also about some of her family’s Italian traditions and stories. Darcy laughs, admitting, “I don’t speak Italian – I’m a big let down in that area. Nonna tried to force Italian onto us, but I think she gave up after a while. I can understand what 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 linguistic barrier, Darcy does indeed feel a connection to her Italian heritage. “Growing up in Markwood my nonna and nonno lived across the paddock – 100m across the paddock. That’s where we would go after school, or if mum and dad had to do something we would always go to nonna and nonno’s. So, I feel like I pretty much grew up at their house eating all the food.” This is a sentiment echoed not only by Italo-Australians living in country Victoria, but by so many across the country for whom nonno and nonna were a second set of parents.

The Vescio family carries on many other Italian traditions, such as sauce and salami-making days, memories of which remain dear to Darcy. “I’ve got good memories of coming home at a certain time of the year and there would be a pig split right down the middle open on the table in the shed. It would be sitting there. Nonna and her friend Maria would be cleaning out the guts, getting ready to prepare it for salami. Nothing went to waste.” Darcy’s tone changes, “They are slowing down a bit now, so nonna gets really sad talking about food sometimes because she reminisces about all the things she used to make.”

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