By Brendan Shykora
It’s been a rebuilding season for the Ottawa Swans women’s team, which returned to the Australian Rules Football League Ontario this year for the first time since its championship-winning 2014 season.
The Swans have been on an unusual course over their six years of existence, winning the Ontario grand final in just their third season only to depart from the league the year after. Women’s Australian Rules football is a precarious sport in the Canadian athletic scene: In 2014 the roster numbers among other Ontario teams were dwindling, and the Swans found themselves in too small a pond.
“We had about 20 girls on the team but we were only playing nine-a-side footy against the Ontario teams,” recalled Amanda Paradis, the current captain of the Swans who has been with the team since their inaugural season in 2012. “We had a huge bench and a lot of people who weren’t getting a lot of playing time.”
The Swans moved to the Quebec league and planned to field two teams, cutting down on bench extras as well as travel time. But hopes for a better situation in Quebec petered out over time.
“There were a few players who decided to stop playing that year, so it was a bit of a struggle to get two full teams to play in the Montreal league,” Paradis said.
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The move had another ill effect: it drove the women’s team away from the men’s team.
“It was really hard to get out and support each other,” Paradis said, referring to a schedule mismatch between the two sides of the club. “We could see the divide in the club, which is one of the major reasons why I wanted to bring us back to the Ontario league.”
With two wins and one loss so far this season, the Swans are tied for second place on the ladder with the Etobicoke Kangaroos (the team they’ll play their next match against on July 14). The roster has been restored to 2014 numbers, and the women’s and men’s teams are reunited.
“Now that we’re back together it’s a sense of family again,” Paradis remarked.
While this year has been a strong return so far for the Lady Swans, Paradis suffered a meniscus tear in a May pre-season game and will have to wait for an MRI on July 12 before planning her own comeback.
“My knee is blocked, so I can’t fully straighten it or fully bend it, so we’re waiting on that,” she said.
The injury kept her from going to the 2018 AFL Canada National Championships in Toronto over the Canada Day weekend. But the Lady Swans team was well represented: Michelle Huard, Rebecca Gomez, Krystal Novak and Vivian Nguyen qualified for Team Ontario.
“It went really well for us,” said Huard, the team’s vice-captain and women’s player representative. That’s putting it modestly: the Ontario women’s team beat Quebec in the final by a score of 64-7, one-upping the Ontario men’s championship margin of 45-15.
Huard says the best part about nationals is the chance to play full 18-a-side matches, something that rarely happens at the club level. “Regardless of the score of the game that’s kind of a highlight for most women, just because this is one of the only opportunities to play full-field like the men do.”
Huard has been an important part of the Swans rebuild, this being her first season with the team after moving back to Ottawa from Toronto, where she played for the Central Blues AFC. She started playing in 2015 as a way to get back into competitive sports.
“Coming out of high school and university as an adult, you kind of miss the team sport thing and you miss the competitiveness of it,” Huard said. “That’s what’s exciting about footy, because it’s so niche that you can play for Team Canada.”
Since Aussie Rules players tend to retire early, there’s a constant need to recruit new players. Huard says she hopes to see the sport grow across Canada through high school programs and training sessions. “We’ve actually gone out to a couple high schools and did their demonstrations in gym classes,” she said.
As an added way to attract more women to the sport, they might do well to sell its rough-and-tumble style. The full-contact element of Australian Rules is what originally drew Paradis in.
“Coming from soccer you always want to hit someone, but you can’t,” she laughed. “So that got me interested initially.”