Bundaberg's Emma Zielke in action for the Brisbane Lions against Melbourne earlier this year.
Bundaberg's Emma Zielke in action for the Brisbane Lions against Melbourne earlier this year. Contributed

The women are making their mark

EMMA Zielke's eyes widened as Lions women's coach Craig Starcevich called her name in front of her teammates. He had chosen her as captain of the first Lions women's team in the Australian Football League.

On the official Brisbane Lions video taken of the moment, one of her teammates grabs Zielke, 28, in a hug before she gets up to speak. Her eyes well as she accepts the captaincy.

"I'm so grateful to even be a part of this journey, let alone being able to lead the inaugural women's team," she said as the of the moment that was captured on camera captured the emotion.

But it has not always been an easy road for Zielke or other women in the sport.

"Back when I first started we were treated differently," she said.

"We didn't get the time of day on the field because the men had priority."

Lions captain Emma Zielke during a training session.
Lions captain Emma Zielke during a training session. Contributed

Zielke grew up in Bundaberg, where options for women's sport were once slim, but times have changed.

"At my club now, we get given priority over the men and it was the same with the state program - we got priority with the field and the change room," she said.

"A couple of years ago that wasn't the case.

"With the growth of women's sport in Australia, it's going above and beyond."

The AFL women's league is taking it to new heights, with eight teams set to play 28 matches over seven weeks from next month.

Growing up in a "very sporty household", Zielke pulled on footy boots from the age of six when she played soccer alongside her brother Jesse.

She moved to Brisbane to chase better opportunities in the sport - before realising she had lost her passion. AFL was the answer.

With friends in tow, at age 19 she joined her local club Morningside, "and we never looked back", she said.

"We loved the culture and the sport itself."

Girls growing up in regional areas today have better opportunities than Emma Zielke did, and she hopes the growth of AFL will mean more girls take up the sport outside the major cities.

"I didn't even hear of AFL when I lived in Bundaberg," the keen Broncos supporter said.

"I wish I had played it earlier - I'd have a lot more knowledge of it.

"But now they have more opportunities to explore the sport.

"We've got a youth girls under 17 championship every year and we pick the under 18 Queensland team from that.

"The girls now have a clear pathway; if they do want to play professionally it's there for them to take on.

"Before, it was a choice of soccer and netball for the regions."

Zielke's only role models at an elite level have - until now - been men, including Hawthorne's Luke Hodge.

These days she looks up to peers like Melbourne captain Daisy Pearce and she is proud to step into the spotlight and inspire a new generation of young women.

"It's a big transition from a local club to an elite environment where everyone's watching what you're doing," she said.

"It is a really good feeling knowing girls are looking up to you."

Building a good culture in the club is Zielke's greatest priority and part of her love of AFL is its social environment.

When they're not training or working at their full-time jobs, the Lionesses hang out as much as they can.

"We get along like a house on fire," Zielke said.

"Even if you don't have the best bunch of players, if you have a good culture you honestly get motivated and driven to achieve anything.

"That's the kind of culture we have right now."

It's a camaraderie that extends transcends codes.

"Half our team goes to the Brisbane Roar games to support the girls in the W-League," Zielke said.

"We don't feel like it's competition - we want to support women's sport in general.

"We stick together."

Citing the success of the women's Big Bash League as well, Zielke said sports fans were now demanding to watch female athletes and that the Australian sporting community was "doing a great job in supporting them".

"Hopefully one day women can go fully professional and don't have to have a job on top of their sport," she said.

"Once that happens, the spectacle will be much better because girls will have much more time to get their bodies right and be able to purely focus on their sport."

She praised the AFL Players' Association for "going in to bat" and ensuring women's league players would be paid the equivalent rate to a male rookie. Equality won't happen overnight but it is a matter of if, not when, according to Zielke.

"(The AFL) are on the right track," she said.

"They have to introduce the product before sending girls full-time.

"Once we've had a season they'll have to reassess…there will be such a big audience for it and they'll want girls to go out to clubs and schools and that kind of thing.

"I'm hoping it will go absolutely berserk after this season and the AFL and the clubs will recognise that."

On February 5 Zielke and her team will run on to the field against Melbourne.

Zielke is looking forward to "soaking up" the feeling, backed by a proud band of Bundy family and friends. She recounted being back home one weekend recently for her twin siblings' birthday just after her captaincy was announced.

"Everyone had flown in from Melbourne and all over the place and I got the biggest cheer when I walked in - I thought the party was for me, to be honest," she joked.

"Mum was crying, dad was stoked.

"It makes me so happy knowing how happy it makes them, and it makes me more driven to be successful, because I know how much they're supporting me."

And for any girls considering pulling on the AFL boots?

"Just give it a go," Zielke said.

"I swear to god, you won't look back."

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