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By Michael Jones – UQ Contact Magazine

UQ student and AFL Women’s (AFLW) rookie Natalie Grider was just a toddler when the Brisbane Lions won three consecutive AFL premierships between 2001 and 2003.

While the Lions have had little to celebrate since, Grider remained a loyal supporter of the club and dreamt of one day wearing the Brisbane jersey.

Her dream came true in February this year when the 18-year-old debuted for the Lions during the club’s round-four AFLW victory over the Western Bulldogs at Whitten Oval in Melbourne.

Grider wasn’t expecting to play that day, but was thrust onto the big stage after Lions captain Leah Kaslar withdrew from the match through injury one hour before the bounce.

The young defender said while it wasn’t the ideal preparation, she would always treasure that moment.

“I had a pretty different debut experience to most of the other girls because I didn’t know I was playing until just before the match started,” said Grider, who was drafted with the Lions in October last year.

“I remember one of our coaches saying to me: ‘When you walk out on the field, don’t put your head down. You’re only going to experience your first game once. Just look around and take everything in’.”

Grider played two AFLW matches in 2019, and was named in the starting side in the Lions’ final match against Collingwood at Victoria Park in Melbourne.

While Grider could not imagine representing another club, she admitted she could just as easily have supported a Melbourne-based club if her parents had their way when she was young.

“My family moved to Melbourne for a few years not long after I was born. My mum’s a St Kilda fan, and dad supports Carlton,” Grider said.

“Dad would take my sister and me to Carlton training sessions while we lived in Melbourne – I think he was trying to force that upon us. But we both stuck with Brisbane and I have loved the Lions since I can remember.”

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Images: Anjanette Webb / The University of Queensland

Grider said she always enjoyed contact sports growing up. She tried her hand at water polo, but it was on the Australian Rules field where she excelled – winning junior premierships with the Jindalee Jags, representing Queensland and being named captain of the under 18s Women’s Lions team.

While the Brisbane local always hoped she would one day play professional football, she did not foresee the AFLW becoming so popular across the country.

“I’m so excited about where the competition is heading,” she said.

“The scenes from the Adelaide Oval, where more than 53,000 watched the Adelaide Crows defeat Carlton in this year’s AFLW grand final, were amazing and I can’t wait to play in front of a crowd that big.

“When I started playing footy as a kid, there was no talk of a national women’s competition because the numbers were so low,” Grider said.

“We were scrambling just to get a team for an under 15’s competition. But in such a short period of time, the game has expanded so much at both a grass-roots level and a professional level.

“There are a lot more girls interested in the sport now because there is somewhere to go with it.”

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With the AFLW season ending in March, Grider has returned to club football with UQ, where the 2019 UQ Sports Achievement Scholarship recipient is in her second year of a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Sciences degree.

She said the sporting scholarship had been crucial in allowing her to pursue a professional sports career, while juggling full-time study.

“Playing in the AFLW means I’m in different cities most weekends during the season, and my training commitments are quite intense,” Grider said.

The UQ Australian Football Club has a strong connection with the Lions, with Grider one of the six UQ players recruited to Brisbane in 2019.

“The club is really supportive of the Lions girls, especially with the crossover period between the end of the AFLW season and beginning of the Queensland Women’s AFL season,” Grider said.

“It’s a great club to be around and I’ve loved my time here.”

Grider said she was looking forward to seeing the club improve both on and off the field with the opening of a Queensland Government-funded development at UQ’s St Lucia campus, including new change rooms and physiotherapy areas, more spectator seating, bar and canteen facilities and function space.

“I’m really excited about the finished product,” Grider said.

“It’s going to be great for the club. Last year we struggled a bit with ground availability, which made it difficult to host our home games. So I think that this will really bring the club together.”

Visit the UQ Sporting Scholarships website to find out how UQ helps athletes achieve both their sport and education goals.

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