By: Megan Hustwaite
Footy has proved to be a blessing for Kirsty McConnell who has experienced heartbreak and grief no parent should ever experience.
The 34-year-old pulled on the boots and joined Yarra Junction this season just months after losing 16-month-old daughter Lily to Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a rare inherited genetic muscle wasting disease.
The condition is the biggest killer of babies under two years old.
McConnell says the Eagles and footy have allowed her ‘’to be me.”
“Yarra Junction isn’t a local team for me and it’s not where I live so I’ve been able to be me and not the mother who’s just lost a child,’’ she said.
“Everyone in our area knows me so it’s been great to join the club and just be me and have the outlet to run around, kick a ball and have something to work towards each week whether that be getting to training, getting to the game or both it’s been something to keep me occupied.
“And with Lily’s condition, it was a reminder that we’re really privileged to run and walk and eat and breathe and do those everyday things we take for granted.
“Watching her go through her condition spurred me on to run, get fit and play footy.”
The Eagles have shown McConnell their support in many ways and last weekend hosted a super hero and super villain night with proceeds from tickets and raffles donated to SMA Australia.
Back in pre-season a simple Facebook post set McConnell on a 45-minute path from home in Boronia to the Eagles.
“My cousin is a Yarra Junction local and was looking for players. She put a big post on Facebook asking for girls to come down and help out ahead of a practice match,’’ she said.
“I thought ‘Oh yeah I’ll head down and have a bit of a laugh and see what’s it’s all about’ and I fell in love with it.
“If it wasn’t for that post I absolutely would never have considered playing footy otherwise.”
A passionate Richmond supporter, McConnell grew up watching footy, daughter Eliza now plays in an under-9 mixed team, but she “never ever thought I’d be playing it myself with other women in a proper league.”
“Being able to have a run around and kick the footy has been great but making new friends and having that team camaraderie has definitely been the best aspect,’’ she said
“Because we’re all new we’re in the same position so there’s no pressure to perform at a certain level. We’ve all been thrown into this, we’re in the same boat and it’s been good to have that support
“We can see our development over the season, we had girls who were so girly and would throw their hands out trying to mark the ball but now they’re marking and kicking the footy, it’s been great to see the skill progression.”
McConnell has found her niche in the Eagles’ forward line.
“I play full forward because I’m not fit enough to run in the middle and I fully admit that and am totally fine with that,’’ she said.
“I can take a mark every now and then so there’s a little bit of hope for me, maybe I’m a bit of a Tony Lockett before he lost all the weight.
“Forwards get all the glory and I’ve kicked a couple of goals but because we are just starting out as a team our defenders work very hard because they’re constantly defending. There’s been a few times I’ve got a bit cold down at full forward, but it’s all fun.”
And while McConnell initially thought she wasn’t a ready-made footballer, she says Yarra Junction and the league welcome and embrace every woman.
“The diversity at our club is fantastic, we’ve got 18-year-olds who are studying then we’ve got mums that have teenage kids. A couple of weeks ago we had a mother and daughter play together,’’ she said.
“I know a lot of women my age can get intimidated about taking up the game thinking they’ll all be young and fit but they’re all shapes and sizes.
“Yarra Junction has been really, really proactive in getting this team up and going, they’ve put so much time into it so it’s been really positive for the club and also the area.”
The Eagles have two wins on the board so far this season and have been competitive against more experienced and established teams.
“To have two wins has been a real positive for us and we’ve been able to see how we’ve progressed against each team when we’ve played them the second time,’’ McConnell said.
“Even though we’ve lost the margins have been getting smaller.”
While footy has been an important outlet, McConnell is also funnelling her energies into working with SMA Australia.
“When Lily was diagnosed at nine months old we hadn’t heard of the condition before and that seems to be the general consensus I’ve found. I just feel I need to make her time on earth and what she went through beneficial for other people,’’ she said.
“Lily was diagnosed quite late, at nine months old, and she had the most severe type. It took me nearly three months to get a diagnosis purely based on the fact that nobody really knows what SMA is which is really frustrating.
“My husband Aaron and I had no idea we were carriers of this gene so I want to try and raise awareness about genetic testing for couples who are thinking about having children in the future.”
*SMA is a rare inherited genetic muscle wasting disease that is characterised by a loss of nerve cells called motor neurons.
*The affected muscles not only include the muscles you see, like your arms and legs, but also all of your internal muscles which help you breathe, cough and swallow.
*The loss of motor neurons leads to progressive muscle weakness and wasting. The weakening of the respiratory muscles can lead to an increased tendency for pneumonia and other lung problems.
*Spinal Muscular Atrophy is caused by an altered gene that does not function the way it should.
*One person in 35 unknowingly carries this gene. If a couple already has a child with the disease each of their subsequent children has a one in four chance of inheriting the condition.
*Approximately 630 people die of Spinal Muscular Atrophy and related symptoms, including Motor Neuron Disease, every year in Australia.
*The disease is the biggest killer of babies under two years old.