Sophie Conway was shining in both field hockey and Australian Rules football as she reached her late teens, and was selected for the Under 18 All Australian teams in both hockey and AFL in 2017. She had a dream of representing Australia at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games in hockey until AFL came calling.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, Sophie is adamant she’d stick with her decision to pursue her career in AFL. “I love the decision I’ve made to play AFL,” she says. “While I absolutely loved the years I played hockey, the friendships I made, and the travels I went on, the AFL’s pretty cool to be in.
“I was fortunate that AFL landed on my doorstep at the right time, and I wasn’t old enough for hockey [at a senior level]. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities and pathways that AFL has given me, so it’s something I’d choose a hundred times over,” she explains.
Sophie was playing for Zillmere in the AFL Queensland Women's League when she attended an AFL Under 18s tournament. “I remember getting a phone call from a friend to come down to the day. I had a chat with Dad, and he said, ‘Why not? Just go and see if you enjoy it’.”
She was noticed by Craig Starcevich, head coach of the Brisbane Lions AFLW team. “Craig called me and said, ‘We're interested in drafting you and we really want you to be a part of the Brisbane Lions team’,” she explains.
“At that point, I was still umming and ahhing as to where I wanted to go. It wasn't until I officially heard my name called out at the draft that I realised, ’Yeah, let's go. This is reality and I'm really keen to go down this path’.
“It took me a while because that was at the end of 2017, and the first season of AFLW had only just started. I was still at the point where I was focused on hockey, so it took me a while. But once I decided, I was in, and I haven't looked back,” she adds.
Rising up the ranks in AFLW
Sophie was drafted by the Brisbane Lions with the 45th pick in the 2017 AFL Women's draft. She made her debut in the Lions’ Round 1 game against Adelaide in February 2018 and two weeks later she received a nomination for the 2018 AFL Women's Rising Star award after kicking two goals in her side's win over Carlton.
“I got drafted and then followed the biggest whirlwind six months of my life,” she says. “You try and live that full-time AFL kinda lifestyle even though you know deep down AFLW's not a full-time job. The environment of it was just insane; I didn't really have a moment to think about what had happened.
“Getting drafted, playing a game that I love, and getting paid for it… I didn't think I would ever be in a position like that. It was pretty crazy!” she adds.
Sophie credits her family for first giving her the spark for AFL. She explains they are big footy fans, and she grew up chasing a ball on the oval with her two older brothers. (Her brother, Isaac, played for the Lions and for Port Melbourne in the VFL).
“I grew up with two older brothers and I had to be a bit rough and tough around the edges as a result. They helped me become the player I am today, so it's a lot of thanks to them,” she laughs.
Mother passed away from cancer before AFLW success
Sadly, however, Sophie’s big champion, mother Christine, wasn’t alive to see her daughter reach the pinnacle of AFL success. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 when Sophie was just 13. Although she went into remission over the next few years, it reappeared later as brain cancer, and she passed away in 2017.
“We had a very special bond,” she says. “I was very close with Mum, and I was sad to see what she went through after she worked so hard for us three kids to be the best we could be. The sacrifices she made for us were second to none and it's something I'm extremely grateful for to this day.”
Sophie recalls how, as a 13-year-old, she found her mother checking her breast. “I just happened to catch Mum out by chance. As a 13-year-old you have no filter, so in the moment I said ‘Mum, what are you doing?’.
“We ended up getting on a train and going to St Andrew's Hospital. Mum had all the tests, and I was thinking we'd be in and out in an hour. Next minute it's three o'clock and we're still at the hospital and I couldn't understand why she kept going in and out of hospital doors.
“So, I called Dad and said, ’Dad, I'm at the hospital and I don't really know what's going on’. Fast-forward 24 hours and the dreaded phone call came from Mum's doctor that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, triple negative, which is the worst one you can be diagnosed with.
“I remember the whole family was in the lounge room when the phone call came and my Dad, Mum, two brothers and I all just hugged, cried, screamed, and shouted – we were confused as to what was really going on. From that moment Mum fought very hard, and did all the right things to get better,” Sophie explains.
“We were heading out of our fourth year into our fifth year of remission and thinking we're all high and flying,” she adds. “Then it's a similar case to what happened the first time. She was a little wobbly on her feet and slurring her words a bit, as her cognitive areas were starting to go. Mum was a nurse, so the reality is she knew deep down what really was going on.
“The cancer had unfortunately come back in her brain, and it was six months until she passed away at home, with us by her side.”
First goal dedicated to Mum
After Sophie kicked her first goal in her debut Lions season, she took a moment to dedicate it to her Mum. “I've kicked a few goals over my journey. But the most cherished goal I have is definitely my first goal. For my first kick in AFLW to be a goal and to have my two brothers and my Dad in the grandstand behind me and Mum above looking down on me, it was a pretty special moment.
“At that moment I couldn't help but send her a kiss and say, ‘That one's for you and I hope you’re proud’.”
Sophie and her family’s experience with cancer prompted her to become an ambassador for Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) and she’s grateful that her profile as an elite sportsperson allows her to raise awareness around the disease.
“I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be a BCNA ambassador. It's something that's obviously extremely close to my heart and BCNA have been phenomenal since I've come on board. They’ve provided me with opportunities to share my story and help people who have been in similar situations.
“I sometimes get to share it with my family too and they come along. So, it's not just me as the ambassador, I feel like it's my whole family that's a BCNA ambassador. We're just flying the flag high and trying to make Mum proud,” she says.
Having fun helps performance
This grit and determination to make a difference is clearly evident in Sophie’s AFL career. “I always strive to be better, I'm never satisfied,” she explains. “I truly love the grind; I love working hard. I love the off-season too because you get to push yourself to your limits, and then you come into the season ready to go and compete.”
Her advice to young players coming through is to have fun along the way. “When I'm having fun, I'm playing my best footy,” she says. “It sounds so simple, but I really believe it's a big contributor to success. If you have a safe, fun environment, success is going to flow from there,” she concludes.