Gemma Houghton, Fremantle Dockers AFLW Player

Photography by Andrew Richards

The inaugural AFLW season has launched the careers of a unique breed of cross-code #NewHeroes. Case-in-point: Fremantle Docker’s recruit Gemma Houghton, who was recruited from State Basketball and has now fallen in love with the nation’s favourite game. Gemma tells Sport Story about her game day rituals, the mental challenges of playing full contact, and the reward in playing the Women’s league.  

“Basketball was in the family line, Mum played when she was younger. She was the first country girl to actually ever get into State basketball (Karen Houghton). So the basketball came from that, and I’ve pretty much played since I could walk, really. When we moved to Perth, I went to Willetton Senior High School and had a basketball scholarship. I was lucky enough to get into that scholarship, and I just played for Puma, which is a domestic team at Willetton. I played all my domestic basketball there.

[At the East Perth Eagles] My first year was on the bench – you didn’t get any game time. Over time coaches changed and in my second year Narelle Henry started coaching – she’s a former Women’s NBL player. So she started coaching and I started working on my game more, and started getting more and more game time in, they call it the D-League, the development league. It’s SBL [State Basketball League] reserves. I played a lot of my time there, and last year I got MVP for the whole season and MVP for East Perth Club.”

“I still pinch myself [laughs]. I mean, even now I can’t believe this is happening. 

Ebony Antonio, who is a priority pick for the women’s team, she played SBL for the Willetton Tigers and we had also gone to school together, she’s a year older. She contacted my brother because they were in the same year [at school] and said, “Would your sister be interested in playing AFL? And if so get her to contact me.” She said if I was ever interested in playing there is a talent search at Emmanuel College.

I went down to the talent search and I did all the on-court stuff. Agility, jumping tests, obviously the vertical jump, the 20m sprint on the court… I was like “Right, this is really easy!” [laughs]. Then we did on-field stuff. We started off with kicking and hand balling, and then we went into a match simulation. And I remember on the day Kiara Bowers, who is a marquee player for the Dockers, in the game she kept telling me “Jump in the ruck, I wanna see you in the ruck”. To have someone like her, who knew the game, supporting me was just really encouraging because there were so many girls and I felt so out of place, playing a sport I’d never played before.

I had another [two trials] after that as well... And after that it was the draft.”

“We had a breakfast at my Aunty’s house and watched the draft live. I didn’t know what to do, I was really nervous. I kept playing it back to, you know, yeah I might have the skills but I don’t have the experience. It was a little bit daunting towards the end because I think Fremantle only had 3 or 4 picks left, so I started then saying in my head: “If I don’t get drafted I’m playing WAFL. Whatever the verdict, I’ll play.”

Then, this story is so weird – we’re sitting at the table and mum’s friend said: “I’ve just got a feeling your coach is going to ring you and talk to you.” And in my head I’m going “Yeah, whatever – no she’s not.” Like, she’s in Melbourne! No she’s not. 

And believe it or not, my phone started ringing and it said ‘Michelle Cowan’ [AFLW Fremantle Dockers coach]. My heart jumped up, like it was Christmas! I went outside and spoke to her and she said, “I just want you know that we’ve picked you up as a free agent and you’re on the team.” I felt like I had just won Lotto. It was incredible. At that stage I didn’t even know what a free agent was, but I was happy.”

“The fitness side of things was there, and obviously the coaching staff believed in me with my fitness skills and basic athletic ability. So it was just working on my skills, which I’m still working on. I didn’t even know there was a certain way to kick the ball. I thought you just kicked it! The girls at training have taught me that there’s actually a proper way to kick it and the ball drop and… I feel like it’s there, I can kick. It’s just a matter of making sure that every time I kick, I kick it with purpose. And that I’m kicking through the ball… it’s the little things, it’s the little things that will make it a perfect kick. It’s so important to make sure you hit targets in games and make sure your kick is a kick to a teammate that will support them and help them. 

It was interesting actually, because the first game in Darwin was my first ever competitive match… And I ended up kicking a goal from 40 meters out on the run [laughs]! And still today, I’m like, “How the hell did I do that?!” I can’t even do that in training! I pulled that one from the back [laughs]!”

“I’m still learning to make contact, because basketball is pretty much no contact otherwise you get fouled. So my brain is slowly understanding that it’s okay to push into that person, within reason, or tackle them. But once I switch off, I’m in the zone and I’ll play hard. Even the bumping and stuff – obviously you can bump someone, give them a bit of a push. But if you do that in basketball the referee will just straight away call “Foul!”

I do like the ruck, it’s fun. Especially when you get kneed in the ribs [laughs]. It’s just about learning how to position yourself – it’s almost that same feeling of going up for a layup in basketball. You’re in your run, you set your two steps and you jump up and tap the ball. But I just have to learn, I guess how to do it properly. Instead of jumping straight up like in basketball, you’re kind of jumping into it and using your body. I said to Michelle Cowan “Can you use your body?” And she just sent me a photo of two guys; one guy is up with his knee on the other guy’s shoulder. Then she said, “Yeah, you can use your body” [laughs]. 

When you think about “Oh, I don’t want to go in and get a tackle” or “I don’t want to get tackled because I’m scared I’ll get hurt,” that’s when the injuries do happen. You just have to play on instinct, don’t even think about it. Just run in.”

“You can’t compare the men and women’s team, because they’re completely different. The men have created their own league, and now we are creating our own. As one club, we are united and we are together. Both men and women we represent Fremantle, but individually, it’s two different things. [In the pre-season] the girls were so determined to really work on things that we even trained Christmas morning, which that in itself is something… I mean, we were just there at 6am and ready to train. 

It still hits me sometimes when you get little kids come up to you and they want an autograph. It’s so weird! I’ve never had that in basketball! Sometimes you get taken aback by it. After the home game with Brisbane, there were kids just giving me hats and balls and t-shirts [to sign] – and some kids give you anything! Even a piece of fruit to sign! It’s weird but I love it, and I would never say no if any kid, or anyone, came up to me.

It just shows you how incredible the sport is in Australia. There are so many young women, young kids, that want to play footy. So I believe, no doubt, this will be around forever. I think the only thing that will grow is the talent and more interest. We’re so humbled and so privileged to be a part of it, I think that just makes the journey, this whole new lifestyle for me, so much more worth it. And yeah, we have tough losses and it’s hard, but the crowd… You look at those young kids, and you see the passion in their eyes and that makes it all worth it. All the running that we did in pre-season, it’s all worth it!

In Round One… you walk out and you see – I can’t remember how many people, I think well over 10,000. And you just look around and that’s a bit of a wake up call. You soak it up. As soon as that first bounce up went it was like, wow, we’re playing footy – this is it. And even though the results weren’t what we wanted, the experience is still something that you can’t compare to anything. You’ll never get that again, playing Round One in the first ever AFL Women’s inaugural season.”

“I always have to make sure I bring my shin pads. Because [laughs] the first game in Darwin, I kind of knew I was going to play a little bit of ruck but no one told me about shin pads. So during the game, I don’t know how it happened – I must have gone up for a ruck and I’ve been hit in the shins with someone’s stud, and my shin was out like a golf ball. I looked down – actually, I couldn’t look at it, and then I looked again and thought “Oh my god that is disgusting!” I felt like I was going to… like, honestly it was the worst injury I’ve ever had! And then at quarter time I rushed off, got it strapped up – you can still feel it, there’s still a bump. And it was bruised all the way up. So now whenever I play I bring my shin pads. Even if I’m not meant to play the ruck that game, you never know you might get thrown in to it. 

Before a game I always speak to my mum. I have to speak to my mum on the phone. Just like, “Mum, I love you, I hope you watch the game.” That kind of sets me in that mood. It’s a calming thing. Knowing that she’s watching, or she’s thinking about me.”

“It really is to lead, not just girls, but to lead people. To be a role model. I remember when I was younger, the person who inspired me was Cathy Freeman. So I got up and went running, I got up and did those things. If I could be one of those people to a young girl who thinks “I want to play footy” or “I want to play basketball”, and that gets them out of bed in the morning and going to training? That motivates me. 

And my family as well, we’re a very close family. So I guess doing them proud as well. No matter where you come from or where you are in life, it’s up to you to deal with it. And I want to be able to say with my journey in life, you know what? I did what I wanted to do and I loved every minute of it. That’s my motivation.”