JUNIOR footballer Abby Weir certainly shook-up the AFL and broke down barriers for girls this season. But Abby is also a reminder how fortunate we are for the sporting opportunities we have as a major regional city.
All the 14-year-old wanted was to play for her beloved St Arnaud Football Club.
Under long-entrenched rules due to age, Abby was exempt to do much other than run water for St Arnaud's under-14s in mixed gender competition. A one-season waiver - understood to be an AFL first - has her back kicking for her hometown team.
There are no youth girls competitions close to Abby's home. Ararat Storm, about an hour away, was forced into hiatus this year in a struggle for numbers.
Abby had been travelling to Bendigo to play under-18 girls with Golden Square to stay in the sport.
In the fast rising promotion of AFLW that is tough enough for junior players in regional areas to keep up.
Pandemic furloughs and concerns continue to hamper football-netball clubs across the state. Even as we get more teams on the park, the constant warning of petrol prices soaring without reprieve adds extra barriers to play - especially the further you need to travel to play.
It is hard to not see a point when more players drop off.
Ballarat is not without its sporting journeys. Our marquee teams in hockey and soccer have juniors and seniors constantly on the road to Melbourne for match days.
Greater Western Victoria Rebels, our under-18 talent squad, play across the state. Playing lists include promising footballers from as far as Ararat, Horsham and Camperdown across to Warrnambool and the state's south-west to the border.
Boarding school might be an option for some but many still travel to Ballarat for training and further afield for away games. Each week.
It can be easy to forget the added levels of commitment regional players make to their chosen sport the further away they live from a major regional city. This goes for whether they are pursuing their sport at a higher level or, like Abby, just want to play.
Finding a way to keep a junior like Abby in the game should not be an extraordinary exception.
Teenagers, in particular teenage girls, have long had high drop-off rates in sport.
The passionate Abbys of country towns could prove a key to help keep community sport alive and healthy.
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Until last month a keen Abby was left to run water for St Arnaud's under-14s, blocked by the game's governing body from having a kick.
This columnist is not calling for a major rule overhaul, yet, but highlighting the greater need for flexibility and consideration to bend the right rules in a time when sporting clubs are fighting for survival more than ever.
It is hardly surprising to find Abby already featuring in St Arnaud's under-14s best players since her return.
Hopefully Abby inspires other clubs and leagues to think more broadly for what might be possible as playing conditions inevitably get tougher.
And maybe Abby can inspire more country juniors to fight for opportunities closer to home in the sports they love.
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