Cover story: Ellyse!

19 May 2014 Fiona Crawford

Cover story: Ellyse!

Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Fiona Crawford, Ed#454, April 2014

She bats. She bowls. She can defend or kick goals. Ellyse Perry's achievements are unique in Australian sport.

Australians love a sporting comeback, and cricketer and footballer Ellyse Perry is adept at delivering the goods. In 2011, Australia’s women’s football team, the Matildas, appeared down and out of the World Cup when they trailed 0-2 against Sweden in a quarter-final. But then Perry curled a long-range left-foot shot over defenders and beat the goalkeeper to keep her side in the contest. The Matildas lost 1-3, but Perry’s goal is still cited as one of the best scored by an Australian at international level.

The previous year, Perry had starred in a different World Cup – playing cricket for Australia. Fielding for the Southern Stars in the final against New Zealand, Perry lunged with a boot to turn a likely boundary into just a single run. As the Stars triumphed by only three runs, it was understandable that the-then coach of the Matildas, Tom Sermanni, quipped that he should send Cricket Australia an invoice for Perry’s foot skills.

Early this year, Perry scored crucial runs as Australia fought to regain the Ashes in women’s cricket matches against England. Again, some of her best efforts came when her team was down. Perry was named Player of the Series (won by England) – an especially impressive feat as she had been recently sidelined with an ankle injury and then a post-operation infection.

Now 23, Perry’s introduction to sport mirrored the experience of many Australians. Trying to keep up with her older brother, Damien, she served a backyard sporting apprenticeship at their home in Sydney’s Wahroonga, playing defender to his striker and honing her bowling skills while he found new interpretations of the rules in order to remain at the crease – as only brothers can.

While much is made of Perry playing two sports at an elite level (while pursuing university studies), she has actually had to choose from many more. The Perrys are a sporty family: mother Kathy is a former swimmer, father Mark played cricket and squash at representative level and remains one of his daughter’s cricket coaches. Watching her dad teach Damien to bowl first sparked Perry’s interest in cricket. (Damien, now 26, is in cricketing retirement apart from an occasional Christmas Day tournament.)

Had Ellyse pursued swimming, her parents would have been saved some driving time: there was a pool at the end of their street. Instead, she played a variety of sports to a high level, including touch football, before focusing on football and cricket.

Unlike other athletes, Perry has turned sporting dreams into a career reality not once but twice. She debuted for both the Matildas and Southern Stars in 2007, just two weeks apart, when aged 16 and still at high school in Sydney. Those achievements make her both the youngest person – male or female – to represent Australia in cricket, and the first Australian to have played in both football and cricket World Cups.

Duality surrounds Perry: duality in the sports she plays, obviously, but also in how people regard her. On the one hand, she’s commended on being able to excel at two sports. On the other, she’s constantly asked if she should really play both. Perry fascinates observers as the girl-next-door backyard athletes might have grown up to be, had they been equipped with more talent and determination. But she operates in a realm most people can only dream of, and for that reason she remains somewhat mysterious.

Last year, British magazine SportsPro named Perry the 36th most marketable sportsperson in the world; also the most marketable Australian athlete. When asked what that means, or whether it has changed anything, she laughs before the question even ends.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever felt completely comfortable with that poll,” she says. “I haven’t looked at the criteria and who was on the judging panel. From my point of view, there are so many wonderful sportspeople in the country who could or should be on that list. In some ways, it was flattering to be thought of in that light, but I’m not sure it’s something I actually agree with.”

That women receive less media coverage, see smaller crowds turning out to support them and receive lower pay than their male counterparts (Matildas are likely to earn just over $30,000 annually; top Socceroos earn around $430,000) are themes that dominate any coverage of women in sport. Perry is often placed at the centre of this reportage. As a recognisable athlete who is overcoming these difficulties, her circumstances contrast with most of her less-supported teammates. Perry has numerous sponsors including the Commonwealth Bank, Adidas and Red Bull. In contrast, former Matildas captain Melissa Barbieri had to auction belongings online to pay her way for the 2013-14 W-League football season.

“I think those issues are very relevant to women’s sport and they’re discussed a lot,” Perry says when this is mentioned. “But sometimes I feel the discussion is very stagnant… Little funding, little media attention, women don’t get paid as much as their male counterparts, smaller crowds. They’re all facts, but the way it’s focused on, particularly, it’s as though [the] media think things are never going to change. Because there’s this one notion of what women’s sport is, full stop, and it’s hard to get past that.

“I don’t see it like that. I am fortunate to have had so many wonderful experiences [through sport]. I know there are lots of people who’d trade positions with me, regardless of what we get paid.” (The Southern Stars’ top players can earn up to $80,000 annually, while the Australian men’s cricket team’s base player retainer is $250,000.)

A shift in coverage might see the focus move from one story – and one question – that continues to dog Perry: whether, inevitably, she’ll have to choose between cricket and football. And, if so, which one she’d choose.

“I feel I’m in a fortunate position [being able to play both sports], so it’s not hard to field a question about it,” Perry says. “[But] I don’t wake up thinking how much longer, or what date, or is someone going to tap me on the shoulder. Speculating on something that hasn’t occurred in the past eight years or so isn’t going to help or change anything.” What’s more important for Perry is how she’s performing in each sport and what’s coming up in their schedules (the ICC Women’s World Twenty20 is now on in Bangladesh).

Both sports recognise that Perry’s profile and, of course, her ability justify them cooperating with her juggling act. Her training, playing and course schedule – she is studying economics and social science at the University of Sydney –  is mapped out long before each season, and her coaches and medical staff work together to maximise her training and performance: one gym program, for instance, covers both sports. Regardless of which sport she’s travelling with, Perry packs training gear for the other, as well as university materials.

It’s unclear how much better Perry could be at cricket or football if she were to concentrate solely on either. And it’s unlikely anyone will find out, as she has always managed to keep playing both. In 2012, she was asked to choose when playing for Canberra United in the W-League, commuting three hours each way from Sydney for training and matches. A scheduling clash saw Perry make herself available for national cricket duties over the W-League finals series – country over club, if you like. Coach Jitka Klimková issued her an ultimatum for the subsequent season: commit full time to Canberra United or leave. Perry left.

Perry then joined Sydney FC after striking a mutually beneficial arrangement that brought her skills to the club and reduced her training trips from six hours to one (fortunately, coach Alen Stajcic is a cricket fan). That season, reigning champions Canberra United failed to make the finals for the first time in the W-League’s history and Sydney FC went on to win the grand final.

Perry goes about her life quietly, privately, yet she has to shoulder the burden of articles that take an attention-grabbing, two-dimensional view of women’s sport.  A crunching tackle on Perry by striker Lisa De Vanna during a W-League match last November sparked tabloid-style headlines. De Vanna was cast not as a talented footballer who is the first Australian – man or woman – nominated for FIFA’s goal of the year courtesy of a bicycle-kick goal she scored in the US last year, but rather as the jealous counterpoint to Perry’s golden girl image.

Just as male athletes wouldn’t be asked whom they’d like to date (as Canadian tennis player Eugenie Bouchard was, just after she’d advanced to the Australian Open semi-finals in January), male footballers’ tackles are seldom scrutinised for ulterior motives. Although there are always on- and off-field tensions in any sport, sometimes a crunching tackle is just a crunching tackle.

Perry’s decision to play in the Sydney FC W-League semi-final rather than the NSW Breakers’ Women’s National Cricket League final in February led to headlines suggesting that Perry “chose football” over cricket. It turned out the Breakers had the depth of talent to cope with Perry’s absence, winning the final while Sydney FC lost 2–3 to Melbourne Victory.

Perhaps the most important thing is not that Perry represents Australia in two sports but, rather, that she’s an outstanding ambassador for both, and for women’s sport more broadly. Wendell Sailor, an elite male athlete who has successfully switched codes (though only from one code of rugby to another), is an unabashed fan of Perry and what she has been able to achieve.

The W-League ran a Perry-themed promotional video for the 2013–14 season, featuring girls aspiring to be just like her. It was a nod to the fact Perry is motivating women to take up sport, and to view sport as a viable career option.

Matildas and Sydney FC teammate Teresa Polias says, “You hear so many stories about how exceptional [Perry] is as an athlete, but more importantly she’s also an exceptional person.” The two met through football when they were about 15. Perry’s star has continued to rise in that time, but Polias says little else about her has changed. Perry remains approachable and unaffected by the hype that now surrounds her. Polias also notes Perry has married her talent with hard work: “She’ll most likely be the first onto the pitch and the last one off, often taking a ball home to practise her dead-ball specialties.”

Surfer Sally Fitzgibbons echoes Polias’ sentiments. She met Perry when they each represented NSW in sports as teenagers. “We both wanted a pathway to the top and [to] become an elite athlete from a young age, and I think that pushed us to try many sports to give us the best opportunity at success. Being so young we had our heads down focused on the task at hand,” Fitzgibbons says. “We never considered the gender issues, money or the fork in the road deciding on one sport. We just wanted to keep the dream alive at all costs, and that’s where really supportive parents were key. In the back of our minds I guess we were striving for the same opportunities and exposure of our male counterparts, and we never let any inequities deter us from our passion for sport. I think it has worked out for both of us.”

Southern Stars teammate Alyssa Healy has known Perry since they were nine, when both of them were selected to play representative cricket. Her nickname for Perry is ‘Dags’, because the kit they were given to wear at that event looked enormous on all the girls, but particularly on Perry.

As the niece of former Australian cricketer Ian Healy, and the girlfriend of current Australian cricketer Mitchell Starc, Healy can relate to Perry’s experiences of the focus of stories not always being about her sporting accolades. “It’s not something we’ve ever spoken a lot about,” Healy says, but notes neither thinks much about it. “For me, personally, it doesn’t bother me too much. Any way I can promote cricket is good. [Perry] is similar.”

Healy also points to a less-publicly seen side to Perry. “The Ellyse you see in the media is very straightforward and very professional,” she says, adding that Perry is, for the most part, quiet and focused on getting the job done. “But there’s another side to her that her teammates only see. She’s actually quite mischievous,” Healy laughs.

For someone so often featured in the media, Perry is surprisingly content to blend in. She doesn’t seek out media attention and rarely reads articles about herself. “I think it’s sometimes interesting to see how people perceive you,” Perry says. “Sometimes you don’t have any control over that. But I think I’ve been pretty fortunate. In some ways, playing two sports as I do could be controversial and dividing. But the response is, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive.”

Unlike many sportspeople, Perry is not a big social-media user. She isn’t on Twitter and only recently joined Instagram (@ellyseperry). The background to that, she says, was that her boyfriend, rugby union player and Wallaby Matt Toomua, was on tour. He was going to be posting images of his travels, so Perry decided, after some pressuring, to set up an Instagram account.

Unsurprisingly, Perry lists representing Australia in two sports as career highs. But then she adds something unexpected: “One thing I feel most proud about is I’m a better player than when I started, and I hope when I finish I’ll be a better player than I am now.”

Her uni studies provide an invaluable counterpoint to her sporting commitments. “Obviously I have a huge passion for sport, and it’s something I derive a huge amount of enjoyment from. But…I understand it’s a game. Whatever occurs in sport is not as important as what happens in the world, and I think it’s easy to lose sight of that.”

This attitude will hold Perry in good stead when, one day, she leaves professional sport behind. She recently joined forces with Cricket Australia’s government relations officer, Grant Poulter, in a meeting with politicians in Canberra. Prime Minister Tony Abbott later tweeted a picture of Perry presenting him with a Southern Stars jersey: “Great to meet Ellyse Perry – You’re a fantastic ambassador for the @SouthernStars and @CricketAus.”

“It was great to have the opportunity to talk to a number of politicians,” Perry recalls. “Each had a unique take on the role sport plays in society, but all agreed it has an undeniably positive impact for individuals and communities.”

“I would very much love to use my degree,” Perry says, noting that it has already given her a broader viewpoint. “I think, too, that this is more relevant to women’s sport,” Perry says. “Everyone involved does it because they love it, which is something to be thankful for. Whenever issues pop up, which they invariably do, it’s not as important as what’s happening in the world. It puts it in perspective.”

Perry, it is clear, is acutely aware of the world beyond sport. Her responses to questions tend to be considered and fully formed – perhaps because being in the spotlight means she is used to speaking for herself. But it also suggests that Perry has thought about women’s sport in general and the role she plays in it, both when playing with a small red cricket ball or a much larger football.

 

» Fiona Crawford is a writer, editor, social media strategist, and PhD student whose work spans social and environmental issues, the arts and football. More info at agirlcalledfred.com.

This article appeared in Ed#454 of The Big Issue magazine.

 

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