Courtney Ugle, Freda Puruntatameri and Jamie-Lee Puautjimi’s lives have all been changed by Aussie Rules, and now they’re sharing their love of it with others.
For the love of footy
When Courtney Ugle is asked about being offered a spot in Essendon Football Club’s inaugural VFLW team in 2018, she says simply: “To say that this meant the absolute world to me is an understatement; it changed my life.”
After being drafted, Courtney left her home in Western Australia and moved into a friend’s spare bedroom in Melbourne so she could start training with the club. “I was excited, I was nervous, I was scared,” she recalls. “I was also in a very vulnerable position because I didn’t have a job lined up, so I had no income and no money in my bank account. It was very daunting.”
But, as Courtney says, she “made it work” and now combines her playing and training duties with a job as Essendon’s women’s football development coordinator. In this role, she works closely with the Bombers’ First Nations Women’s Pathway Program, flying regularly to the Tiwi Islands to meet with up-and-coming talent who might one day join Essendon’s VFLW team.
Two of these players are Freda Puruntatameri and Jamie-Lee Puautjimi, who were recruited to the Pathway Program in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Both grew up playing footy with their brothers, but didn’t expect to one day be playing in Melbourne.
“I grew up kicking a Coke bottle back home,” says Freda. “Footy is the only sport I was taught as a kid and I’ve been playing ever since.” She now has her eye on being drafted to the AFLW and has been focusing on her fitness to help make it happen. A skillful goal kicker herself, Freda says she admires Carlton’s Darcy Vescio for her kicking prowess. While Freda had the chance to play in the VFLW competition in 2019, COVID-19 put a stop to the competition in 2020. Jamie-Lee, who was drafted last year, says: “I was really disappointed because I wanted to play a game with the Bombers and I didn’t get to.”
Instead, they played with the local Tiwi Bombers side and also in teams in the Northern Territory competition. “The first ever Tiwi exhibition games were the best to be a part of, because it was the first time ever that Tiwi women had their own team,” says Freda. Meanwhile, Courtney spent 2020 playing for a club in Queensland.
Crossing the country
When players come from the Top End of Australia to follow their footy dreams in Melbourne, it can take a bit of adjusting. Part of Courtney’s job with Essendon is to help make sure they’re ready to leave home and that their transition is a smooth one.
“I help guide, support and encourage the girls like I would my own sister, however there’s much more to this than being a big sister,” Courtney explains. “I do a lot of work with the Tiwi community and the girls’ families to ensure they trust me to look after their daughters here in Melbourne. I think creating strong relationships with their families is just as important as the relationships I have with the girls.”
Both Freda and Jamie-Lee say they felt homesick at times and Jamie-Lee also missed her young daughter, who stayed on the Tiwi Islands with family. But both say the opportunity to play for Essendon was too good to resist.
“My community and family were excited for me and are always proud of me; they have supported me with all of my football from the beginning,” says Jamie-Lee.
Following in their footsteps
Now that the First Nations Women’s Pathway Program has been in place for a few years, it’s generating serious interest among young players, says Courtney. “It’s exciting, the girls have seen a clear vision of what opportunities can come from a program like this. It’s life-changing and a lot of the young girls coming through are definitely putting their hands up, saying, ‘I want to be next’.”
The players are reluctant to call themselves role models, but Freda admits that, “the younger girls do look up to me as a role model”. Jamie-Lee is already tossing the ball around with her daughter, and says, “I want her to be the next football star in the future.” For Courtney, the program is about more than simply spreading a love of the game.
“There are many different football routes the girls can take – we offer something different because football is not our only focus,” she says. “We want to provide an environment where these young women can grow and continue to evolve into strong, confident leaders here in Melbourne and, more importantly, back home on Tiwi.” Coles is proud to be the official partner of the Bombers’ First Nations Women’s Pathway Program and the official supermarket partner of Essendon Football Club.
Meet Freda and Jamie-Lee...
Jamie-Lee says: “She is a star and one day hopefully will make her dreams come true and play in the AFLW.” Courtney says: “Freda has the ability to change the game. She is so skillful by foot, fluent on both her left and right, and has the confidence to back herself to kick any kind of goal – snap, on the run, set shot, from the boundary, the list goes on!”
Freda says: “She is a gun footy player,takes the game on and she supports me all the time.” Courtney says: “Jamie-Lee is electric, she has great skills by foot and will always look to take the game on. Once she gets going, no-one can catch her.”
Jamie-Lee says: “I love that Courtney looks after me and is always very supportive of what I do. On the field she’s a gun – fast and tackles hard.” Freda says: “I love everything about Courtney because she is a role model and is like a sister to me. She is very supportive on and off the field. She tackles hard and is a good leader to me.”
Celebrating NAIDOC Week
NAIDOC Week runs from 4-11 July this year, with the theme ‘Heal Country!’. We asked the three players what this theme means to them.
Freda: “We must keep being strong to keep our culture alive, to pass it onto generation after generation.”
Courtney: “Healing Country means to welcome and embrace First Nations’ cultural knowledge and understanding of how we take care of Country. It is part of Australia’s national heritage and we need to love, care for and protect it. We need to continue to seek greater protection of our lands, our waters and our sacred sites from exploitation and destruction. Healing Country means finally resolving many of the outstanding injustices which impact on the lives of our people.”
Jamie-Lee: “Look after our land and keep it safe.”