February 2, 2020
People & Places

Crows captain Chelsea Randall: How adversity made me

In our new Sunday series, we take an intimate look at the lives of fascinating South Australians - in their own words. To begin, football trailblazer Chelsea Randall talks about her journey from a kid thrown into a boys' team, to her position as one of the most respected athletes in Australia, and how she almost gave the game away along the road.

The evolution of a champion: Chelsea Randall in action as a child for the Safety Bay Stingers (left) and as an AFLW premiership captain.

Chelsea Randall, 28, is one of AFLW’s toughest and most competitive players.

The Crows co-captain is a three-time All Australian, two-time winner of the West Australian Women’s Football League Best and Fairest and she has twice been crowned the AFLW’s Most Courageous Player.

Chelsea played her first game of footy at age 11, when a young boy laughed at her for playing a “boys’ game”. She tackled him to the ground, won a free kick and ignited her passion for the game. Here, she gives insight into her childhood, the fight for women’s footy, the death of her grandmother and how the Crows are her second family.

Chelsea and Gran time

I grew up in Rockingham, about an hour south of Perth. I was fortunate because I always lived next door to a park. My older brother Scott and I would either be in the driveway playing basketball or next door at the park kicking the footy with my dad. We had a swimming pool, too, so we were always in there playing and coming up with new challenges. It was a great area to grow up in.

In the park, my dad would give me the footy and my brother would be at the other end. I didn’t even know how to kick the ball so I would run the entire length of the park with it, until I was a metre away from Scott, then I’d kick it as hard as I could and it would just go over my head. But I got better with time.

Growing up, my best friend Kirsty Hewitt was my next-door neighbour and we’ve known each other since the age of two. We’ve had a really special friendship throughout my life and she is the sister I never had growing up.

Some of my most vivid childhood memories include the couch “speccies” I did with my brother and friends. We wouldn’t even have a ball, but we’d jump on the side of the armchair and take dives and commentate the whole way through.

Being a WA girl, I supported the Eagles growing up. I wasn’t a fanatical supporter, I always prefer playing sport than watching it. Now, as an adult, I really love supporting other sports and athletes because you can appreciate the sacrifice they make to be the best they possibly can be.

I lost the love of footy for some time, because she wasn’t there to share it with me.

When I was growing up my grandma, Rose Pember, lived about five minutes away and I adored her. I loved spending lots of time with her and we’d have “Chelsea and Gran” time on Tuesday afternoons when she’d teach me how to cook apricot chicken, we would sing together or she would teach me to sew. One of our favourite songs was “She’s So Beautiful”. I just loved being in her presence. We had a connection like no other.

I think the early stages of your life are what shape your values, beliefs and attitudes and I was lucky to have a really good family setting and supportive parents and family who always encouraged me to follow my passions.

Chelsea with her Gran during her days playing with Swan Districts.

I was 11 when I started playing footy. The under 11s coach came up to me and asked whether I wanted to fill in for the boys’ team. Dad said yes, Mum said no, but between Dad and I we managed to convince her I wouldn’t get hurt and I played my first game.

I played for the Safety Bay Stingers and during my first game the boys in the other team laughed at me for being a girl. It was pretty hurtful at the time, but it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened. It gave me the chance to show courage and stand up to something that made me uncomfortable. I knew I was capable of playing the sport just as much as they were.

So, I simply picked the kid that laughed the hardest and I tackled him to the ground when he got the footy, I won holding the ball and thought “wow, I kind of like this game”.

I love the physical side to playing footy and how it is such a unique sport. You need such a high skill level and I really love running, so having space to run is awesome. And I love the team aspect of football now, but I didn’t have that necessarily when I was in the boys’ team at first. They soon became my brothers, but it was hard to fit in, I always felt that I was different.

Chelsea with brother Scott after she started playing footy with the Safety Bay Stingers

I was one of those kids who had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I went through a range of ideas – a flight attendant so I could travel lots, a massage therapist, I wanted to work on trucks and be a driver. When you’re a young kid, you think “what’s going to earn me lots of money?” and you aren’t too focused on your passion and purpose. But that changed when I got older.

My dream of being an AFL player got shut down pretty quickly because society told me that as a girl, I wasn’t able to achieve that, and you almost just go along with that, as if girls not having the same opportunities as boys is normal. Society has such a huge impact on how we live our lives.

I played state league football with Swan Districts in the West Australian Women’s Football League and, in 2011, I was selected as one of eight female players to participate in the boys Australian Institute of Sport AFL draft combine academy. We got to experience what boys get to go through before they get drafted to an AFL club. I was then drafted to Melbourne for the 2013 women’s AFL exhibition series against Western Bulldogs. I continued to represent their club once a year in the exhibition matches before being picked for the Adelaide Crows for the first AFLW season in 2017.

I still didn’t believe it when (Chief Executive Officer of the AFL) Gillon McLachlan said at our exhibition game that we’ll have a national women’s competition by 2017. I wasn’t going to believe it until I saw it. To their credit, the AFL made it happen, and my dream, and a lot of girls’ dreams, came true during the inaugural AFLW competition.

Turning point

The most pivotal moment in my life was in 2014 when my Gran passed away with cancer. That was heartbreaking for me. It was the first time I had lost someone so close, and Gran was so special to me. They delayed her funeral for me because I was playing in the Melbourne exhibition game four days after her death. I ended up playing one of the best games of my life, got best on ground and dedicated that game to her. That was tough: I didn’t want to play football after that because Gran was always there for me at every single game, we shared it together. I lost the love of footy for some time, because she wasn’t there to share it with me. That was probably a big turning point for me.

As well as Gran passing away, I had split up with a partner and I was working as a development officer in footy at Swan Districts Football Club. So, I was working in footy, playing it, coaching it – indigenous, multicultural, all-abilities, Auskick, junior clubs. Everything was football, my entire life from 7am to 10pm. Don’t get me wrong: I loved it, and that club did so much for me, but it became a bit much for me in the end. So, I ran away to Esperance and found a job as a motorbike postie. Given Esperance is seven hours from Perth, I needed accommodation, so the cheapest thing I could find was a caravan in someone’s backyard. It sounds dodgy, but it was one of the best things I did, and the guy in the house became a good mate of mine.

I then had a realisation that Gran would want me to play footy and continue our love for the game and share it with others. Gran was actually my uncle’s football coach, probably the one and only female during that time too. She really taught me that anything is possible. Dealing with a death is pretty significant and challenging, and I learnt to have the courage to be the best version of myself, even though society puts so much pressure on us not doing certain things because we’re girls. I have fought that battle for so long and tried to promote our game for 16 years. It’s at the stage now where I don’t have to keep having the conversation about why girls should be playing football and why they deserve the opportunity just as much as men do.

The Stingers celebrating Chelsea’s 50 games with the boys’ team.

I wasn’t angry – I was determined

When I was working with the Swan Districts Football Club, I was coordinating the VIP car park entrance for the men’s league home game and I had an older gentleman who wasn’t on our car park list swear and curse at me. He found out I was a female footballer, and began to shout and remind me that I should be back in the kitchen and if I didn’t move and let him into the car park he would run me down. It was pretty full-on, especially since he had his two grandsons in the back of his car.

All these experiences really helped shape my values as a person. I wasn’t angry – I was determined. I wanted to make sure no matter where I went in life that people should feel included, no matter their background, ability, gender or difference, and they should be treated with respect and kindness. Whether they are a cleaner or a CEO, it’s common courtesy to say hello, and to educate people and bring others along on the journey with us.

I’m currently a representative on our Crows Children’s Foundation and I get to meet some of the young kids who have gone through tough times, such as having cancer, a disability or other challenging stories in life. I just look at them and think they are so courageous and inspiring and if they can smile and get through some of their challenges, so can I. I find that a five-year-old can inspire me so much.

Chelsea with her father Brett and brother Scott.

My biggest footy challenge

My biggest challenge in footy has been dealing with my current injury. I did my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) about 45 minutes into the first session of AFLW pre-season training last year. It was a simple change of direction, something I do all the time. I just felt my knee buckled underneath me. It was a bizarre feeling and something you don’t wish upon anyone. But these things happen for a reason and when one door closes another is sure to open. It’s a 12-month injury so I’m sure there will be more doors to open in time.

Being an optimistic person, I had told myself for 24 hours that it was only going to be my MCL (mediate collateral ligament) and that it would be eight weeks max and I would be ready for round one. But that wasn’t to be.

My first night with the injury, I was trying to get my swelling down so I set an alarm every hour throughout the night to change the ice. I tried to do a bit of research about what was going to be best for me and my recovery because everyone’s ACL journey is different. I was lucky in the sense it was a clean snap and everything else was intact, so I was able to walk on it immediately.

It was only after the MRI that I sat down with our doctor and he delivered the bad news and that’s when it hit me that I wouldn’t be taking part in the 2020 season. It was a bit of a shock to the system, because I’d built it up so much, that it would be a positive outcome.

Chelsea Randall with the 2019 premiership cup – her second with the Crows.

I’m not a very good supporter, so season 2020 will be a tough one for me. It’s definitely a challenging injury but many female and male athletes have been through this before and I’m inspired by their stories and knowing they have got through it and played again. That gives me inspiration that I will be fine to get back out there for 2021.

My teammates were devastated for me, but I know we have such amazing talent, so I’m really excited to see where the group will go this season. It empowers them even more to take responsibility now that I am gone and it leaves an opportunity for them to step up and show our amazing supporters what they are capable of.

This is such a great team and I love that my team is a family to me. I don’t have a family here in Adelaide so the girls and the coaches and the support staff, the Adelaide Football Club genuinely is my family. I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without their support, so I am truly thankful and grateful for having them in my life. I’m also the mother to my fur baby Koda and I have nine nieces and nephews in Perth. But my second family is here at the Crows.

I worry about my teammates a lot, always wondering what they are going through and whether they are alright, what their motivation levels are like and how do we help them to be the best version of themselves? Personally, like anyone, I’m a normal human being who still has those inner voices that challenge you. Are you good enough, what do people think of you?

I’m now working as an Elite Female Talent Officer for the Crows so I am coaching the girls who are the next best talented footballers in SA. I’ve just been doing my level three coaching accreditation, so I’m looking forward to putting that into practice. I’m looking forward to challenging myself in a different position or role. Things happen for a reason, so there are many opportunities for me and hopefully I can help others.

What brings me joy these days is making things fun – if you aren’t having fun, are you really living? Everything I do, I want to be enjoying myself and having fun. Beach, guitar, mates, walking the dog, cuddles with Koda, a lot of things give me joy. Footy does too, but you can’t rely on that for the rest of your life, you need other things in case it’s taken away from you. I love my job as well, I love working with other people.

The biggest lesson I learnt in life was from Gran. When I was younger, I would say “I want to do this, I want to do that” and she’d say “Chels, it’s great talking about it, but you have to make it happen.” I got that tattooed on my arm, it is a great reminder to stop talking about things and chase our dreams.

The AFLW Crows 2020 season kicks off next Saturday, February 8, against Brisbane at Queensland’s Hickey Park.

Do you want to talk to us about your South Australian life, or do you know someone whose story should be told? Send us an email.

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Subscribe now and go in the monthly draw* to WIN a $100 voucher!