Erin Phillips is South Australian football royalty, a champion of champions, who will play her final AFLW game on Saturday after announcing her retirement. She sat down with SALIFE in August for a long-ranging interview ahead of her final AFLW season.
Erin Phillips on AFLW retirement: “I’m so glad my football journey will finish at Alberton”
For most of her life, Erin Phillips’s dreams seemed heart wrenchingly out of reach, impossible to even imagine.
As a young girl in the 1990s, Erin dreamed of playing AFL football, just like her dad, Port Adelaide champion Greg Phillips.
But what were the chances of a woman playing league footy?
Years later, then a young woman, Erin dreamed of a legal same-sex marriage to her partner Tracy Gahan, and together the couple hoped to create a family through the emotional maze of IVF – but what were the chances?
Now, 30 years down the track, it seems chance was a fine thing.
Incredibly, Erin is about to embark on her eighth season as an AFLW player. She is a pioneer of women’s Australian rules football and has become the competition’s most revered and decorated player.
That’s hard to fathom given Erin’s last game of competitive football prior to AFLW was as a 13-year-old with SMOSH West Lakes.
When SALIFE talks to Erin, she is home with Tracy, now her wife, and is cradling their fourth child, newborn daughter Londyn Skye. Nearby, the couple’s older children, twins Blake and Brooklyn, six, and Drew, four, play and laugh.
When Londyn was born on June 8 this year, Erin took to social media to simply say, “Welcome to the world baby girl. We love you more than you can imagine. Our family is complete.”
Londyn’s birth marked a beautiful bookend moment for Erin and Tracy and the family they have created together, despite the odds.
But beyond the happy family snaps and the footy stats, the Erin Phillips story encapsulates so much more. This is a fable about chasing your dreams, no matter what the odds; of following your heart, despite the judgement; and of owning and embracing your place in the world regardless of the naysayers … and there have been plenty of those.
As a primary school kid at West Lakes Shore School, Erin always felt different. She had short hair and looked like the boys she used to play football with.
“I loved my time at school and I had great teachers, but my group of friends were so different to me,” she says. “I was always playing at lunch and recess with the boys because a lot of the time the girls sat in circles. I never understood why that would be fun. I did it sometimes, but not often, maybe when it was pouring rain.”
A naturally sporty kid, Erin began playing competitive footy at age seven for SMOSH West Lakes, usually the only girl on the field, but that didn’t faze her.
She was tough, competitive and talented and, just like all the boys, she dreamt of kicking the winning goal in a grand final at the MCG.
Sunday mornings were all about talking tactics with her dad as she prepared for her junior footy games.
“I’d be up early and I’d have my boots on and I’d ask Dad to draw up the oval and show me where I should run,” she says. “He would shake his head and say ‘you don’t need to worry about that, just have fun’, but I wanted to know everything.
“As soon as I was born, I wanted to be a footballer, just like dad.”
Sporting ability ran in the family and Erin’s older sisters Rachel and Amy were talented netballers, but it was Erin who inherited her father’s obsession with Australia’s national game. By the time Erin was a Seaton High student she idolised her father, an eight-time Port Adelaide premiership player who also captained the side from 1991 to 1993.
“We were part of the Port Adelaide family and we were around footy, and not just footy but success, premierships,” Erin says. “It was a great time to be around Port Adelaide. You’d go to games on a Saturday afternoon and it would be just packed, my mum (Julie) would be sitting in the grandstand and my sisters and I would be there sitting in sleeping bags, because it was so cold, watching.
“If it was at Footy Park, my dad’s mum, Pauline, would always go to the game. And my mum’s mum, Joan, used to sleep outside Football Park with her friends on the night before the game, with their thermoses of hot tea, just to ensure they got front row seats.
“My mum’s sisters came down and watched as well, so it was a big family affair, we loved it, lived and breathed it.”
Greg, who also played four seasons for Collingwood (Erin was born in Melbourne during these VFL days – hence her middle name, Victoria), owned and managed pubs in Port Adelaide, including The Lighthouse, The First Commercial and the Royal Arms. Life was about footy, family and the Port and the simple joy of this era is captured in black and white media photos of a tiny, blonde-haired Erin with her famous dad; kicking the footy with him, wearing the Port prison bar guernsey as she goes for a screamer on his shoulders, by his side holding up the 1990 Premiership Cup – always immersed in the club, the elation and the sporting moment alongside her hero.
Erin remembers jumping the fence at games at Alberton Oval and racing over to join the huddle, squeezing in next to her towering father wearing guernsey 22, listening to the rev up from coach John Cahill.
“Just seeing Dad out there, it was awesome,” Erin says. “Nan would get seats right near the race where the players came out and it was like seeing gladiators at the Colosseum. They were just my idols, these huge powerful strong guys. I idolised them and Dad was amongst it as well and I was in awe at how amazing he was, how amazing the team was and I just wanted to be out on the field with them.
“But Dad was also a big softie as well. He was the best girl-dad, because my sisters would paint his nails, so he’d go to training and forget about it and take off his boots and socks and the boys would get stuck into him for his painted nails, but he didn’t care, he was just ‘whatever’. He’s a very proud dad.”
By the time Erin turned 13 – and despite being one of the best players in the junior football competition – her football days were over; girls simply didn’t play footy beyond that age and the idea of a women’s league was completely unthinkable back then. It was a gut-wrenching reality, but one the talented young goal scorer was forced to accept.
Strategically, Greg introduced his young daughter to Australian basketballer Rachael Sporn in 1998, hoping to redirect Erin’s love of competitive sport onto the basketball court. It worked.
“I think he knew how hard it was going to be for me not to be able to play footy, but the sad thing about it was that I just accepted that it was the norm,” Erin says. “It was so unfair looking back. I thought: ‘that sucks’, but even now I think how unfair that was.
“But I remember shaking Rachael’s hand and looking up at this tall, amazing athlete and thinking, ‘how cool is she?’, and Rach is so gracious and kind and she literally just took five minutes of her time and all of a sudden, I found myself wanting to be just like her with basketball, even though I wasn’t that tall.
“There was definitely a shift in my mentality and it was very strategic of Dad to introduce me to someone like her given the fact he knew my football was coming to an end.”
Erin’s path in basketball started in the top Australian league – the Women’s National Basketball League – playing with the Adelaide Lightning from age 17 in 2002.
By 2006, she was on her way to the United States, drafted to the best women’s basketball league in the world – the WNBA – to the Connecticut Sun. She played nine seasons in the WNBA, winning two championships – one with Indiana Fever in 2012 and one with the Phoenix Mercury in 2014.
The versatile athlete also represented Australia at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, winning gold with the Opals. She was part of the Opals squad that won silver at the Beijing Olympics, gold at the 2006 World Championships in Brazil and bronze at the 2014 World Championships in Turkey. Football’s loss was basketball’s gain.
But before all of this, it was during her time with the Lightning that Erin met teammate Tracy, who was an import from the United States. Friendship soon developed into romance and the pair married in the States in 2014.
The couple has always been very open about their same-sex relationship, unintentionally becoming poster girls in many ways. When Erin was announced as the inaugural AFLW Best and Fairest medal winner in 2017, she naturally leant over and kissed Tracy: a photo of that kiss went viral and was splashed across mainstream media.
“I didn’t think about it when I won, it was a natural thing to kiss Tracy, so when I saw the stories, I was surprised and thought, ‘why would they print that picture?’, but then I understood,” Erin muses.
“You know, actually it is a significant thing to do, because same-sex marriage wasn’t legalised then and there wasn’t anybody else that I could think of who was quite publicly out there and had a family like us.
“It wasn’t a role that Tracy and I set out to do. I think in the end we were happy to be whatever people needed us to be. We were just going to keep continuing living our lives normally and if it just happened to help people who may have been opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage, if it helps them understand that, you know, we’re not evil, we’re good people, then that’s a good thing.
“We’re trying to raise a family and be happy and we find ourselves a bit of a boring couple, you know, just the normal. We have the same stresses in terms of worrying about our kids, time management, what to cook for dinner.”
The couple has always been very open about their IVF journey, with Erin describing the experience as “long and emotional”, and she hopes that by sharing their fertility experiences it may help normalise the conversation.
“We didn’t really ask people too many questions about IVF before we went through it because you feel like you don’t want to pry into their lives,” she says. “So, we just thought that we were going to have success straight off the bat and then you run into all these complications and things that you never thought were possible. And, you know, it’s then two years down the track, thousands of dollars out of pocket and no baby.
“So, I think, our process – it was two years to get the twins – and we’d had three failed attempts of IUI (intrauterine insemination) and then we tried IVF, so it’s just a very emotional unknown, you can’t bet on what’s next.
“But so many people reached out to us, and we soon quickly realised how important it was to share our life. Although we’re still quite private, we’re open to people who want to talk to us and ask us questions, and we always answer them honestly and openly.”
The couple’s three older children, sons Blake and Drew and daughter Brooklyn were all born in the US, where the couple lived in the AFL off-season when Erin was an assistant coach with the Dallas Wings in the WNBA.
The family relocated to Adelaide from the United States when it became clear Erin’s dreams of playing AFL football would become a reality in 2016.
She was 30 years old when she first heard whispers that the AFL was looking into establishing a women’s competition, but she was sceptical.
It was Erin’s sister Rachel, who has worked in the accounts department at Port Adelaide for 15 years, who reassured her younger sibling that not only was this the real deal, but the Power were gunning to get her on board.
“I thought it would be a small league, I didn’t have any grasp on how big it was going to be, the whole idea sounded amazing, but I wasn’t sure what was on the table,” says Erin, whose sister Amy is married to former Port and Hawthorn star Shaun Burgoyne.
“Then Rachel said, ‘I think this is going to be big, and Port want you’. I was playing WNBA at the time, so I didn’t even know how this was going to work, and the following year was Rio (Olympics), so I was like, ‘how will I do this practically?’.”
The football dream stalled when Port decided not to enter the AFLW, and instead, the Crows managed to get a women’s team up and running. Erin then got a call from Crows’ head of football, Phil Harper, and the duo joked about the idea of Erin playing for anyone other than Port. But, by the time she hung up, Erin admits her mind was spinning.
“I was thinking: ‘it’s Adelaide, it’s playing footy in Adelaide, just think about that for a minute’. I just sat with that thought for a while,” she says. “How crazy if I actually played for the Crows, because I’ve said before that I’ve got black and white blood, which is true, I’ve been Port my whole life … but what if?
“I gave Dad a call and he was typical Dad, and said ‘absolutely go for it’. I’d been gone for such a long time and for Mum and Dad to see their daughter play football in Adelaide, I think for all of us, we just couldn’t believe it.”
Erin signed as a rookie for the Crows and co-captained the club from 2017 until 2020. She has since become the competition’s most-awarded player – a dual AFLW league best and fairest, dual grand final best-on-ground winner, triple premiership winner, three-time All-Australian, two-time AFL Players Association women’s MVP and two-time Crows Club Champion.
Just like her father, Erin established herself as a physical competitor, fierce and fit.
But her run of injuries, including rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee during the 2019 grand final, began to take a toll.
Yet, when Port Adelaide was finally granted a licence in May 2021 to enter the AFLW they had just one player in mind.
Erin inevitably made the heart-wrenching decision to leave the Crows, the team she had led and loved, to captain the inaugural Port Adelaide AFLW side.
“I was going back and forth, I was so emotional about the decision, I was so torn and I couldn’t sleep and Tracy couldn’t sleep,” she says.
“Tracy didn’t know about Port Adelaide, only what I’d told her, and we’d raised our kids at the Crows and they loved my teammates and my Adelaide coach Matt Clarke. But I felt like if I didn’t take this opportunity, the younger Erin inside of me would have said, ‘give it one year, one game just to say you did it, you got the opportunity’.”
Being named inaugural captain of the very first Power AFLW side was an added bonus. An emotional social media video shows the moment when Erin breaks the Port captain news to her doting father – finally she would be following in his giant footsteps on the hallowed ground at Alberton – the same ground she ran around on as a kid following her towering heroes.
“It was pretty emotional,” she says. “When I made the decision to leave Adelaide, it was really hard, I was a mess. But once I made the decision and then I walked through these doors at Alberton, I felt like it’s been the right decision. This is the final chapter.”
Round one of the 2023 AFLW season kicked off on September 2 when Port Adelaide faced off against Erin’s old team Adelaide in a showdown at Norwood Oval.
The Power star was keenly aware that 2023 also represents a time of inevitable change. After almost 20 years as a professional athlete, and as she prepared for this year’s season, this trailblazer knew the clock is ticking on her footy career.
She told SALIFE earlier this year: “I’m 38, so I’m conscious that I’ll obviously make a decision at the end of the year about what’s next. But I do find it funny because it’s sport and when you get to a certain age it’s almost like ‘when will you retire?’ becomes the question everyone asks. But I would never ask you when are you retiring, I would never ask people that, however I understand why, I get it, but I do wonder, if people kept asking you that same question, how would you feel?
“But I know my time is coming to an end and I’m quite comfortable knowing that the end of being an athlete is near – I feel fine. I will miss the game when the time comes to hang them up, I will absolutely miss being an athlete but I’ve invested a lot of time outside of being an athlete into making sure my life is in a good place. I have a very wonderful family to support me whatever I do.”
On Tuesday, October 31, Erin announced she would retire from the game, her last game now scheduled to be on Saturday, at Alberton playing against Greater Western Sydney; coincidentally the same team against which she played her first AFLW game back in 2017.
Erin, who has this year joined the coaching staff for Port Adelaide men’s side, says she has three options post football: an administrative role in the club, a coaching role, or a media role. Or perhaps a combination of all three and she has already made inroads into a radio career as part of the breakfast team on MIX 102.3.
“The problem with me is that if I don’t feel like I’m doing something 100 per cent well I get really frustrated,” she says.
“So, I’d like it to be doing one thing or maybe two things and on top of that I’m a mum which is a full-time job, so I just want to make sure, number one, my biggest goal is I want to have the freedom to spend more time with my family. Ideally I would love the flexibility to be able to travel back to where Tracy’s family are in the USA once a year. For so long Tracy has put her career on hold and supported me. I would like the chance to return the favour and support her career whatever she wants to do.
“I’m also looking forward to having some time away and just relaxing a little bit. I’ve been on the go for a very, very long time. I always say to Tracy I’m going to look forward to not having a schedule and she looks at me and says, ‘I wonder how long that will last?’.
“I would be all over the place if I didn’t have a routine but that is also an uncomfortable area that I’m looking forward to being in for a little bit, learning how to relax. I relax when I’m asleep.”
Away from footy, Erin is currently coaching Brooklyn’s under-six basketball team (“my first head coaching role” she jokes), and it seems little Brooklyn has inherited her parents’ competitive streak. She’s keen on all sports, but is yet to pull on the footy boots. Erin says Blake is more creatively minded and loves building things, while four-year-old Drew loves swimming, although he’s the one who will sit and watch an entire footy game with his mum. Watch this space.
The other major project in the works is a book Erin is writing about her remarkable life.
Due for release in March 2024, the book has been co-written by sports journalist Sam Lane, and Erin hopes it will be more than a good read – she wants the book to be a guide, a how-to manual for anyone struggling to find their way.
“It’s about my life, my experiences growing up in a family footy world but it’s also about growing up being the only female playing against boys,” she says. “It’s about me meeting my best friend, who turned out to be the love of my life who happens to be female, and navigating a same-sex relationship and then through the IVF journey rollercoaster.
“So, whilst it is a memoir of my life, I want it to be a resource for people to help them navigate their lives.”
The athlete, who was awarded an Order of Australia in 2021 for services to Australian rules football and basketball, says she has simple advice for those seeking happiness, for those who are still chasing their dreams.
“My dad always used to say,’ find something you love doing and do it well,” she says. “Earlier in pre-season, we had John Cahill in here at Alberton talking to the AFLW team and he gave a similar message, ‘Love what you do and you’ll do it well’. No doubt that’s where Dad first heard it.
“I’ve lived by that saying. There are going to be hard times, there are going to be people who tell you that you’re not good enough or that it’s not going to happen. But just keep doing things that make you happy and just be a good person. I think it’s as simple as that, really.”
This article first appeared in the August 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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