Georgia Nanscawen was 16 when she found out she was going to become a Hockeyroo. She was riding the tram from Olympic Park into Melbourne Central to meet her mum, Kerryn, when the email landed, and her hands started shaking. She recalls getting off the tram, spotting her mum, racing across the road, and bursting into tears.
“Mum still says that I nearly got hit by multiple cars,” Nanscawen, now 26, says with a wry smile. She debuted the day after she turned 17, and became an Olympian in 2012, aged 20. Her curly red hair made her hard to miss as her powerful 160 centimetre frame bustled around the forward line. She played 205 international matches over the next eight years.
This weekend, when the Hockeyroos take on Holland and Belgium in Melbourne to begin their campaign in the International Hockey Federation’s new Pro League competition, Nanscawen will be in Hobart at the dawn of a whole new sporting life.
She signed with North Melbourne to play Australian rules football in May 2018, and is hoping for the chance at another debut performance when her new club plays its first AFLW match against Carlton in Tasmania.
As a girl, Nanscawen loved her footy. She used to practise taking speckies over her dad, Peter, by throwing a balloon over his head in the family living room. “I think he’s got back problems now,” she says, laughing. But like many girls of her era, Nanscawen had no football pathway to follow. Now, she’s hoping that women’s footy can give her “a new lease on sport”.
Her mum’s sport of choice was hockey, so Nanscawen had a stick in her hand before she could waddle. She soon joined the Essendon Hockey Club, and by the time she was nine, her dream was to play for Australia. She pauses to impersonate her younger, whinier self, for added effect – “I wanna play for Australia.”
Nanscawen’s road to North Melbourne began when she took a hiatus from hockey in late 2017. Her decision was quickly noticed at Arden Street. Laura Kane, North’s football operations manager, went to school with Nanscawen at University High.
Unbeknown to North, Nanscawen had already decided to play football at Swan Districts in the WA Women’s Football League. When the message from AFLW list manager Rhys Harwood reached Nanscawen, asking if she was interested in playing footy, her response was simple: “Well … as a matter of fact, I am!”
North’s invitation arrived at the perfect moment. Eight years in the Hockeyroos’ high-pressure environment had taken a toll on Nanscawen. Her mind was open to fresh possibilities.
There had been highs. In fact, 2014 was one long high, where the Hockeyroos won silver at the World Cup in The Hague, gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and silver at the Champions Trophy in Mendoza. The three medals now hang in a frame on Nanscawen’s wall, alongside her Hockeyroos bodysuit.
Then there was the low – missing the final squad of 16 for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Nanscawen was on song at the end of 2015, and received glowing feedback from her coaches after the season-ending World League Finals tournament in Argentina. When training resumed, she found she’d gone from the first-picked to the fringes without playing another match.
“We came back after Christmas and went to Singapore for a four-nations tournament, and before even playing, I was on the outer again,” she says. Nanscawen played one game in the four-match tournament.
“I was like – what has happened? And that shot my confidence.”
Her fate was sealed when she failed to score a goal in the final Olympic lead-up event, the Champions Trophy in London. Nanscawen went to Rio as one of the three reserve players, who had to stay in a hotel rather than in the athletes’ village. “That in itself was this whole emotional journey, because you still have the potential to play right up until the last game … but you know you’re not fully a part of it,” she says.
The Hockeyroos were knocked out in the quarter-finals, and a new coaching panel came in to lead the team towards the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Nanscawen was still adamant she was going to try and “go around again”.
The new crew shifted her to the backline, and the initial feedback she received wasn’t great. “I was feeling pretty down about it, and I think that was the real spark. It made me think, ‘Am I really enjoying doing this?’” she says.
Upon reflection, Nanscawen knows that positive feedback wouldn’t have changed her underlying feelings. “I’d wake up on a day of training and not feel any of that excitement that I used to. I was like, ‘Why are you doing it if you’re not excited?’ That’s why you play sport,” she says.
When Nanscawen formally announced her retirement from international hockey and signed with North, she became the second former Hockeyroo to join the AFLW. Georgie Parker was the first when she joined Collingwood for the 2018 season. Asked if she expects footy to pull more current and future athletes away from hockey, Nanscawen answers simply.
“I think so,” she says. “In hockey, we were lucky, and we were funded quite well. But I know a lot of the other Olympic sports aren’t.” She points out the raw numbers – over 300 women can play AFLW, but there can only be 16 Hockeyroos. “You’ve just got better odds.”
The biggest challenge thus far for Nanscawen at North has been fine-tuning her skills, especially under pressure. The Kangaroos plan to use her on a half-forward flank. “Every session is scary because you’re very much out of your comfort zone,” she says.
It goes without saying that Nanscawen is competitive, and wants to succeed in AFLW, but in a way, her change of codes has already been a success. “It’s been a challenge, but that’s what I enjoy.
“It’s been good fun, and it’s been that refreshing change that I needed.”
This story is co-published by The Guardian.