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Current dialogue around women’s sport, with its chorus of ‘pathways’ and ‘opportunity’, begs the question—what does navigating the world of professional sport really look like?

The launch of the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League and Women’s AFL League well and truly brought women’s sport not just onto our television screens, but into public discourse. The past few years have seen significant investment in women’s sport from media and sporting bodies. While many will concede that there’s a long way to go, last year’s pay deal from Cricket Australia which made a move towards gender equity, or Netball Australia’s 2016 expanded parental policy provisions, have demonstrated that progress is (finally) being made.

Lucille Bailie

Many of us, particularly aspiring athletes or the parents of young athletes, are left to consider what a career in sport—including post-playing days—might actually look like for a young woman.

For over three decades, the Canberra Capitals have fostered great players—from hall-of-famers like Lucille Bailie, to current talent, such as Marianna Tolo. Meanwhile, up and coming athletes like Tilly Bean have their sights firmly set on a career with the team.

Marianna Tolo has garnered success in the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL), playing for the Canberra Capitals as well as the Australian Opals. She’s a woman who is truly in the thick of professional sport.

Marianna’s talent, nurtured by her family, saw her progress from the Mackay City under-12’s, to a Queensland representative team, to Australian National under-19s camp, and an Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) scholarship that led to her signing with the Canberra Capitals. But at a time when Marianna was experiencing huge success, she also faced barriers to becoming professional.

“At the start, when I was semi-professional, juggling work and study and basketball made a big impact on my life. Because I wasn’t earning that much money in WNBL, I did need to work on top of that.

“But I was also preparing for a life after sport—that’s why I was studying. That really made it tough, and it probably took away from each of the aspects.”

Marianna Tolo

It’s a catch-22, and a problem that’s circumvented by many athletes in the United States or Europe who receive scholarships and salaries—a lifestyle that Marianna experienced playing in overseas leagues, including Los Angeles, France and Turkey.

“That’s what I really liked about Europe. I was a professional athlete, so having recovery and that sort of thing in between every session was really important, and I got a lot out of it.”

In Australia, women across many sports face not just the dilemma of staying afloat financially, but also of preparing for life after retirement. It’s a universal truth that a career as an athlete is short-lived, and inadequate preparation can leave former athletes without an income, or an identity outside of sport.

Preparing for life after sport doesn’t just require study or work experience, but the visibility of role models like Carrie Graff or Jess Bibby—women who’ve ridden the wave of success in professional basketball and come out the other side to achieve success in different roles.

Lucille Bailie is one such individual—a name that holds as much merit in Basketball Australia’s Hall of Fame as it does as the Chief Executive Officer of the Physical Activity Foundation or General Manager of the University of Canberra Capitals. She credits her success, in part, to balancing her basketball career with work.

“In my mind, the optimal formula is to play sport, give it your best shot and explore every possibility, but always have a complementary trickle or stream of study or work. Not only because you might land there if sport doesn’t come through, but also because it’s good to be connected and grounded and to keep things in perspective.”

While study and work contribute to preparing for life after basketball, the sport itself teaches players valuable lessons to carry with them throughout life.

At 14, Tilly Bean is an aspiring professional player who’s in the early stages of her basketball journey. Like many players, she began playing as a child in an Under 10s team, and has spent years and countless hours dedicated to improving her skills. Recently, Tilly was selected for the Under 16s National Team and the Pacific School Games. In addition to making friends and learning to work as part of a team, she says basketball is teaching her resilience and the value of hard work.

Tilly Bean

“I’ve learned that setbacks aren’t a failure,” she says. “They are there for a reason and that reason is to better yourself. Just like school assignments and tests, if you don’t put one hundred percent in, you will never get your best result.”

Marianna is quick to credit basketball with teaching her life skills.

“As a young girl, I was very reserved and quiet. Basketball has taught me to be proud of who I am. Being a really tall girl, I struggled growing up…you know what kids are like. You can say what you want, but I get to represent Australia because of this height.”

Lucille says basketball prepared her for many of her professional roles, including important lessons in leadership.

“Sport has taught me how to do a lot of things. You’ve got to handle adversity, you’ve got to be able to communicate effectively under pressure, and you’ve got to be inclusive. Sport is really like a condensed experience of life.”

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in pursuing professional sport is that a career isn’t guaranteed—so much of your success rides on being selected for a team. Missing out can lead to feelings of rejection and failure, something that Tilly experienced when she missed out on a much-desired team inclusion. But it can also spur determination.

“I spent a year just training with the squad. I was given feedback on what I needed to improve on so I spent that year working on my handles. It was a hard year watching my peers travelling as a team and getting court time, but I dug deep and got myself ready for selection the following year. And I did it!”

Marianna has experienced similar situations herself, as well as seeing them happen to her peers.

“I do think we’re a lot better these days at helping girls to go through it. It’s about going through the right processes of selection and encouraging them to keep going regardless of whether they’ve been picked in this team or not—because there’s always different teams every year.”

“It teaches you persistence and work ethic. I think sport people know that in order to get somewhere, you have to work really hard. Perhaps it’s a generational thing too—I think kids these days think you can have whatever you want, but it’s the hard work that goes on underneath that’s undersold. I think sport helps you to realise that.”

For those who do reach professional status, Marianna says the conditions are getting better.

“Especially in the WNBL, we’re making some good changes,” she says. “We’re getting minimum salaries now, we’re changing the times that we have practice to allow girls to be able to fit in uni or work as well.”

“Last season, there was a minimum wage of $7,500, which isn’t much, but it’s a first step to change, because there’s a large discrepancy of wages in the league. In the same team, one person could be earning $100,000, whereas one of the players could be earning $2,000. That makes it very tough for some players to get to that level of playing.”

In terms of assisting athletes to prepare for a career in—and after—basketball, Marianna says that she’s also seen an increase in the level of support that players receive.

“At Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence at the AIS, they have a good program with athlete career and education. There’s more involvement with each player. In the WNBL, as a professional league, we have a players’ association that has resources to help with those sorts of things.”

For young women like Tilly, there is the feeling that while it may be dotted with barriers, there is a pathway to a career in professional basketball.

“It’s a bit tricky,” she says, “but I believe that you create your own pathway, so I have to keep working hard and believing in myself and my pathway will come.”

Thank you to the guys at Lonsdale Roasters for the use of their basketball court.

PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Bean

This article originally appeared in Magazine: RISE for Spring 2018, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here.

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