The AFLW season is well underway, and it's not an understatement to say it has taken the country by storm. Sell-out crowds, bumper television audiences, and nail-biting finishes have driven the women's game to new and exciting heights.
With closer attention focused upon the players, stories of adversity, triumph, and blind determination have begun to emerge. Akec Chuot, rising star of the Fremantle Dockers, is one player with such a story to tell.
We sat down with Akec, or Susan to those who know her best, to find out a little more about her fascinating story: her time growing up in the refugee camps in Kenya, her move to Australia, and her eventual shift into football.
Q. Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I was born in 1992 in South Sudan, and left with my mum and my aunty when I was just a few months old. We moved to Kenya, and lived in Nairobi from 1993 until latest 1997, and then moved to the refugee camp in Kakuma. My other siblings and my grandma came over from South Sudan and met us in Kakuma.
We lived there for about twelve years, and in 2005, when I was twelve, we came to live in Australia.
Q. Where did you move to when you arrived?
We moved to Perth. We were initially meant to go to Melbourne, but two weeks prior to getting our visas and everything finalised, all of a sudden we got this message, yep, you're going to Perth now. What? Where's that? So it was like, okay, we're cool, we're cool to go, as long as it's in Australia. But, yeah, it was a really exciting time.
Q. What time of year was this?
It was May, Winter, so it was really cold. We had these massive jumpers, because we thought we were going to where snow was. We rock up and there is like no snow - I've been waiting for snow for like eleven years! It was night, and I remember seeing so many lights and cars on the street and how big the planes were - I was like "oh my god". And the airport was massive. I thought the Kenyan airport was big, but when I came to Perth airport I was like "woah!"
It was so exciting, I couldn't believe it because it took forever - to wait for the visa and all of that to be approved. For us to be approved to come to Australia and get our refugee status took about nine years.
Q. Did life feel stable in the camps?
Yeah. It was home. We lived there for twelve years, and we created a family and made friends. I think what made it easy in the camps is that they tried putting all the people from the same tribes in the same groups, so it made the transition very easy. And the UN were providing shelters and food and all of that.
Q. Can you remember the first time you were introduced to AFL?
Am I allowed to mention the Eagles? (laughs). When I came here, the game everyone wanted to watch was AFL… and I was like "what the heck is this?" Then we started watching it and the Eagles were hot at that time. And I thought, "okay, this is pretty cool".
And then in year ten, my teacher urged me to participate in this lightning carnival East Perth were organising. "Why don't you give it a try? Just go down to training, and see what you think". So I went to about three training sessions, and I was like, "okay, this is pretty good. This is not too bad."
And then one Saturday was this carnival, and I got dropped there and just started playing. And at the end of it, they gave me the MVP as best on ground. It was fun, but at the time footy wasn't my thing. And then I was like, "bye then, thanks, but not interested". And then I went off and played soccer for about three years.
And then in 2012, I felt this urge to see what I could do with footy and joined the Edmund Rice Centre where they had a boy's team. I just wanted to see what I could so. So I played one game with them, and they asked me if I wanted to come and join them for the season. "Play with boys?", and they were like "yeah, you can play with the boys". Which was cool. So I spent the season at the Edmund Rice Centre Lions, and I was their captain for that season. It was pretty cool. It's run by a community program, and basically they just play games when they can. It's not like a full on season. But, yeah, it was really fun.
Q. You were the captain?
Yeah, they just made me captain. It was just weird. I was like, "oh my god". Because I think I kicked better than most of the boys on the team (laughs). But it was cool because I kicked the first goal of the first game. So I had the respect from all the boys. So I finished that season off in 2012, and in 2013 I joined the Mt. Lawley Hawks.
Q. Did you play physical sports before AFL?
I played soccer, you don't get knocked out in soccer, you get tackled and stuff - but footy is much more hands on.
It's been really encouraging because back in Africa women are not allowed to play sports. I remember growing up in the refugee camp, and the boys are the only ones allowed to play soccer, and I had to sit on the sideline and just watch them. It was like, "far out".
So when I came to Australia, okay, there are all these opportunities for like playing sports, I can use this as something that can open doors for me.
Q. Do you think you have a certain passion for sports because it was deprived from you at an early age?
For me, the girls that don't get the opportunities that I get back in my country. When I went back the only thing they're allowed to play is volleyball. I went and started kicking a soccer ball with the boys, and they all look at me funny, like, "oh my god, where did she come from?" It's a no go zone.
So, for me, to inspire young girls to follow their dreams, whatever it is, is everything. If I can do it, you can do it too.
Q. A lot of these girls are going to see you on the TV. Do you think that's going to change anything?
I think it's slowly changed already. Because a lot of people are behind us. A lot of people have been so supportive. Fingers crossed, it's going to encourage more young girls to come pick up a footy, and play footy.
Q. Are you comfortable with becoming a role model?
Yeah, I'm at peace with that. Because I've had role models get me to where I am today, inspire me to be where I am today. So for me to be an inspiration to somebody else, it will be very selfish of me not to give back.
Q. So now you are deeply entrenched in football, what do you love about it?
What I really love about football is the family. How everyone comes together; the club culture. It doesn't matter whether you're short or tall, black, white, people are just there for football. That's all there is. No politics, none of that. It's this family that comes together as total strangers, and we're just family, and we just speak one language, and that's football.
Q. How does it feel to be part of such a close-knit team, and to have the support of a company like Woodside?
For me, the feeling you get is how we're all getting into something that's historic. This is something that's never been done before. And we are the first wave for women to do it. And to do it with these group of sisters… And to have the support of a great W.A. company like Woodside… It's hard to describe. Inspiring. And incredible. Because it's something that could be the last one, or could be the first of something that goes for hundreds and hundreds of years. To do it with this group, is, wow, unbelievable.
Q. How far away does Nairobi feel to you now?
I never thought I'd be here in this position. This is something that was never in my reach, I thought that it is just something people dream about. Dreams are just dreams, you dream about them, it does come true for some people, and for others they don't. But you just dream it anyways, as it keeps you excited. So, for me, it's like "man, it actually happened. Whoa."
Q. So, what's the next step in your journey? Do you aim to be the best in the competition?
In life, I don't put that thing in my head where I will be the best and all that… I will be the best that I can be. When I look back, say ten years from now when this whole journey's finished, I hope to be proud of myself for what I did. I did not just do it for myself, but I did it for my community. And I did it for my mum, because, for her to raise eight kids on her own, and for us to be where we are, I think we've done pretty good. To make our mum proud, is the reason why we all do what we do.
Q. Are there any insights you have learnt from the club?
Everyone is very welcoming, and how they just really care about us. And the journey we're about to embark on. To me, I'm like, "wow, these people do really care". It's really cool to be a part of this club. Some people dream of it. You grow up, and you wish one day I will play for Fremantle Dockers, one day I will do this. For me, it's real, I am playing for the Fremantle Dockers, and I am part of their club. It's a great feeling.