SUTHERLANDS RIVER – Nowadays, for anyone who meets Gillian English for the first time it likely wouldn’t shock you that she’s an athlete.
For those who knew her in high school the reaction might be shocking or lead to disbelief – is this the same Gillian English we’re talking about?
Even she is a little surprised that she started playing Aussie Rules Football in the Australian Football League (AFL) Ontario with the High Park Demons, but now four years into her playing career as a 29-year-old woman, she will represent Canada at the AFL International Cup, Aug. 9-23 in Melbourne, Australia.
“This is the least likely thing to happen ever. If you asked anyone I went to high school with or if you looked at my high school class – I mean I was on the debate team,” she said. “I was incredibly academic. It was enough of a shock that I didn’t go into law school and that I went to acting school and got my masters in Shakespeare. This is incredibly unlikely and the fact that I’m doing this is insane and makes no sense. I’m the least likely athlete ever, but I’m excited about it and I’m going to do it anyways.”
Originally from Sutherlands River, English now lives in Toronto where her acting career is based. She is also the artistic producer of The Theatre Elusive. Playing in the AFL is something that she loves to do alongside her acting, being a playwright and comedian.
It all started when she was temping with a mining company four years ago. The majority of the staff were Australians, with the president also being AFL Ontario’s president.
“It was the first year for a women’s division and they were just recruiting like mad because they just wanted numbers,” she said. “I thought if I started playing football that I could keep my job for longer, which is flawless logic. They did offer me the job full-time if I quit performing, which wasn’t really something I was willing to do. I no longer work for them, but I kept up with the football because I loved it.”
It wasn’t the most glorious start for her, with the first two training sessions putting a beating on her body. She had three charley horses between the field and the subway station the first day, and after the second day of training she hurt so bad she needed an ice bath.
“After that I was OK,” she said. “It didn’t hurt so bad by training number three, but the first two were pretty rough.”
Canada will have two representatives at the International Cup in August, with English playing on the Midnight Suns. Papua New Guinea and New Zealand pulled out of the tournament, which is played every three years, meaning Canada and the United States were asked to send two squads. Australia doesn’t play in the tournament because it’s assumed they would win, which according to English is correct because for many of their athletes they play at a professional level unlike other countries. The second Canadian team is the Northern Lights, which is generally referred to as Canada’s ‘A’ team.
“I’m well aware that this is my only chance to play for Team Canada,” she said. “In three years maybe I’ll have the time to dedicate to being as fit and spectacular as the girls on the Northern Lights, but my acting career is really picking up right now, so I don’t think I’ll have that time. Papua New Guinea isn’t going to pull out twice, so it’s now or never. I seized my opportunity and I’m going.”
This accomplishment by English is also significant because it’s only the second time there has been a women’s division at the International Cup, the first being in 2011. She got her call because of her play at nationals last year in Ottawa, which was a significant learning experience.
“For me I play fullback and when you play fullback – which is defence – for a team that always wins, you don’t always get to do a lot,” said English. “You work on your shoulder tan, but if the ball never comes your way you don’t get to do too much. Nationals was a huge learning experience for me because I think I got more action in that tournament than I had in the last three seasons. I got to talk to the head coach of the Northern Lights, which is the Canadian ‘A’ team. It was really nice and he got to see my play. I still wasn’t Northern Lights material, but it was really good.”
The Midnight Suns open the tournament on Aug. 10 against Tonga, with matches against USA Freedom (Aug. 13), Ireland (Aug. 18) and USA Liberty (Aug. 20) to finish the round-robin portion of the International Cup.
“It’s going to be a tough tournament and I’m going to come out as one human-shaped bruise, but it’s going to up my level of play so much and it’s going to be such an amazing experience.”
Aussie Rules Football quick hits
Number of players: 18 per team
Field: Oval shape. Should be between 135 to 185 metres in length and 110 to 155 metres wide.
Match duration: Four 20-minute quarters. Time is stopped after scoring, ball out of play or the umpire’s discretion.
Scoring: There are four goal posts. Scoring between the middle two is six points, while scoring on the outside (a behind) is worth one point. The team with the most points at the end of the match wins.
Ball movement: Teams can move the ball in any direction by handballing, kicking the ball or running with the ball. Throwing the ball is not allowed.
Defence: Players can tackle below the shoulders and above the knee.
Source: AFL website
On Twitter: @NGNewsChris