It is amazing how quickly times can change. Three years ago, Carramar Year 11 student Kayla van den Heever was a one-eyed rugby player. Now, she is on her way to fulfilling her dream of playing on the big stage, being selected for an exclusive AFL Women’s academy team and vying for a spot in the AFLW League.
“A few years ago I was happily playing rugby and it's funny because I had always kind of looked down on footy – I thought it was so messy and had no structure but then a good friend asked me to come down to train with the Joondalup Jets footy team and from the first session, I fell in love with it,” Kayla said.
“There was so much more to it [footy] than I ever anticipated; there’s more structure, game play and freedom, it’s just great.”
Kayla played one season with the Jets, earning Best and Fairest, before a scout selected her to play for West Perth Football Club.
“In the first five minutes of my first game with West Perth I broke my wrist and was out for the whole season!”
“I do think breaking my wrist helped me to develop more resilience because I could have easily walked away thinking it was too hard, but I made sure I went to every game and every training session while I was injured.
“You get another perspective on the sidelines and can hear what the coaches say so I learned a lot from that side and was able to implement that in my games on the field this year.
“It fired me up even more to play so well this year and I wanted to be able to show them what I could do.”
Kayla’s efforts are being noticed. She was selected for the Team’s Rogers Cup, which Kayla describes as “a step up from community footy that can lead to higher pathways” and was thrilled to be recently selected for the Simply Energy AFLW 17s 2021 Final Squad.
“When I saw my name on that list I thought, that is the coolest thing ever!” Kayla said. “You can get picked to play League from that!”
Kayla said the Final Squad is like an academy where they train together and play two development games before possible selection to play in an AFLW Futures match where scouts fill the stands.
Kayla is in the midst of the development games now and will soon find out if she is chosen for the AFLW Futures match.
“I’m only 16 – most people are drafted when they are 18 so hopefully, I get put into the League and developed so that when I turn 18, I can get picked for draft.”
Kayla plays the inside midfielder position and loves the freedom it gives her to play across the whole oval.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough - the level of physical strength and fitness is very high, and you need to be able to endure the 360-degree war zone for the entire 72 min of play.”
“The mental game is just as big, as you need to be able to think and read the game to make sure you are in the right position.”
Kayla credits her hand-eye coordination to her Dad who played professional cricket for South Africa.
“He always told me to keep my eye on the ball.”
“I got my ruthlessness from my Mum who played district hockey for her town in South Africa and she pushes me to play with all that I have till the end.”
Kayla’s dream is to be selected and play for the Fremantle AFLW team, following in her idol Kiara Bowers’ footsteps.
“The growth of the AFLW has inspired me - the community is developing rapidly and the pathways and opportunities for young, eager athletes are so much more advanced,” she said.
“It was also inspiring watching Kiara Bowers at the AFLW awards a few weeks ago – she works full time as a tradie, looks after her family and is able to balance everything and still be the best in the game.
“In the long term I still want to go to uni and study Sports Science and get into either physiotherapy or sports psychology… but I always knew that whatever I wanted to do in sport, I wanted to go to the highest level I could.”
Kayla is part of St Stephen’s School’s Propel Leadership Program and said some of the skills she has learned at School have transferred into her sporting career.
“I’ve definitely learned more about leadership and teamwork at School and that has helped me to listen more to others and see what individual skills everyone brings and working with that to build a really strong team.”
“I am very much faith driven, I am very blessed that God has given me these amazing talents and I’m going to utilise it as much as I can.
“I want to inspire people of all ages to get up after being knocked down by the challenges of life, and let them know that, in the end, if you keep pushing it’s going to make you stronger and you will go far, once you have that drive in you, people will see the fire in your eyes.”