MELBOURNE, June 17 (Reuters) - Professional Australian Rules football might seem an unlikely setting for a basketballer to warm up for the Olympics but it gave Tessa Lavey a physical boost and vital emotional salve in the wake of a family tragedy.
The 28-year-old point guard will head to Tokyo for her second Olympics as part of the Australian ‘Opals’ team after playing six games for the Richmond Tigers in the top-flight women’s Australian Football League (AFLW).
Aussie Rules, hugely popular in the country’s southern states, is not for the faint-hearted and Lavey had to weigh the risks of playing the bruising, full contact sport only months before Tokyo.
Yet after her brother’s sudden death in an accident, she said a voice inside her told her to go for it, reminding her that life was short and the future unwritten.
“I’ve been a mad Richmond supporter my whole life and then during COVID last year my brother passed away and so that really influenced me to just go do it, go get life,” Lavey told Reuters in an interview.
“It was a pretty wild time in our lives, for sure. He was a mad Richmond fan as well so I can definitely see him looking down at the moment.
“He’d be really proud of what I’ve achieved and I guess, cheering me on.”
While playing pro basketball for nearly a decade, Lavey had never played so much as schoolgirl footy before joining Melbourne club Richmond.
Her only education in the game came from booting the ball around with her brothers during childhood on the family farm in the Mallee, a dusty, pastoral district in southern Victoria.
But after reaching out to the Tigers she was soon training with Nathan Chapman, one of the club’s development coaches who has helped turn Australian footballers into NFL punters.
Picked by Richmond in the 2020 AFLW draft, Lavey said her first bone-jarring collision on her debut against the Collingwood Magpies in February was a “rude shock”.
However, she was instantly smitten by the pace and skills of the game played on sprawling pitches the size of cricket grounds.
Basketball and Aussie Rules appear quite different on the surface but both require serious fitness and quick decision-making. Players with basketball backgrounds are not uncommon in AFLW, where size and elite handling skills are prized.
Lavey said her basketball training was useful in the heat of a contest for possession of the football.
“In footy, if you get the ball and don’t do anything with it, you’re going to get smashed,” she said.
“I had an Opals camp directly after my AFLW season ... A few of the girls were asking: ‘Have you gotten faster?’
“So I think footy really helped me with getting the ball and being aggressive with it.”
Lavey was a member of the Olympic team that was knocked out of the basketball quarter-finals at Rio five years ago.
The disappointing exit broke the Opals’ streak of medalling at every Games from 1996-2012.
They bounced back to be runners-up to the United States at the 2018 World Cup and are seen among the biggest threats to the Americans’ bid for a seventh successive Olympic gold.
Lavey said her team’s mix of youth and established talent like centre Liz Cambage was a good platform for success.
“There’s a huge feeling that we’re going to get redemption for Rio,” she said of missing the 2016 podium.
“There’s a hunger there that’s going to drive us to perform and not let that happen again.” (Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)