The self-belief of Ash Brazill
Ash Brazill isn’t on a mission to change the world. But the 29-year-old Collingwood Magpies Netball and AFLW powerhouse knows she can lead by example, and that many people – younger women especially – look up to her.
Brazill was the first elite netballer in Australia to publicly come out as gay. She did so as a young New South Wales Swifts recruit. Six years later, in January 2016, she married her partner, Brooke Grieves, in a civil union in Western Australia’s Margaret River region. Just a few months on, more than 50,000 people had watched the publicly uploaded video of their moving celebration.
“Am I a role model [for the LGBTQI community]? I don’t think so,” Brazill says thoughtfully when we meet at the cafe of the Holden Centre, the Magpies’ state-of-the-art training base on the banks of the Yarra. “I’m not going to go out and wave a rainbow flag in front of anyone, but I am going to live the way I’ve been brought up,” she continues, mentioning her parents’ ongoing love and respect for each other and the fact they still walk down the street hand in hand. “We’re just two girls who have fallen in love and we’re not afraid to show that. Hopefully people can see they can do that as well.”
Brazill arrived fresh from training in black T-shirt and trackpants, her dark brown hair swept up in a loose topknot. Her shoulders are powerful and she has the sun-burnished glow of an elite athlete. It’s less than 48 hours since Israel Folau posted on Instagram a warning that hell awaits “those that are living in Sin”. His list included drunks, atheists and homosexuals, among the other usual suspects. The devoutly religious Wallabies superstar – and former professional NRL and AFL player – has in the past also expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage.
“I think about how I would have felt as a 17-year-old if my idol [Australia’s most-capped netballer, Liz Ellis] had written that,” Brazill says. “It would have broken me.”
Brazill feels that, as a public figure, the onus is on her and others like her to be accepting of people’s life choices. “I think we are very fortunate to be able to use our public profiles to put out messages and it’s disappointing when people use that in a negative way,” she says.
Perhaps the sting from the Folau comments hurts even more because his wife, Maria Folau (née Tuta’ia), is one of New Zealand’s – and the world’s – most respected netballers of the past 15 years. But Brazill harbours no resentment towards the rugby union player’s wife of 18 months. “I can only talk about the way Maria’s been with me and she’s always been lovely. When Brooke and I got married I got a message off her saying congratulations, and she liked all the [social media] posts.”
Born in the NRL heartland of Campbelltown in Sydney’s western suburbs, Brazill moved with her parents and brother to the NSW Southern Highlands town of Bargo as a young girl. It was there her passion for Aussie rules was born when she and her year 4 classmates teamed up to play in the Paul Kelly Cup.
“None of us knew what AFL was [when we started, but] we ended up being state champions,” she says, her silver-blue eyes lighting up.
That love of competing was also helped along by her sporty parents. “My mum was a national high jumper and Dad played junior cricket, rugby league, rugby union, all for NSW.”
Brazill spent the first two years of her senior netball career with the Swifts, and the next six with West Coast Fever – where she met “WA girl” Brooke and in 2012 was playing for East Fremantle in the West Australian Women’s Football League, unbeknown to then Fever coach Norma Plummer. Brazill got “caught out” after being named WAWFL Rookie of the Year and was called in to the Fever office. “It wasn’t even a choice. Plum was just like: ‘You’re not playing footy.’ ” She didn’t take the field again until 2015, when she played five games for Swan Districts.
By 2017, Brazill was ready for a fresh challenge in netball and made the move to Collingwood. “I was just at a stage where I knew if I stayed [with Fever] I probably was going to turn into the player I was trying to get other people to not be,” Brazill explains.
The launch of the AFLW – with a Collingwood team assured – had no bearing on her decision. “I always thought, ‘When I retire from netball I’ll give footy a go.’ To be completely honest I don’t know if I respected AFLW too much at that time. I believed and still believe Suncorp Super Netball is the strongest female league in the world.”
It was actually an exceptional first year with Magpies Netball that led to Brazill getting back out on a footy oval. Controversially, despite “the best season I’d ever had”, the accomplished midcourter missed Australian Diamonds selection that year.
“My coach at the time, Kristy [Keppich-Birrell], said if I didn’t make Diamonds she would allow me to play footy, thinking I would make the squad,” Brazill recalls, taking a sip of her flat white. “When I didn’t, I just said, ‘Remember how you said…’ ”
Keppich-Birrell quickly regretted her promise, but the pair reached an agreement. “I had to do heaps of tests,” says Brazill, “and meet with different doctors, physios. And I had to prove myself – 2k time trials, kicking. But I think because I had played footy before that was a big advantage.”
The first season of AFLW saw Brazill dogged with hamstring injuries and she played just two games. When Magpies Netball hired a new coach, Rob Wright, for 2019 she was concerned she might again be banished from the football field. But Wright was on board and she pulled on the boots for five matches, with time out mid-season to recover from a concussion.
“The league has just gone to a whole other level,” Brazill says proudly. “One thing I’ve really enjoyed is seeing these girls playing Saturday footy turning into elite athletes and really taking advantage of the facilities all of the clubs have. I’m still learning the game and I love that, and I think by doing that I’m actually enjoying my netball more.
“Everyone always asks, ‘Is it a dream come true?’ But I don’t think you’d ever dream of something like that,” she says of playing two codes at an elite level back to back in one year. “To be able to challenge my body and, I guess, my mindset in two different ways is just unreal.”
And challenge her body she does. The week we meet she has achieved personal bests in every weights session. “I hate running,” she tells me. “And I worry about the day that footy and netball stop because the Italian genes run strong – I love my food. But the weights room is my strength.
“I squatted 150 [kilograms] the other day. The girls were laughing and I was laughing. The majority of the [Magpies Netball] girls do 80, then Kimmy Rav [Ravaillion] is doing 120. Kim and I, we’re the two little ones in the team and we’re, like, ‘Yeaaah!’ ”
Despite the legalisation of same-sex marriage, Brazill and wife Brooke, who have been a couple for almost six years, don’t feel the need to marry again in the eyes of the law. “We just feel like we’re married,” Brazill says. “We did everything a marriage does, manually and in our own quirky way – Brooke changed her name legally, power of attorney, next of kin...”
The “Yes” vote did affect Brazill in one way, however. “No one in my life ever treated me different, so I didn’t actually understand how big a thing [being gay] was until the ‘Yes’ vote. To see the numbers for ‘No’, to know that it’s still a big thing. I’m one of the lucky ones who has an amazing network, but to know some people don’t have that support…
“I told my parents when I was 17. I grew up in a Catholic–Italian home. At the time it was the toughest thing I’d ever gone through,” Brazill explains. “It took me two years to tell my parents because I wasn’t sure myself and I didn’t want to be gay. I was fighting my own demons before I had to fight anyone else’s. I think that’s why I’m just so confident with it because I had to figure out who I was when I was 16, 17. No one can really break that now.”
Brazill, who loves being outdoors, in the surf, on road trips, or trying her hand at videography, has carried that unbreakable spirit throughout her netball career – overcoming career-threatening injuries and the disappointment of missing out on Diamonds squads.
“I would love to play for Australia again. I know the World Cup squad has been picked but anything’s possible and I’ll definitely be putting my hand up as high as I can the first few rounds [of Suncorp Super Netball, which starts this weekend]. I want to make it hard every year for Lisa [Alexander, the Diamonds coach] to say no to me.”
But beyond the dreams of premierships and World Cup and Commonwealth Games glory, there’s one thing Brazill wants more than any other. “To have kids; to be a mum,” she answers without hesitation. “Brooke and I both want to be mums.”
Another dream is for acceptance of homosexuality in all sporting codes.
Brazill says while she doesn’t know if any AFL players are gay, she hopes they would feel able to come out if they were. “But it’s really tough. And I think guys cop it way more than girls do.”
Brazill also says she can see that the AFLW has helped move Collingwood FC away from that “macho man” footy culture. Still, she recognises “it’s very difficult saying, ‘I’m gay’ when no one else is”.
“With AFLW a lot of the girls are gay so it’s very easy to just be like, ‘Oh yeah, this is my girlfriend’, and not have that judgement. I think once we have one footballer come out, it’ll be a different world.”
It’s clear Ash Brazill’s strength doesn’t just come from well-muscled shoulders and quads that deserve their own postcode. Her sense of self sets her up as someone who will be long admired both on and off her chosen playing fields. Her message is powerful but simple.
“Know who you are and be proud of that,” she says. “Because no one can take that away from you.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 27, 2019 as "Razzle Brazill". Subscribe here.