At just 30 years of age, Wiradjuri woman and mother-of-three Kira-Lea Dargin has experienced more than many would in a lifetime – not that you would know. Unassuming and focussed, Kira-Lea is readily forthcoming when asked about her life experiences but in conversation, she modestly sticks to the topic at hand.
Kira-Lea’s remarkable journey with sport begun in her childhood in South Australia. As the only girl amongst her siblings until she was 14 years old, growing up with her football-playing brothers meant she dabbled in different codes without hesitation.
“All I knew was hanging out with the boys. My brothers actually played soccer and rugby, so I went to AFL for something different. It was high school-based and I never took it seriously because there was no women’s league at the time and, beyond schoolgirl squads, no career path,” she admits. “As for rugby,” she continues, “It was fairly new in South Australia and but I figured if I had to be there to support my brothers I might as well chuck on the boots and have a run! I was always a bit of a sporty kid, I didn’t mind putting hits on the other girls, especially if they knew that I was going to target them.”
In 2015, after an early diagnosis of nasal cavity cancer, Kira-Lea underwent surgery to remove her sinus tissue, astonishingly coming as close to 1mm to her eye in the process. The experience had a profound effect on the young mother and it wasn’t until this life-altering health battle that she then looked to play team sport again, something few facing such frightening circumstances would be compelled to do. Rather than being diminished by the unsettling experience, Kira-Lea was enlightened, finding a new perspective on life as well as a strong, renewed focus on her health.
Soon after her prognosis, Kira-Lea remarkably forged ahead with pursuing as many opportunities as she could – to the point where even she is incredulous how she does it all. Amongst daily life looking after her three children, she commenced a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Charles Sturt University, completed an Indigenous Fire and Rescue program through Fire and Rescue NSW and, of course, started to play gridiron with the University of New South Wales Raiders team.
“I was led to gridiron because I had some friends that played in the U.S. college football league,” she explains. “They came out to Australia and played out here for the opener of the college football season and really encouraged me to get involved in the Australian league. I didn’t know about it prior – it was a small, women’s modified version – so I went down to my local club at UNSW and said I wanted to have a run and get involved. They were really responsive, took me straight on board and it was all go from there! I found my feet here and fell in love with it,” she says with a smile.
The journey Kira-Lea has had with gridiron in just three years since she started playing is exceptional. After a highly dedicated and focussed approach to her rookie season with the UNSW Raiders in 2017, Kira-Lea took a very modern and enterprising approach to find out how she could play even more.
“I followed some girls on Instagram that were [playing] over in the U.S. so I sent out an expression of interest and they came back and said, ‘We’ve seen some footage of you and we think you’ve got a bit of guts behind you, the team’s really interested in having you,’” she laughs. “So they offered me a contract which I ended up turning down so I could stay home and play for NSW in the NSW State Competition.”
Before long, Kira-Lea followed through with the offer she received from the New York Wolves, displaying that same tenacity she did as a teen, taking the plunge to pursue play at an elite level in the U.S.A.’s Women’s Football Alliance League in 2019. The move meant she became the first female Indigenous Australian in history to play gridiron at a professional level in the country.
As with many professional women’s sports, financial sponsorship in the Women’s Football Alliance is still in its early stages – but growing. It was for this reason that Kira-Lea engaged with the Australian Sports Foundation to help with confirming sponsorship for her pursuits in the U.S.. Tax deductibility was a key driver in locking in funds from donors in order to cover travel, accommodation, fees and equipment costs to get her to the United States and, ultimately, make history.
“That opened up a lot of doors for me and really helped to build a personal brand, to get myself out there and get extra donors on board,” she says. “So that was really important. I approached businesses, organisations and individuals with a sponsorship document and said ‘This is what I’m doing, this is the current situation with women’s elite sport not being completely financed, these are my out of pocket expenses.’”
“I think it’s really important to note that my expenses were higher than most as well,” she adds. “I wasn’t just taking myself, I was taking my girls over too and so my donors accepted the fact that I’m not just an athlete, I’m a mother as well, and helped make sure that we got over there, we played the season out and my expenses were covered. That was really important to have that opportunity,” she nods.
Ultimately, Kira-Lea’s decision to pursue gridiron at a professional level in the U.S. has not only enabled her to have a life-changing, history-making experience, but also the unique opportunity for her daughters to both witness it and be involved in a significant moment for their mother and family.
“Going over there and playing was a life-changer. It’s opened doors to experiences I otherwise would have never had,” she says with a smile. “I really can’t explain the feeling of knowing I’ve played in the U.S. I look at footage and photos and just think ‘Holy cow, I really did that!’ Travelling to different cities every weekend...to be able to share that with my kids is amazing, they’ve definitely not had a regular childhood. It’s been a privilege.”
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