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Women to Watch: AWFL star Tayla Harris talks fighting sexism and domestic violence

To mark International Women’s Day, we are launching our Women to Watch in 2020 series. And what better way to kick it off than with an AFLW superstar Tayla Harris, who is now an Our Watch Ambassador.

By Sue Smethurst
Tayla Harris lifts the hem of her training shorts and grins. Her royal blue Carlton footy nicks hide a tattoo of American television doyenne Judge Judy in trademark 'talk to the hand' pose. The words 'Only Judy Can Judge Me' are inked underneath.
"It was a spur of the moment thing when it was all happening," Tayla says.
"I was feeling very high and mighty, and feeling like no one could judge me."
The 'it' she is referring to is the moment, 12 months ago, when an image of Tayla kicking a goal almost broke the internet – for all the wrong reasons.
It had begun as a normal Sunday afternoon of footy for the AFLW marquee recruit.
Tayla's beloved Carlton Blues were taking on bitter rivals the Western Bulldogs. It was a hard-fought game and the teams were neck and neck.
Then, as the clock ticked down and pressure mounted, Tayla marked the ball 40 metres out of the goal square. It was a crucial moment.
The 22-year-old took a few steps back, pacing herself, then launched a blistering kick.
Every tendon in her hamstrings visibly flexed to breaking point as her right leg stretched into a grand jeté-like leap, her toes almost touching the heavens.
She propelled the Sherrin straight through the goals.
"It was just another day at work for me," says the talented athlete. "That's just what I do."
It was a triumphant moment on the sporting field and Tayla's majestic athleticism was captured by award-winning photographer Michael Willson, who later posted the striking picture to 7AFL's social media page in recognition of Tayla's skill.
The powerful image rightly attracted high praise, but among the thousands of comments were also many so shocking that, within hours, 7AFL rushed to take it down.
Among the congratulations were dozens of explicit and grotesque threats of sexual violence and rape.
Others doctored the image, removing clothes and superimposing genitals on Tayla's body.
An incredible photo of an incredible kick, which became fodder for sexist social media trolls. Image: Getty
"What scared me most was that the people who posted them, by their own profiles, were clearly husbands and fathers pictured with their own daughters," she says.
"You have to be really sick in the head not just to think of those things, but to then actually write them publicly, not even anonymously.
"Some had tagged in other mates to their comments and they'd say, 'I'd like to do xyz to her ...' What are they thinking? I just can't understand it.
"I have a thick skin and I can scroll past it and not let it bother me. But I started to think about what would happen if this wasn't me reading it, if it was a young girl, a footy fan, or another woman playing sport who didn't have the same strength as me.
"I thought about what it would be like to read this and not be able to handle it, and it started to make me really angry. I understand 7AFL were trying to protect me, but taking it down wasn't the answer, I knew I had to fight back."
So rather than be beaten by the abuse, Tayla fought back.
On the spur of the moment, she re-published the image herself, declaring: "Here's a pic of me at work ... think about this before your derogatory comments, animals."
Then she went to sleep.
Tayla was the only Australian nomination on the BBC's '100 Women of 2019' list. Image: Getty
Overnight, the tweet raced around the globe gathering support, and suddenly the story of the young Aussie footballer ran in newspapers from London to New York, Ireland, the UK and Canada.
Akin to Julia Gillard's famous misogyny speech, Tayla's words unleashed an outpouring of emotion so profound that some argue it is a moment that will define a generation of young women.
Her tweet became the most liked social media post in Australia in 2019 and earned her the only Australian nomination on the BBC's '100 Women of 2019' list.
"At the time I didn't think about what I was writing, not to any great degree," she says.
"The tweet was a totally honest and instinctive response. I wasn't expecting anything to come of it, certainly not the response it received. It was overwhelming, amazing. I don't think I completely understand the magnitude of it yet."
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Fire beneath her feet

Tayla Harris was born with fire ants under her feet – she couldn't sit still.
From the crack of dawn until the Queensland dusk, the beach blonde poppet with braids and pigtails was on her flashy white BMX, belting around the streets of Brisbane's northern suburbs where the Harris family lived.
When she wasn't racing between her dad's marine workshop and her grandparents, who all lived nearby, she could be found fearlessly launching her bike into the stratosphere from makeshift ramps or jumps she'd constructed with big brother Jack.
In the family's spare time, they hit the water, skiing and wakeboarding. There wasn't time to sit still.
At age five, Tayla followed Jack onto the footy field and instantly found her place at the Aspley Football Club, despite being the only girl in her team.
At home, she decorated her bedroom walls with posters of her favourite AFL player, Brisbane's Michael Voss.
"I just loved playing footy," she grins.
"I didn't care who I was playing with – boys or girls – it didn't matter. I played because I liked it and it was fun, and I still only play because I enjoy it. The day I don't enjoy it is the day I'll happily walk away."
She says her sporting ability comes from her parents in equal measure.
Mum Lisa taught her a sense of self control and logic, while her father Warren gave her physical strength and courage.
"He's a big unit," she says cheekily of the man she clearly adores.
"He'd like me to describe him as built like the brick shithouse!"
At age 12, Warren took Tayla to the local gym to teach her the basics of self-defence – fortuitously as it turns out – in case she ever needed to protect herself.
He unwittingly introduced her to her second sporting love, boxing, and she's been training and sparring ever since.
The shorter AFLW draw gives her time to compete professionally in the footy off-season, and last year she won the Australian Female Middleweight Title. Of seven professional fights, she was won six bouts.
"There's a competitive streak in me, which I think I get from Dad," she smiles.
"I like to do my best, though I feel I'm competing more with myself than anyone else."
Tayla's talent and ability to effortlessly switch sports prompts comparison with another multi-talented Queenslander, Ash Barty. Tayla laughs.
After watching Ash play at the Australian Open, she was inspired to pick up a tennis racquet and have a go.
"I played with some friends but I was so hopeless! I couldn't keep the ball in the court. I just love Ash!" she says.
"I'd love to meet her one day."
Schoolgirls flank Tayla (centre) at the unveiling of her statue in September 2019. Image: Getty

Ambassador for change

Posters adorn the walls of the Carlton training gym where Tayla spends hours every week with her teammates working on her skills and crafting her elite body.
Sweat and liniment waft through the drafty halls of the weight room tucked under the old grandstand at the hallowed ground.
Some of football's most legendary names built their careers here, but today it is Tayla and her teammates who are writing a new chapter in the footy club's famed history.
Tayla never set out to be a role model or changemaker. She was just 'doing her thing' and living life to her best ability. But it is this very focus and composure that has ensured she will make her mark in the world.
And now the star athlete has become an ambassador for Our Watch, determined to add her powerful voice to the organisation's campaign for gender equality and the prevention of violence against women and children.
Patty Kinnersly is the CEO of Our Watch and a board member of the Carlton Football Club.
She has formed a strong bond with her young AFL charge and says without a doubt, Tayla's courage has already made a mark.
Tayla has also had a successful boxing career, with six wins and one draw. Image: Getty
"I think Tayla's story resonated with so many Australians because she immediately drew the link between disrespectful attitudes towards women and the abuse she encountered. It's not a joke, its not a bit of harmless banter online, it is violence and there is never any excuse for it," she insists.
Today, the image of Tayla that captured the world's attention has been immortalised in bronze outside the corporate headquarters of the National Australia Bank in Melbourne's Docklands.
Women and young girls regularly visit the statue, many of them imitating Tayla and sharing the love through the hashtag #morethanakick. The iconic image will be forever linked with fighting back, breaking down barriers and taking a stand against online harassment.
"If I'm doing something good for someone then I'm happy. I hope my legacy is greater off field than on," says Tayla.
"Our Watch is an organic connection for me. I'm very passionate about fighting online abuse, we have to call it out."
Patty predicts we are still to see the very best of Tayla Harris.
"By doing what she loves she is inadvertently breaking down society's expectations of what women and girls are capable of," she says.
"On top of that, Tayla has chosen to use her platform to talk about the impacts of online trolling and young women and how we can all call out disrespectful behaviour online when we see it – pretty admirable stuff.
"We often say 'you can't be what you can't see'. Tayla is out there for women and girls to see, and I personally look forward to a new generation of girls who say, I can be whatever I choose."
Follow our Women to Watch in 2020 series by purchasing The Australian Women's Weekly each month this year.
Read more in-depth interviews with Aussie stars in the March edition of The Australian Women's Weekly, on sale now.
The March issue of The Australian Women's Weekly is on sale now. Photography by Alana Landsberry.

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