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Tori's story: from competitive skipping to AFLW

At 18, Tori Groves-Little already has a glittering CV. 

Last year she was the youngest ever player to win the Best & Fairest in Queensland’s premier women’s football league, the QAFLW.

When she was younger she was a multi-year Queensland state representative and an All-Australian. 

She’s always been one of those girls who are just naturally good at everything.

But before football, there was another sport that consumed her time.

Growing up in the small suburb of Beenleigh, halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Groves-Little’s story began.

The Skipping

In primary school, Tori Groves-Little was a competitive skipper.

Not a boat’s captain, a jump-rope specialist.

“It was my whole life, that’s what I wanted to do,” Groves-Little said.

Originally joining a charity team for her school called the Jumping Beens  in Grade 2, Groves-Little quickly showed her aptitude to the sport.

She joined a competitive team shortly after called the Beenleigh Skipping Bandits.

She was so good that she represented Australia in the 2012 Junior Olympics in Texas, winning a Gold Medal with her team.

She was 12 years old.

Her mum had just given birth to her sister weeks earlier, but Groves-Little was determined to compete.

In the weeks prior to the Olympics, she fundraised enough money to fund airfares and accommodation for herself and her mother for 10 days in Houston.

It was a big sacrifice, but it paid off.

Most of her teammates spent an extra week over there for a holiday straight afterwards, but Groves-Little was just happy to be there for the competition.

It was the birth of her competitive spirit.

Football debut:

Surprisingly enough, Groves-Little didn’t start playing AFL football until she was 13.

She’d played Rugby League and Touch Football casually – that’s what you played in Beenleigh.

“Both my primary and high schools were rugby league schools,” Groves-Little said.

“So I grew up playing and supporting Rugby League.”

And she was pretty good at it as well.

But it wasn’t until a Year 9 science class in high school that she started on the path to where she is today.

Her teacher, Liza Callaghan, asked her to play in the South Coast representative team that week.

Groves-Little just wanted the free day off school, so she agreed.

Plucked from nowhere, with no club football experience whatsoever, Groves-Little played her first game, in a representative match.

“We played at Maroochydore and I billeted and stayed with another family,” Groves-Little said.

“I reckon my biggest stuff-up in my first game was I’d keep thinking people had knocked it on.

“Everything was a knock-on to me but other than that I kind of got the hang of it after two or three games.”

In perhaps a sign of things to come, Groves-Little was selected for the Queensland U16 team off the back of her performances in that carnival.

She still was yet to play club football at this stage.

Representative football:

The accolades continued to follow Groves-Little the more she played.

It got to the point where she was practically forced to join her local club at Beenleigh by her U16 Queensland coach.

“They said if you want to continue to play rep footy you’ve got to play for a club,” Groves-Little joked.

In her first season at Beenleigh, her team won the Grand Final and she was named the league Best & Fairest.

She played U16’s again that year where she was tied for the Player of the Tournament at the National Carnival and named All-Australian.

Recognised as top-tier talent by this stage, the next year she joined the SUNS Academy.

That was the year she had her first concussion. 

READ: Groves-Little signs with SUNS

The concussions:

Being the second-oldest of six children, Groves-Little had to quickly learn to be independent.

She didn’t have her license (she was born in October so had to wait) and would have to either catch the train to training sessions or try to get a lift with a friend.

When she was training with the SUNS Academy, often Groves-Little would have to walk 3km from the train station before she’d even picked up a footy that day.

By this stage she was in the Queensland U18 team (as a 15-year-old), and would split her time between club, Academy and representative commitments.

It was in 2016, playing in a trial match for Queensland against Zillmere, that Groves-Little experienced the frightening effects of her first serious concussion.

“I put my head over the footy and was sandwiched between two girls,” Groves-Little said.

“That’s when it all started going downhill pretty rapidly.

“It was a really big scare.

She doesn’t remember much from the night, except for a few details.

“It was a really cold night at the Yeronga fields and I was told not to move.

“The ambulance took about an hour to get there so I was lying there freezing on the field.

“My parents weren’t there so they gave my mum and brother a call and they ended up coming to Brisbane to the hospital.

“I started to panic; what’s going on, why’s it taking so long, why can’t I move?

“That’s the biggest thing I remember from that night, just being scared.”

Her coach at the time was Craig Starcevich, now Brisbane Lions AFLW coach, and she remembers his concern for her and how he waited with her at the hospital.

He left his beloved dogs in the car so he could sit by her hospital bed until her parents arrived from Beenleigh.

But that’s about the extent of her memory from that night.

The fallout:

The concussion effects lingered for over a week.

Groves-Little found it difficult to concentrate at school and couldn’t do any exercise.

Dizzy, blurry and dazed was how she described it.

“I was never a kid to sit at the front of the class but that’s where you’d find me for the next week,” she said. 

“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.

“It’s a very serious injury, just because it’s not physical – it’s more mental, you’ve still got to look after yourself.”

After a while, Groves-Little recovered.

Now she has a preventative – she always wears a headgear and mouthguard. 

It was doctor prescribed, but Groves-Little says there’s another reason why she will never take the distinctive headgear off.

“I think I was more scared of my mum then I was of the doctor,” she laughed. 

“From then on I’ve worn it and I’ve never played a game without it.”

She’s had more incidents since then, but says it’s now precautionary rather than reactive.

“I’ve had little knocks but everyone is now so cautious that every little knock is classified as a concussion for me.

“It really sucked from a football point of view because all I wanted to do was be out on the field but I learnt that we don’t win games just because I’m on the field.

“That was the biggest lesson for me, it’s ok to be injured and sit on the sidelines.”

Sliding doors moment:

There was a stage where Groves-Little almost threw in the towel. 

She would do everything possible to play before another concussion setback would see her on the sidelines for another two weeks.

But, she became resilient.

“It’s more of a mental challenge than anything and the only person that can make you understand that is yourself.

“Physios, doctors, your parents can all tell you you’re not going back on the field but it’s more so personally just accepting that.

“In the end it would have taken me maybe two years just to get that through my head.” 

There was serious concern for her future also.

Was playing footy too risky?

Did the benefits outweigh the potentially devastating long-term effects?

“I wanted to be able to finish school,” Groves-Little said.

“I obviously wanted to go to uni as well so everything was all about making sure my brain was safe rather than playing footy. 

“There was a stage where I almost gave up footy. 

“I was just too scared, I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life because I had a bad head knock.” 

But she persevered.

She applied herself physical and mentally and is now in the position where she can play football again freely.

Present day: 

Despite all the setbacks and all the challenges, Groves-Little has no regrets.

Those battles with concussion made her better. 

Groves-Little was always a talented and gifted athlete, never having to apply herself too much to be good at something.

But that concussion battle offered fresh perspective. 

She had to prove that she wanted to be a footballer, to herself more than anyone. 

Training harder and longer, she moulded herself into a professional athlete.

If she had her time over, the 18-year-old said she would go through all that pain and uncertainty again because it made her stronger.

“It got really tough,” she said.

“I think it’s made me a better player and a person.

“Nowadays if I get knocked down I’m like ok, what’s next or what can I do to get over that barrier.

“Whereas I feel like a lot of people my age are still learning that.”

Three years on from that first concussion, Groves-Little is in a good place.

She was drafted in 2018 to the Brisbane Lions and played two matches there before signing with the Gold Coast SUNS AFLW team for the 2020 season.

She’s working at the SUNS in the Consumer & Community department and is also enrolled in university.

Currently studying a Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Groves-Little thinks she may want to one day be a police officer.

It was her dream job as a nine-year-old, following in the footsteps of her Auntie Candice who serves in the Queensland Police force. 

“It’s more of a hobby than a uni degree for me,” she said. 

“For now I’m interested in that and just want to be able to learn and see where it takes me.”

She’s come a long way in such a short time, and has an even longer way to go.

Her story’s just beginning.