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AFLW Feature: Kaslar’s blend of surfing and science

    - Leah Kaslar
I’ve said this many times but I don’t really have an off switch and I like to give things 100%
Leah Kaslar

Leah Kaslar is just an all-round sportsperson. 

Tap dancing, basketball, triathlon, surfing, rugby league, rugby union, lacrosse and even sailing.

You name it she’s done it.

Her mum was a basketballer and her dad was a prolific soccer player in his day, playing for St George in Sydney and schoolboys for Australia.

He was also a sports teacher so encouraged Kaslar to have a go at any sport she wanted to try.

But funnily enough it wasn’t until her early 20’s that she first gave AFL football a go.

It’s been a long journey since then, but Kaslar hasn’t looked back since.

Introduction to football: 

Growing up in Cairns, basketball was Kaslar’s number one sport of choice.

NRL and basketball were the two dominant sports up north, but as fate would have it, Kaslar’s basketball captain also happened to be captain of the local AFL team.

“The captain of the basketball team said come down and play football, you’ll love it,” Kaslar told SUNS Media.

“I had never played or watched a game of AFL game in my life.

“Even though there was a pretty healthy women’s competition going I didn’t really know much about it.”

That was when she first got hooked on AFL footy. 

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Kaslar’s mother wasn’t a fan of her playing – her sister had already broken her arm playing the sport.

But she couldn’t stop Leah.

“Football was never the main sport, it was kind of the backstory to everything,” she explained. 

“My mum hated me playing it and never came to watch because she was like ‘why are you playing this crazy sport’.”

“But these days she wears a badge of me to every come she comes to.

“I just loved the physicality and the camaraderie and all the people that were there. 

“Just the grit of it and the toughness and the challenges, I kept going back.” 

The move:

When she was 21, Kaslar made a decision which would shape the rest of her life. 

She moved from Cairns down to the Gold Coast for a fresh start.

Kaslar had tried her hand at university, but hadn’t loved it and dropped out. 

She started working in real estate, but again the passion wasn’t there. 

The ex-basketballer earnt a call-up to play for Queensland after some time, but wanted to do more.

Eventually she moved again, this time to Western Australia – where the football league was stronger. 

She played local football before earning a promotion to the WA state squad. 

But there was one thing holding her back from progressing her football further.

Her coach at the time was Nicole Graves who would later become General Manager of Carlton’s women’s program.

“She said to me ‘Kaslar I want you in my team but you can’t kick, your kicking action is terrible’,” Kaslar said of her early interactions with Graves.

“I’d never been taught because in Cairns it was really grassroots and I hadn’t come through any type of pathway.

“I was thrown into playing as a basketballer and didn’t really have any idea what I was doing.” 

The solution was simple – Kaslar would go back and train with WA’s youth academies.

It was almost like starting again, going back to fill in all the gaps she skipped as a cross-code athlete.

“I was 23 years old and I was training with 14 to 16 year-olds every weekend for about six to eight weeks to try to get into the state team,” Kaslar said. 

“Nicole said I couldn’t get in if I didn’t improve my kicking.

“My weekends were with the 14’s and 16’s and the development coaches trying to learn the fundamentals of football.”

It paid off.

Kaslar would go on to play for WA and win two premierships in the local competition with East Fremantle. 

In her last year, she left on a high, going out with a best-on-ground performance in the premiership-winning side. 

Surfing: 

What many don’t know about Kaslar is her love of surfing.

It took a while for her to realise she loved it though, owing to the fact that there’s little to no surfing available in Cairns. 

“The Great Barrier Reef blocks the coastline, so the only opportunity to catch waves was when the cyclones came through the area,” Kaslar said.

“There’s a place called Ratchet Bay and it gets some swell so we used to take surfboards down there and try to surf it during the cyclones. 

“It’s really not what you’re supposed to do but that’s probably where I did my first surfing.”

That was one of the factors in her move to the Gold Coast, and then WA – the surfing available to her.

In the year after leaving WA, Kaslar travelled around the world to over 50 different surfing locations. 

It was a liberating 12 months, but in the end she was drawn back to the Gold Coast.

“I love the Gold Coast because of that surfing lifestyle,” Kaslar said.

“ I think when I started surfing after I moved here it really changed my football because I became so strong through my core and just the balance and the power and all that sort of stuff that you use for that kind of translated into my footy.

“I was getting built from surfing and that was making me a better footballer, the two kind of went hand in hand.” 

The other love:

Upon returning to Queensland, Kaslar began studying again.

She’s a self-described nerd and always enjoyed school, but just couldn’t find something she was passionate enough about.

That changed when she started a Bachelor of Science at Griffith University on the Gold Coast and quickly fostered a love for the environment. 

During her course she went on a research trip to the Maliau Basin in Borneo to study one of the most diverse collections of flora and fauna on earth.

“We were there to look at the biodiversity of the rainforest because it’s so unique,” Kaslar said.

“I actually studied fungi which was quite bizarre; how many different types we could find in the forest.”

It turns out there are infinite amounts.

“We saw a spotted leopard which no one had seen in that part for 12 years. They have big gibbons – huge monkeys around the trees and all sorts of different wildlife,” she said. 

“It was just an experience to I guess learn about a different part of the world and different animals and how they all work together and function in an ecosystem.”

Kaslar now works as an environmental scientist at a company on the Gold Coast.

She also works alongside her sister who is an industrial electrician. 

“I help design water treatment plants and figure out how we’re going to clean up contaminated sites and she goes and builds them and runs them,” Kaslar explained.

The 33-year-old says she can’t split her love for footy and science; they’re her two children and she loves them both equally.

“It’s everyone’s dream to do something they love for work,” she said.

“I was at the point in my life where I knew I needed to make a decision to do something else and something that would continue to challenge me and I could continue to learn.

“The natural environment is everywhere around you and it’s so important.

“We need it to live, we go outside and you find peace just walking through a rainforest or looking at the ocean and I think we underestimate it’s value.

“I wanted to learn more about that so I could protect it and have a job where I felt like I was doing something really good for society and the greater good.”

Doing things differently:

Kaslar’s journey can be summed up by doing things differently. 

She hadn’t even picked up a football until she was an adult, didn’t begin surfing until 22 and started two different university degrees before finding the right one for her.

READ: AFLW Feature: Why Yorston chose the SUNS

“It’s really difficult not having any life experience to even know what you want to do,” Kaslar said.

“Sometimes you don’t know what you want to do until you try something and you go oh that’s not for me, I don’t like that.

“I think it’s important to always have something and be actively doing something and trying to progress yourself and learn and develop.

“As long as people are encouraged to try different things and apply themselves and make sure that they enjoy something… it’s ok to say I don’t like this and try something different.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, people change jobs, change career paths, change a lot of things as they go through and learn about themselves.” 

It’s all about life balance for Kaslar, and she says the women’s game has evolved to be different to the men’s in many ways in this regard. 

“It’s funny, female footballers, we’re kind of going in the reverse order to the men’s,” she said. 

“The men go in when they’re younger and don’t have much life experience and then they work at football and their education as they go through and find careers afterwards.”

Kaslar was 31 and well-entrenched in her outside career when she first became a professional athlete with the Brisbane Lions.

Her settled off-field environment gave her the foundation to build on her football and after three seasons with the Lions, the now 33-year-old established herself as one of the best key defenders in the league. 

New stripes: 

In April it was announced Kaslar would be joining the Gold Coast SUNS.

It seems clichéd, but the decision to leave was genuinely difficult for Kaslar.

“It was really tough because I’ve got a lot of really good friends and great relationships with everyone there and a lot of respect for the people and club,” she said. 

“All those things kind of tore at me because I’m a really loyal person and they invested a lot in me. 

“But I guess the opportunity to work with people from this region and from Cairns which is where I’m from convinced me.

“Also the opportunity to play for my local team, I actually supported the Gold Coast SUNS when they started because growing up in Cairns I didn’t really have a team that I went for.” 

Kaslar was captain of the Brisbane Lions in 2019, and will be a leader of the SUNS in 2020 regardless of whether she is given a formal title or not.

She helped build the success of Brisbane from the very beginning and will be looking to draw from that again next season. 

“I’ve said this many times but I don’t really have an off switch and I like to give things 100%,” Kaslar said.

“So if I can lead the way in the way that I train and go about my business I’ll be pretty proud of that. 

“Part of the reason for a move to be in a different environment is to be challenged again and to see if I can continue to step up to the plate and continue to improve each year.

“While I’m doing that I’ll be happy to continue playing.”

In her journey to the SUNS, Kaslar has been able to learn from the likes of Paul Roos, Luke Beveridge, Daniel Merrett, Paul Groves, Nicole Graves and Craig Starcevich.

“Because of my pathway from where I’ve come from I’ve been able to hear from some of the very best in the business,” she said.

“So to be able to pass on that knowledge to the next generation is really important to me and just to help everyone enjoy themselves and get the best out of footy.”

Getting set for 2020:

Kaslar is currently undergoing rehab on a nasty knee injury she sustained in this year’s AFLW competition.

In a tackle on Tayla Harris, Kaslar had her leg bent the wrong way, fracturing her fibula and tearing her lateral meniscus.

She’s tracking well and is expected to be back in a couple of weeks.

READ: Tori's story: from competitive skipping to AFLW

While it was disappointing at the time, it’s almost been a blessing in disguise for Kaslar who has been able to take some time away from the game since to both mentally and physically refresh herself ahead of the 2020 season. 

After three seasons of AFLW, she says the skills are now at an all-time high.

“You can see the players understand the game more and we’re seeing players that have been playing since they were kids,” Kaslar said. 

“They have a really good knowledge of the game and really good skills. 

“I think that the standard has steadily increased over the years and along with that the scoring increased last year. 

“We’re definitely moving in the right direction and the more professional we become the more hours we’re allowed to be at the club and as that landscape changes it will keep getting better and better.” 

With the 2020 AFLW season fast approaching, Kaslar isn’t putting any expectations on her first season in the red and gold.

“I just want to see us progress in the right direction,” she said.

“I think so far with the Winter Series games you can see from the first game to the second game we improved.

“Coming into the league you can’t expect that you’re going to be right up there to begin with, we’re obviously a developing team but in saying that we’ve got some really quality players with lots of spirit and drive.

“I think we will become a force to be reckoned with but I think it will take time and development to get to that point.”

With AFLW pre-season set to begin in the coming months, Kaslar’s goal is to be back to full fitness by then.

Looking back now, she has nothing but appreciation for the journey she’s taken to get to get to this stage.

“I never imagined I would be a professional footballer,” she said. 

“I never though anything would come of it.

“We used to run around in Cairns in Summer in the heat on an old oval out the back because we weren’t allowed on the proper oval. 

“It was covered in dog turds and we’d get swooped by plovers.

“Never in my lifetime did I think I’d be sitting here doing what I’m doing now.”