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AFLW Feature: Riley’s shared passions inspiring the next generation

            - Sally Riley

As one of Gold Coast’s first interstate signings, Sally Riley is flying the flag for the SUNS in South Australia.

Playing the first three AFLW seasons for the Adelaide Crows, where she held the position of joint vice-captain since the team’s inception, Riley was selected by the SUNS as a free agent signing for 2020.

She was drafted from the Northern Territory but relocated to Adelaide after one season before playing in the team’s 2017 AFLW premiership.

Off the field, she works as a school teacher.

Originally from Ballarat, the 29-year-old moved to Katherine for a teaching job where she found her love for football.

Now she’s combining her two passions to help inspire the next generation of boys and girls, all while representing the SUNS in enemy territory.

Sally the sportsperson:

Riley is currently working as a physical education teacher at Westminster School in Marion, a suburb just outside Adelaide CBD.

Each semester the school employs what they call a “sportsperson in residence” – an elite athlete who can pass on their knowledge to students and teach them to lead healthy lifestyles.

In the past there have been Commonwealth Games gold medallists and international netballers.

This semester, it’s Sally Riley.

The inaugural SUN is working part-time in both roles in the hope she can contribute to growing the school’s footballing pathways.

“Each Wednesday I’d do an hour session with the kids from prep to Grade 2 based around fun and participation,” Riley told SUNS Media.

“We spoke about the teamwork and encouragement.

“Because I’m their teacher too I’d have to change into my Gold Coast colours and then I was suddenly the footballer. We had to separate it a bit.

“I’d rock up on Wednesdays in my full kit so after the first session they’d know when Ms Riley rocked up in her footy gear we were playing footy.”

She’s even starting to convert some of the students into junior SUNS fans.

“I’ve brainwashed them because every time we did our clinic I’d play the Gold Coast SUNS team song as they came in,” she joked.

“By the last week I had a competition to see who knew the most words and they were all bopping along and clapping.”

As well as joining in the fun with the younger students, Riley also held some more serious classes with the secondary school students. 

“I’ve done sessions with the older kids talking about the fitness side of things to link in with their unit, a couple of theory classes there.

“And then after school I’ve been working with the Year 8 and 9 boys just on a bit of extra craft.” 

But the area Riley is most passionate about is growing the increasing appetite for female football.

Westminster currently has a senior female team, which Riley coaches, but are looking to make up numbers for a middle school team.

“At the school we have a bit of a gap in that age group,” Riley said.

“So we’re just doing some sessions to build up some interest and hopefully they can get a team too.

“They are so keen and there’s some good little players in there.

“It was all voluntary and I had probably 20 girls show up.”

It’s a rewarding role for Riley.

She says it’s a special feeling to combine her two passions and see the joy it brings to both children and teenagers alike.

“I love seeing the smile on their faces – you stand back and watch and everyone’s got a footy and they’re running around and just absolutely loving it,” she said.

“With the older kids it’s just seeing them want to learn and get better.

“I’d like to instil confidence in the kids that they can do it.

“That’s the most rewarding part for me and seeing them grow and get the benefits.”

Looking ahead:

At 29, Riley still has plenty of football in front of her.

But after taking her teaching to the next level this semester, Riley has inklings of what could be another career option after football.

“I’d definitely like to pursue that after my career finishes but also during it,” she said.

“I’m trying to upskill now and get that experience while I am in the system.

“I probably don’t have aspirations to coach at the highest level, I more prefer the development stage where you can make that impact early on.”

With her program wrapping up for the term, Riley has been left with some lasting memories as a sportsperson in residence.

She recalls one of the first sessions she ran with Year 2 students where they had to answer true or false to a series of questions asked by Riley.

“I asked the question ‘do you think I played footy at your age?’,” Riley said.

“They had to run to one end for true and the other for false and everyone went to true.

“I got them all back in and said ‘well actually, there was no girls footy back then’.

“Then one little girl in front of me turned to her friend and said ‘but how can that be?’.

“That’s just a moment I’ll never forget.

“It brought a smile to my face because they don’t know any different now but it was just the way she said it.

“We’re the pioneers but these kids don’t know any different, the boys and girls are both on TV and it’s always been like that as far as they’re concerned.

“They were quite shocked when I told them I didn’t play as a kid.

“You have those good teaching moments, that will stick with me forever.”

The third move:

Next week Riley will relocate her life for the third time, this time to the Gold Coast for the foreseeable future.

After two years in Adelaide, she’s accepted a new teaching position on the Coast, but not before a lengthy deliberation on whether she wanted to take up the opportunity offered by the SUNS.

“I wasn’t on board from the start because in my head I was thinking this is going to be the fourth state that I’ve lived in,” Riley admitted.

“Obviously moving states involves a new job as well and being away from family again.

“I had to consider a lot and I lost a lot of sleep to be honest.

“I did a pros and cons list just to think what will I look back on and if I didn’t take up an AFLW opportunity when I could have, would I regret that for the rest of my life?

“Basically what it came down to is I asked myself do I want to go again, that was an easy yes. 

“Then it was can I still impact at that level on and off the field.

“I’m still motivated and still believe that so I’ve bitten the bullet and said ‘Lakey, I’m coming!’”

As well as a gaining a quality footballer with AFLW finals experience, the SUNS also get a fantastic leader in Riley. 

It’s a skill she’s naturally had for most of her life and uses daily in her teaching job. 

“I do realise that I am a bit of a leader and I do enjoy it, not to stand out or to be the individual who’s like ‘look at me’,” she said.

“I think it goes hand in hand with my teaching as well, I absolutely love working with people and being there.

“I guess just the last few years I’ve realised that actually is my strength; to be able to bring people with me and work with others. 

“It’s something I do every day without really realising.”

Those skills will come in handy with her impending move, she’ll soon be able to get to know her new teammates. 

“I can’t wait to be around the group already and start building those relationships,” Riley said.

“It’s why we play footy, to be around our teammates.

“We’re only going to get better and stronger as time goes on.”