Lauren Bella was always destined to be successful.
It’s in her genes.
Her father, Anthony, was a professional rugby league player, playing for South Queensland Crushers in the ARL.
Bella’s mother was a gun swimmer and basketballer.
Her uncle, Martin, was also a professional rugby league player who represented Queensland in State of Origin and Australia on nine occasions.
But for Lauren, it’s always been AFL.
She was named in Queensland’s Under 18 squad for the first time when she was 13, and represented that side for the next five years.
But it all started back in Mackay.
Growing up there, she played for the Sarina Demons in the local competition alongside her cousins and younger brother of two years, Will.
The team was mixed, with six or seven other girls playing alongside Bella since she was 11.
It was great fun, except for one slight problem.
Bella is legally blind.
Bella grew up on a farm in Sarina, about 40km south of Mackay CBD.
It was originally a sugar cane farm – a prominent industry in Mackay – but Bella’s family decided to convert it to a cattle farm when she was young.
Her daily chore list would consist of tasks like cleaning the chicken coop and feeding the cattle.
She was a farm girl through and through, she says.
There isn’t much to do in Sarina, which meant Bella spent plenty of time with her family.
They mean everything to her, and the 18-year-old can look back now and appreciate everything they’ve done to get her to where she is today.
“I’m so grateful to have them as my family,” Bella told SUNS Media.
“They’ve been so supportive of me and I’m really grateful that I was always given the same opportunities as my brother.
“There’s never been any ‘you can’t do this’, it’s always been ‘you can both go do it’.
“That’s something that now I really appreciate that I haven’t been told no just because of my gender.
“I’ve been given a fair shot at everything which I really appreciate from my parents.”
It led to her playing her first game of football alongside her brother when she was 11.
“Blind, tall and gumby”
When she first starting playing football, Bella couldn’t see.
In fact she couldn’t see for her first three years playing the sport.
She’d wear glasses and contacts off the field, but it wasn’t safe to wear them on the field.
“Blind, tall and gumby” was how she described herself in that period, a harsh self-assessment.
“I’m legally blind so I had heaps of trouble with my eyes growing up,” Bella said.
“That was probably why I started playing ruck growing up because it was the only position where I didn’t have to be as coordinated.
“I remember thinking if I just get my knee in and get over the top of her and just put my hand up, I can hope for the best.”
“Those first three years when I was blind, tall and gumby and didn’t know much about football.
“I try and think back to what I would have possibly looked like back then and I don’t think it would have been too pretty.”
Bella says she first started wearing glasses when she was two years old.
She was the youngest person in Queensland to try hard contact lenses when she was eight.
It was only in 2015, when she was 15 years old, that Bella was able to wear contacts on the football field.
She has a customised pair which fits her eyes perfectly and allows her to play the game freely.
Being able to see the game only made her love it more.
“The first time I was really able to see, it was a complete game-changer for me,” she said.
“I could actually mark the ball.
“When I wasn’t wearing them people would get surprised at me and I’d surprise myself when I’d mark the ball.
“When I was able to actually start catching the ball without being surprised it definitely helped.”
Playing the game without her eyesight was the equivalent to Bella as trying to catch a fish without a rod.
She had to learn to adapt and play to her strengths.
“It’s not the best living with crappy eyes but it’s just something I’ve had to work around,” she said.
“There’s no excuses if I stuff up now.
“Now it’s just more me getting more experience and getting the confidence to play.”
Always the talented sportswoman, many don’t know that Bella actually also played representative netball.
Being so tall, it would seem a natural sport for her to want to take up.
But it wasn’t until a nudge from her school friends that she finally gave the round ball a go.
“I played sport all growing up and netball was the one where I was like no I don’t really like it that much,” she explained.
“I’d tell people I play AFL and they’d go ‘oh but you’d be so good at netball, you’re so tall’.
“So I said fine I’ll give netball a go just to keep them quiet.”
For many years Bella juggled the responsibilities of being a dual-sport athlete.
She also struggled with her eyesight when playing netball.
But as her friends had predicted, she was actually pretty good at the sport.
She made the Queensland squad soon after and in 2017 joined Netball Queensland’s Elite Development Program.
But there came a time as she approached the end of her schooling years when she had to make a choice.
“Trying to go through grade 11 and 12 it was really taxing on me trying to juggle both sports,” she said.
“It definitely took its toll on me but I’m really glad I did it.
“They complemented each other, I basically learnt netball through AFL.
“I think back to how fit I was then and consider taking it up again.”
In the end, her love for footy won out.
After finishing school, Bella relocated to the Gold Coast in early 2018 to pursue her AFLW dream.
It was a hard decision for Lauren to leave her family behind in 2018.
In her years playing for Queensland and the SUNS Academy (since 2014), Bella had flown down to the Gold Coast for extended periods of time.
But she’d always return home to Mackay.
Now she was leaving it indefinitely.
“It was really tough because I’m particularly close with my family,” Bella said.
“My brother and I have a really close relationship so it was definitely really tough and something that I really struggled with.
“It just affected me a little more than I expected it to.
“It was just a completely different world, I’d visited for football but nothing compares to permanently moving there.”
Bella recalls feeling comfortable with the move at first… until she saw a cow on a local farm.
It brought memories of home flooding back.
“The first month I thought I’m ok, I don’t understand why people get homesick.
“And then I’d be driving and I’d see a cow in a property and would think oh my God I miss home.
“I’d call mum in tears, but I’m glad I made the move in the end.
“I went from country to pretty much city and beaches so it was very different but I’ve taken it all in my stride and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else now.”
Later that year, Bella was drafted to the Brisbane Lions.
She played three games in her debut season, before joining the SUNS ahead of the 2020 season.
Earlier this year, Bella’s brother followed suit and has moved in with her on the Gold Coast.
He is also in the SUNS Academy and aspires to be drafted one day.
Bella is currently playing for Bond University in the QAFLW this year.
She studies at Bond as well, midway through a sports management degree.
For a girl who loves sport, it’s a natural progression.
She hopes to one day be involved in organising sports events on the Gold Coast.
Bella also works part-time as an Auskick representative; she loves working with kids.
Now one of 18 players committed to the SUNS’ AFLW team, Bella is looking forward to the next stage of her journey.
“We’ve got a number of interstate players that have moved to be here and play for us,” she said.
“I’m really excited to get to know a whole new team and not just the girls but the entire club.
“Through SUNS Academy I’ve had a really great experience so far and the SUNS have really looked after me.
“Now we’ve got a dedicated women’s pathway for that, I’m really excited to see where it goes and rip into the competition and hopefully make a fair bit of an impact.”
On Sunday, she’ll return to Mackay to play in Game 2 of the QW Winter Series in front of friends and family.
The SUNS have a partnership with the Mackay region which will see the club host an AFLW match at Great Barrier Reef Arena each year for three seasons.
Women’s football is growing at a rapid rate in Mackay at the moment.
She’ll never agree with it, but Bella is a big reason behind the growth.
The 18-year-old has been a pioneer of the female talent pathway up north and is paving the way for the next generation to follow in her wake.
She lives on the Gold Coast, but Mackay will always be home for Lauren Bella.