Sport

Saturday Serve

Women's sport pioneers leave wonderful legacy for future generations

Canberra coach Carrie Graf came to her farewell press conference armed with a pocket full of tissues just in case the tears started to flow.

Well known for shedding tears at almost every Capitals function, the safe bet was that Graf would let her guard down at some point as she announced her decision to quit the WNBL club almost 20 years after her first season.

Across town, Capital Football chief executive Heather Reid was announcing her decision to step down from her job after 12 years and decades involved in Canberra soccer.

Again, there were no tears.

Maybe that's because Canberra and women's sport in general will be the ones shedding tears when the enormity of the departure of two of female sport's biggest advocates finally sets in.

The revelations came just 24 hours after the Federal Sports Minister Sussan Ley and Australian Sports Commission chairman John Wylie delivered a threat to sports that they risked losing funding if they didn't uphold gender-equity travel arrangements for athletes.

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Graf was in charge of the Australian Opals when they were sent back to premium economy for the trip to the London Olympic Games four years ago while the men's team flew in business class.

That has been the trigger for the travel demands by Ley and Wylie.

A sticking point is the Australian Olympic Committee's insistence to use Qantas for business class travel rather than the cheaper option on other airlines, which is a major burden on sports with limited resources.

These are the type of battles Graf and Reid have been engaged in their entire careers.

They are pioneers in their respective sports, flying the flag for equality in the face of overwhelming odds.

Graf has been the face of the Capitals since taking over in 1999 after guiding the Sydney-Uni Flames to the championship.

She would go on to win six titles with the Capitals to help transform the club into the most successful in WNBL history.

The current struggles of a horror 0-20 season should in no way diminish the amazing legacy Graf will leave behind.

The Capitals became a summer institution in Canberra.

They played before big crowds at the AIS Arena and hanging a championship banner from the ceiling became an annual event.

Graf recruited, developed and mentored a team full of stars from top to bottom.

Lauren Jackson was the cornerstone, but Graf was clever enough to surround her with talented sidekicks.

Abby Bishop, Marianna Tolo, Carly Wilson and Jess Bibby have all played vital roles during the Graf era.

But for all the forward progress women's basketball has made in this country in the past decade, the WNBL has taken a backward step this year with the loss of free-to-air television coverage.

The competition's profile has dropped after the ABC withdrew its support and it's an issue that must be addressed drastically.

In contrast, women's soccer is going from strength to strength on the back of another superb W-League season.

Reid pushed hard for Canberra's inclusion into the national competition when it got up and running in 2008.

As the only club not affiliated with an A-League side, Canberra United have been the benchmark all other teams are marked against.

They have won two championships and could have easily added another or one or two pieces of silverware to the trophy cabinet.

Reid's history in soccer – especially the women's game – goes far beyond the W-League.

She helped to establish women's soccer in Canberra in 1978, introduced state representative teams in 1980 and coached the first ACT under-15 teams in 1983.

On a global scale, Reid pioneered the establishment of a women's World Cup and successfully lobbied for the inclusion of women's soccer in the Olympic Games.

However, focusing solely on what Reid has done for women's soccer would gloss over what she has done for the men's side of the game in the ACT.

During her time at the helm of Capital Football, the Socceroos have played three international games in Canberra, Canberra is constantly pushing for inclusion into the A-League and hosting games involving other teams and the city successfully hosted seven games of last year's Asian Cup.

There has also been tremendous growth at the grassroots level, with more than 20,000 players across 47 clubs, an explosion in the participation in the Kanga Cup – the largest junior soccer tournament in the Southern Hemisphere.

Reid will continue her work not only as a consultant for Capital Football, but also to be a champion for the women's game within FIFA.

She plans to promote the game throughout Oceania and help develop strategies to increase participation.

Challenges? Yes, both women will tell you there have been many along the journey.

But we should thank both for persevering and making indelible contributions to women's sport.

Additional reporting by Chris Dutton

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