AFL Indigenous Program Manager taking the game to its grass roots

In the lead up to this weekend’s Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round, the Saturday Daily Telegraph did a feature story on AFL NSW/ACT Indigenous Program Manager, Katriina Heikkanen.

Read the full story below.

Aussie Rules’ Indigenous Ambassador is taking the game to its grass roots to recruit young players from around the state.

For one of the AFL’s most important developers of talent, it’s somewhat ironic that Aussie Rules was virtually a foreign concept for Katriina Heikkanen growing up.

Raised in a rugby league household in Sydney, it was all about the power of the Steeden rather than the Sherrin. However, what shape ball she followed as a kid matters little now.

Heikkanen grew up immersed in her indigenous identity — and this is something the AFL has recognised as far more important to young indigenous talent across the state than how they kick a ball.

Next week the AFL celebrates its Indigenous Round, but for Heikkanen, a descendant of the Worimi nation, this is her life.

Thousands of kilometres spent in the car every week takes Heikkanen back and forth across Sydney and to communities in every corner of the state as the AFL’s NSW and ACT Indigenous Programs manager. She passionately devotes her time to children who might have more of an Aussie Rules grounding than she had at the same age, but who may not have had the opportunity to embrace their indigenous culture or have strong Aboriginal role models in their lives.

“Especially here in Sydney. A lot of kids and families might know where some of their family are from, but they aren’t in touch with the cultural side of things,” Heikkanen tells The Saturday Telegraph.

“I am fortunate enough to be brought up knowing my Aboriginal family and growing up with them.

“Some kids don’t have that identity and culture already.

“We’re trying to build that and get them to identify and find out who their clan group is and asking their families more questions about where they’re from and get the discussion happening.

“It’s not frowned upon either if they don’t know anything about their culture.

“For me, Indigenous Round is a celebration of our heritage. The game’s base, it traces back to marn grook, which is the game the indigenous people played thousands of years ago with a possum skin ball.

“To have that as part of what you’re working for is quite special.

“We’re using football as a vehicle to get these kids engaged, but our priority is their education and also building their culture and identity so they can be proud of who they are.”

Two of Heikkanen’s great success stories are Abe Davis and Jeremy Finlayson, who are AFL draftees to the Swans and Giants respectively.

Davis, from Maroubra, and Finlayson, from the NSW Riverina, started in Heikkanen’s program years ago as kids and are now within touching distance of realising their AFL dreams. Heikkanen says this is only the beginning and she expects more and more of her students to graduate to the big time in the coming seasons.

But the big lights of the AFL isn’t what it’s all about — for Heikkanen, it’s seeing a 12-year-old kid with little idea about his people, maturing into a proud indigenous boy before her very eyes.

“They might come in as that little kid that’s either shy or very confident, it could be one extreme to the other,” Heikkanen says.

“Our camps can be fairly strict and we have our respect and our responsibilities we instil in the kids in the camps.

“We try to promote the positive aspects of our culture, learning the dance and the didgeridoo and trying to instil that culture so they have that pride. For them to come back to the next camp and just know automatically what they’re expected to do, what our expectations are and seeing them mature and grow is really good to see.

“These kids can come from as far as Broken Hill right down to Bega and we encourage them to take back what they learn in the camps and take back to their communities, so it’s very rewarding.”

One of the biggest resources for Heikkanen and the AFL in NSW and the ACT is the Adam Goodes Talent Program. Goodes has been heavily involved in the program from its inception and attends camps on a regular basis — much to the joy of kids and their parents alike.

“They love seeing strong indigenous men and having one for their kids to aspire to,” says Heikkanen, who is also seeing a rise in indigenous girls playing the game. However, for all the great high-profile work done by Goodes, the fact is Heikkanen herself is an inspiration for thousands. And she’s doing it at the coalface.

Aussie Rules never used to be her life, but it is now.

“I love it. I’ve been fortunate enough. I’ve had some really good mentors in my life growing up and I know how much of an impact and influence it’s had on me in terms of my personal and professional life,” she says. “For me to be able to give kids the right tools and be someone that they can look up to as well is very humbling.”

For me Indigenous Round is a celebration of our heritage – Katriina Heikkanen

For more information on the AFL Indigenous Programs please click here.

Article originally published ‘AFL’s Sherrin Queen Goes Walkabout’ in the Saturday Daily Telegraph, 21 May. Written by Ben Horne.