Smashing success: Levin woman surging to gridiron stardom
Levin woman Bonnie Gillespie has roared onto Aussie television sets as a star of a new gridiron league that is as much spectacle as it is sport.
Gillespie was recruited to the development squad for the New South Wales Surge in the Legends Football League in 2012 and has spent the last two years training and studying moves and strategies to play American football like a pro.
The first season opened on December 7, and culminated with a Surge victory, 36-15 against the Western Australia Angels, in front of 12,000 people at NIB Stadium in Perth on February 8.
After two years of wondering how she'd measure up on the pitch and what the gig would be like, Gillespie shattered any doubts she was in the right place when she scored the first touchdown in the league's first game.
She earned most valuable player in the first match, and topped that with the league award for most valuable player of the entire first season.
"I was just on such a high, it was the first touch down of the league - it's like a drug, it's an amazing experience.
"Now that those two years are over, I've enjoyed it, and know what I'm up for."
After concentrating on playing mid-line back through most of her training, Gillespie was switched into running back a week before the first game.
"I've got that mentality that I don't care how big you are, I'm going to run at you; you've just got to have no fear, and run full speed and look at where you're running to.
"I get to smash chicks, and find the gaps and work with my line - they make the gaps for you, and I just enjoy running the ball."
LFL began in the United States in 2009 as the Lingerie Football League, with attractive players wearing lingerie onto the field. Since then the US league has grown, and rebranded to pitch itself as a genuine sport, but with the emphasis still firmly on entertainment.
Players wear microphones during play to catch trash talk and put the viewer's perspective right into the play, and promotional material presents images of fiercely snarling mud- smeared players.
"You definitely get a buzz out of it at a live match, you have got the people there and it's a show, and the crowd are inspiring, and it's an emotional roller coaster," Gillespie said.
"I get to do flips, and break dancing, and talk s***, and I've got a touchdown crawl - they call it the Gollum."
But the players are serious, and Gillespie leaves no doubt about the commitment. "It's an amazing game to learn, it's really technical, there's so much to learn - the way you block and the footwork behind it, and there's all these positions, so to learn multiple positions, it's nuts.
"We do weights, agility, footwork, ladders; it definitely takes up your whole life, with only Sundays off."
Gillespie grew up with five brothers and played rugby in Levin from ages five to 16. At 16 she placed fourth in New Zealand as a sprint cyclist, then won a gold in the 500m sprint at the Paralympics in Holland. She was born with no fingers on her left hand.
She has also trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo, so she brings a latent athleticism and no- holds barred mentality to her game.
"I meet fans and they say to me, 'all along I thought you were like six foot', I'm five foot two, but I don't care, you just go nuts."
Being on the big screen doesn't daunt her, but being recognised on the street is still strange.
"It's been crazy . . . people tattooing Surge and my number and name on their bodies, it's really quite overwhelming.
"I'm just really happy that we're recognised not as a joke, or for our clothing, but as strong female athletes, we've actually been taught the game, and the coaches have done a really good job, and I'm really proud of my team - we won the championship."
LFL tryouts are underway for the next season, which starts in October. Despite approaches to join the original American league, Gillespie is committed to building up the league in Australia for now.
"We had such a great season, I'm very happy with the fan base, and I'm going to focus more on tackling and the impacts . . . you can train your body to do a lot more."
LFL is not played in New Zealand, but Gillespie said Facebook support from home had been good, and she hoped it might come to New Zealand.
- Horowhenua Mail