By Jacob Robinson, Simcoe Reformer
Wednesday, August 8, 2012 6:38:40 EDT PM
A multi-sport athlete growing up, Kendra Heil had no idea there was one missing piece to her athletic puzzle.
The Simcoe native found it this summer — Australian rules football.
“I think I fell in love with it because it’s a combination of every sport that I’ve ever played — basketball, volleyball, soccer, rugby,” said Heil. “It has something from everything and that made it very challenging but at the same time very pleasant because I got to use all my skills from previous sports.”
In just a few short months the 24-year-old’s rise within the sport has been nothing short of meteoric. Not long ago while living in Hamilton, a personal trainer approached the former Guelph Gryphons rugby star and asked her to practice with the Ontario Australian Football League’s Hamilton Wildcats. The rest, as they say, is history.
“He knew I was into rugby and contact sports and he asked me just to come out as a favour and I loved it so much I stayed,” Heil explained.
The Wildcats have entered men’s teams in the primarily Greater Toronto Area-based league since 1990, but expanded to add a women’s side this summer. Despite being a rookie, Heil was soon named team captain.
“I love practicing with the men’s team with the Wildcats and I think that upped my game a lot by playing up. You play around better players and you’ll get better faster,” Heil explained, adding the new sport did take some getting used to.
“It was a little bit confusing. The positions — the way they name them — are a little bit different than other sports that I’m used to. Play stops a lot like in American football, but it continues so fast. The stop and go is a little bit hard to adjust to.”
Heil, who plays rover/fullback, has scored eight goals in four games with Hamilton. She improved so quickly that her efforts caught the eye of Team Canada coach Tristan Waldock. Following a tryout process, Heil was one of 47 women named to the Northern Lights — Canada’s national club.
The Northern Lights headed south to Dublin, Ohio, to take on the United States Freedom in the 2012 49th Parallel Cup this past weekend. Heil played a variety of positions during the match, registering a goal kick as the Canadians narrowly fell to their rivals by a score of 6.7.43 to 5.8.38.
Being able to don a Canadian jersey was a special experience in more ways than one for the former Norfolk Harvesters rugby veteran.
“It was really inspiring, it was one of my lifelong dreams and something I’ve always wanted to do for myself, for my family, for my country and mostly for my dad (Robert) who was always my biggest supporter when I was growing up,” Heil said.
“It was great to be there and try my hardest for something that actually felt like it meant something.”
Heil’s preparation and performance meant a lot to Team Canada too, so much so there’s talk of the newcomer playing on the world stage in the not-so-distant future.
“Her football skills have come a long way since I first met her,” Team Canada assistant coach Morgan King said via email. “She has really worked a lot on her kicking skills with some of her Hamilton teammates and it really showed on the weekend in Ohio.
“I think if Kendra continues to improve over the next 12-18 months the way she has in the past three months, she will be one of the players to watch out for in Australia for the International Cup in 2014. She has a bright future in Australian Rules Football.”
An artist by day, Heil hasn’t had much time to ply her trade lately. Her new interest has even conjured up thoughts of a long-term career in the sport — not bad for someone that hadn’t even participated in a match a few months ago.
“It’s been unbelievably busy, I haven’t even been able to pick up a paintbrush and work on my art because I’ve been so focused on footy,” Heil said. “It’s either the gym, field or game and it’s been a lot of work — but I enjoy every minute of it so it’s not even like it’s work out there.”
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