Sharing Culture with Conviction
POPSUGAR has partnered with AFLW to celebrate women in sport and their impact beyond the field.
On-field, she’s easily spotted thanks to a colourful helmet, but there is more to Sydney speedster Aliesha Newman than just a bold choice of headgear. The Swan’s AFLW player is a proud Ningy Ningy woman who generously shares her culture through her footy, on the elite stage.
With 54 games under her belt, played over a collective of 8 seasons spent at three clubs, it might come as a surprise to learn that Newman nearly wasn’t an AFLW player at all. The young Bulldogs fan played just a handful of games in her junior footy years, before her mum intervened, concerned about the physicality of the sport.
“I initially played under a false name because my mum didn’t let me play. I went to a friend’s house — she was playing footy at the time — and I convinced her mum that I really wanted to play too,” Newman said. “So, I played two or so games, and then mum found out and told me I wasn’t allowed to play anymore.”
Instead, Newman spent much of her youth playing soccer, with aspirations to compete professionally and represent Australia.
The 28-year-old considers her path into elite footy as somewhat unconventional. In 2016, prior to the inaugural draft, it was her best mate — an avid Melbourne supporter — who saw the Demon’s Rookie Day call-out on social media, and suggested she try out.
Newman, who was enjoying a successful round-ball career at Calder United in the National Women’s Premier League at the time, attended out of curiosity but was ultimately passed over in the draft that followed.
“I went down and gave it a go but didn’t get picked up in the draft… So I just went back and played soccer. I got a call two weeks after the draft and there were about five players who were going after a free agency position at Melbourne,” she recalled.
“Mick [Stinnear] called me, the head coach of Melbourne, so I went down and did a 45-minute session with him. Got a call the next day, and I was the last listed player on Melbourne’s list. So yeah, it’s kind of history from there.”
Swapping the round-ball for an oval, Newman’s fledgling footy career at Melbourne began with plenty of firsts. A foundation athlete of the AFLW, she was the first Indigenous woman to play for the Demons, and it was at Melbourne that she was first encouraged to use her artistic skills to share her culture, on the stage of the national competition.
“I kind of got into painting boots — I painted my own and a few of my teammates when I was at Melbourne. Our Indigenous Project Officer, Matt Whelan, knew that I enjoyed art and, I guess, wanted to help me in that space,” Newman said.
“He got me to sit down with Mandy Nicholson, who’s a really well-known artist within the community down in Melbourne. I sat down with her, and we made the first AFLW indigenous jumper that we wore at Melbourne.”
Newman worked with Nicholson to create a design that that represented the team, showcasing a coming-together of the players and their individual skills, as they moved through their journey at the elite level. The guernsey debuted during season two in 2018, worn for Melbourne’s Round 4 match against Collingwood — a game played in scorching conditions under the hot Alice Springs sun.
Celebrating and sharing her culture through footy means a lot to Newman — having the opportunity to use her voice, be a role model and educate others is of huge significance to the young athlete.
“Sometimes I do struggle to put it into words. The amazing impact — not just on me and our people, but also my teammates. From an education base, which I’ve been really strong on, I try to educate as many people as I can, as well as myself — I’m still learning,” she said. “It’s a really humbling and unreal experience to be able to share that, with my teammates and with the wider community.”
Since that early collaboration, Newman has become widely recognised in the footy community for her art — featured on club guernseys for both Melbourne and Williamstown and on the boots of players across both the men’s and women’s AFL competitions.
She counts boots painted for Collingwood players Steele Sidebottom and Nick Diacos, and her Swan’s teammate Chloe Molloy, amongst her favourites. The latter auctioned off her pair this year, for the GO Foundation in support of Indigenous youth.
After 25 games at Melbourne, and a shift to Collingwood that saw her play a further 14 games in the black and white, Newman made the jump interstate. Signing on with expansion side Sydney Swans for their inaugural AFLW season in 2022, is a decision Newman credits as one of the biggest and best in her adult life.
“It was probably one of the biggest decisions I’ve had to make in my adult life, to be honest. I’ve got a partner, a house and a dog back home in Melbourne. The thought of leaving them and coming up to live in Sydney was really daunting. I’ve never lived in another state before,” she reflected.
“But looking back now, it’s the best decision I’ve made. I’m so happy in Sydney. It’s been phenomenal. I absolutely couldn’t have a bad word to say — I love my time up here.”
Newman has thrived at the Swans, with the club adding her to their playing list for her extensive AFLW experience, footy skills and leadership. They have also embraced her drive to share her culture with others — engaging Newman to design their inaugural AFLW Marn Grook jumper, worn during this year’s Indigenous Round.
“In the off-season, back in Melbourne, the Swans reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be involved. So, I just wanted to do everything I possibly could to make sure I got everything right,” she said.
“My first step was to get up to Sydney and speak to a few people, to make sure that I was respectful of the culture up there because I don’t know too much about New South Wales culture.”
Newman met with the Swans Indigenous Liaison Officer, and over a coffee, the two worked to build her understanding. Newman then began to integrate her team into the design.
“Mum always told me that we should never forget where we come from, and to understand that there are a lot of steps to get you to where you are now. So, I really wanted to emphasize that within our jumper — the people behind the scenes, the people that the supporters don’t even see, the people that we don’t even see — that get us out to playing each week,” Newman said.
“I wanted to recognise them, recognise our family and friends, recognise past coaches, the men’s team, all that has got us to where we are now.”
Not only is Newman the sole artist behind the Swans AFLW Marn Grook jumper — a celebration of culture and connection; but the medium forward has also held the role of AFL NSW/ACT’s Indigenous Ambassador for the last two years. Newman values the visibility she has in her footy career and uses it to inspire and motivate other First Nations kids.
“I never really had any role models within the women’s space, let alone in the Indigenous space. For me, it’s all about getting out and helping community. I guess having a face out there for others to recognize, and to know that they too can achieve that if they put in the hard work,” she reflected.
Growing up, Newman recalls various athletes visiting her school, promoting their sport and achievements to her and her peers. Though inspired by their presence, Newman was often left wanting more, not satisfied with the small moments of engagement offered.
“You’d get people coming into schools — athletes coming in — and they kind of do what they need to, and then leave. I don’t want to be that, because when I was at school and wanted to really get involved with them, they would take off as soon as the job was done,” she said.
Newman recognises the importance of her presence in these spaces, and of pathways like the Woomeras Program — the national female Indigenous development program. In her own ambassador role, and through her footy, she is determined to give back more.
“I like to spend a lot more time with the kids, because I know that I can make an impact. These kids don’t know any different, they just don’t have many role models in that space. Especially with the young girls, I really want to be able to make an impact with them. To sit down and actually have a yarn with them, have a joke — so they know that I’m still human and not just an elite athlete. I just want to give back.”