Have You Seen Her? We Have Another Case of a Missing Woman…

Have you seen this woman, Annalie Longo? She’s missing. Missing from the headlines, that is. So today we’re getting to know Annalie and finding out what impact the lack of female representation in sports media coverage has on young women and their chances of becoming professional athletes. We also talk to Kiwi legend Lydia O’Donnell about what other barriers exist for girls in sport.

Capsule in partnership with Nike

We’ve got another case of a missing woman, folks.

This time it’s professional athlete Annalie Longo – a member of the Football Ferns and a Nike athlete. See, last month we brought you the story about Hannah Wilkinson – a name we should all know well, and yet, is probably quite likely unfamiliar to a lot of Kiwis. A fact that’s quite likely due to the dismal amount of media attention female athletes and teams get, not because of her incredible talent. In New Zealand a dismal 15% of all sports media coverage is focused on females – and sadly, that’s well above the global average of just 4%.

It’s something that we want to change along with our pals at Nike, who actively believe that women and girls aren’t just the future of sport – but are already leading the way.

Because it’s important. It’s important for the next generation of girls and young women to see females being celebrated in sports, and be her biggest champion.

We’d guarantee you that if you were to ask a young boy if he’d like to be an All Black when he grows up, you wouldn’t then need to actually explain what an All Black was. He’d likely already know full-well what that meant, what celebrities they are, how they’re often on the telly, and would probably be ready to tell you his favourite player.

But ask a young girl if she’d like to be Black Fern or a Football Fern, she might not know who you’re talking about, or see them as celebrities – or even as something that she could aspire to be when she grows up.

As Annalie tells us, “If you can see it, you can believe it and you can do it. Sometimes when you can’t see yourself out there and a path isn’t visible, then it is harder to strive to get there!”

Growing up, Annalie says it was difficult to find sporting female role models. “When I was a little girl, I just wasn’t able to watch women’s football, they were all men. So for me that’s a huge part of this role, playing for the Football Ferns. Hopefully we can inspire others and especially little girls.”

Annalie found her way into the sport because she had two older brothers who played football growing up. “I’d stand on the sideline and tug Dad’s shirt and say, ‘play with me! Let me play,’” she says. So, her family ended up enrolling her in the local club. “I was the only girl,” she says. “For years I was the only girl in the club.”

She says the moment that really changed everything for her was when her parents took her over to the 2001 Women’s World Championships in the USA.

“That was my ‘ignite’ moment, when I finally could see women playing football, and at a World Cup level,” she tells. “And I knew right there that I hoped that I could represent New Zealand and go and do that myself one day.”

Annalie has gone on to have one heck of a career. She has accomplished her dream and made it to World Championships representing NZ – in fact, she was the first female football player in the world to play in all three World Championship levels – from Under-17s through to senior. She’s been a Football Fern for more than 15 years since her senior debut at just 15 and has played at three Olympic Games and travelled the globe with football.

Her hope is that more girls will get to see her and her teammates in action – whether it’s in-person, on the telly or in the headlines.

“I think having the World Championships in New Zealand is really going to inspire the next generation of girls to play football,” she says. “I think people are now seeing the opportunities that it can bring, being a female footballer, that you can play professionally overseas – that your job can be a professional footballer.  There’s definitely so much opportunity for young girls right now.”

And there’s reason to be hopeful. A 2022 survey carried out by Sport England discovered that in the UK there were 100,000 more girls playing football than five years previously, with the number of girls playing football in a formal setting climbing up to 777,000. That’s also taking into account the pandemic, which brought many sports to a halt.

Here in New Zealand, Sport NZ released stats last year that showed the number of girls participating in sports was actually decreasing – which spurred them to begin a ‘It’s My Move’ campaign to try to turn these figures around.

Also in the research undertaken by Sport NZ shows that by age 16, there is a 17% gap between male and female participation in sport and recreation. And, just in the space of one more year, at 17, this balloons to an increase of 28%. The top three activities 17-year-old women undertake are all solitary – running, workouts and walking.

NZ sporting superstar Lydia O’Donnell has a few more reasons she thinks girls drop out of sports, besides just not having role models or being able to see a clear path forward to having a career in sports.

Lydia is distance runner, who has held national titles in the 5000m, 10,000m and the half-marathon. She’s also the Nike Pacific head running coach, working with Nike to help women and girls embrace a healthy body and mind. As well as the co-founder of Femmi – a team of female coaches who create specialised running plans for women, based on their menstrual cycle.

Because, yip, Lydia says periods have a lot to do with why girls – and women! – don’t stick with sports.

“I think a big barrier to continuing with sport is around menstruation, the female physiology and going through puberty,” she says. “We know that between the ages of eight to 14 girls lose 30% confidence in themselves.  On the other hand, you have boys, who during that period of time, grow muscles, their voices grow deeper – all things that are deemed by society to be really positive! Whereas for girls, you often put on weight, develop breasts and start your period – things that are seen as negative, or things women can be judged on. Because women have always been judged by how they look.”

Lydia says that we really need to stop treating periods as a taboo subject and start talking openly about them. It’s a topic she’s particularly passionate about because she’s had her own unique journey and struggle, having lost her period at 25, when she says she “struck rock bottom”.

Nike coach Lydia O’Donnell

At 26, she found herself staring at herself in the mirror, having come back from a 20km run and an hour coaching session, ready to get on with her busy day. It was only 8.30am.

She didn’t quite recognise the woman staring back at her.

“I felt 30 years older,” she says, staring at her blood shot eyes, the deep dark circles under her eyes, and her hair that had been falling out in clumps.

She had developed RED-S, essentially a condition where you lose your period due to having an insufficient calorie intake and excessive energy expenditure. She knew she had to change her relationship with her body, so she quit her job the same day and started working with her body, instead of against it.

Now, she also works with female athletes to understand their cycles and unique physiology to help them become better athletes. Because, contrary to what you may have heard, Lydia says menstruation is actually an incredible thing when it comes to sport.

“Your period is your power!” she says. “It’s a really good thing!”

She says she’d love for parents and caregivers of young girls to know this, that a period isn’t a shameful thing, or something that gets in the way. “It’s not a case of a girl turning 12, getting her period and going, oh, let’s not talk about it, here’s just a bunch of tampons for the next four days,” she says.

She says that actually knowing your cycle, knowing which days to get a bit more rest and which ones to really hit the power button, can see female athletes getting incredible results – she’s seen it firsthand.

“The thing is, only 6% of scientific studies into athletes and physiology are conducted on females,” she says. “If we train women the same way we train men, we’re not getting the best results.”

She says a lot can be done around body-image, understanding the female body and understanding the effect of the menstrual cycle, that could not only keep girls in sport, but see them excel. That, and being able to see more role models as evidence of what they could become.

“Growing up, believing that a woman could even be the top story on the news, or on the front page of the newspaper for sports… well, it just wasn’t even something that I guessed I could do, because I just didn’t think that it really existed. We’ve come so far even since I was a kid, but imagine how much further we could go…”

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