This article was published on 7 March, 2018
Two weeks out from their VCE English exam, most students across Victoria had one thing on their mind.
For Melbourne’s Claudia Whitfort, however, her priorities were elsewhere.
October 18th was the day of the 2017 AFLW Draft, and she was eager to learn her fate.
“I was actually at school, watching it on an iPad at lunchtime. I was waiting all afternoon for it,” Whitfort told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“It was very exciting. I didn’t study that day.”
Taken by the Demons with pick 30, Whitfort was made to wait. The 18-year-old was confident that Melbourne would select her, it was simply a matter of when.
But her crowning moment was ultimately spoilt by an exuberant friend, eager to celebrate the moment.
“I think my stream was a bit behind one of my friend’s, and just before number 30 was announced, I got a text saying, ‘Oh my god you just got drafted!? I didn’t even know you played footy!’”
It might sound strange to think that her friends were unaware that she had taken up football, but throughout her schooling days, the 18-year-old had been competing in multiple sports.
She divided her time between athletics, surf lifesaving and netball, only playing her first football game when she was 16.
It was a social round-robin tournament representing her school, Peninsula Grammar, which lit the flame on her ambition to play in the AFLW. She had a blast, making the most of her speed and agility and embracing a new challenge.
From there, she attended an AFL Victoria talent search, where her athletic qualities made recruiters take notice.
“The Bulldogs and Melbourne asked me to come to their individual talent search days, which involved ball work and actually playing footy, and Melbourne showed interest in me,” Whitfort explained.
“They [Melbourne] were pretty confident they were going to take me in the draft, they just weren’t sure if it was the rookie or the main draft.”
Melbourne’s eventual decision was a dream scenario for Whitfort.
Not only did it mean that she could remain in her home state close to family and friends, but living in Mount Eliza on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, she is just a 30-minute drive to Casey Fields, as opposed to an hour-long trip to the city for the other Melbourne clubs.
Whitfort’s association with sport began at age six, on the running track at Box Hill Athletic Club. She immediately showed a fondness for running, competing in cross country, 800 metres and 1500 metres events.
As time passed, her focus shifted to sprints and jumps events. But as the stakes were raised, she became disenfranchised with the culture and individualistic nature of track and field.
“I wasn’t really a fan of the social vibe around athletics, and it kind of put me off going the extra mile with them. It’s very individual and I’m not really a fan of individual competition anymore.”
Not even the chance to represent her country on the world stage could sway Whitfort from pulling away from athletics. She had been told that she was capable of going professional with the sport, but her decision had been made.
“It definitely flicked through my mind a bit, maybe not this year, but I thought about Tokyo and how it could have been a possibility to get in. But other sports took their toll, and I leaned more towards them than athletics.”
“Seeing AFLW clubs had such confidence in what I could do, even though I hadn’t had one training session before and had zero skills in the sport, but just having people back you in, just made me feel like I need to give football a real red hot crack.”
It was a similar scenario that ended her competitive surf lifesaving days, after nine years of racing in flags and sprints events. With enough sports to juggle already, Whitfort wasn’t interested in triathlon, and the reality of the circumstances saw her lose the motivation to continue.
“There was just so little people to run against. It was kind of a waste of time, driving two hours to race against the same two people every week. It’s still a great sport though, it’s just a shame that people tend to pull out at my age.”
When she reached the finish line with her athletics commitments, it wasn’t just her football abilities that benefited. Her netball game improved put of sight, earning selection for Peninsula Waves Netball Club in the Victorian Netball League, and making the Victorian State Squad for three successive years.
“As a junior, I wasn’t the best. I started to improve a lot more when I was 16/17. I wasn’t very good with the ball when I was younger. After making it into VNL, it improved my game incredibly.”
Fortunately, there is minimal overlap between the AFLW season and netball season, allowing her to juggle both sports.
Whitfort predominantly plays as a centre or wing defence on the netball court and sees herself playing a similar role for the Demons.
Melbourne is not short on star power, with Karen Paxman, second in last season’s AFLW Players’ MVP voting to Adelaide’s Erin Phillips, and 2017 All-Australians Melissa Hickey and Elise O’Dea setting the example on the training track and on game day. But it’s their skipper who Whitfort looks up to the most.
“Daisy’s pretty inspirational,” she explained.
“She’s just such a committed person, she’s fun, she’s able to get everyone up and going and she knows when and where to say things, she’s just been great.”
Despite a hectic sporting schedule, Whitfort is not losing sight of the bigger picture. She has enrolled in a science degree at Monash University in Melbourne, with a keen interest in human biology, and an eye on a potential career as a physiotherapist.
How appropriate, for a girl who seemingly can’t get away from the sporting fields, to treat sports-related injuries.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, she knows that it’s going to be difficult to manage, but she has a pretty simple approach to staying on top of everything.
“I’m still looking at doing four subjects each semester, the first month when it clashes with footy will be the hardest part. But after that, you just have to keep your head down, bum up and not try to relax, and just push through it.”
In her downtime, Whitfort loves spending time at the beach. She describes it as her ‘happy place,’ and finds it to be an effective way to switch off and relax when she needs to. But there is a strong sense of humility to the 18-year-old, not losing sight of where she came from to get to where she is today.
She is heavily involved in her local surf lifesaving club, Mornington. She no longer competes, but she can still be seen volunteering and coaching at the club, and has also returned to Peninsula Grammar to coach netball.
In Round 5 of the AFLW season, the 18-year-old finally made her debut, gathering six disposals in Melbourne’s six-point win over Brisbane at Casey Fields.
She may lack experience, but Whitfort is determined to make an impact for the Demons in 2018, not content with simply using it as a development season.
The ‘Triple Threat’ series is an initiative of the partnership between the AFL Players’ Association and La Trobe University. Stay tuned as La Trobe sports journalism students help tell the stories of some of the game’s most talented athletes.