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On a Saturday afternoon, you can see them practicing on the stretch of field in Memorial Park that runs parallel with Pikes Peak Avenue. Uniformed in navy blue sweats with yellow lettering across the chest and down one pant leg, the team is tight, moving in formation, fastidiously running plays barked out by their head coach.
While they appear to be merely another well-organized football team having a Saturday practice in the park, closer inspection reveals that there is one small factor that sets this team apart from most other football teams: their gender.
Meet the Koalas. Cute and cuddly Australian arboreal marsupials they are not. They are, in fact, Colorado Springs' official, professional women's tackle football team, which kicks off its inaugural 12-game season next Sunday, with its first home game the following week.
The Koalas are one of the seven teams that form the United Women's Football League (UWFL), founded in June 2001. Headquartered in Denver, the UWFL has placed its first seven teams in the Rocky Mountain region. According to league president and co-founder, Jennifer Hill, the league's ultimate goal is to expand, over the next five years, to include 40 teams. But for moment, the UWFL is keeping things regional. Currently the league's six other teams include Denver, Pueblo, Ft. Collins, Grand Junction, Rock Springs and Cheyenne.
How did we get here?
A women's professional tackle football team may seem an awkward idea to some. After all, football is truly the last bastion of masculinity within organized and professional sports; it is still the one sport that girls and women are virtually locked out of at all levels. There are no junior-high, high-school or college female football teams. And overall, it is still the one sport that has afforded very few employment opportunities (at any level) for women.
Perhaps this can all be chalked up to the fact that not so long ago, the commonly held assumption amongst the masses was that participation by women in sports was considered unhealthy. Physical exertion and encouragement of aggressive behaviors were not only seen as "unladylike," but were also believed to endanger women's reproductive health.
As a result, there were very few organized sport opportunities available to girls and women. Generally, girls were channeled into dainty sports that required cute outfits, perky personalities and some amount of grace. Think gymnastics, figure skating, synchronized swimming, tennis.
Much of that changed in 1972 with the landmark Title IX legislation, which mandated gender equity in junior-high and high-school academics and athletics. Since then, through a slow and steady effort, girls and women have increasingly gained entry into sports which have been seen as out of bounds for women, like lacrosse, wrestling, soccer, ice hockey, rugby, even boxing. And now football.
The UWFL is actually one of six other women's professional leagues in the country. But what sets the UWFL apart, according to Hill, is that the league actually owns the teams, as opposed to each team's existence depending on an individual owner. "We stay local and look for owners ... that way we don't have to worry about a team going broke."
Hill understands this concept all too well. For two years she worked with the Valkyries, Colorado's team in the Women's Professional Football League (WPFL). But between national traveling expenses and team costs, the Valkyries ended up going out of business. Wanting to keep alive the local momentum behind women's football, Hill and a few others who had been involved with the Valkyries created a regional league in order to keep costs down while growing a fan base through local rivalries.
Waiting it out
Given that most girls do not grow up on the football field, one might think finding high-caliber female football players would be difficult. And one might wonder who, if anyone, would show up for tryouts. These were just a few of the thoughts running through the mind of head coach Lawrence Lewis back in January. But when over 70 women showed up, he wondered no longer.
Quarterback Lisa Dipzinski saw an ad for tryouts in the newspaper. A rugby player and an all-around athlete, Dipzinski, 34, said she has always wanted to play football, "especially in high school, but when I was in high school, girls didn't play."
Likewise, defensive tackle S. Olivia Hickerson, who's 31 and has two kids (one who's named after Walter Peyton), has been waiting a long time for the opportunity to play tackle football. "I've been a huge football fan my whole life. I grew up playing in the neighborhood, and I really wanted to play in high school, but they [the high school] wouldn't even let me try out for the team. So yeah, it's been a dream of mine my entire life."
This sentiment is echoed many times over. UCCS Professor Jay Coakley, one of the nation's leading sport sociologists in the area of gender and sport, points out that it is hard to grow up not wanting to play football. "There are many women who grow up in the U.S. and see the adulation going to football players and the emphasis on football in their high schools and colleges. So it is not surprising that some would like to get out there and play the game."
Let the games begin
On the day I'm watching practice, the team's equipment arrives. Practice comes to a screeching halt, and the excitement is palpable as the entire team treks over to the spot in the parking lot piled long and high with large boxes.
"Football really starts now," said Lewis as the team rips into the boxes. "Everybody starts out equal, but it's a whole new game when you put on the pads and helmets. There is a huge significance to the arrival of the equipment."
Indeed, this is the one aspect of football most women have never experienced, and the one aspect that most excites them. The idea of women playing contact sports has only come into public view within the last 10 years. Football has been the last holdout.
Currently, there are 45 players on the Koalas roster with 10 on reserve. And while the image of a koala (the team was named by the city) does not exactly strike the fear of God into people, make no mistake -- these women are fiercely dedicated. They range in age from 20 to 35, have day jobs, and many have young children. Yet all find time to practice four days a week, plus condition on their own.
"The bottom line," said Lewis, "is that all of these women are athletes. And you see how serious they are when they get out there on the field."
"There are definitely going to be skeptics," said halfback Nicole Flores. "But I think the skeptics will see the light after we've been around for a while."
The Koalas' home game schedule:
Harrison High School, 2755 Janitell Rd.
All home games are on Sundays at 2 p.m.
Vs. the Denver Foxes on April 21. Vs. the Cheyenne Dustdevils on May 5. Vs. the Sweetwater County Outlaws on June 2. Vs. the Tri-City Mustangs on June 9. Vs. the Pueblo Pythons on June 30.
Games also feature family entertainment such as face painters, half-time shows and prize give-aways.
Tickets: $12 for adults, $7 for youth 14 to 18, and free to those 13 and under.
For more information or the complete schedule, call toll-free 866/297-8935 or go to www.uwfl3.com.