From Auskick to the AFLW – Lily Mithen’s football journey has been enriched by support from her friends, family and now her university.
Mithen was only five when she began playing Australian football – the sport that is now her life.
The RMIT marketing student has a famous family pedigree in the sport, and grew up kicking the footy in the backyard with the local boys.
“When all my friends started playing Auskick, it felt like the natural thing for me to do too,” she says.
Mithen became an active member of the Newtown Football Club, playing out her junior footy years with her mates by her side.
“At the time I didn’t realise it, but it was the start of my playing career.”
She credits part of her success to growing up in an encouraging footy-oriented family.
“They were really keen for me to play because that’s what I love doing. Plus at that age, there was no contact!”
As she grew older and started to play against teenage boys, her mother started to worry. But in the end her parents got used to seeing their petite daughter taking the game up to much bigger opponents, and they’ve continued to support her.
“Dad likes to think he’s taught me everything I know!
“A lot of other girls I’ve played with struggled to get their parents on board with them playing AFL.
“It means a lot to me that mum and dad were happy for me to put on the jumper and play the sport I love.”
Her junior years weren’t without the occasional hiccup – her dad once dropped her off late to the league best and fairest vote count.
“I had no expectation of winning. I was the only girl in the competition and I was up against 14-year-old boys.
“But by the time I arrived, I’d already won enough rounds to win the whole thing.”
They’re fond memories for the 19-year-old to reflect on as she transitions into professional football.
In October last year, Mithen was drafted to play in the Melbourne Demons’ inaugural AFL Women’s team.
Her grandfather’s cousin is Laurie Mithen, who played in six premierships for the Demons.
“It’s pretty special to be another Mithen wearing the Melbourne jumper and continue the tradition,” she says.
“It’s nice to know there have been other family members who have gone through the same pathway. It’s a nice touch.”
The midfielder says she is proud to join a club with a rich history.
“Melbourne wrote the rules of the game and now they’re pioneering females playing the game.”
While her football journey has followed the same pathway of most male footballers, many of the girls she plays with didn’t grow up playing the sport.
She says the fundamentals of the game will now be instilled in girls from a younger age, as it becomes more common for girls to play all the way up to draft stage.
“At the moment it’s typical for girls to not play footy during their teenage years, so a key learning opportunity is missed,” she says.
Mithen’s continuous involvement with the sport could have played a role in her nomination for the NAB AFL Women's Rising Star award in the second round of the inaugural AFLW competition.
“I put in a massive effort over the pre-season and it was nice to have it rewarded,” she says.
This year the Geelong local has relocated to Melbourne to study a Bachelor of Business (Marketing) at RMIT.
“I’m looking forward to the independence of uni life,” she says.
“RMIT is a pretty cool uni with excellent facilities that I can’t wait to use, and meet some people along the way.”
While she knows her time management and organisational skills will be getting a workout, in trying to balance footy with an undergraduate degree, Mithen has already been getting tips from Sally Tanner, Senior Coordinator at RMIT Link Sports.
“The guidance has been amazing. I can already tell RMIT is going to be a great supporter of my football,” she says.
RMIT supports its top athletes through the Australian Sports Commission's Elite Athlete Friendly University program, which Mithen is eligible for as a member of the AFL Players Association.
The Elite Athlete program supports athletes in managing concurrent academic and sporting careers, allowing them to focus on their sport while fulfilling their requirements in the classroom.
Mithen chose to study marketing because of her interest in business and the career prospects in the industry.
“A lot of people are looking to market things in different ways and I’m really interested in being a part of that,” she says.
“I will probably still need to work full-time to support myself through my studies, because of the stage the AFL Women’s league is at.”
Mithen says the culture of setting and achieving goals is a common feature of both her football and her studies.
“My degree will allow me to play the sport I love and get an income that suits that,” she said.
Mithen wants more young women to put on their boots and get involved with “one of the best games in the world”.
“You’re not alone anymore. There’s thousands of women playing it so have fun with it, see where it takes you because now it actually can take you somewhere.”
Story: Aeden Ratcliffe