Despite not taking up competitive Rugby League until 19 years old, Tracey Thompson went on to be recognised as one of the best players to ever pull on an Australian women’s jersey.
Learning to play from the ‘boys in the backyard’, Thompson’s natural talent and ability saw her capped 16 times at national level.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, as low self esteem held her back from representing Australia in more games.
“I was fortunate enough to play 16 test matches for Australia. There was a vote where I was ranked in the top six to ever pull on a jersey for the Australian women’s side. For me, that was an honour as I picked and chose when I wanted to play. I felt like I didn’t take every opportunity,” said Thompson.
Her personal demons began at a young age. Born in Brisbane to an Aboriginal father and non-indigenous mother, Thompson struggled with her heritage.
“I was embarrassed that I was Aboriginal. I thought they were all drunks. My father was an alcoholic and my uncle was at the time as well. Unfortunately, my father is not here today because that is what killed him.”
That led to confidence issues and not being comfortable with whom she was.
“My confidence was that bad, I didn’t think I could drive a car. I didn’t get my licence until I was 28 because of it.”
Where Thompson did feel at home though, was on the field.
“The only place I felt confident was when I was playing footy.”
Thompson quickly impressed at local level and it didn’t take long until Australia and Queensland selectors started calling. Receiving cap number 46, the try scoring machine debuted in 2009.
Women’s Rugby League was different back then and at times it felt suffocating. Funding wasn’t there for the women, they didn’t play or train at top facilities and the team had very limited support staff.
“We had to share double beds back then,” said Thompson. “One of the test matches we played against New Zealand at the West End ground in Davies Park, we stayed in a backpackers hostel.”
The conditions encroached on Thompson’s personal space and made her feel uncomfortable.
Thompson did have some fortune though, as she was best friends with the Australian team manager.
“I’d blackmail her and say I wasn’t going on tour unless I could room with her because that’s how I felt comfortable.”
“I could have done a lot more. If I look back, I could have been one of the most capped Australian players around, but I picked when I wanted to play, it was when I felt comfortable to do so. That was one of my things; I wouldn’t go on tour unless I could room with Waddles, who was the Australian manager at the time.”
“When I got out of my comfort zone I wouldn’t play. I had the Australian coach ring me up and say ‘can you please play this test’, so I would go and play, but I kept playing locally and made myself not available for Australia. I was just too out of my comfort zone on the tours. It got too much for me
sometimes. The fact there was a bit of drinking going on too, I didn’t like always being around it.”
“Don’t get me wrong, it was a lovely bunch of girls I played with and they all made me feel comfortable, but it was just my own demons and mental health, I didn’t like being away from home,” said Thompson.
Thompson has a few highlights that stand out in her playing career; Australia’s first international win against New Zealand in 1999 which also broke the Kiwis nine test undefeated streak, playing in two World Cup’s, scoring the last two tries for Queensland in a comeback win against New South Wales, and captaining the inaugural Indigenous women’s all star team.
“To even be considered for the inaugural Indigenous women’s all star team was fantastic, it was emotional to lead those girls out.”
“I got to play with legends of the game. I played with Karen Murphy at local and representative level and I loved playing alongside her, she would always put me through holes. I had a lot of great coaches and just having that support around helped me as I was just a shy, low self esteemed girl
These days, Thompson doesn’t shy away from her demons.
“I still struggle to this day, but what I pride myself on is to be a good role model. I go into schools and talk to kids. Advise them not to
smoke, not to drink, not to do drugs.”
“I don’t drink at all. I did early on just for a little bit, right now I apply myself and practice what I preach to the young kids.”
The turning point in Thompson’s life was joining the Queensland Police Force. After calling time on her representative career, Thompson did 16 months in the adjusted entry program for Indigenous applicants and then did the following six months in the mainstream recruit system.
“Just those six months at the academy, learning about the culture, it has instilled resilience in me. I did a full 360. Within six months it brought me out of my shell and gave me that empty space I had growing up.”
“I owe a lot to the Queensland police force as to the person I am today.”
After nearly six years in the police force, Thompson was a program coordinator at Deadly Choices for five years and two months ago became a team leader at Deadly Guardians. Both organisations look to educate and empower young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Thompson wants to inspire the younger generation, “mentoring is the key for our young kids. We need to get to them early and plant that seed early.”
“I don’t like talking about myself or portraying what I have done, but the light bulb went on and my mind said it is not about you anymore Tracey, it’s about the girls and boys coming through. If you can educate them or guide them through what you have done, then you need to do it.”
There has been great buy-in from the kids and changes can definitely be seen, but at times it is a generational issue and that is a hard barrier to break down.
“The kids are repeating what they are seeing in home life. We need to have more mentors and role models in their lives to be able to give them a future or get them to believe that they can do anything they want if they put their mind to it”.
It isn’t just sport stars Thompson is looking to for the Deadly Guardians program.
“Sport is a massive tool to keep kids on track and out of trouble as well, but I don’t just want to focus on athletes. I want to highlight doctors and police officers because all kids have a dream of who they want to be. If they
have someone who can mentor them, it gives them a chance for them to believe they can achieve it.”
Now living in the Northern Territory, Thompson is confronted with Indigenous issues on a daily basis.
“I see the shame factor of our young kids these days. I want to share my story so kids can see that if I overcame it, maybe they can too. I tell them that I was once like them but I have got through the other side.”
The passion for Rugby League is still in Thompson’s heart and she hopes to get back on the field again this year after a few injury hiccups.
“I broke my foot two years ago. Last year I was on some monkey bars and pulled a muscle in one of my shoulders. Right now, I have never felt better
mentally and physically. I can’t wait to pull the boots on. To me age is not an issue. I know the body doesn’t heal as quick as it did, but I am eager to get on that field. I stopped playing because of the mental stuff, but I am ready to go now, I am ready to rip it apart. Fingers crossed the body is alright and I can get onto the field.”
Written by: Daniel Hill