Sydney players marching at the 2023 Mardi Gras parade. Picture: Sydney Swans

SYDNEY'S come as you are ethos was on show on Saturday as more than half of the AFLW playing list marched in the annual Mardi Gras parade. 

It is the seventh time the club has had representation in the parade, focused on celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community, and the largest cohort of players to march since becoming the first professional sports team to take part back in 2018. 

"The main message from our club has always been that footy is a game for everyone," inaugural Swans AFLW player Bella Smith said. 

"You come as you are, and you feel so welcomed when you come through the door… it's special, I need to say to the girls more that just their show of support, we have the best allies in the team, you're holding yourself up a bit higher around those girls and around the club." 

Smith notes that sisters Cynthia and Lexi Hamilton, despite not identifying as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, are "the best allies who are so passionately supportive of the group".

As a result, being part of a club that doesn't simply state its inclusiveness, but is willing to celebrate that inclusion, makes players like Smith feel that they will not just be welcomed, but excel more as footballers.

"It definitely allows me to be wholeheartedly myself, which is just freaking awesome and it in turn makes me play my best footy because I feel valued, I feel welcomed. It definitely has benefits in terms of footy," Smith said. 

Having representation at Mardi Gras goes hand in hand with Sydney becoming the first club to host an annual pride match in the AFL competition. 

The Swans played the first AFL pride match in 2016, taking on Fremantle at Drummoyne Oval, with specially designed pride guernseys introduced more recently. Those guernseys have since been worn by the AFLW side in the League-wide Pride Round since joining the competition in 2022. 

"I think even the fact that the club isn't just letting us march, but we're wearing our kit. That shows to the wider community that we accept them, we're part of this community too," Cynthia Hamilton said. 

Cynthia Hamilton celebrates a goal with Sofia Hurley during the AFLW R6 match between Sydney and Port Adelaide at Alberton Oval on October 7, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

As an ally, Hamilton has taken her exposure to the LGBTQIA+ community in her time at the Swans back to her home city of Canberra, and her family and friends. 

"My dad is so old school, and now he loves the girls, and after this experience he's even part of the community as well," Hamilton said. 

"I think once you've been part of a community like this, it definitely reflects in your broader life and friendships outside of footy." 

It all goes back to the sentiment that allowing people to comfortably be their whole selves creates greater success on the field. Understanding their teammates' true selves tightens bonds while also providing the comfort to focus heavily on the footy. 

"We just love each other so much… it makes us so much tighter as a group, and I think that was part of our improvement last year," Hamilton said. 

The 2024 Sydney Pride guernsey. Picture: Sydney Swans

That improvement, which saw the Swans go from winless in their inaugural season in 2022, to a finals victory last year, has the group hungry for the coming season, and hungry for more footy. 

"After last year, I want more. I don't want to get knocked out in the semis, I want to be on the big stage playing in the Grand Final," Hamilton said. 

"You get your taste, and it's not enough."