TOPE Adepoyibi has dedicated her life to helping reduce the burden of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and malaria. But with aspirations to umpire in the NAB AFL Women's competition, she is returning to the craft she started as a teenager.
Adepoyibi’s career as an international health and development specialist has taken her all over the world. She has travelled to or lived in places including the United States, United Kingdom, Papua New Guinea and Jamaica.
The transient lifestyle is something Adepoyibi has grown used to from an early age. Her father worked for the Northern Territory Government and would settle the family in various small communities around the northern state.
"I think back to the exposure I had in those unique communities and it was really special to see a side to Australia that most people in Australia don’t get to see," said Adepoyibi, who was born in Australia to Nigerian parents.
Even while living abroad for many years, Adepoyibi continued to feed her passion for football, a game her father introduced her to when she was a child. One year, she watched the AFL Grand Final at the Australian Embassy in Washington D.C.
Although the game proved hugely popular in the Top End communities, it didn’t resonate with her four younger siblings. And, for the sport-loving child, any thought of an AFL Women’s competition was fanciful.
"I would have loved to play. When I look at some of the young girls playing footy now and hear their stories, I think they are so brave," Adepoyibi said.
"A lot of them just turned up to the local boys competition and ran onto the field with them.
"But back then, I didn’t see a pathway to it … I just admired and watched the game from afar."
It was through another avenue of the game that Adepoyibi found an opportunity to be involved in the game.
After spotting a local advertisement seeking umpires, the offer of extra pocket money for a 14-year-old was too good to be true.
Working with the Northern Territory Football League as a goal umpire, Adepoyibi found there were others her age involved in the activity, along with a few women. One in particular, Joy Cardona, has had a profound influence on her.
"[Joy is] a legend of the umpiring community up north. She mentored me and took me under her wing and I’ll always remember that," Adepoyibi recalled.
Quickly rising up the ranks, Adepoyibi was eventually officiating senior men's games. She was awarded the golden whistle for the best junior umpire in the League. And while some would find it daunting running around with the "big boys", Adepoyibi saw it as the norm.
"Even if you might be intimidated at first, you have to fake it to make it. You just have to deal with it. You have to be confident and not let yourself be intimidated by the crowd or the players," she said.
One of her highlights as a junior umpire was officiating the Tiwi Islands Grand Final. Adepoyibi believes being able to umpire at this level helped her mature.
"Going out there [at that age] and doing a high-stakes Grand Final … is the most responsibility in your [young] day-to-day life. Getting the score right and having influence on the competition … gives you a different mindset when accepting and taking on responsibility in other aspects of life," she said.
The abuse Adepoyibi copped as a young umpire in a different time has made her a tougher and more resilient person.
"I have had hundreds of people screaming at me in the pouring rain in the wet season, so I feel like I can handle anything," she said.
The 40-year-old is well aware there aren’t many umpires like her. Her parents immigrated from Nigeria before Adepoyibi was born and her diverse upbringing is something she hopes can inspire others to get involved in the sport.
"It’s awesome if a young African-Australian girl can turn on the television or see me umpire at a local ground and think, ‘Maybe I could do that’. Representation is important," she said.
Adepoyibi had to put umpiring on hold a few years for her career, but it’s firmly back on the agenda after she relocated to Melbourne to take a job with the Burnet Institute.
"I thought, ‘This is great, I’m in the home of the AFL now’," she said.
"It seemed like the right time to dust off the old boots."
After years away from the craft, Adepoyibi is focusing on making up for lost time, working hard to rebuild her confidence and gain match-day experience.
She trains once a week and does matches on weekends. With umpires also expected to keep a high level of fitness, Adepoyibi focused on her aerobic fitness, speed and agility in the gym and plays tennis.
Adepoyibi officiated last year’s Victorian Amateur Football Association’s ‘Big V’ women’s game (her first women’s match) and travelled north to Byron Bay for the AFL Female Diversity Championships. She was recently invited to try out for the Victorian Football League development squad,
"One day I would love to umpire an AFL Women’s game," she said. "And from there, who knows?"