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Sport Parkinson’s Sponsors Women’s only Parkinson's Walking Football Community

Annie’s Journey from Rugby Player to Football – The Birth of the PD Pioneers – a Women’s Walking Football Community

2022 was undoubtedly the year that changed my sporting life. I was 54, I had Parkinson’s and it was time to try something new just because I could. It was the first time I ever played the beautiful game of walking football. I had always been a Rugby girl, but the heady mix of learning a new skill, being part of a supportive and motivational team, and challenging myself outside of my comfort zone, was too good an opportunity to ignore. Being part of a new emerging team at Northern Lights was something truly special, and I will be forever thankful to those that encouraged me – the only girl in the gang – to keep trying and keep learning.

In June of this momentous year, I received a text from John Roche, my Parkinson’s football team mate, which stated “Save the date – England Trials” – to which I nonchalantly replied “Funny!” – to which he replied “Save the date – England Trials – you’ve earned the chance.” Hmmm…better learn the rules a little more then! I admit that an unhealthy dose of Imposter Syndrome kicked in, until the words of my wise youngest son rang in my ears, “You have nothing to lose and everything to gain – go for it!”

On a sunny summer’s day in July, I received the call to say I’d made the Parkinson’s England Walking Football Squad. I was stood on Clapham station with my son who had so positively given me his words of advice only a few weeks earlier. I grinned – he grinned – we both grinned, then laughed at the absurdity of middle-aged-Parkinsons-Rugby-Mum turned international footballer! The only woman player in the squad. It was a punt that was never on anyone’s sporting betting slip!

After 2 years of training, playing in the UK and overseas, promoting health and well-being through walking football, still the sole woman on the squad, I was convinced that there were more like-minded women out there who would benefit from being part of something truly special. I was inspired by the rise of the women’s game in general, buoyed up by the Lionesses successes, and decided it was time to create my own force for good – an opportunity to grow the women’s game, a chance to build a network of strong sisterhood through the power of football.

And so, the PD Pioneers Women’s Walking Football Community was born and it wasn’t long before we had our first two recruits in the form of real-life super women, Joanna Eastough and Caroline Pike.

With no money, a vague, hazy strategy in my head, but a whole heart full of passion for this project, I approached Sport Parkinson’s, and the WFA for support. Without hesitation, Sport Parkinson’s generously sponsored our newly designed kit in a delicious shade of pink and purple – in women’s sizes (no more wearing men’s shorts that fell down to my ankles!). The WFA helped with a start-up grant and all have continued to support with advice, cheering from the sidelines, and an abundance of positivity as this squad has grown from 1, to 3, to 8 to 20 players now on our books in just 8 months.

Women from all over the UK took a leap of faith by attending the first of its kind PD Pioneers training session in early June 2023, and by the end of June 2023, we entered and came unexpected runners up in our very first tournament against well-drilled, competitive teams from the PD world. We were also honoured to be supported by the CEO of Parkinson's UK, Caroline Rassell, who has so generously given of her time to play alongside us, flying the flag for women, and becoming an integral part of our ever-growing girl gang!

I am utterly proud of this group of strong, positive, funny and feisty women, not just for their willingness to learn this unfamiliar game, but for the way they have gelled with each other from the moment they met. No subject was off the agenda, there were tears, laughter and a spirit of unconditional solidarity for our cause. We are joined at every session with new faces eager to find out more and experience what we are all about.

We currently train monthly in a central location to allow everyone to travel with ease, but my big plan is to hold regional sessions as soon as I have more funding to do so. My strategy is to grow the women’s game not just for women with PD, but for anyone living with a Neuro condition who wants to meet like-minded people whose desire to support others is stronger than their ability to kick a ball. All are welcome, no age or level of experience is off limits, and this is proving to be our secret to success.

Encouraging women to come along and just enjoy the ride seems to be the secret of playing good football. The by-product of this enthusiasm has indeed resulted in a desire to improve, grow and develop as players and with passionate coaching from our support squad, we are rising to the challenge.

This year, with the encouragement and backing of Sport Parkinson’s, The PD Pioneers are entering the famous Cure Parkinson’s Cup at the world-renowned St. George's complex – home of the English FA. It will be a world-first achievement for this group of incredible women, and with laughter, friendship and strength in our souls, how can we ever fail? My one abiding rule to myself is that we all enjoy the experience, and no matter what the result, with hope and optimism in our back pocket, we will never fail.

In the words of my wise son, “You have nothing to lose and everything to gain – go for it!”

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