What’s in a number?
For sportspeople, their playing number often bears special significance.
It might be the one they worn as a kid, based simply on luck or superstition, or inspired by a hero such as basketball superstar Michael Jordan whose famous No. 23 influenced a generation.
For Richmond AFLW player Akec Makur Chuot, the number she wears on her yellow and black guernsey is 34, a tribute to each of her siblings.
“Growing up people would ask how many siblings I had and I’d say ‘I have more than 20 brothers and sisters’,’’ she tells Weekend.
“Then a few years ago I sat down with my mum and we did an audit. In South Sudan you can have many wives. My dad, who passed when I was a baby, was a chief of his people in South Sudan when he was alive. He happened to have many wives and he was also very handsome, very kind and just a great person.
“We counted seven wives and listed the children wife by wife and it added up to 35. We’ve almost got two footy teams of us.
“The play a massive role in who I am.”
It was by chance the 28-year-old was handed the No. 34 jumper in her early football days back in Perth.
“At Swan Districts I was given a jumper to try on for size and on the back it had 34. I’d previously worn number 14 and I thought if I wear it, it really represents my siblings. I started wearing 34 at Swan Districts, when I came to Victoria I played VFLW with Carlton and wore 34 there,’’ Makur Chuot explains.
“And when I came to Richmond I said ‘you know what, there’s an opportunity to tell my family’s story’ so I wore 34 and I must say it’s been a very lucky number.
“We are so proud of our culture and who we are. When you come to Australia you live in a community with so many different people and you can find that your story may not necessarily get told, so by me sharing mine I hope it will encourage people not to feel ashamed of their culture and what is unique to them.”
Makur Chuot’s parents had eight children together. In 2013, she returned to South Sudan and connected her family tree.
“I got to meet all my dad’s wives and my brothers and sisters, it was the best thing ever. It’s so special, it’s unreal and I wish they lived in Australia with us so I could see them every day.”
She also has another family, her Richmond family.
“We are a sisterhood and I think it’s really special, especially for such a new team. It’s a big family and it almost feels like it’s not a football family but just a normal family,’’ Makur Chuot says.
“It’s this mentality of family, we all come from such different backgrounds and we all have different stories but we have one thing in common and we share a care for each other. When something happens, everyone rallies around that person. When you do something good, everyone celebrates you and makes sure you know.
“For me what is special is the bond you get to create with people you may have never met in your life otherwise, yet you have one thing in common and that’s football. That’s what I love, some of my closest friends are the people I began my football journey with in Perth. It’s a family you have forever, when there’s weddings and birthdays in the future we will be there.”
A bright spark with an infectious personality, Makur Chuot loves her Tigers tribe and the feeling is mutual.
She is a much-loved member of the den as Richmond AFLW captain Katie Brennan explains.
“We love ‘Kechy’ and what she brings to our club. She has so much energy and spirit and is always singing, laughing and dancing around the group.
“She’s such a beautiful person and we value her so much. It’s really amazing where she’s come from, the journey she’s had and we love hearing about her stories and her experiences.”
Makur Chuot grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya with her seven siblings and mother Helena Yar Enocuh. They spent nine years there before being granted visas to Australia when she was 11.
“For us we didn’t know anything different, growing up life was what you made it,’’ she says.
“Our refugee camp was a new resettlement for a lot of families and families started finding each other and connecting family trees. I had a lot of cousins there, there were many of us.
“We were able to go to school, we’d go for half a day. We just lived, the difference was we were living in a refugee camp. We waited to learn if we were going to America, Canada, Australia or Norway. It was a waiting game and you waited it out until your time came.”
An uncle in Melbourne was set to sponsor Makur Chuot’s family but when he could no longer afford to, they were transferred to Perth where two other uncles stepped in.
“It was epic. We arrived in Australia at night time and our family came and welcomed us,’’ she recalls.
“We first stayed with a host family, a fellow South Sudan family who had also migrated. It was nice, they helped us learn the ropes and then we got into our first house and started living the Australian life.
“It was different but very exciting.”
Measuring in at 178cm and with natural athleticism, sport was a perfect fit and wonderful way for Makur Chuot to connect with her new community and make friends.
“Sport was an opportunity to get outside my home and meet new people, people from different backgrounds which was cool. My mum really supported me to do it,’’ she says.
“My first time playing football, I was in year 10 and I rocked up and the other parents treated me like I was one of their own. The love shown to me that day was remarkable.
“I was so young but I really remember that day, it really stayed with me.”
For Makur Chuot, becoming an Australian citizen as a teenager remains a life highlight. So, what does it mean to her to be an Australian?
“I love that question. When I’m here in Australia I don’t get asked where I’m from but when I go overseas I’m constantly asked,’’ she says.
“In London a few years ago I was constantly asked where I was from because of my accent and I’d tell them South Sudan and they’d say ‘no’ and I’d say ‘I live in Melbourne, Australia’ and they’d say ‘yes that’s where you’re from!’
“And I was like ‘I’ve got an Aussie accent. Yes! I’ve made it!
“I think every single person is lucky to have the opportunities we have in Australia whether you’re a migrant or fifth generation but you’ve got to make the opportunity work for yourself, so I work my butt off to make sure I achieve everything I want to achieve.
“I love the life we have here, I think a lot of the time people don’t realise how good we have it in Australia.”
Makur Chuot believes you can be what you can see. Visibility is everything. And it’s something that shines through in all she does.
As an elite footballer, in her previous job as a multicultural development officer at the AFL and now her latest role, an ambassador for Cadbury’s National Women in Sport initiative alongside Australian women’s cricket team fast bowler Tayla Vlaeminck, Matildas defender Alanna Kennedy and 2019 Dally M Women’s player of the year, NRLW Star Jess Sergis.
“Growing up, I came from a community that wasn’t really accepting of sport and especially women playing sport, so it was a difficult and challenging time,” Makur Chuot recalls.
“I had a lot of male role models to look up to but I didn’t really see women of my colour and at the stage I’m now at, I only really saw Serena Williams. The only time you’d be considered important was if you were making money and they didn’t see me driving around in a Ferrari.
“I know my role in the community is very much needed and a critical aspect of today’s society, young people can see me playing football on the TV, like Chelsea Randall (Adelaide Crows premiership captain), Phoebe Monahan or Monique Conti (Richmond teammates).
“Role models are really important but being a role model from a community that’s not really well represented is also a massive thing because it’s what needed in our society right now. Young athletes can see an African woman playing football and they can be Akec Makur Chuot when they grow up, too.
“Being a role model is a big honour, it’s the ability to do what you do and let somebody else see what you do and empowering them from a distance. It’s something I take very seriously and wear being a role model with a lot of pride.”
Makur Chuot’s own role model has always been a lot closer to home.
“My mother is my biggest inspiration,’’ she says.
“She raised kids on her own for 28 years, she’s a strong, independent woman who took a punt coming to Australia, wanted to give her kids a better future, she didn’t speak English and she was able to bring us here to a new life.
“She’s incredible and especially through my football journey she’s been one of my biggest supporters. There’s been days where I just wanted to give up and stop but she won’t allow me, she won’t let me give up, she’s so adamant I have unfinished business.
“She’s a queen, everyone loves my mum. If you walk with my mum you’d be exhausted because she knows every single person who walks past.”
Away from the footy field, Makur Chuot has been busy building her own mentoring program that will launch after the AFLW season.
“A lot of the conversations I have with young kids, a lot of them don’t want to declare their dreams, talk about their dreams or go after them because they are scared of failing,’’ she says.
“For me it’s about how can we instil confidence in them so they can talk about building confidence and resilience. I think with social media there’s a lot of fake confidence, I want to build natural confidence. When a young person comes and chats with me, I want them to leave with something, even if it’s a word or something that can empower them to go and take action in their lives.
“(The program) has been a long time coming and something I really, really enjoy. It’s something I was already doing but now I’ve formalised it so more young people can have access to it, there will be an online component as well and a range of other mentors who can help young people achieve their dreams.
“I always knew I’d go down this path, through my work with the AFL I’ve always loved being around programs as a mentor.”
For now, her focus in firmly on Richmond’s second AFLW campaign which kicks off on January 31 against the Brisbane Lions at Punt Road.
The Tigers failed to win a game in their debut season in 2020.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity for growth. There was a lot of pressure on us in our first year, especially as a big club and that’s the reality,’’ Makur Chuot says.
“Everyone brings their own strengths and there’s an opportunity for each and every person to grow and for us to grow together as a team.
“When I walk out of this season I want to concentrate on the things I was happy about versus beating myself up about the losses.
“Our job is to win games but we’re also leaders in the community, we are more than just footy players.”
Original Article: AFLW player Akec Makur Chuot plays in #34 in honour of her siblings