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“If I learned one thing on the football field, it’s that when you work together as women you are unstoppable,” says Nausicaa Dell’Orto, who has first-hand experience of this power.
She is a former American Football cheerleader, turned model and now captain of the Italian Flag Football who has fought to defy expectations – and prejudices – throughout her life.
The once “very scared and very frightened” girl, who suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her father, is now a very confident woman who has spearheaded a landmark movement.
Her drive and ability to unite not only female backers of flag football around the world, but also male leaders from within the NFL, has helped generate unprecedented growth as well as transformations within the sport.
After a "breakthrough" World Games debut in 2022, Nausicaa – who was named as one of Forbes ’30 under 30’ list for future leaders in sport – helped maintained that momentum.
She played a leading role an ultimately successful bid which led to flag football’s "dream" but also "shock" inclusion in the line-up for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
“When I played (flag) football as a teenager, my father used to tell me that it was a complete waste of time and that football wouldn't lead me anywhere,” Nausicaa says, with a shake of her head.
She pauses, looks up and as a smile breaks out across her face, states; “But here I am!
“You’ll go through slumps, things will be unfair at times and you’ll experience heartbreak along the way, but you’ve got to feel that love, keep going, run with it and prove them wrong!”
FROM PONIES TO POM POMS AND A ‘POWER’ SPORT
Nausicaa’s more ‘traditional’ childhood before finding football.
Nausicaawas once a child who like so many loved sport, but her focus often changed rapidly, with swimming, horse riding and dance just a handful of activities she sporadically “obsessed” over before moving on.
American Football captivated her in a way no other had.
“I was shouting for the boys playing American Football, but I was transfixed by the sport and wanted to be on the pitch rather than the side lines,” Nausicaarecalls of her 16-year-old self.
“I just decided to drop my Pom Pom’s because I wanted to be the protagonist of my own story.”
“It just ignited, like fire in me,” the Italian says of the moment she and several other young women began what would prove to be a transformational movement within the sport.
They experienced numerous challenges throughout that journey though, with “traditional stereotypes” fuelling a stubborn resistance within her homeland.
“We approached Marco Mutti, who was the owner of the men’s American Football team in Milan, but he said ‘I don’t like girls playing (American) football, you can barely play soccer’ but we did not stop.
“We found another team of women who were starting in Bologna and arranged to play them. That was in 2011, we made history and people started to notice.”
One such individual was former Milan defensive lineman Paolo Sonzogni, who had the ear of Mutti and convinced the club’s president that the women were in fact “extremely competitive” and possessed “real fight.”
“We’d been laughed at, told to stop, but we didn’t listen and then the president realised we could play he started to invest in American Football for women in Italy,” Nausicaa tells the WSA.
“It started as American Football, which I still play, but it also grew into more teams playing Flag Football which I also love.”
The sport which can be best described as American Football without contact, sees players remove belts or ‘flags’ from an opponent rather than tackling them to the ground.
How flag football works - watch action from the 2022 World Games.
OVERCOMING ADVERSITY AND ABUSE
Some athletes gain their drive through encouragement and confidence developed at home, but Nausicaa did not receive such positive reinforcement as a teenager.
She once came home to find her shoulder pads “in the trash” as her parents did not approve of her decision to take up a contact sport.
The conflict escalated though and her own words Nausicaa reveals she was a “victim of domestic abuse” at the hands of her father.
While initially reluctant to talk about her troubled past, Nausicaa has drawn strength from campaigns such as the #MeToo movement.
She decided to go public in her homeland in order to support #Always25November, a campaign to raise awareness on International Day of the Fight against Domestic Violence.
“I was very scared and very shy when I was younger,” she recalls.
“It hasn't been easy for me because like my dad was very against me playing football. I was a victim of domestic abuse because my dad was so mad.
“Despite that I never gave up and flag football changed me as a person, enabling me to become someone that is ready to overcome a lot of obstacles.
“Football really gave me an opportunity to claim a space for myself where I could be safe and feel accepted.”
INCLUSIVITY, THE NFL AND SEEKING MALE SUPPORT
Images courtesy of Irena Leite
Flag Football is a “very inclusive sport” for women, according to Nausicaa, who feels her varied background, which also includes modelling, helps her engage young girls when she gives talks at schools and sports clubs.
“The really young ‘Gen Z’ people are the TikTok generation, right, so they just scroll really fast and what to know what’s next all the time,” says the 27-year-old. “They need sport to be cool as well.
“They don’t just want a sport that’s good for your health, it needs to be about social skills, pop culture, lifestyle, outfits and for some looking good while you play.
“When I show up to the schools and the girls see me with my Jordans and they learn about my background after maybe they saw me somewhere on a billboard in the city, I think it opens their eyes a little and shows how inclusive this sport is.”
The NFL – which represents the pinnacle of men’s American Football – recently launched a significant promotional campaign for Flag Football, with the sport showcased throughout the 2022 International Series.
At halftime of the Giants vs Packers game at Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium in London last year the GB women’s flag football team took to the field, while Nausicaa and Mexican captain Diana Flores were also in the English capital to promote the sport.
“It was amazing to have the support of the NFL and to promote growth around the world because it’s going crazy right now in the US, Italy and even in places like Cairo (Egypt), which I visited in 2020 and there were 17 girls playing in hijabs,” she says with a smile.
“It shows the diversity and positivity of the sport and we need the support of more men as well to help with our cause.
“Sometimes feminism can come across as very aggressive or like ‘we hate men’ because they oppress us, but we need the cooperation of everyone.
“It’s very important to make men believe that women belong in sports.”
FLAG FOOTBALL HEADING TO THE OLYMPICS
“This is all we've ever dreamed of and finally it is reality,” Nausicaa enthuses.
Flag football is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, with the sport’s international governing body stating in their Olympic Games bid that there are now over a million flag football players across 100 countries globally.
Acceptance into the Olympic programme for LA2028, in the nation of the sport’s birth, is likely to be catalyst for significant further growth.
“Right now, you can play football at high school or in college and then that’s it, because there aren’t many universities who play it, but it’s changing and for the first time you can get NCAA contracts in Flag Football,” she reveals.
“Having the Olympics create a new goal, to compete for your country at the highest level and that should be a goal every girl in the US, as well as around the world, can have.
“This is a huge win, not just for us (current players), but for all the generations to come!
The Italian continues; “This is all we've been working for, dreaming of and it’s finally reality, so this is now our chance and this is now our time!”
THE PLAYER, THE PRODUCER, THE PERFORMER
Football is a passion and profession for Nausicaa, both on and off the field, as when she is not playing, she is producing NFL coverage for DAZN and other major content creators.
She is unsurprisingly proud of her achievements and hopes it inspires others to follow their instincts and not let others ruin their aspirations.
“When I was little my parents didn't want me to play football and they didn't put any value on the work I put on the field because for them, it was a waste of time,” she recalls.
“When I stopped listening to the people that said, ‘you're wrong’ and pursued my passion I became a winner. I work for the NFL. I’ve been to five Super Bowls as a producer.
“Just keep holding your dream and keep listening to the people that believe in that dream, because your heart knows what it's right and when you follow it, you end up in great places.”