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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 the Italian national flag football team captain, a sport which can be best described as American Football without contact, where players remove belts or ‘flags’ from an opponent rather than tackling them to the ground.
It is a rapidly growing sport which made a World Games debut this summer and aims to use that momentum to enhance Olympic aspirations for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
That progress makes for a fascinating topic, but so does the former American Football cheerleader turned Italian captain and model, who is one of several leading women driving Flag Football’s ascension.
“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,” Nausicaa recalls 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.”
Nausicaa’s more ‘traditional’ childhood before finding football.
FROM PONIES TO POM POMS AND A ‘POWER’ SPORT
As a child she loved sport, but her passion often changed rapidly and she moved from swimming, to horse riding, dance and many other activities.
American Football captivated her in a way no other had.
“It just ignited, like fire in me,” the Italian says of the moment she and several other young women began a movement – be it one where they would face numerous challenges with “stereotypes” proving hard to break down in 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 started this movement, 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,” she tells the WSA.
“It started as American Football, which I still play, but also grew into more teams playing Flag Football which I also love.”
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.
“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.
“Flag football changed me as a person and I became 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
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 – has recently launched a significant promotional campaign for Flag Football, with the sport showcased throughout this year’s International Series.
At halftime of the Giants vs Packers game at Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium in London last month 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’s 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 FOR THE OLYMPICS?
The progress of Flag Football is clear, but Nausicaa, as well as others within the movement, have even bigger aspirations and the LA2028 Olympics are a key goal.
“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 would create a new goal, to compete for your country at the highest level and that should be a goal every girl in the US can have.”
THE PLAYER, THE PRODUCER, THE PERFORMER Football is a passion and profession for Nausicaa, on and off the field. When she is not playing, she works as a producer for the NFL, covering the sport’s biggest events.
She is 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 four Super Bowls and in February I’ll go again 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.”