While the wives and girlfriends of male athletes (or WAGs, as they’re known) were once found splashed across the entertainment pages, there’s a new class rising – the husbands and boyfriends of Australian sportswomen… and they’re here to even the playing field.
For the most part, Ben Fenlon is an average 24-year-old guy.
He studies industrial design at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, works part-time, plays soccer on the weekends and has a girlfriend that he loves.
But he’s also become part of a small but growing percentage of the male population who can call themselves a HAB – a husband or boyfriend – of a professional sportswoman.
When Lara Bingle (now Worthington) burst onto the Australian entertainment scene in 2007, it was her relationship with Australian cricketer Michael Clarke that made her a public point of interest. Along with the other wives and girlfriends of high-profile sportsmen, or WAGs as they are more commonly known, their job was to dress pretty and smile from the sidelines, responsible for bringing the glitz and glamour off-field to the gossip magazines.
Over a decade has passed since the so-called ‘glory days’ of WAGs and now there’s a bigger story making waves in the papers – the upsurge in both performance and prominence by Australian female athletes. So, what can be said for the HABs of these women? What role do they play in a society where women empowerment is on the rise?
Fenlon’s girlfriend is 21-year-old Caitlin Reid, a talented young basketballer currently signed with the Albury-Wodonga Bandits’ NBL1 roster, which serves as secondary to the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL). The two of them live almost 350 kilometres away from each other but Fenlon is no stranger to the life of a HAB.
“Face-to-face is the best way to keep relationships strong. Sharing experiences with each other and then calling each other at least every second day, if not every day.”
However, it’s not that simple. The balance of work and commitments increases significantly for most professional athletes, who have multitudes of responsibilities that fall outside of the usual ‘nine-to-five’. For his girlfriend Reid, this weekly routine can include as many as three or four compulsory team trainings that run for three-hour periods each. There are also numerous fitness and conditioning sessions, media days and daily independent shooting practice. The women are expected to keep this up for the duration of the five-month NBL1 season, with Reid’s team travelling almost every week to play against sides like Launceston, Melbourne and the Australian Institute of Sport.
“It’s pretty intense. Before games, you’re expected to be there roughly four hours beforehand to get up about two hours’ worth of shots and then prepare for the game. It’s tough… for example, in the next couple of weeks I have to go to Tasmania, then Geelong, Melbourne and Canberra. Especially as Ben has his own commitments, it’s very difficult to find time to see each other and then not be distracted when we are together.”
Back in 2016, Sonya Broadhead was playing for the Avondale professional women’s hockey side and had the skin on her forehead torn apart by a stray puck.
“I almost cracked my skull open. The ball deflected randomly off someone’s boot and smashed a massive gash right over my left eye in the middle of a game. There was blood everywhere… I got internal and external stitches to stop it from breaking apart even more and I still have the scar.”
As a mother of two little boys and a local business owner, Broadhead was already balancing work with school pick-ups, kids’ sport and supporting a young family at the time, on top of her own regimented hockey training. Her husband Glen stepped up after her injury, which put her career on hold while she recovered.
“There were a lot of hospital visits and check-ups. I had to take a lot of time off work and from hockey, so Glen was really supportive of that. He was driving the boys everywhere and picking up where I couldn’t. It took me a while to get back into hockey after because my fitness dropped and I wasn’t allowed to play for a long time, but Glen was always confident in me.”
Having played hockey since she was a young girl, Broadhead can never remember a time when her husband wasn’t involved in her sporting life. The closest the two ever got to a breaking point over her hockey career was not a negative experience in her eyes either.
“We had to have the discussion [about quitting] when our kids reached the ‘trouble-toddler’ stage. There was a lot going on, we were looking for a new house and building my business… hockey is a big thing, so it was an important conversation. He was always trying to find a solution to make it work, rather than just cut [hockey] out completely.
It’s all about the balance you can find with your partner – literally like a tightrope. I couldn’t do it without Glen. If I didn’t have his help on the days when I’m playing hockey from morning to night, that’d be it.”
It’s all about the balance you can find with your partner – literally like a tightrope.Sonya Broadhead on how husbands and boyfriends work with their female athlete partners to make things work together.
For Fenlon and Reid, timing plays the determining factor in when they get to see each other. With the fluctuating schedule of high-level sporting commitments, university, work and travelling to worry about, their three-year relationship has succeeded due to good communication, understanding and a mutual agreement of making sacrifices to put each other first.
“When we first started dating, we had the rule that we’d call each other every night… for at least 20 minutes. As time has gone on, it’s been hard to stick rigidly to that rule obviously, because I’m travelling around a lot… I get tired. But we make the effort to see each other at least once a month because someone’s got to make a sacrifice to see the other.”
Chloe Esposito became a household name in 2016 when she took out the gold medal for the modern pentathlon at the Rio Olympics. In an interview with the Olympic Games organisation, she discussed the difficulty of the long-distance relationship she held with her husband Matt while he worked back home in Australia and she was training in Budapest for Tokyo 2020.
“It is tough, but [the Olympics] are only another two years away. It’s my job at the moment and I will make the most of it; after that, I’ll get to spend the rest of my life with him.”
At the end of the day, it is just that. A job, that must be done with passion and with a network of support to back it up, which is led by the HABs themselves in most cases.
Broadhead sees the WAGs culture of the early 21st century – swanky dresses and posing as arm-candy at gala events – as a thing of the past. HABs, as the male equivalent, is a much more positive portrayal of the dedication and teamwork needed for professional athletes to succeed, both on and off the playing field.
“That’s the way society is these days, I think lots of families are taking on this dynamic. There’s not a lot of that traditional ‘house-wife’ versus ‘male bread-winner’ thing going on anymore. Everyone shares the load and it’s definitely better that way.”