Former NFL coach Jen Welter's challenge with Australia's women's team

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Jen Welter

Jen Welter has never been shy of a challenge. As the first ever female NFL coach and the first female running back on a men's professional gridiron team, she knows what it's like to be the first through the gate, bringing her to what may be her toughest task yet -- the Australian women's gridiron side.

Having made history when she joined the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant coaching intern in 2015, Welter will again break new ground when she leads Australia's first ever women's gridiron side to the IFAF Women's World Championship in Canada.

Taking over the role in February, Welter told ESPN it was the lure of working as an ambassador for football in a country she'd always loved that saw her accept the role of Australia coach.

"There were two reasons [I took the role] - I had the opportunity to fulfil a pledge that we made in 2010 with Team USA which was to become ambassadors of the game of football to the world," Welter told ESPN. "And two of the three coaches who taught me that lesson are coaches [Anthony] Stone and [John] Konecki and they're my offence and defensive coordinators.

"So that opportunity to carry out that pledge and then go to the country that I've dreamed about since I was a little kid in the process, it was like the best of both worlds."

As the first female running back on a men's professional team, Welter spent a season playing for the Texas Revolution in 2014 before she took on the role of coaching their linebackers and special. It proved the starting point of a journey right through to the NFL ranks.

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Jen Welter

"It was painful, but it taught me a whole lot," Welter told ESPN of her time playing for the Revolution. "Playing football against men was, funnily enough, something I was very outspoken about my whole career, that I would never do and yet when the opportunity presented itself I felt like it was something that I had to do. And I'm so glad I did.

"Playing against the guys taught me a lot about them and a lot about myself. They coached me on a lot of things, they were big brothers to me and because we became so close, that's what ended up opening the door to me coaching, first in arena and then in the NFL, it was those relationships, and those guys are still great friends to this day."

But moving into the male dominated team setting wasn't without its difficulties.

"At first, of course there's a little bit [of push back]," she said. "But the guys needed to know two things: number one that I belong, that I'm there for the right reasons and that I had the right skillset, and, number two, could we get along or was it going to be awkward?

"Could we joke; were we going to be teammates just like if there wasn't a girl on the team? And it took a little bit of me showing them that I'm going to joke back with you just like you can joke with me and that we can have fun together, and once we did that we were great.

"My infamous story that I tell people is that they needed to know that I was one of the guys in a way, and I know you guys [Australians] are the same with sarcasm, so I was going from one drill to the next and the coach said 'hey, running backs, have you got your balls?' So of course one of the linebackers chimed in and said, 'yeah, all but Jen' and I said, 'that's ok baby, when I need some balls I'll just takes yours out of your wife's purse'. So from that moment on it changed the game and we were fine."

Andrew Wills

An Australia Women's Gridiron prepares for a down at training

Joining the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 as an assistant coaching intern for inside linebackers, Welter described the experience as "awesome, scary, wonderful, and insane all at once" and although she hasn't coached in the NFL since, it put her on the map as a pioneer for women in sports and made her the face of women's football.

"For me, having been a girl who the closest I'd ever really been to an NFL sideline was the nosebleed seats, [so] to be out there, it was a little intimidating until you realise it's football," she told ESPN. "It's longer days, it's better living quarters, it's a whole lot more cameras watching; but at the end of the day it's still football.

"The thing I would say is that those guys who I coached were better than I could have even thought possible because not only did they welcome it, they embraced me because they were excited to be a part of history and they were cognisant about it and they had a lot of fun with it. It was one of the coolest things I've ever done."

Two years later, Welter finds herself in charge of a fledgling side with little experience in the game. It hasn't been an easy process coaching a side spread across Australia while based in the USA, either, with Welter unable to travel to Australia as much as she'd hoped. But the former NFL coach is aware distance is a challenge for a lot of the teams making their way to the tournament.

"[I didn't get over] as much as I wish, I'd still be over there right now," she said. "But what we did, we did the trials and selection and then our Australian coaches handle the day-to-day, because the other challenge point is that the girls are spread across Australia; it's not like they're in one location.

Elissa Manera

Australian Women's Gridiron team at training

"Hopefully that'll be where the sport is, that national teams will be able to train together all the time. But that's exactly the same situation in the US, they do the trials and selections as well and then individual players go back and play with their home teams and then meet again at the Women's World Championship."

A former member of the U.S team that won the gold medal at the Championships in 2010 and 2013, Welter told ESPN that while there is currently a lack of depth in Australian women's gridiron, she believes there's huge potential to grow the sport.

"It's the depth of the game, but that passion and the strength and the ability to have a team at all, it's uncanny," she said. "The potential is still really raw, but that's what makes it exciting. "We look at this as hopefully giving you guys great footing to start to develop a love for gridiron that will continue. And I don't mean develop the love, but just really seeing where you can go on a national stage with the talent. And the hard-hitting culture that you have in Australia that I learned, it's not outside the box for a girl to play a contact sport; it's kind of like 'yeah, of course, that's what we do'. It's not as if we're going to play one, it's which one, and that to me is the most exciting potential point."

Despite the daunting task ahead, Welter believes the Aussies can surprise even themselves and contend for what would be the country's first medal at a Gridiron World Championship.

"It's hard to say [how they'll go]," Welter told ESPN. "I think they have the ability to even surprise themselves.

"It'll be really interesting to see how they come together, because that's the key. Can you leave your individual clubs? Can you leave individual alliances and your playbooks together and get behind this one? Because what we see in selections is we see lots of talent but what we have to do that's different in this next training camp is to see a team and that will really come together in camp. They have a very real shot at placing higher than any of the men's teams ever have.

"What I really want their goal to be is to come in and do their own individual best. For me, football for women is you're winning every single time you step on the field; outcome and medals are always a bonus and it's always a goal to win. But I want them to realise how much they've done to already get to this point and to really challenge themselves to be 100 percent in the moment for the next, basically, month and half of their lives; to have no regrets, because you'll never regret that work that you did."

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