The only girl on Salt River High School’s football team, defensive tackle Taneasha Thomas, had the opportunity to play in the International Sports Specialists, Inc. (ISSI) Down Under Bowl, held July 10–17 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. It took a nomination letter from a coach to get her selected and then some school fundraising, a $3,000 donation from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and a summer job at the SRPMIC Early Childhood Education Center to get Thomas on the plane to Australia.
ISSI’s annual Down Under Sports Tournaments provide a forum for athletes from many countries to compete head-to-head in the sport they love. They include competition in football, cheerleading, basketball, volleyball, golf, cross country, track and field, freestyle wrestling, and swimming. The ISSI event is the largest American football championship tournament of its kind held outside of the United States. The football teams are divided into brackets of four, and each team plays in two games. The outcome of the first game determines whether a team’s second game is a consolation or championship game, and games are played according to the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“The whole flight was 14 hours to Brisbane, Queensland, and when I got out of the plane, I had to go straight to practice,” said Thomas. She said that the first practice was awkward for her because again she was the only female on the team; she didn’t know anyone on her team, including the coach; and they all had to play and get along. But eventually she made friends and everything turned out to okay.
This trip was Thomas’ first time out of the United States and her first time traveling alone. She said it was “a neat experience” for her and she enjoyed getting to see how everything worked in another country. “It was all different, from the money and the food to when they had to go to sleep and wake up, and when stores opened and closed,” said Thomas.
“We only had two days of practice, and then a game,” said Thomas. “I was worried because we didn’t get to practice with our coach a lot, but he reassured us that it would be easy because he said that his defense was simple.” She was worried she wouldn’t understand his directions, but it turned out to be easy as he said it would be.
Then the players got one free day and then another day of practice before the second game.
During the 10 days that Thomas was in Australia, she played in two games. One game was against other players from the United States, and her team won 16-15. The other game was against a team of Australian men ages 33–52. Thomas said she was a bit nervous going in to play against the men, and they didn’t know she was the only girl on the team; but she played one whole quarter in the game.
Her team ended up defeating the Australian men’s team 41-06 and took home the first-place trophy, a first-place medal and a participation medal.
Thomas now has friends from as far away as Pennsylvania, Samoa and Australia who all played football together. During her visit, she went sightseeing to a couple of theme parks, a wildlife sanctuary and the Outback. The players’ hotel was next to the beach and very close to everything in town. On the way home, they flew to Oahu, Hawaii, where they stayed three additional days.
In addition to traveling, Thomas’ summer has been filled with physical activity, including the SRHS football camp to prepare for the varsity football season.
“This year I am looking forward to playing a lot of football, getting further in wrestling and track, passing all my classes including the ones at Scottsdale Community College, and graduating [from] high school,” said Thomas. “In this year’s football season I am looking forward to more playing time on the field, taking the team as far as they can go and hopefully picking up where we left off in last year’s season.”
She said that this year the SRHS coach is a little harder than last year, there are more freshmen on the line and they are struggling a little bit, and there are five returning seniors on the team. So far the freshmen have been taking the advice given by Thomas, and she also has the opportunity to become one of the captains of the team.
After high school, Thomas plans to attend Scottsdale Community College for general education, and she wants to travel more now that she has had a taste of being away from home.
ISSI’s mission is “to provide athletes who excel in their sport the opportunity to experience the culture, beauty and grandeur of the land Down Under all within the framework of spirited and intense competition in many different sports.”