FOR nearly as long as she can remember, Claire Lowe has always had an involvement with football-netball clubs and leagues.
Virtually all of it has been spent in the Heathcote District league, where she started as a netballer in the Lightning Premiership under-13 competition as a 10-year-old alongside her sister at Tooborac.
A remarkable and ultimately rewarding journey has since taken her from Tooborac, which officially disbanded in 1986, to Mount Pleasant and on to Colbinabbin, and from there, a long-time involvement as a league delegate and board member for the HDFNL.
Lowe's tireless contribution to the HDFNL has been recognised with the awarding of league life membership.
While there have been other recipients in the past in both the Heathcote District Football League (HDFL) and Heathcote District Netball Association (HDNA) before their merger, the 45-year-old mother of three is the first female to be bestowed life membership of the HDFNL for service as a board member.
Lowe admits to being genuinely moved by all the well-wishes she has received and the messages of support seen on social media platforms, congratulating her on the honour.
But as HDFNL chairman Peter Cole was quick to acknowledge, they are well deserved.
Lowe has been one of the pillars of the league at club and, in particular, board level.
Originally Colbinabbin's league delegate, she started with the HDNA in 2011 as the league recorder. She stayed as a delegate until 2015 before accepting an nomination to join the board.
One of her first tasks as league recorder was helping establish a record of games played by club netball players, transferring data from the old manual system to a computer-based system.
It was a massive undertaking.
"Until that time, all the games were recorded on paper spreadsheets,'' Lowe said.
"Amy Kinder and myself decided we would go into what was the eMASS computer system for collating all that data with Netball Victoria.
"We sat down and put every member of our (netball) league into the new system before the season started.
"It took a long, long time - I'm very lucky I have a patient husband.
"But we plugged away and eventually got all nine clubs into the system with a few helpers."
The task was completed the season before the celebration of the HDNA's 50th year, another occasion where her first-class administrative capabilities came to the fore.
Her mutually rewarding association with the HDFNL includes a long involvement in organising the HDFNL's inter-league netball teams and campaigns.
In 2015, she accepted a position on the board and has since served several seasons as the league's vice-chairperson.
Lowe says her passion for grassroots football-netball stems from several sources, especially her late grandfather Bill Dickinson.
"He received a life membership for his service to the Tooborac Football Club and I remember how proud he was of that," she said.
"I think he would be very proud of what I have achieved, even though it's all about wanting to help people more than the accolades for me."
Along the way she has drawn inspiration from the many people she has encountered and the experiences both good and bad, like the eventual demise of the Tooborac football and netball clubs.
"Knowing what it meant to Tooborac to lose their club and the impact it had on the town and the community is something that has stuck with me. It really suffered," she said.
"In the end we only had tennis, there wasn't any winter sport. It was quite a small community, but it was a real shame.
"Then going to Mounts, it was a great community-based club, which brought people in from a lot of different areas.
"Colbinabbin is the same, it's a great community-based club. I have met so many great people and great leaders and I am grateful to have met people who inspire you to do good things.
"Everyone does their little part in their club and it makes for a better and brighter future."
Lowe credits fellow life member and Heathcote league netball legend Ellen 'Nell' McTaggart as her biggest inspiration.
(My grandfather Bill Dickinson) received a life membership for his service to the Tooborac Football Club and I remember how proud he was of that. I think he would be very proud of what I have achieved.- Claire Lowe
"When I first went to Colbo, she was there and she was just so welcoming and made you feel like you wanted to help out around the place and be a part of the club," she said.
"She was a life member of the HDFL and then the HDNA. I'm honoured to be up on the board with her."
Despite an ultra-challenging two years due to COVID-19, Lowe views the HDFNL as being in a position of strength, something she attribute to the hard work of many at board and club level.
"Our league has just gotten so much stronger in recent years - our senior football and netball competitions have gotten a lot stronger," she said.
"It would be great to keep that strength and keep the league growing.
"I feel our diversity is a real strength, we have our Bendigo clubs, more town-based, and than we have our country clubs with their different agricultural backgrounds in those communities.
"Being from an agricultural background myself, I think it's great how we all mingle. It makes our league quite unique."
Forever a source of pride for Lowe is the HDFNL's reputation as a 'family-friendly' league.
She cites her own family as proof.
She joined Colbinabbin as a player in 2000 after a stint in Melbourne, following her husband Stewart to the club.
Her 23-old son Will is preparing to line up for Colbinabbin again in 2022 after a couple of seasons away at Birchip, while her daughters Jamison, 22, and Anna, 19, are respective past and current netballers with the Grasshoppers.
Based at Timmering, about 15-kilometres east of Rochester, Lowe divides her work time being a wool classer and a hairdresser.
She has relished her time on the HDFNL board and more importantly her interactions with her fellow board members, both past and present.
"Although I stepped onto the board in one of the netball positions, I have had a lot do with football. Everyone (on the board) is across football and netball," Lowe said.
"Everyone has their opinion, then we all make a decision and we all back each other on it."
The board will have two new members next season with Tina Prout, fresh from receiving life membership at Leitchville-Gunbower, and Vicki Gellatly (White Hills) stepping up to replace Judy Ryan, who actually nominated Lowe back in 2015, and Mick Tobin.
Ironically, as someone whose first involvement in netball was as a player in the Lightning Premiership and has played a big part in the running of the one day carnival over the past 10 years, Lowe has been one of the key drivers behind the establishment of a fully-fledged under-13 competition in the HDFNL next season.
The competition will replace the former tournament which has existed since the early-80s and was won in its final year this year by Leitchville-Gunbower.
It's another step forward for the league and participation levels, says Lowe.
HDFNL chairman Peter Cole praised Lowe's long and lasting contribution to the Heathcote District league and said her skills had especially come to the fore during a tough last two years during COVID.
"She's an administrative guru, she knows it all and is such an easy-going person," he said.
"She's been my vice-chairperson for going on five years and we've gone through hell and back with this COVID situation, but she has been great.
"The year just gone has actually been harder than one when we called the season off (in 2020), and we were the first to call it off because we had so many stop-starts.
"Luckily, and with Claire's knowledge, we put up a 12-point plan for the season at the start of the year in February, thinking forward, and 10 of them came to fruition. That was mostly Claire's work."
Among Lowe's strongest traits, according to Cole, are her professionalism and impartiality.
"She was Colbinabbin's delegate to the board back in the day, but since she has been on the board, whether she thinks something is good or bad for Colbo, she votes for what's best for the league," he said.
"That's most important when you are on a board, no bias.
"Claire is super-loved and super-admired around the league ... just a wonderful person.
"The honour is very well deserved."
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