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Why no challenge is too big for next leading female referee Karra-Lee

Karra-Lee Nolan once marched her former work colleague Jay Delaney to the sin bin for foul play while refereeing a Group Seven semi-final in the Illawarra competition in 2018.  

Nolan didn't hesitate after Delaney, who worked with her at Warilla High, threw a punch towards an opposition player in a fiery sudden-death encounter that got talked about in the wash-up for weeks. 

The pair can laugh about it now but for Nolan it was a watershed moment that showed the former Australian national hurdler was more than capable with the whistle in hand. 

For as long as Nolan can remember she wanted to follow in the footsteps of Cathy Freeman and run around an Olympic stadium as one of the fastest female runners in the world.

It was at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney that Nolan found her inspiration when Freeman collected 400-metre gold with Australia's biggest-ever television audience tuning in.

"I remember being devastated because we couldn't get tickets to watch her because it sold out so quickly," Nolan says.

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"Coming from an athletics background all I wanted to do was go and watch the athletics.

"After Cathy won all I wanted was the same spikes she was wearing. I probably had to do the dishes to get them but I ended up getting them.

"I just remember the determination she had on the blocks that night. She was on, you could just tell. She was in a frame of mind every athlete aims for when they compete."

For more than a decade, Nolan climbed up the rankings as one of NSW's brightest teenage prospects as a hurdler.

She was in the same age group as Olympic hurdler Nick Hough, who impressed in Tokyo last week, while she was part of a local NSW south coast relay team that included Matildas star Caitlin Foord.

"I find a lot of pro athletes come from an athletics background and then transition into other sports," Nolan said.

"It's one sport where no matter your age or gender everyone can get involved. It's crazy to see people now and what sport they end up in."

In an ideal world, Nolan would've been chasing gold in Tokyo but her Olympics dream was cut short when she was 15.

Nolan suffered a devastating ACL injury at a touch football tournament in 2009 with the doctors indicating she was the youngest patient they'd ever dealt with at the time.

Karra-Lee Nolan marches work colleague Jay Delaney from the field in 2018.
Karra-Lee Nolan marches work colleague Jay Delaney from the field in 2018.

"I was about to be inducted into the NSWIS program and really have a good crack at higher honours but by the following Friday, the ACL gave way," she said.

"It was pretty extensive and obviously deflating, you're sitting in a leg brace for four months.

"I remember them saying it can get fixed but it may not be the only one you do."

Nolan tried to get back onto the athletics track and jump over several hurdles within her return but had lost all confidence.

"At 15 I was thinking I'm done. It was my landing leg and there was just a lot of fear. I was scared," she recalls.

Nolan's father, Bernie, had been a referee in the local area for more than 25 years and encouraged his daughter to get into junior officiating to give her something new to focus on.

It also became a natural way for her to help with change of line direction running and overall knee movement.

Ex-hurdler takes the referee's whistle

"All my mates were at McDonalds or KFC on $7 an hour whereas footy reffing was cash in hand," she said.

"I made about $300 in a weekend doing about 10 games a day. I was busted by the end of it but felt rich so thought this isn't too bad.

"I was always around rugby league with my two brothers so I would kick the footy but Mum never let me play any contact sport.

"This was the other way into getting involved in rugby league."

However, as Nolan began to make her way through the age groups Bernie became wary of the potential backlash that could come with officiating at a higher level, let alone as a female.

"He gave me this big speech but I was willing to take it on," she said.

"And now, I switch off most of the time. When you're in the zone refereeing you've got communication coming in [your ears] and your own thoughts with what you want to say to a player.

"You've got the tackle count on your mind, things to look for in the ruck. You don't have time to include the crowd and what they're saying.

"The crowds can be tough especially in bush footy like Group Seven but it's water off a duck's back for me. It's like white noise. 

"I learned that when I was hurdling. You've got to have that tunnel vision with what you're doing."

If ever there was time for controversy it came in 2018 when Nolan marched her work colleague during a crucial semi-final battle.

A photo of the incident went around Warilla High for weeks but later Delaney admitted it was the right call.

"Poor Jay was the villain and 'Ms Nolan' was the hero on that day," she laughed.

"Go figure though because it's usually the other way around for us as referees."

Nolan, who went to Warilla High as a student before transitioning into teaching, said the students and teachers had taken a keen interest in her refereeing career.

She made huge steps in June when she was given the opportunity to officiate the women's State of Origin clash on the Sunshine Coast alongside leading NRL referee Belinda Sharpe.

Using footy to break down barriers

Nolan has also done touch-line duties in the under 20s and NSW Cup.

"The mindset by having a referee at the school has changed so much opinion," Nolan said.

"The students used to look at a ref in a different light whereas now they're willing to ask questions.

"Even for Origin they said they were watching in from the TVs to try and find me.

"You don't do it for those reasons but the kids look up to you. It's a bonus."

Nolan has further goals to achieve in the game but took plenty of confidence away from spending time with Sharpe during the Origin period.

"I haven't had a lot to do with her because she came through the Queensland system but we went for breakfast the next morning and had a really good chat," Nolan said.

"She's paved the way for the rest of us. It shows other girls and young boys that it doesn't matter what gender you are. Whether you're a male or female there are opportunities for everyone in the game.

"I'd hope people who don't know of me could see that I was only officiating in Group Seven a couple of years ago. You can go a long way if you put in the hard work."


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