How One Company Is Protecting Female Athletes So They Can Compete Like The Warriors They Are


With a heightened sense of awareness and concern for athletes’ safety stemming from the recent collapse of Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin, innovations in player safety are certainly top of mind.

For years, it seems the focus has been primarily on male athletes. Shoulder and chest pads, some offering the protection of Kevlar, abound and jockstraps and athletic cups have been around for nearly 150 years. When worn properly, these safety measures enable boys and men to engage in contact sports with the confidence that they are better protected from pain and injury. Sadly, women have not had the same luxury.

Until now. Much to the delight of girls and women around the world, an Australian company, Zena Sport, has introduced an impact protection vest designed specifically for the female body. It absorbs impact and minimizes injury to the breasts and ribs, giving girls and women the comfort and confidence they need to compete at their highest levels.

Dr. Jen Welter is thrilled. “It’s so important to me to equip our girls in a way that they’re protected and appreciated the same way the boys are so they can go as hard as they need to in order to be as great as they want to be.” Welter speaks from a place of experience. Aside from playing and coaching female tackle football (she served as the head coach of the first Australian Women’s National tackle football team) and playing collegiate rugby, she is perhaps best known for being the National Football League’s first female coach, and currently coaches linebackers for the all-male XFL’s Vegas Vipers.

Leveling the Playing Field

Welter has teamed up with Zena Sport, the brainchild of Australian entrepreneur Donna Johnson. Johnson watched her husband Brad compete in the Australian Football League for 17 years. The full contact sport, a combination of American football, soccer, basketball and rugby, is the most popular spectator sport in Australia. And in 2017, the sport expanded to include women.

“Six years ago, female participation in the sport exploded here in Australia,” explained Johnson. “Up until this point most of us just had to watch from the sidelines. With the introduction of the ‘AFL Women’s’, females finally had their own competition and their own teams.”

This newfound interest from women highlighted the obvious disparity in protective athletic gear available to men and women. Johnson saw this as a huge problem and a huge opportunity.

“I had a concern that adolescent females were playing contact sports at such a critical stage of their physical development with no suitable protection. When I did further research, I found that women were actually suffering with breast injury in a variety of sports, however, it was going unreported and unspoken. There was not a lot of education around such an injury, and it was at this point I decided there was a need to normalize the conversation and design and develop a protective vest that was lightweight, non-restrictive and comfortable, while also providing protection to reduce the risk of injury.”

And Zena Sport was born.

Empowering Female Athletes

Staying active in sports offers young girls and women significant benefits, including reducing the risk of cancer, teaching important life skills like teamwork, leadership and confidence and improving self-image.

Yet, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, by age 14 girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys. “Once girls reach puberty there are a number of factors that can impact participation. Periods, hormones, physical development, body image, self-esteem, and lack of confidence are just a few,” said Johnson. She believes providing girls and women with protective gear designed specifically for the female body, and that looks and feels good, will give them the confidence they need to stay in the game.

Creating Female Warriors Around the World

Zena vests, which come in a full range of adult sizes as well as a youth size for girls ages 8 to 12, can be used in any sport where women have a chance of hitting another player or the ground, like soccer, basketball, lacrosse, hockey, wrestling or rugby. The goal is to protect the player, so she doesn’t lose intensity, play or reps because of an injury.

Having already gained significant traction in Australia, Johnson, with Welter’s help, is now poised to introduce the Zena vests to the US market.

Welter believes this will require a real culture shift. “If there is anything consistent about my career it’s shifting culture,” she said, “and that just requires education and opportunity.” She is committed to building the relationships needed to educate the American audience on the importance of female athletes’ safety; the opportunity, she believes, is already there. “There’s never been a better time for girls and women in sports. And it’s going to continue that way. We’re no longer putting them second. Before it was sports and women’s sports. Now it’s just sports.”

And while the Zena protective vests are made for the field, Welter offered another tongue in cheek suggestion. “You may want to wear that vest under a blazer into the boardroom,” she said. “This is women superhero stuff.”

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