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The Woman Who Was Ankle-Deep In Volcanic Ash For The World's Highest Soccer Game

Laura Youngson will be sharing her journey at TedxMelbourne on September 19.

06/09/2017 3:59 PM AEST | Updated 1 hour ago

Laura Youngson loved playing soccer, but she was over it.

Over getting thrown off the pitch so the boys could train, even though her team had a match on the weekend.

Over second-hand uniforms that didn't fit.

Over there being more stories about horses than women in the sports pages of newspapers.

So this year, the British-born Aussie decided to stop shouting at the male-dominated television screen, get off the sofa and do something about it.

"So the next logical thing was to climb a mountain and set a world record," she said, matter-of-fact.

On June 24, she did just that, taking over 30 women from six continents to the highest point in Africa, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, to play the world's highest altitude soccer match on a pitch of ankle-deep volcanic ash.

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She's taking women's sports to new heights.

Soccer's international governing body FIFA has previously banned international matches being played at at more than 2,500m above sea level, after a match played at an altitude of 3,800m in Bolivia left some Brazilian players needing oxygen.

These women took that almost 2,000 metres further, competing at 5,714 metres -- and in doing so secured their spot in the Guinness World Record books.

The two all-female soccer teams ranged in age from 18 to 66 years and included the likes of US Olympic gold medalist Lori Lindsey, retired German World Cup star Petra Landers and former Mexico captain Monica Gonzalez. But there were also players from Rwanda, Afghanistan, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia -- a country where women are all but banned from playing sport.

Youngson said the final morning of the seven-day ascent was "brutal" and the match itself was even tougher than they expected.

"You get up at 2am in the morning and you have to climb 1,000 metres vertically overnight in the dark.

"It was about minus 14 degrees. All of our water froze. I thought my hands were going to drop off, it was that cold. And you were just waiting, waiting for the sun to come up."

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Around thirty women competed in the full-length soccer match at an altitude of 5,714 metres -- 2000 metres higher than the world's highest international soccer pitch, the Estadio Hernando Siles in Bolivia.

But come up it did, and the soccer pitch lay before them, marked out in flour with hiking poles for corner posts.

The match lasted 90 minutes, with substitutes stepping in as some players succumbed to altitude sickness and had to be stretchered down the mountain.

"Your soccer brain tells you to go for the ball, go and run, and then you run and you're just unable to do anything else," Youngson said of playing in the thin air.

Now, she is on a mission to share her vision for a gender-equal society with the world. She will be speaking in front of a 1,400-strong crowd at TedxMelbourne on September 19, in the hopes of inspiring other women and girls to get up off the sofa to create change.

Youngson told HuffPost Australia she hopes that, by taking soccer to new heights, she can help raise awareness and create a more equal playing field for future generations of sportswomen.

"(There are) all these invisible mountains that you have to climb every day as a woman -- to then have this physical mountain in front of us, to climb that and conquer that as well, was really powerful."

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Laura Youngson, 34, is one of the women behind Equal Playing Field -- an initiative promoting equal representation, equal opportunities and equal pay for women in sport.

Youngson was selected from 20 finalists at TedxMelbourne's inaugural Open Mic night last month.

She said she was "surprised" to win the open mic night, but excited for the chance it offered of bringing her vision to a wider audience.

Youngson is one of the power women behind the Equal Playing Field (EPF) initiative -- an organisation aiming to address the unequal representation, opportunities and pay of women in sport.

"I hope that in thirty years time, it won't even be a conversation. It will simply be, you can be a girl and you can play sport and have the same respect as the guys and you can have a living wage to play the sport you want to play," Youngson said.

She points to fellow climber Sasha Andrews to show how far we still have to go. Andrews is striker for the Canadian national team, yet has to work three part-time jobs around her training schedule to earn a living.

Australian sportswomen face similar challenges. Women's football team the Matildas were locked in a lengthy pay dispute which eventually saw them guaranteed a minimum wage of $34,000 in 2015, up from $21,000 -- but still only roughly equal to the Australian minimum wage.

But in many other parts of the world, the challenges are far greater.

In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from state-organised sports leagues, all-female gyms have their licences revoked and there are few sports programs for girls in school. Women aren't even allowed as spectators at the national sporting events.

One climber, the former captain of Afghanistan's first national women's team Zahra Mahmoodi, grew up under the oppressive al Qaeda regime, where girls were forbidden to play sport. She learnt the game watching boys playing in the street.

Youngson has already helped set up the first women's soccer teams in remote communities in Mozambique and Azerbaijan, and she has no plans to stop now.

"The (Equal Playing Field) project is far from over -- this is very much just the beginning," she said.

"Now we're reaching out and working with different coaches around the world, upskilling coaches that were already doing amazing things to empower girls and women in their club, building an even bigger network to... encourage everyone to challenge the inequalities as they come across them."

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