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Ellie McKenzie: Motivated to reach the top

My weird injuries and how I beat them

Ellie McKenzie from the AFL Tigers running on the football field wearing her uniform
Ellie McKenzie from the AFL Tigers running on the football field wearing her uniform

Getting to an elite level in sport takes a lot of hard work. I can't remember a moment where I resisted it. I was always determined to make it to the top level – I just wasn’t 100 percent sure which sport it would be when I started out.

I was a state-level runner and enjoyed it, but as the AFLW competition was introduced, I realised there was somewhere for me to go. That was around 2017 and it cemented my thoughts about wanting to be in that in that top bracket, and I was willing to do whatever it took. While I wasn't the fittest girl coming through the pathway, I was always really determined and wanted to do my best. I think I was pretty lucky. I was at Maribyrnong Secondary College in their Sports Academy and started going into the gym and lifting weights from year nine and I believe that set me up for where I am today.

I'd always go into the gym before school and then have a kick with some of the girls. Being able to train with the boys who were in that program also helped me out. Diet was a crucial part of it, and we had dietitians come through as we were part of the NAB League pathways program. That gave me an insight into what it was like to be an elite athlete. You need to put your health first in every possible way to make it at an elite level. I felt nurtured and supported right through that process. It’s important to note that it’s not something that I did independently – the support was made available, and it really helped me out.

My motivation has helped me through some tough moments and unique injuries. As much as I hate doing conditioning sessions in the preseason, I know that it's an integral part of getting on the field during the season and being able to run out a game. That work always pays off in the end.

Bash and crash

I was influenced a lot by my dad and my brother, Tom, who currently plays in the VFL. Growing up, my brother went down to Auskick and I just followed. I always looked up to Tom and wanted to do whatever he wanted to do. My dad is a footy nut, too.

I played with boys in my junior years. At first, I didn’t find it physically challenging playing with the boys, as there wasn’t much of a difference in terms of our bodies at that point, but by my last year playing with them, you could see they started getting bigger and stronger than me. It was the right time for me to switch. There is no way I would be as good a player now without having that experience playing with and against boys. Being able to bash and crash against them from an early age set me up physically.

I had a few injuries in my later years of juniors - a few weird ones. There were the conventional sprained ankles here and there, but I had problems with shin splints and problems with my hips leading into the AFLW draft.

In the last couple of years, I've had interrupted preseasons. And of course, I was drafted during a Covid lockdown. It has been hectic. Human nature suggests you should get pretty down during injuries, but getting the right advice and right treatment from the right people makes a world of difference. It helps you maintain a feeling of control.

My parents were always really good with early intervention – getting me in to see osteopaths and physios and just trying to make sure that I got better as quickly as possible. They got me seen by the right people, and I was always committed to getting back on the field as fast as possible. We have this joke in my family that we're all renowned for having weird injuries. My brothers always had them and so have I – it’s our inside joke.

And I missed the opening games this year because of a surgery in August that I needed when it was discovered I had extra muscle in my calf that was causing issues. The surgeon told me it was something that affected less than one percent of people in the world. It started out as ankle and calf pain near the end of last season. I just brushed it off - thought it was just overload. I thought it would settle with the break, but when I got back into running, it still hadn’t gone. There were lots of scans – MRIs, ultrasounds – and it took six or seven of them before it was discovered that my soleus muscle in my calf extended lower into my Achilles than usual.

Because I'd been in that elite pathway for a couple of years, at that point, I had just trained so hard that the muscle had grown. And it was impinging on everything around my ankle and my calf. They just removed it. Because it’s so rare, the physios hadn't experienced an injury like that; the rehab was a learning process for all of us. The timeline was uncertain, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play at all this season. Sticking to my rehab and with the physio’s help, I got back for half the season, which we all were a bit shocked about. Ultimately, it was a relief. At first, we genuinely did not know was wrong with me.

It’s natural to be hesitant coming in after a long-term injury, getting back into the swing of things, but I feel like the only thing that I lacked was range in my ankle, which probably made me run a bit differently.

Surprised she kept the secret

The 2020 AFL draft was just surreal and I’m really grateful to have gone as the number one pick and had that whole experience, even though it was during Covid. Coming into the draft period, I felt a bit of pressure. It was mostly internalised pressure of wanting to be considered the best in that age group.

The two weeks leading into it, I started to get stressed. And we were at home in isolation at that point too, so I couldn’t go out and see friends to take my mind off things. It ended up being a total surprise. For me at least – mum told me later she’d found out two weeks earlier that I would be going as number one. I was probably more surprised that she managed to keep the secret. If the roles had been reversed, I would have definitely blurted it out.

Being a stressful period, I was lucky that I had school at the same time. I looked for things to keep my mind occupied during the day and school was a good distraction. I am self-motivated and independent when it comes to most things. I enjoyed being at home and being able to get all my work done early and then have the rest of the day. I got into a good routine. My brother and I set up a gym in our backyard and I'd do that in the afternoon. When it comes to fitness, I'm usually pretty self-motivated.

Obviously, Covid was not a great time, especially with my age group being in year 12. We missed out on graduations and competing in the top age group at school. But I think the silver lining is that it has made our age group self-motivated and independent and set us up going into adult life. From a life perspective, maybe Covid has been helpful in some way.

Aside from footy, I’m doing a Bachelor of Business at Swinburne and working in the community with the club. There are pros and cons to not being a full-time footy player. I’m footy-oriented. I love it. It's probably good that I can have something as an outlet so that I'm not just 24/7 focused on footy and it’s cool that AFLW athletes can pursue other things and set ourselves up for careers post-football. But it would be really nice for us to be full-time athletes who commit all our time to footy - getting better and making the competition better. Long term, the competition is going to benefit so much more from being full-time.

My long term health goal

On this journey, I’ve learned a lot about the body and fitness and diet. And I've learned about the mental side of things as well. Looking after your mental health is really important in footy as is getting the right advice and help from experts and those close to you, if it’s needed. Being footy-oriented, I tend to play things over and over in my head.

It’s important to have that balance of being mentally healthy, as well as physically healthy. For me, it can be as simple as reading a book or being able to open up my laptop and do some uni work when I'm stressing about footy. My goal is to play 10 plus years in AFLW, so I'm trying to do everything I can now to set myself up to be really healthy and not have any injuries or little niggles in the later years of my career.

For me, that’s working on my calf and getting some range back in my ankle. Sticking to everything that the strength and conditioning coaches have told me to do. Making sure I’m doing all the gym work. Getting my running done and sleeping well and eating well. It’s about all those little things tied together to support you and make sure that you're fit and healthy for many years to come.