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Tigers AFLW rising star opens up on bizarre injury, coping with COVID

She’s one of the AFLW’s brightest rising stars – but things haven’t always come easily for Ellie McKenzie.

Writing for nib Health, the Richmond teenager and number one pick in the 2020 AFLW draft has opened up on the challenges she has faced on her path to the elite level, and the decision to pursue an Aussie Rules career rather than the myriad of other sports she excelled at in childhood.

Among the setbacks? A truly bizarre injury that delayed her start to the first AFLW season of 2022.

“I missed the opening games this year because of a surgery in August that I needed when it was discovered I had an extra muscle in my calf that was causing issues,” McKenzie wrote.

“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.”

Richmond's Ellie McKenzie evades North Melbourne's Jasmine Garner.

Richmond’s Ellie McKenzie evades North Melbourne’s Jasmine Garner. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

McKenzie also opened up on her unique experience on the night she was taken with the Tigers’ prized pick 1 – happening at the height of Victoria’s COVID-19 restrictions in October 2020, celebrations were understandably muted.

“The two weeks leading into it [the draft], I started to get stressed,” she wrote.

“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.”

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