“I’m going to get you up for the Grand Final this weekend.”
Those were the words uttered to Tanya Hetherington as she prepared to take her Diamond Creek side to the 2015 VWFL premiership.
The only problem was that minutes later the news came through that her ACL was gone.
At the time, the Vermont South native was 30 years old and a potential draftee in the national competition the AFL weren’t far from announcing.
In that sense, Hetherington couldn’t have timed her injury any worse — the week before a Grand Final and on the precipice of the AFLW. Given her age, Hetherington knew it was going to be an arduous task to play in the inaugural season.
“I felt like I belonged there with them,” Hetherington told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“Watching the AFLW came with a lot of envy. I always had belief in my ability and as long as I had that belief, the dream was always going to be alive.”
After initially thinking her knee was structurally sound — even returning briefly to the ground in the Preliminary Final — 12 months on the sidelines months ensued for Hetherington.
She was convinced to coach the side the following season while recovering from the ACL tear, which became one of her more rewarding experiences.
But that meant transitioning from a player to a coach, and Hetherington felt the need to set out the rules for her new teammates after rapidly becoming the authority figure among the group.
“I made it clear that I’m not their friend, I’m the coach first and foremost,” she said.
Hetherington was surprised by the time required to coach her own side and had to delicately balance her mentoring duties and rehabbing her knee while working full time at Monash University.
“To me coaching is a really selfless thing to do, you’re trying to get the best out of others, but rehabbing is a very individual thing as you’re trying to get the best out of yourself.
“One of the toughest challenges was finding the time to ensure you’re not doing the other a disservice.”
The 32-year-old sat out the 2016 season with her ‘Creekers’ — a crucial season for AFLW hopefuls — and due to the pain that flared up in her knee mid-year was unable to do much exercise, unfortunate given that when the AFLW season rolled around, Hetherington would’ve been right to go.
Coaching taught her a lot and she was always going to return to the field again the following year. Now a bit wiser, there were more learnings to come.
Her 2017 season started steadily. Hetherington was switched to attack — well away from her cosy spot at full-back — which took time to grow accustomed to.
“When you’re defending, you can read the play and are a lot more in control of your movements, but as a forward you’re hitting up, getting smashed by the opposition and are relying on your teammates to deliver you the ball, which probably stresses the body a bit more.
“But, at the same time, it was actually really good for me to start as a forward because I had to put myself through that. It forced me to believe in my body again and I wasn’t going through the motions down back straight away.”
After returning to her instinctive defensive half of the ground — albeit in a more unrestricted role across half-back — Hetherington’s confidence skyrocketed.
It took a baulk around a Western Spurs opponent in the Round 6 clash followed by topping the possession count while playing as a key defender the following week for Hetherington to find a new lease on her footy career.
While the AFLW dream was never far from her mind, Hetherington stuck to the process as much as possible, ultimately wanting to enjoy playing again.
She wanted her love for the game to return to when she was a kid kicking the footy on the Burwood Highway as a youngster, hoping the ball doesn’t flick onto the road.
Like most girls who play or have played Australian Rules, Hetherington had to deal with numerous hurdles to play the game she loves.
She was banned by her Primary school from playing in Grade 5 because they didn’t think it was safe enough, eventually the school relented and she was allowed to play again the following year.
Then as an adult, she was reintroduced to the sport with Deakin University at the University Games, which sparked her passion to play on the weekends and, along with friends Dianna Haines, Anna Saxton and Laura Attard, joined Surrey Park.
But the club decided they didn’t want a girls team anymore and the group was left to find a new home.
“I still remember getting a call from one of the girls saying the good news was that we had a club but the bad news was that it was in Diamond Creek,” Hetherington added.
“I hadn’t even heard of it until then — I’d never been out in the northern suburbs. It’s been such a journey and it changed my life. I moved down there, made lifelong friendships and played there for 10 years.”
And her journey is about to enter a new chapter after the GWS Giants selected her with pick 17 in last month’s AFLW draft.
Her age brings a wealth of experience, with a former coach believing she could well coach her own side at the elite level one day. The Giants identified a need to bring in experienced bodies, with three of their six draftees aged in their 30s.
While Hetherington, a budding netball star, didn’t get the chance to play her favourite game as a teenager, she’s making up for lost time and hopes other girls will receive the opportunities she never had.
“I was a footballer in a netballer’s body. If I had football as a kid, I would’ve transferred to that a lot earlier.”