This time last year, Josh Cowan had played two AFL games in four seasons.
Fast forward to the present day and he will be lining up in a Preliminary Final with his teammates — half of which weren’t playing at Geelong when he made his debut in 2011.
Cowan’s story is one of persistence similar to that of teammate, Daniel Menzel. They were both drafted at the end of 2009 and suffered long-term injuries keeping them from playing at the elite for three consecutive seasons — with Cowan enduring consistent Achilles and hamstring issues.
Geelong’s head physio Mark Young — a man who Menzel credits as a significant influence on his ability to recover from his injury struggles — says Cowan’s story is one that is often undersold in comparison to the popular Menzel.
While admitting Cowan has “spent more time with me than he’d like,” Young tells Aflplayers.com.au there wasn’t much the Geelong midfielder could do during the darker times before experimental surgery around his Achilles tendon in London saved his career.
“Ultimately, Josh’s anatomy is one that isn’t favourable to the running demands of AFL, so the surgeries he had in those times were aimed at correcting this issue,” Young says.
The surgeries Cowan had to both his right (2013) and left (2014) Achilles involved removing the plantaris tendon, a small tendon adjacent to the larger Achilles. It was this same procedure that Nic Naitanui turned to earlier this season, as the surgical option becomes more common amongst professional sportsmen with persisting Achilles issues.
“In some cases, when you remove the plantaris tendon, it allows more space for the Achilles to move in and therefore function more effectively. One of the problems with this plantaris tendon is it can irritate or rub the Achilles which causes pain with running”.
Following successful surgeries on his Achilles, Cowan was presented with a new challenge — recurrent hamstring strains. The 25-year-old missed a significant chunk of the 2015 season and was forced to change the mechanics in his body to continue as a professional athlete.
“We were confident in his rehab once we uncovered the problem with the Achilles but his hamstring strains were a more complicated challenge. He had to really work hard on his running technique, his flexibility and his strength — Josh’s mechanics make him an elite runner but they also put him at risk of recurrent strains.” Young added.
“Josh has a very specific program around him now. We understand his body a lot better than we did four years ago in terms of his running loads, his strength focus and how many consecutive days he trains. Away from the club he’s taken up yoga and that’s been huge for his flexibility and confidence in vulnerable positions.”
With his issues behind him, Cowan’s 2016 has been his best in his seven years with the Cats.
Playing the last eight AFL games while averaging 15 disposals and more than four tackles per match, Cowan will line up in tonight’s Preliminary Final against the Swans in only his 14th senior appearance.
In a weird quirk, he is yet to play in a losing side — winning all previous 13 AFL games with Geelong.
And even when going through tougher times, Young and the club always knew Cowan had the talent to succeed.
“He’s a great example of what you can get from hard work and persistence, coupled with a footy club that shows faith in your talent. Both the club and player are being rewarded for their efforts and their loyalty.”
“Now when he takes the field, you’re just so proud and happy for him. To see him come out of those dark years is very rewarding for everyone who’s worked with him and obviously fantastic for the footy club.”