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Cunningham ready to embrace next chapter

Two-time Melbourne leading goalkicker Tegan Cunningham recently announced her retirement from the AFLW. A former WNBL basketballer, the dual athlete’s football career spanned four seasons and 32 games. Cunningham penned a piece for reflecting on her sporting journey and shedding light on how she performed at the elite level.

Words from Tegan Cunningham

As I began my preparations for the 2021 season, I thought to myself, ‘This’ll be my last year’. I convinced myself that I’d retire pretty early on in the piece. 

This pre-season was a lot harder coming off the pandemic. I struggled, but I thought if I could just push through the pre-season, I might be in line to get a few games. 

Mentally, though, I was a lot stronger. I was committed, and I was really dedicated to getting better. 

Along with playing every game for the season, I saw the group turn a big corner this year — we finally played the way we wanted to. When we finished, I felt ready to go again, because I was so excited by what we, as a group, could offer. 

I was ready to go around again, but the decision was altered when Tayla Harris was traded in from Carlton and filled that last available spot. 

I was happy to retire, then I wasn’t and then I was again.

It took me a while to come to terms with the decision, but now that it’s done, I’ll be able to sit back and watch the girls hopefully contend for the AFLW premiership.

I’ll always be grateful for my sporting journey, which actually began in the basketball arena. 

“To the next generation of AFLW stars: don’t put all your eggs into the football basket. You need to make sure you’ve got a good balance, so that if anything does happen, you’re safe, you’re looked after, and your mental wellbeing is still intact.”

With basketball, you have a window of opportunity, a time where you’re playing at your highest level, and I think my peak was through my second, third and fourth years. That was my window.

In the years following, I was playing merely as a role player, and I was ready for a new challenge. 

I started working for Basketball Australia and remember watching the first season of the AFLW, wishing I’d grown up playing football. Then, I happened to get a call from Todd Patterson (AFLW talent manager at Melbourne) asking if I wanted to give it a shot. 

I had an older brother, so I knew how to kick and handball. Our two other siblings are also girls, so I think my brother tried to make me like a little brother! We spent a lot of time kicking the footy and playing backyard cricket. 

I’m fortunate to be a bit taller, because it helped the team from a positional perspective, and I’m lucky that I’m pretty athletic. Having the basketball background, I didn’t lack any of that competitiveness you need on the footy field. 

Kicking goals was very much like a free-throw to me, and that’s how I always treated it. I was very routine at the free-throw line, and I think goalkicking (especially from a set shot) was exactly the same. You’ve got to be patient and practice the same routine over and over so that you’re comfortable with it. 

That was something that helped me at the end of a nail-biting game against the Bulldogs in 2019, when my set shot sailed through on the eve of the siren to get us over the line by one point. 

I was very comfortable in my routine, because I’d practiced it many times. I knew that if I executed the ball drop and kicked through the footy, the rest would take care of itself. 

Now that I’m retired, it would be nice to do some travelling. 

I’ve had my fair share of high moments and my fair share of low moments, so when it’s your chance, you’ve got to do what you can to make the most of it. 

My brother lives in the United States; it’d be really nice to go over there and see him and my nephew who I am yet to meet. I also want to go to Europe.

It’d be really good to book a trip, relax and feel like I’m retired and have plenty of free time. The sad reality at the moment is that we can’t really go anywhere.

It comes with practice, and I learnt to be comfortable with pressure over my sporting journey. To borrow a line from Michael Jordan, you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.

I’m very goal-orientated; I like to have things to look forward to and work towards. I’ve just signed up to do a half-marathon in July with my sister, which I’m regretting a little bit now! 

But it’s things like that I haven’t yet had the luxury of pursuing.

They may not be big things, but they’re things I can work towards without worrying about games and training. 

It’s exciting to see how talented the young girls coming through AFLW ranks are now, and they have the building blocks to become full-time professional athletes. But it’s also important to do other things, because once it does stop, it can be scary and daunting. I’m very fortunate that I do have work to fall into. 

To the next generation of AFLW stars: don’t put all your eggs into the football basket. You need to make sure you’ve got a good balance, so that if anything does happen, you’re safe, you’re looked after, and your mental wellbeing is still intact.