In 2011, I did some decathlon training at Rooty Hill, sharing the facilities with the GWS Giants. After one session, I sat in the ice bath with Callan Ward and Phil Davis, listening to them talk about AFL. I didn’t even really know who they were, and certainly had no idea what they were talking about.
Seven years later I sit in the ice bath with them as their teammate. I see them every day, they are my co-captains, and I look up to them enormously. How times have changed.
My only experience of Aussie Rules had been a few years before that first encounter with Cal and Phil, in early secondary school playing a zonal game that was similar to AFL 9s, except you weren’t allowed out of your zone. I played as a defender; we had an okay team and the play was always up the other end. I don’t think I even touched the ball.
I grew up in western Sydney, played soccer when I was younger and did Little Athletics. Every year, they had a state multi-event title where you’d run, jump and throw. I loved all the events and was lucky enough to take home a few gold medals over the years. I never thought of picking one or two and focusing on just throws or jumps, and when I was old enough to do a decathlon at 16, I just loved it.
I started working with John Quinn as my running coach in the lead-up to the world under 18 championships in 2011. He was the inaugural high-performance coach at GWS, and through that I had a bit of a connection with some of the Giants’ players. I used to have some good chats with Dylan Shiel back in the early days – he’d talk to me about running, which made me laugh. I was predominantly a thrower in terms of my decathlon ability, but Dyl thought I was some sort of gun sprinter. I think Quinny had talked me up a bit too much.
In 2011, I went to the world youth championships in France. My preparation hadn’t been great, but I’d had big goals for that for three or four years. Somehow it all worked out and I won gold in the octathlon, which is obviously eight different events, and set a new world record.
The world juniors followed that and I finished second, which still haunts me. There’s an extract in the great British decathlete Daley Thompson’s book, about the European championships in Prague in 1978. It wasn’t the fact that he didn’t win, it was that he knew he should have won, he was capable of winning, and didn’t. That resonated with me – I felt exactly the same, I was just so disappointed in myself.
MY DALEY THOMPSON MOMENT
Michael Clarke and Harry Kewell had been my heroes, I had their pictures plastered all over my school books. My Mum is from Liverpool so having Harry play there, as one of the best footballers Australia has produced, was huge. But once I started to see a future in athletics, Daley Thompson became my icon. Mum gave me his autobiography when I was about 15 and I started watching videos of him every day, reading everything I could about him.
I was lucky to go and watch the London Olympics in 2012, and one day I was waiting to catch a train when I saw Daley on the platform. I pretty much stalked him – I was meant to get on a different train, but I saw him and thought, ‘That’s the train I’m meant to be on.’ I was absolutely shitting myself.
I went up to him and introduced myself, said something really lame like, ‘I’m a decathlete from Australia, you’re my hero, I’m you’re biggest fan.’ He said Tamsyn Manou had told him about me, which made me panic even more. It was a pretty hot day, I was in a singlet, and my armpits were just dripping with sweat. But I had a great chat with him.
It wasn’t the fact that Daley didn’t win, it was that he knew he should have won, he was capable of winning, and didn’t. That resonated with me.
I had an absolute ball watching the London Games, saw the start of the decathlon and watched Jessica Ennis win the heptathlon. I was on that pathway and it excited me. I thought, ‘I could do this for the rest of my life.’
When I came home I needed to have surgery on a couple of tears in my hips, which threw a spanner in the works as far as the next year was concerned. Being disappointed with coming second is nothing compared to not being able to compete at all, I really struggled with that.
The surgeon told me I’d be back in full training in 14 weeks, but my rehab lasted 39-and-a-half weeks. Mentally that took a big toll and was the time I started to lose my love for athletics.
I hadn’t watched the Giants play live in 2012 because I was overseas for most of the year, but I tried to get to every home game in 2013. I became a committed fan, even travelling down to Canberra for a game and freezing my arse off with one of my mates. By 2014, the Giants were starting to get a few more wins, and I was on board.
FROM GLASGOW TO FOOTY
I spoke to John Quinn around that time about giving AFL a crack, just playing locally with the Penrith Rams, but he convinced me to recommit to athletics. I always knew I wanted to go to the Commonwealth Games and working towards Glasgow 2014 became the light at the end of the tunnel. I qualified through the national titles in Melbourne exactly four years ago.
In Glasgow, I false started twice in the 100 metres, the very first decathlon event, and was disqualified. It put me out of the running for a medal before the event had even started. I was just waiting for someone to dig me a hole so I could roll into it.
People assumed I wouldn’t finish the event; what was the point? But I never really contemplated quitting. I’d stuffed up the 100, but I was a decathlete, I was never going to not finish. I’d done the rehab for my hips, gone through the domestic season and qualified through the nationals, worked so hard to get there. I was always going to do the 10 events.
I guess I learned that I was a bit tougher than I’d thought I was, that I had something inside me that I didn’t know was there. I was pretty happy that I showed enough resilience to battle on. I won the shot put, but the 400m is my favourite part. I still watch that video. I was in lane one and was miles behind the Irish fellow who went out really hard, but I reeled him in and ran a PB. That was one of my proudest moments.
I got back from Glasgow and spoke to John Quinn about footy again. I had to have surgery on my shoulders, just a bit of a routine clean-up from javelin and pole vault, but the rehab went longer than it should have and I struggled again, watching mates make the team for the world championships.
One of my best mates from school, Michael Hartley, got picked up by Collingwood on a scholarship, ended up at Essendon and has flourished. He’s a Penrith boy too, and I’ve always been so proud of what he’s done. By 2015, I was watching loads of footy and going to most Giants games. It looked like so much fun and I just wanted to go and play.
John spoke about the Olympics being only 18 months away, how far we’d come and how silly it would be not to give it my all to get there. I moved to Perth at the end of 2015, changed coaches, tried to make the Rio Olympics. In the end it didn’t happen, but I’m proud I made every effort to get there.
I moved back to Sydney in August 2016, sat down with John again and said I was done with athletics and wanted to play footy. He rang me later that day and asked me to come to the club the next morning. I didn’t think anything of it.
When I got there he introduced me to Luke Power, who was about to become the club’s recruiting officer. For the next few weeks, I’d go in and have a kick with Luke every Thursday, and each week he’d bring another coach out to have a kick with me. Eventually, I had a kick with football manager Wayne Campbell and head coach Leon Cameron. I was shitting myself.
The first week with just Luke, I kicked the ball beautifully and thought, ‘How easy is this?’ The next week was a bit windy and I thought I’d kicked terribly, that they’d think I had no idea and would say, ‘Jog on, thanks for coming mate’. But they were stoked. Leon said it was a no-brainer, let’s make it happen. Two months later, I was on the rookie list.
ATHLETICS DAYS ARE BEHIND ME
The biggest thing I’ve learned is the value of being out on the ground training. I missed a lot of pre-season last year through pulling up sore from the transition from athletics to football. I wouldn’t say it stunted my growth, just delayed it a bit. This pre-season I missed only one day, and that’s helped me enormously. I’ve been able to fast-track all that learning that I missed last year.
The practice match against Sydney Uni the week before the NEAFL season started last year was my first game of AFL, ever. Now, 12 months on, I’m far more confident and really excited about the challenges to come. I know what I need to do, whereas last year I was still, ‘What does that structure mean? What’s going on here?’
At the end of last year, I needed strapping on both ankles, strapping on at least one shoulder, I’d get both my wrists done, and have strapping on my back to help my hips and groin. This pre-season, I haven’t had strapping for any of our practice games. If I cop a knock I can run it off, whereas last year I’d be sore for days and carry it into the next week. I’m thinking like a footballer and feeling like a footballer too.
I might be better at running a 1500 these days – I’ve certainly run a few more kilometres since I stopped athletics than when I was doing it. But I couldn’t imagine going and doing a hurdles race, then throwing discus after it, then jumping up a pole and trying to clear a bar. I think I’d snap if I threw a javelin, my shoulder would blow out. But to go and tackle someone it feels strong. I’ve left my athletics days behind me.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit jealous seeing some of my mates who’ve made the Australian team about to compete in a home Commonwealth Games. There’s such a buzz in the athletes’ village, so many fun moments surrounded by friends and teammates. But to be honest I thought I’d be missing it a bit more. Athletics was essentially my world for so long, and once I got out of that bubble I realised there’s more to life.
We’ve got an unbelievable squad at the Giants, which makes it hard to push for a spot in the senior side. But I’ve come so far in one year, the season’s long, opportunities present themselves. If I keep improving, I know anything is possible. I know I’m coming from a long way back but there are plenty of guys across the AFL that have done what I dream of. As long as I get the best out of myself, and most of all enjoy it, I’ll be happy.
I know one thing that leaves me content that I’ve made the right decision: I’d rather be running out onto the SCG to take on the Swans in the NEAFL this weekend, than up at Carrara at the Commonwealth Games.
Jake Stein - Contributor