• Jayden J Bartlett

The Aftermath of Draft Day: what happens after the AFLW dream comes true?

Drowning in thoughts: the body remains weightless, unlike the breaths that get heavier with each take. Begging and pleading for some relief: is my name next? Like a cruel, twisted game of bingo. The thoughts race yet time seems too slow. And the mind continues to argue and play with the lingering question of what if?

And then it happens. The injuries, the ups, the downs, the sacrifices, and the opportunities – have all become worthwhile within a few seconds. Just like that, with the call of your name. Welcome to the Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) competition.

A lifelong dream recognised in seconds. That is the reality facing those who are brave enough to carry the burden of hope into the AFLW’s draft night. But does the dream live on once the night is over?

Annie Lee, 19, was one of those courageous enough to sit through such a defining night. At the time, she was a promising high school student from Geelong, Victoria. She had the look of an athlete: blonde hair, and blue eyes – a hint at the Carlton Blues who she grew up supporting.

Annie headed into the 2021 NAB AFLW Draft fluttering with pessimism and optimism. It was the last night of a pandemic-induced lockdown: meaning the cosy cream walls of her loungeroom replaced the usual star-studded setting of the draft.

And, although the setting may have changed, the weight of those fateful words certainly did not.

Those words stated that Annie had been selected by the Carlton Blues – her favourite team – with the tenth pick of the draft. “I just had a million thoughts going on in my head,” Annie says while reflecting on the moment. “But I think it was just such an adrenaline rush. I wasn’t really expecting it, and I think that made it all the more special.”

Zali Friswell, 18, went into the same draft night having convinced herself that she would not get picked.

The intrusive thoughts, the self-doubt, and the constant asking of why would I get picked? All this was done to create a thick cloud that prevented the glimmer of her hope: to protect herself in case it wasn’t her time. After all: was it her time?

But this hesitation was for nothing. The Geelong Cats selected her with the seventh draft pick. She became one of the youngest in the 2021 draft pool, having been only 17 at the time.

“It was an honour to go at pick seven, but the number didn’t matter as much as I was just trying to get drafted and it didn’t matter what number I went,” Zali says. “Been a dream since I was little so very happy. I love Geelong.”

The same night that had brought Annie and Zali overwhelming joy was – for many others across the country – a sombre reminder of what could have been.

Kiara Beesley, 20, had looked toward the 2021 draft with these same high hopes. They were justified: she was, after all, captain of the Sydney Swans Academy. But cruelly, she ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) before the draft took place.

“I just broke down on the side of the field,” Kiara says when asked about the injury. “But I still remember one of the coaches telling me: ‘it’s okay the Swans are gonna have a team by then’. That kind of gave me motivation.”

Kiara, broken-hearted and devastated, used the glow of the draft dream to battle through rehab. The work, the commitment: it all became worthwhile in May 2022 when she was picked as an overage signing by the Sydney Swans for their inaugural AFLW team.

“It is a dream come true. I was so stoked but to be honest it didn’t really feel real for some time,” Kiara says. “It felt like I was in a dream that I didn’t want to wake up from – that’s how good it felt.”

This is a feeling neither I nor many others can comprehend. Everything that they put towards their dream – and anything that they experienced during that time – was made worth it. To hear those words ushered so softly yet reassuringly within the deepest part of your mind: to know that you have made it.

But what happens when those words slowly fade and reality sets?

Directly following the excitement of achieving a lifelong dream. A draftee’s life quickly becomes the centre of attention. The air that was once full of silent and hesitant wishing; becomes awash in buzzes of notifications from family, friends, fans and randoms. Then comes the interviews, the meetings, and the photoshoots.

Annie, still full of excitement and disbelief, experienced her first live interview within an hour of hearing her name get called out. A daunting yet fun challenge for the newly recruited teenager. It is these little moments that capture our beliefs: that idea of fame, regardless of its size. It invokes an image of red carpets, sparkling lights, and shining stars. But that is just it: as I listen to them talk it dawns on me - they are just teenagers. Teenagers who are simply playing the sport that they love while achieving their dream in the process.

This goes for the majority of draftees, regardless of age. They don’t do it for the fame, the interviews, or the photoshoots. They do it to prove themselves right – to prove to themselves that they were good enough to not only chase but to fulfil their dreams. To play the sport they love at the highest tier possible.

However, it is these same moments of attention that make it feel real. They bring authenticity and credibility to an otherwise disbelieving mind. Working so hard to achieve a goal – only to be so stunned that they don't believe that they have achieved it. This creates a continuous loop of acceptance and excitement that seems to radiate from a recruit. And the disbelief and exhilaration only strengthen with every little step further into their AFLW life.

“When I first got told I was so stoked,” Kiara says. “Then I got an email, and then you start to meet the different people, and then I was announced, and that kind of made it feel even more real.”

“I think once preseason officially starts it’s just gonna keep getting more exciting the whole way through. It’s a massive season of firsts so I don’t think the excitements gonna run out,” she says.

This idealised view of success: the attention, interviews, and pictures. Is as much of a reward for achieving their vision as it is a delightful break before they once again return to sacrificing and working on their dream. Because now, they are in the AFLW – the highest possible tier of women’s football in the world.

For a recruit, the aftermath of the AFLW draft involves many of the same qualities that helped them get drafted. Waiting for them is plenty of hard work and long hours that are done far from the eyes and the glittering lights of the draft. It is different for everyone, but the challenge remains.

For Annie, the reality of post-draft life involves a two-hour trip several times a week from her home to Icon Park, the home of the Blues. An inconvenience that would put off most people – but one she doesn’t mind doing. “Whatever it takes,” Annie says. “I love being down there.”

While Kiara's post-draft life involves some creativity to make it function. Sometimes she gets to training early and uses the players' lounge to host work meetings. It is a smart plan – made possible by the flexibility and the understanding of the Swans and her work.

Others have seen their lives change drastically following those fateful words. Zali, after she finished year 12, moved into a teammate's house in Geelong. Many things changed at once: her parents moved to Geelong, she began studying at university, and she became an AFLW player. “Wasn’t easy to adjust to but sorting out work and uni around footy has helped,” Zali says. “It is a massive load, but I feel like I belong where I am.”

The importance of training also becomes paramount. The running, the conditioning, the weights: all done in preparation for a harder, faster, and smarter brand of football. “You kind of expect that big step,” Annie says. “But once it actually happens; it’s even bigger than you might think.”

Then comes playing the game itself. Annie was lucky enough to play in the first three rounds of her debut season with the Blues. It is an exciting moment weaved with nerves and worry. Those first matches offer an introduction to the intensity of the game that can leave you asking: am I good enough? It can awaken those same pessimistic thoughts that swirled on draft day – it isn’t easy.

“There are some trainings where you may just feel a bit,” Annie says when asked if there were any tough days. “After a couple of weeks of quite intense training you’re always going to have the days where you feel a bit down.” However, the draftees aren’t alone. The AFLW clubs have become accustomed to looking after mental health just as much as physical – a sign of a more modern approach.

And so, the juxtaposition between dreams and pressure, between excitement and nerves, continues. “I think a little bit of nerves is always good, Kiara says. “I think there will be little nerves along the way, but we have got such a supportive bunch of girls as well.”

The aftermath of the draft offers a momentary promise. It is a promise that they can enjoy a lifelong dream becoming reality before they plunge into a new chapter of – for many – their young life. We see the shining lights and enjoyable interviews when in reality this acts as a small break of reassurance and reflection before they continue. The draft is over, but their dream continues.

Getting selected is just another stage of a race to become the best versions of themselves – a stage, or a dream, visualised and made possible by a few crucial words spoken within seconds. Welcome to the AFLW.

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All of these photographs were taken by MWM.

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