Erin vows: I want to play again

The two-year-old peeks out from behind the couch and watches as his mother - who has started walking funnily of late - hobbles across the lounge room.

He notices that she's wearing a strange, long brace on her left leg that he's never seen before.

It looks like her leg has turned into something of an AFL tackle bag. She's turned her head: now's his chance! He pounces at his mum's leg, determined to lay the best tackle he can.

She stops him, just in time, because this isn't any old leg.

This leg belongs to Crows AFLW star Erin Phillips and it has just undergone major reconstructive surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament she wrecked during March's AFLW grand final.

Former footballer Greg Phillips embraces his daughter Erin after the 2019 Grand Final match. Picture: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images
Former footballer Greg Phillips embraces his daughter Erin after the 2019 Grand Final match. Picture: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

Phillips can laugh about it now, because as she travels the long road to recovery, it's about finding the balance between the joys of motherhood, the challenges of her work as a basketball coach, and the physical and mental battles of rehab.

And her children, twins Blake and Brooklyn and her wife Tracy, have been pivotal as she fights to regain fitness, with the end goal to once again play football.

Thankfully, now that she's walking again, Blake has stopped attacking her leg.

"Initially it was hard, because when I was basically hobbling, (Blake) thought for some reason that my left knee was now a tackling bag," she says over the phone from her second home in Dallas, in the United States.

"It was automatic and I was constantly just watching him trying not to run into me and tackle me in my left knee.

"(But the kids have) been a really good distraction, it's obviously been hard in the beginning not to be able to pick them up or run after them, but now that I'm mobile, it's so much easier."

Erin Phillips is taken off Adelaide Oval in the third quarter of the AFLW grand final on March 31, 2019, after tearing her ACL. Picture: TOM HUNTLEY
Erin Phillips is taken off Adelaide Oval in the third quarter of the AFLW grand final on March 31, 2019, after tearing her ACL. Picture: TOM HUNTLEY

Coming back from a torn ACL is an awfully long road, and it's one Phillips has been down before and as such, it has all has a sense of deja vu about it.

She ruptured the ACL in her right knee 12 years ago playing basketball and spent much of 2007 in rehab with Charlie Walsh - then a fitness guru at the Crows.

Even though she was only 21 at the time, she recalls that process as one of the hardest experiences of her athletic career: "Physically working with Charlie I don't think I have ever worked so hard in my life".

But going through knee rehab is never just about the physical. It's a mental battle too. And Phillips has been through this as well and that's why, she muses, the process has been easier this time around: Phillips is older. Wiser.

"Mentally, this time around it's been easier because I have been through it before and having bad days - and when I say bad days it's when you're knee aches and you think: 'There's no reason why it should be aching' - but I know why that happens now and it's all part of it and I understand it and I don't let it get to me as I did when I was younger.

"I guess the difference is that back then, I was playing basketball and basketball was all I did, and now I've got distractions and coaching and my kids and family."

Erin Phillips arrives at the AFLW Awards for 2019 in Melbourne, where she won the league’s best and fairest medal for the second time. Picture: JASON EDWARDS
Erin Phillips arrives at the AFLW Awards for 2019 in Melbourne, where she won the league’s best and fairest medal for the second time. Picture: JASON EDWARDS

The Olympic basketballer and two-time AFLW best-and-fairest midfielder is succinct in summing up her rehab. "I'm where I thought I would be," she says.

"And obviously with any kind of rehab, it's not all smooth sailing. I've had some weeks where my knee felt really good and some weeks where my knee felt - not bad - but that I haven't made any progress."

For her rehab, the 34-year-old has returned to the Michael Johnson Performance Centre in Dallas - a centre founded by Olympic runner Michael Johnson that provides personalised athletic training. It's the same facility she went to in 2018 to repair her troublesome quad with the help of specialised sports physical therapists.

Her MJPC trainers were among the thousands who watched the AFLW grand final broadcast on March 31, when Phillips fell to the Adelaide Oval grass clutching her left knee. They were among those who held their breath, waiting for confirmation that she had torn her ACL. And as soon as that news filtered through, they were among the hundreds of people who contacted her with messages of support.

But the message from the trainers was different: "We'll be waiting for you" they wrote to her. "Already getting a plan together".

So when Phillips arrived back in Texas in May - to continue her job as assistant coach for the WNBA team the Dallas Wings - the timeline for her rehab was already largely mapped out.

Four months on from the Crows Grand Final win on March 31 - when a record 53,034 people filled Adelaide Oval - and Phillips is becoming more open about her recovery.

She attends the MJPC three days a week and spends anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours in intensive training. Short videos are doing the rounds on her social media accounts, showing snippets of the work: repetitive exercises, such as short skips and wall marches as she begins low impact jogging on an underwater treadmill.

Erin Phillips is pictured with her dad and SANFL legend Greg Phillips and her twins Blake and Brooklyn. Picture: TRICIA WATKINSON
Erin Phillips is pictured with her dad and SANFL legend Greg Phillips and her twins Blake and Brooklyn. Picture: TRICIA WATKINSON

At the Centre, she's also being put through cutting edge methods, including blood flow restriction workouts, which are done under medical supervision and she has exercises she needs to do regularly from home.

"I'm pretty much doing something six days a week and usually there's one day where I completely don't do anything and leave my body alone," she explains.

"But there's been days where I was meant to be doing some rehab and I just physically, mentally I'm drained and I'll skip a day to give myself a break mentally and physically and go again the next day and make up for it."

And this is all being done with one goal in mind: "My rehab is all planned to try to play again because honestly … I'm still an athlete, I still need those goals.

"So my rehab plan is to come back and play again and whether I get up in time (for the start of the 2020 AFLW season), whether I'm physically able, I don't know.

"But I will be a part of our team in some way, whether it's helping coaching or some mentorship.

"But in terms of playing, I'm going to try but, it's still … I'm not running yet. There are still so many hurdles to jump before I can even make that call."

 

Erin Phillips’ wife Tracy Gahan is expecting their third child any day.
Erin Phillips’ wife Tracy Gahan is expecting their third child any day.

 

Twins Brooklyn and Blake keep the couple busy.
Twins Brooklyn and Blake keep the couple busy.

Phillips said the support of the Crows was also vital.

"The club have been really, really supportive and there's no pressure from their end, they just want me to get back to 100 per cent health and if that's in time to play round one, or even the last round, or nothing at all, they'll be there supporting."

Phillips isn't sure when she'll start running again. "Potentially, I'll start doing some more weight training now, that's kind of the next phase and probably, I would say anywhere from the next four to six weeks, potentially I'll start running. But like everything, you have to pass a level before you get to the next stage."

And she's surprised herself that she's actually quite comfortable with all that uncertainty.

"Usually, I need to know everything: When am I going to do this? When I am going to do that? But for some reason, I'm actually OK with just: 'What am I doing this week?', which is something that I've worked to learn; that patience."

Crows star Erin Phillips soaks up her side’s AFLW grand final win over Carlton in March, and walks around Adelaide Oval with her son Blake. Picture: MICHAEL WILLSON/AFL PHOTOS
Crows star Erin Phillips soaks up her side’s AFLW grand final win over Carlton in March, and walks around Adelaide Oval with her son Blake. Picture: MICHAEL WILLSON/AFL PHOTOS

She's taken heart in being able to help others going through uncertain or difficult rehabs.

"Every athlete is different … and I think it's been really important that I've been able to help some people, just by reaching out to them and trying to keep positive so they know there are really good and really bad days ahead and to keep persisting and keep moving forward."

And for Phillips, life just keeps moving forward. Any day now Tracy, will give birth and when she does, the couple will have three children under the age of three.

It doesn't leave much time for reflecting on the 2019 AFLW season that Phillips describes as "incredibly special".

"I think the only real time that I had to reflect on (the season) was actually after my surgery and I was lying in bed and there was nobody around and it was dark and I was thinking about 53,000 people at Adelaide Oval … and I had a moment to myself.

"But then it was: 'Oh, rehab!'

"And I've come back over here (to Dallas) to start working and coaching and it's just been all go again."

And with all that change, there are only a few things that are a certainty: that the family will return to Adelaide in time for Crows AFLW pre-season around November and that come what may, Phillips will do all she can to continue to play the sport she loves; whether Blake throws himself at her knee, or not.

Erin Phillips pictured with pregnant wife Tracy Gahan at the AFLW Awards in April. Picture: JASON EDWARDS
Erin Phillips pictured with pregnant wife Tracy Gahan at the AFLW Awards in April. Picture: JASON EDWARDS