Demon fights back from horror spinal injury

An innocuous ankle roll at the worst possible moment brought Eliza McNamara’s world crashing down weeks before her third footy season.

The Melbourne winger was set for a breakout campaign off a quick turnaround from the April 2022 grand final loss to Adelaide, in which she had a team-high 14 kicks as her elite running power came to the fore on a stifling hot afternoon.

But when the Demons stunned Brisbane to snatch their first AFLW premiership at Brighton Homes Arena months later, they did so without the rising star, who had spent the start of the season learning to walk again.

Just over a year ago, McNamara collapsed under a 60kg barbell when her right ankle gave way as she completed box step-ups in the gym with her teammates.

She suffered compression fractures of the L1 and T12 vertebrae in her spine, causing internal bleeding and neural damage that led a doctor to assume she had lost the use of her legs.

Fortunately, quick-thinking teammates led by qualified physiotherapist Libby Birch helped the young Demon remain still on the gym floor, avoiding the potentially disastrous consequences if she had tried to get to her feet.

“I had my left foot up (on the box), and I just stepped down with my right foot … my ankle just rolled underneath me, which happens all the time, but I guess it doesn’t happen all the time when you’ve got 60kg on your back,” McNamara said.

“Lib (Birch) was really good, just reassuring me, and was the first one to say, ‘do not get up off the ground’, even though it was my first instinct to try and get up to see if I was OK.

“It was a big break – the T12 and L1 – the L1 had lost 40 per cent of its height. The doctor said it was the equivalent to being in a car crash where you have your feet up on the dashboard and you run into the back of someone else.”

McNamara, 21, was told she would need surgery if she wanted to play football again, and was operated on after four painful days lying completely still at St Vincent’s Hospital.

“Two rods and seven pins went into my back, so there was a slight risk that after surgery I might not have been able to use my legs … it was definitely a relief waking up after that surgery and feeling everything being able to move,” she said.

“It was a huge incision down my back – it went through all my core muscles, I lost bladder control and everything because all that strength just went after the surgery.

“From there my goal was to get back and play footy, but even beyond that just to get back to moving freely would’ve been enough if footy wasn’t the answer.”

The team who looked after McNamara did a superb job, and although she was in significant pain as she waited for her core muscles to grow stronger, movement came back relatively quickly.

“Initially it was just get up and try to walk, 10 minutes every hour – for the first month or so that was how to help my back become more mobile and alleviate the pain,” she said.

“That was the only form of exercise I did for a good few months … we didn’t know what positions my back couldn’t do, and because it hadn’t been exposed to extensions and rotations yet, it was hard to get it moving in those directions.”

Despite only two seasons at the club McNamara was firmly entrenched in the fabric of the team, and coach Mick Stinear went to work on how to keep the Demons’ real-life Energizer bunny involved at the club while she recovered.

Stinear found a number of roles for her at training, and a match day job on the phone which she was able to step into just in time for round 1 in a major morale boost for the side.

McNamara said she was never tempted to steer clear of footy until she was fit to train again, embracing the emotions which came with returning to the club head-on.

“I wanted to have a useful, active role in our season and not just be one step removed … I knew in my head that if I wanted to get back out there next season, I could make that transition more seamless if I stayed connected to the group,” she said.

“I remember round 1 being really hard, just because of the huge energy everyone has going into the season opener. But it was such a good educational position to be in, because doing the job on the bench I was learning about the whole ground and players individually as well.”

Notoriously hard on herself at training and in games during her first two years, she said the job had given her a better perspective on playing.

“I was so stressed and wasn’t enjoying footy as much as I could’ve been – I was sort of frantic and worried about the outcome and how I was playing,” she said.

“Having it taken away from you, you get to watch and see the enjoyment that comes from being fully focused on the team outcome and loving playing … that’s a goal of mine this season, to be back in a position where I’m loving it and connecting with the team.”

McNamara recalled the “yearning” she felt to be out playing on grand final day as Melbourne held off the Lions in a four-goal thriller to win the flag.

“It was probably harder because I was running by that stage and had started kicking … it was hard watching, but you couldn’t help but feel so happy for people like Daise (Daisy Pearce) and Mick (Stinear), who had been there since the start and were so deserving of the premiership,” she said.

“As much as people say you definitely contributed, it’s hard to feel that way when you weren’t out there on the field … it’s a driving factor to hopefully go the whole way again with this group.”

The 21-year-old was cleared to return to match play earlier this month, and performed strongly with her trademark outside run in practice matches against Carlton and Hawthorn.

Demons skipper Kate Hore said McNamara’s recovery had been “remarkable” and was a huge force behind the side’s push for back-to-back premierships.

“She brings such good energy around the group, and all the girls are so excited to have her back,” Hore said.

“I know (another premiership) is a massive goal of hers … that’s a big motivating factor this year for us. She’s shown so much growth … she could’ve easily just thrown in the towel, no one ever would have questioned her for it.”

McNamara and the Demons will begin their premiership defence against Collingwood in a blockbuster Friday night clash at Ikon Park next week.

Originally published as AFLW 2023: Eliza McNamara to returns to footy one year after horror accident

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