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AFLW Feature: Pittman’s Road to Recovery

Emma Pittman runs See the moment AFLW signing Emma Pittman runs for the first time since injuring her ACL earlier this year.

Emma Pittman has gone through an avalanche of adversity in her life. 

When she was 15 her mother passed away.

After living in Mackay her entire life up until that point, she relocated to Brisbane to move in with her older sister, who herself was just 22.

Pittman had to learn to be independent before she had even finished high school.

A promising soccer career beckoned but she wasn’t in a position in life to be able to pursue it.

An unexpected love for football followed, culminating in an AFLW contract for Pittman with the Brisbane Lions.

A few months ago she made the decision to join the Gold Coast SUNS before disaster struck again.

Pittman ruptured her ACL just weeks after signing her new contract.

Now on the road to recovery, this is her story.

The tough teenage years:

Pittman is the youngest of five children, with two sisters and two brothers.

Her oldest sibling is her sister Annmarie – she’s almost 20 years Emma’s senior.

When the family tragedy struck, it was only Emma and her brother Lincoln still living at home. 

“That year my mum passed away, my sister Sarah was living in Sydney and Annmarie was in Perth at the time,” Pittman told SUNS Media. 

“I stayed with my oldest brother (Tyler) for a little bit in Mackay but then moved down to Brisbane with my sister (Sarah) to finish high school in Grade 11. 

“It was tough because she was only on a single income, but she got me settled.

“I have to thank her a lot because she started it off for me and gave up a lot of things at that point of her life to put me through school.

“She helped me get a job and as soon as I did I started to find my feet and create my own path.

“Up until then, from when I moved to when I started having an income, Sarah and my other sister Annmarie really carried me in a way.”

Pittman was forced to grow up quickly.

She became resilient and independent, trying as much as possible to take the burden off her sisters’ shoulders. 

“Sarah would have been 22 at that time so she was still finding herself as well,” Pittman said.

“I can’t imagine how tough it would have been for her.

“I’ve talked to her about it and she doesn’t regret anything or think I owe her anything but in the back of my mind I still feel that I do.” 

Integrating into a new school was tough, too.

As Pittman puts it, “friendship groups have already been formed by Grade 11.” 

That’s when she turned to soccer.

The round ball: 

Pittman’s sister was a goalkeeper for a team in The Gap, a suburb in western Brisbane. 

Emma followed and joined the team to meet people. 

Within two years her natural sporting flair shone through and Pittman was selected to join the Brisbane Roar’s W-League squad for the 2012-13 season.

She played her first season of elite sport over that summer, but was daunted by the prospect of trying to juggle two different workloads to support herself. 

“It didn’t fill me with confidence going into that environment,” she said.

“I was 20 when I got in and I just couldn’t sustain a full-time job plus training and soccer commitments on a bare minimum income from the Roar. 

“It was like I was working two full-time jobs on one wage and it just buried me into the ground.”

So Pittman dialled it back and returned to playing soccer socially. 

Then she met her partner Dania.

Introduction to AFL:

Dania played AFL for a local club Coorparoo and was keen to get Emma involved.

But Pittman wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea to begin with.

“I was pretty hesitant actually,” she said.

“I was not for AFL, I didn’t understand it and soccer was my thing.

“AFL was confusing.”

Growing up in Mackay at the time, the sport was still only developing and didn’t have anywhere near the same levels of engagement it enjoys now in the region. 

“Everything that’s happening now in Mackay, with all the new fields going in, all the hype around it wasn’t there when I was living there,” she said.

“It was soccer or rugby back then.

“But when I moved down to Brissy and got my head into the AFL scene, it was quite large.

“I went down to a few training sessions and started to come around. 

“I think picking the ball up and being able to run with the ball was the biggest factor for me in how much fun I got out of it.”

She spent two years learning the game at Coorparoo, before following Dania to the University of Queensland team.

It was there her club form piqued the interest of state coaches and saw her picked in the Queensland Under 23 team to take on Western Australia. 

She played her first game for Queensland on a Friday night at Yeronga, and it was from there her burgeoning AFL career was launched. 

Pittman was drafted by the Brisbane Lions later that year.

Elite again: 

Pittman again found herself in the elite sporting environment, but this time in a completely different code. 

She had to fight for her AFLW debut, but eventually got there, playing the final four games – including selection in the 2018 Grand Final.

“That was crazy, It’s just next level,” Pittman said of her maiden Grand Final appearance.

“The intensity was out of control. It was too much to take on board.

“I think I let the moment get the better of me and I think I just exhausted myself because I wasn’t thinking about anything else other than that.

“I didn’t know until the Wednesday or Thursday if I was playing so that anticipation and mental fatigue just set in.

“If I could go back and do it again I would probably approach it in a different way.

“But I wouldn’t trade it for anything, it was such an experience.”

Pittman’s first season flew by. 

So when the second rolled around, she was better prepared.

“Second year I went in with a different thought pattern,” Pittman said. 

“I didn’t work as much, I looked after my body more mentally and physically and I think I handled it a lot better than the previous year. 

“I took my learnings back to my club. I felt like I could help others get better and teach the girls who weren’t exposed to that environment more things.”

By the time her second season had concluded, Pittman was in a state of limbo. 

She was unsure whether she would be offered another contract.

Then she received a call from SUNS AFLW Senior Coach David Lake.

“My path was paused with the Lions so when Lakey approached me I was over the moon,” she said.

“I was hesitant at first, it’s further away so it was a bit more of a commitment but I liked what was being offered.

“The biggest factor was the driving, obviously with my workload it was a big decision for me.

“But the way they opened up to me and the way this club just receives you is something that you can’t pass up.

“Everyone’s together here – I trained with the boys the other day in the gym and every single one of them said hi. 

“The overwhelming quality of people here is just great, I love it.” 

By the time she was offered a contract by the Lions, Pittman had already made up her mind. 

She wanted to be a SUN. 

The injury:

Then came the injury.

Pittman had decided in the AFLW off-season she wanted to return to her original club Coorparoo. 

It was her first game back, things were going well; then she felt what she describes as “a sniper taking me out”. 

“I was loving being back, we were winning,” she recalls

“Then after halftime I was running with no one around me and went to step from my right to my left and then just ‘bang’.

“I heard a pop and knew that could be a bad sign.

“I walked off and it felt fine, got strapped up and went for a jog on the sideline but it felt unstable so I didn’t risk it.

“I came to see the SUNS physio and he sent me straight for an MRI.”

Her worst fears were confirmed days later – Pittman had ruptured her ACL. 

“I have this fear of letting people down and as soon as I found out it was my ACL it was devastating,” she said.

“I was so looking forward to the next chapter and I just had to put it all on hold. 

“I think telling Lakey was the hardest because I felt like I was letting him down.

“He presented this wonderful opportunity to me and then I’ve gone and done my knee.” 

But in the face of adversity Pittman found a silver lining.

She’s turned to coaching – looking after the midfield group at Coorparoo this season. 

“I’ve hated sitting on the sidelines for the Winter Series and the whole club season,” Pittman said. 

“It’s really tested me mentally not being able to do it myself and having to put trust and faith in other people.

“I have learnt a lot with the coaching side of things and strategy.

“I’ve tried to stick to Lakey’s hip as much as I can and try to learn as much as I can off the field as I would on the field.”

She’s also attacking her rehab – rigorously.

She was on crutches for over a month before she could attempt to put even a little weight on her surgically repaired knee.

But this wasn’t Pittman’s first life hurdle.

She pushed herself through the tough times as she’s done before.

“Being completely stopped, it was hard because I’m a very independent person, I like to do everything,” she said.

“I’m very busy all the time and being put on that couch for six weeks was hard and having to rely on people.”

Confronted by her first serious injury in her life, it took Pittman a while to gauge the magnitude of the mountain of rehab work in front of her.

But she says the most difficult part has been conceding to herself that not everything is in her control.

“Between getting off that couch and possibly running was really hard because I wasn’t able to do anything,” she said.

“I wasn’t able to progress without the swelling going down so having that as something I couldn’t control was tough.

“I think of rehab as working twice as hard but you just have to wait sometimes.”

But the waiting is coming to an end.

Just this week Pittman reached a significant rehab milestone.

She ran for the first time since the injury.

Her next step is to build up her strength on the treadmill before running for the first time on grass.

Then comes moving off a straight line, followed by changing directions.

The door is still open for a potential return in 2020.

Away from football:

Off the field, Pittman has just bought in as a part-owner of a café in Brisbane.

The business is thriving and it allows Pittman to take her mind off her rehab.

“Obviously buying in is a very big deal and I want to make sure I do it right,” she said.

“It’s been good because I handle the rosters so I can cover myself or make it easier for me to leave at a certain time for rehab.

“My boss John is also very easy to work with – he loves that I’m in the AFLW so he’s really encouraging.

“I couldn’t ask for a better support system when it comes to work.”

All things considered, Pittman is in a good place in her life right now.

While her first season with the SUNS hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, she still is full of optimism for what lies ahead.

“Being in the position I am with the support of the SUNS, my partner and my work – I actually think I’m in a pretty good position,” she said.

“A lot of people don’t have the support I have and I’m definitely not taking it for granted.

“Fingers are crossed for me to be able to make it back for the 2020 season so I’ll be doing everything in my power to get back out there.”