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AFLW Feature: Smith’s journey to the top of two sports

It’s been a remarkable rise for the latest Gold Coast SUNS AFLW signing Taylor Smith.

Just two years ago, Smith was about to finish Grade 12 and played her first ever competitive game of football.

Before that she was a rising athlete, being groomed by the same coach as champion hurdler Sally Pearson.

But a rare injury in her senior year put a premature end to her promising athletics career and set her on the path to where she is today.

This is her story.

Athletics:

Smith was always an active child.

She was a dancer from the age of two and also had a stint with Auskick.

When she was 10 she switched to athletics and cross country, doing the two sports in tandem.

At 13 she started to focus on a few of her favourite individual events; high jump and hurdles.

Training with renowned athletics coaches Sharon and Peter Hannon, Smith quickly proved her aptitude to the sport.

“I was always a very driven athlete but being so young I was growing through that period so I struggled with growing pains and would get tired very quickly,” Smith told SUNS Media.

“I transitioned to heptathlon in 2016 and that’s when I started training for each of the different events.”

Heptathlons consist of seven track and field events; 100m hurdles, 200m, 800m, high jump, long jump, shotput and javelin.

Smith competed in her first heptathlon at age 16.

It didn’t take long for her to succeed from there.

Months later in just her fourth heptathlon, she was competing at National level.

“At the Nationals I was coming fourth after the first day which was a shock,” Smith said.

“That was after the high jump, the hurdles, the shotput and the 200m.

“The next day we did long jump and I dropped to 6th but not by much.

“Then after the javelin and the 800m I dropped to 13th out of 20.

“Fourth was great and I was really excited because I just wanted to finish top 10.

“But for my fourth heptathlon ever it was still not too bad.”

But just as she was starting to become accustomed to her new sport, Smith’s dream was just as quickly snatched away.

Piriformis syndrome:

It was when she was 15 that the symptoms first occurred.

Smith describes it as feeling numb, as if her entire right side of her body had shut down.

She felt fatigued, but brushed it off as typical teenage growing pains.

Unbeknownst to her, it was something much more serious.

Smith had piriformis syndrome, an extremely rare condition which involves the piriformis muscle in the buttock compressing or irritating the sciatic nerve which runs down the leg.

The result; a sharp pain on one side of the body which can completely debilitate a person.

“I ended up seeing a physio about it and she gave me some treatment which made it better for about six to eight months,” Smith said.

“Then after my heptathlon I went back to school athletics and it was school regionals when it started getting worse.

“I’d go home crying in pain because the pain would run down my leg.

“It was like growing pains but 10 times worse, it was so excruciating.

“I’d take painkillers and it would bother me in my sleep but the next day when I woke up it would settle down and be fine.”

She learnt to manage the pain, but the symptoms persisted.

Smith would undergo physiotherapy regularly just to be able to continue to compete.

But a flare-up of the syndrome mid-competition put her sporting future in serious jeopardy.

“I was at the State Championships and it was my hurdle final and I was running and it got to the point where halfway through the race it felt like my leg had died,” Smith said.

“It was really hard to pick it up off the ground so trying to get that trail leg around the hurdle, it just didn’t work.

“I felt like I was limp on one side.

“I remember being at the end of that race and bawling my eyes out and sitting with my coach.

“I didn’t understand what was wrong, it had been going on for four months and no one knew what was happening.

“I went back to the physio and they ended up doing ultrasounds and an MRI on my back because they thought I might have had a prolapsed disc or something like that.

“In the end they said it was piriformis syndrome.

“It’s quite uncommon for someone my age especially.”

No longer competing, Smith was able to have cortisone injections in her leg which helped the pain immensely.

What’s more, she was managing the burdens of her injury all while attempting to finish her studies in Year 12.

The strain took its toll on Smith, who opened up on her mindset through that difficult period.

“I did end up in a sort of rough patch and wasn’t very happy,” she said.

“I’m a very driven and strong-minded person but this was probably the lowest point for me because I couldn’t do sport for the first time in my whole life.

“It was a very challenging year.”

Reflecting on that period now, Smith said she learnt a lot about herself and her support base in that time.

“I have an amazing family, I still do and always will,” she said.

“I have really great friends and I’ve been very lucky my whole life.

“Compared to a lot of other things, my 2017 year is probably not as bad as what others have been through but for me it was extremely mentally challenging.

“It’s a blessing in disguise, that’s what I keep calling it.

“It’s really developed me as a person and it’s made me stronger and who I am today.

“It made me realise the kind of person I want to be and that’s helped me help other people as well so it’s been really good.”

Discovering footy:

It was towards the end of Year 12 when Smith had her first introduction to playing football.

She was at a point where she could run again and was getting back into sports.

When her weekly interschool sport competition began, she chose to play AFL.

“I had sort of just been put in the forward line,” she said of her first game.

“The field was tiny and there were 12 people on each side.

“I always wanted to play in the ruck but we had another girl who played there who was pretty decent.

“One day she had a game on the weekend so they rested her and I got to play in the ruck.

“Then Tim Searl (AFLQ Coaching Coordinator – Gold Coast) spotted me and thought I was good enough.

“He asked me to come down to trial for the Sunsets team and it just went from there.”

“It was random, he was just there scouting and gave me a shot and then I ended up being their rookie.”

Smith played her first carnival for the Under 17 Sunsets as a ruck and impressed enough to be offered a place in the SUNS Academy weeks later.

At 180cm, Smith stood out.

Soon enough she was selected to represent Queensland at Under 18 level and was also named in the SUNS’ Winter Series squad.

“It all just happened so quick,” Smith said.

“But I don’t think without all of those programs I would be here today.

“I think if I just started at club footy it would have taken me a little bit longer to get to where I am.”

Coming from her athletics background, Smith had the natural agility, but needed the skills.

She says the hardest part about her transition was learning to kick, but was able to develop that part of her game through Gold Coast’s Summer Academy.

“I spent a lot of time working on it (kicking) in that first year,” she said.

“I worked on it enough to have a kick that people could mark.

“The second time around in the Summer Academy that was something I really worked on, having a kick that I could rely on to hit a target with some power.

“Throughout this year I’ve had my exit interviews with Bond and Queensland and now kicking has becoming a strength of mine.

“Especially goal kicking, I’ve got a routine now that I trust.”

That goalkicking was on show in the QW Winter Series this year, where Smith played as a key forward.

In the first match at Metricon Stadium she kicked two goals from set shots, but is always looking for ways to improve her game.

“There’s definitely things I need to work on, I always watch the footage back and instead of taking the mark out in front I was taking it on top of my head,” Smith said.

“Ideally we want me to be taking them out in front because when I do that no one will be able to out-mark me with my long reach.”

Driven:

Smith is a determined person.

Years of being an individual athlete have installed that quality in her she believes.

“Pretty much everything is on you, you don’t have your whole team and six different coaches and a physio who are always there for you,” Smith explained.

“Everything is driven for yourself, if you need to see the physio you need to ring up and book your appointment, you can’t just jump off onto the sideline and go and see the physio.

“I think bringing that to a team environment has helped me progress as quickly as I have and I want to be able to share that with other girls who might not have that skill.”

Smith says she also self-analyses herself after every match she plays.

“I think that’s why I’m so hard on myself because if I screw up a kick, in the moment you just have to let it go,” she said.

“But after the game I’ll analyse why I screwed it up so much.

“I’ll analyse it for about two days and try my hardest to fix it.

“I’ll watch my game back twice usually.

“If I’ve had a great game I’ll crop out my highlights and have a look at why I did those things right.

“Same with the bad things, I’ll crop those bad things out and put them all in a folder so that I can have a look at why I screwed that up.

“That’s something that I’ve always done, especially just in the last year it’s helped me with my kicking.

“It’s made me more confident when I have the footy in my hand, I don’t panic as much.”

To think she’s gone from school football to a spot on Gold Coast’s inaugural AFLW list in two years is surreal for Smith.

“Surprised is definitely a good word to sum it up,” she said. 

“I’m shocked that I’m here on a list now, that’s unreal.

“I was very hopeful that I would get an opportunity to play for the SUNS this year but I knew that if they said I needed more time it was reasonable as well. 

“I’ve only been playing the sport for two years and there’s girls who have been playing for five or six years who are still vying for a spot.” 

Now that major goal has been achieved, Smith has her eyes set on 2020 and what she can achieve in her third year of football.

“My dad sat down and had a talk to me and said my main goal shouldn’t be to get on a list. 

“My main goal should be to be the best footballer that I can be.

“To be the best footballer you can be, there’s no limits and you’re always able to improve.

“If you keep striving for that good things will come along the way.

“For me there’s never an end point, there’s always room for improvement.”