By Adam Clifford
As the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) embarked on a landmark study hoping to pave a path for elite sportswomen to return to competition post-pregnancy, HC Melbourne’s Megan Alakus set about treading her own path back to the Hockey One League this season.
The mum of two drew her inspiration from the personal stories of fellow athletes that have made postpartum comebacks, including former Hockeyroos stars Jodie Kenny and Casey Sablowski, and more recently basketball legend Lauren Jackson.
Not that comebacks and overcoming adversity are anything new to the 36-year-old defender, who has twice torn the ACL in her knee and required three major surgeries.
The first ACL injury came in 2012, ending her playing involvement with the Victorian Vipers national title winning squad.
“I had just torn my first ACL but travelled with the team to Perth for the tournament,” Alakus recalls.
“It was an exciting year for the team coming away with gold, but pretty heartbreaking on a personal note not being able to play and be a part of the team’s on-field success.”
The second ACL occurred in her right knee in 2015 and after six months of rehabilitation, she was cruelly advised that she would require a third surgery.
A shattered Alakus subsequently made the difficult decision to retire at just 29 years of age.
“At the time, the prospect of doing another knee and possibly having to go through a fourth surgery and all the rehabilitation was tiring to think about,” Alakus reflects.
“I decided it was time to enjoy travelling before starting a family. My knees are currently feeling strong but have taken a lot of strength work and physio to maintain them.”
Alakus welcomed daughter Ella into her family in 2018 and it was whilst on maternity leave that she became inspired by the comeback story of a former Hockeyroos star and the subsequent launch of the Hockey One League season in 2019.
After giving birth to her second child in March 2019, Casey Sablowski famously ended her retirement by embarking on a gruelling six-month journey to return to full fitness and played brilliantly for the NSW Pride.
“Watching the 2019 Hockey One season, I was really impressed with the new franchises and home and away concept,” said Alakus.
“It brings more professionalism into the game and allows each game to be played at a higher level and also factors in more technical and tactical aspects as you have time to prepare for each opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Alakus had her second child Sam in 2020 and was persuaded to return to club hockey with Footscray Hockey Club at the encouragement of fellow mothers Anna Burns and Carla Bond the following year.
“We were only able to play eight games last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I had a really good preseason this year.
“Then just recently in June I decided to put my hand up for selection for HC Melbourne and was fortunate enough to be given this opportunity. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind!”
Despite her extended period out of the game, Alakus has developed her skillset to adapt to the modern game, with herself and HC Melbourne teammate Carly James forging a reputation for their passing prowess, particularly with aerials.
“Having the ability of the aerial ball to help complement our outletting certainly benefits us as a team, but we also have great ball handlers in the midfield who we can also rely on to help get the ball out.”
“They are particularly handy when you consider we have players such as Hannah Cotter, who continues to impress up front with her ability to receive balls behind the defence.”
“She’s a weapon and one of those players everyone wants on their team.”
“After watching the first rounds, our side certainly has the potential to take it one further this year.”
Media headlines have shone the spotlight on mothers making comebacks in elite competitions, most notably with the outpouring of support afforded to basketball star Lauren Jackson, 41, who returned after two children to win a bronze medal with the Opals at the FIBA World Cup.
“Lauren has been an incredible role model for mothers all over the world to show that your sporting career doesn’t have to end just because you’ve had children.”
“It’s great to see more and more women returning to elite sport after having children.”
“We saw Jodie Kenny and Casey Sablowski return after starting a family, and Catriona Bailey-Price from Canberra Chill is another player who I see has returned this year after starting a family.”
“It takes huge commitment and sacrifice from the entire family to get back to playing at this level and it just makes it all the more special when you are given the opportunity to do what you love again.”
These are points well made, with the Australian Institute of Sport commencing a first of its kind study, interviewing professional female athletes about their experience both during pregnancy, and when returning to work.
Anecdotally many athletes rely heavily on shared experiences with other players, as Alakus has done, but there is clearly a rise in mothers returning to elite competition.
The ‘Mum-alete Project’ by the AIS intends to influence change to better support and improve longevity of a female athlete – something the Sultana Bran Hockey One League will be all the richer for with more players like Megan Alakus, Emily Donovan and Catriona Bailey-Price running around in the future.