Ainslie Kemp embraces fellow Hawthorn teammate Zoe Barbakos during pre-season training. (Photo: hawthornfc.com.au / Design: Will Cuckson)

Cruelled by injury, Hawthorn’s Ainslie Kemp has been no stranger to adversity in her short AFLW career. However, through sheer grit and perseverance, she is now on the cusp of an inspiring return to the elite level.

It’s been exactly 900 days since Ainslie Kemp last played a game of AFLW. Delisted by the Melbourne Football Club at the end of 2020, Kemp would be the first person to tell you that a return to AFLW was the furthest thing from her mind at that point.

Now she finds herself preparing for the seventh edition of AFLW, this time wearing the brown and gold of Hawthorn. 

It’s been quite the journey for the 25-year-old, who has been forced to overcome countless setbacks on her way to just the 10 AFLW appearances. 

Reflecting on the early stages of her AFLW career with Melbourne, Kemp feels better positioned to tackle the rigours of football this time around, having never completed a full pre-season prior to her first campaign with the Demons. 

“I think the biggest difference is that I kind of understand what the AFLW pre-season and season [looks like] and what the demands are now,” Kemp told The Inner Sanctum.

“At the Dees I learnt a lot about standards and expectations, and especially through injury, a lot about my body and what it can tolerate.”

Kemp spent four seasons on Melbourne’s AFLW list. (Photo: hawthornfc.com.au)

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However, these lessons proved to be more painful than one could ever hope to face.

After making her AFLW debut in Round 4 of the 2017 season, Kemp succumbed to two ACL injuries in her right knee, the first of which subsequently ruled her out for the entirety of the 2018 AFLW season.

A second ACL injury sustained during the 2019 VFLW season saw Kemp avoid a traditional reconstruction, instead opting to effectively play without a functioning anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee thereon. 

This fast tracked her recovery, affording her the opportunity to make herself available for the upcoming AFLW season. 

Kemp recalls feeling optimistic heading into the 2020 season, with all her energy and focus centred around earning selection for Round 1. 

“I went into pre-season and I honestly felt like I was really coming into my own. My personality was coming out a bit, I started to feel like I belonged in the game, and I felt really supported.”

A testament to her resilience and determination, Kemp enjoyed a successful return to AFLW action in the opening round of the 2020 season.

Yet a cruel turn of events in the dying stages of a Round 2 victory over the Western Bulldogs soured all hopes of an injury-free run, with a visibly distressed Kemp rupturing her ACL for the third time in heartbreaking scenes at Whitten Oval.

On this occasion, it was in fact the previously unaffected left knee which ultimately gave way, a twisted reminder of the fragility of sport. 

From Kemp’s perspective, the mental toll of constant injury setbacks had now reached a tipping point, prompting her to spend time away from the game. 

“That was a massive stab in the gut I suppose because I was feeling really good,” she said.

“I didn’t really want to play AFLW again at that stage. I really had a bad taste of footy in my mouth.

“I did all of the really spiteful things, like unfollowing all of the social media. I didn’t want to see anything.”

Despite the hardship she’s endured, Kemp believes that some silver linings have emerged from her past experiences.

“As much as it was really horrible at the time, looking back on it, it was such a big self-reflective period of my life personally.” 

This break from the footy landscape would prove to be only temporary, with the former Demon engaging in conversations with then Hawthorn VFLW assistant coach Christina Polatajko and head coach Bec Goddard, regarding a potential return to clubland. 

Still undecided as to her own playing future, Kemp initially agreed to join the Hawthorn VFLW program as a runner in 2021.

Kemp says that it was comforting knowing that there was no pressure or expectation placed on her to assume an on-field role, whilst also appreciating the direction the club was heading in. 

“I really liked what they were doing at a VFLW level and how they were setting up for AFLW level. They had an all-female coaching panel and every person that I spoke to who was at Hawthorn said that there was something really special building here.”

Following time spent training with the playing group in an unofficial capacity, a desire to return to the field was reignited within, propelling Kemp to suit up once again for the Hawthorn VFLW side.

Previously accustomed to a role in the forward-line, a switch to the defensive half saw Kemp come into her own, averaging 14 disposals and 4.3 marks across 10 VFLW games last season.

A member of the leadership group, Kemp also embraced the added responsibility of nurturing some of the younger players within the program. 

“It was a really special season, despite obviously its challenges with COVID-19 and the AFLW season being brought forward,” Kemp said.

A consistent campaign with the VFLW side ultimately culminated in Kemp earning a spot on Hawthorn’s AFLW list, becoming one of 15 Hawthorn VFLW players to be picked up by an AFLW club ahead of season seven. 

Surrounded by her VFLW teammates, an outpouring of emotion filled the room as the announcement was made, with footage of the moment emerging publicly thereafter. 

“That video especially, I get a bit emotional when I think about it because we were all genuinely so excited for every person that was to get picked up,” Kemp said.

“There was a lot of excitement. A bit of nervousness as well, but mostly excitement.”

Interestingly, this special moment may not have come to pass had it not been for an honest conversation with Hawthorn AFLW coach Bec Goddard leading into the 2022 VFLW season.

Stuck in somewhat of a state of limbo regarding her football aspirations, Kemp recalls some words of encouragement from Goddard.

The inaugural AFLW premiership coach reinforced the massive opportunity presented by a fast-approaching AFLW season.

This in turn triggered a shift in mindset, fuelling Kemp to elevate her game to another level.

“The best part about Bec is that she’s super honest. There’s no beating around the bush so it’s great to just hear exactly what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear,” Kemp said.

“I’ve been really lucky to have her around over the past two years especially.”

Both Bec Goddard (left) and Ainslie Kemp (right) have spent time together through Hawthorn’s VFLW program. (Photos: hawthornfc.com.au)

Now embarking on a new chapter of her AFLW journey, Kemp is enjoying getting to work this pre-season with her new teammates. 

With the Hawthorn AFLW squad bringing together players from a host of different programs and walks of life, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’d be a few teething issues in establishing team connection and comradery. 

Yet the sentiment echoed by Goddard in recent times of the importance of recruiting not only great footballers, but also quality people, has shone through this pre-season, something which Kemp has witnessed first-hand.

“There’s been so many people that have failed to come out of their shell in other environments but were able to come out of their shell over the past two-three weeks,” Kemp said.

“I genuinely feel like people are opening up and able to be themselves a lot more which I think is super important in figuring out your identity as a player but also the club’s identity in its inaugural season.”

Hawthorn’s AFLW squad recently took part in a pre-season camp on the Bass Coast. (Photo: hawthornfc.com.au)

Asked as to what Hawthorn fans can expect from her individually this season, Kemp prides herself on her intercept defending and attack on the ball, not to mention a preparedness to adapt according to the team’s needs. 

“I think it’s really important to be a versatile player and be able to play multiple roles, and I think that’s something that I can bring to the team as well.”

Looking to the season ahead and Kemp is excited about the opportunity to help forge the club’s identity in its inaugural AFLW season. Kemp says that the Hawks are aspiring to produce a ferocious and offensive brand of football, a style capable of delivering sustained future success. 

In the short-term, Kemp is focused on helping her team give a good account of themselves during upcoming pre-season fixtures, headlined by an official practice match against Richmond in two weeks time. 

“It’ll be exciting to see how our game plan stacks up against some of those teams.”

Regardless of wins and losses, Kemp’s second crack at AFLW looms as one of the biggest feel-good stories of season seven. 

Hawthorn is set to begin its inaugural AFLW campaign with a Round 1 clash against Essendon on August 27. 

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