WITH her passion for football reignited after falling out of love with the game, Bendigo's Bella Ayre is hoping the Central Victorian Football League Women's competition next year will be a springboard back to a second crack in the AFLW.
Still just 22-years-of-age, Ayre has already ridden an AFLW rollercoaster of highs and lows at Carlton and Brisbane leading to a premature retirement from the top level.
But having spent two years away from the game working on her mental health following the on-field injuries and post-concussion syndrome that cut her 12-game career short, Ayre is launching her return to the field at the club she was drafted by Carlton from - the Bendigo Thunder.
"I haven't played any football since I was at Brisbane, but I've now got myself the fittest I've been since I was in the AFLW and just can't wait to get back out there playing again," Ayre said at the weekend.
"I've lost more than 20kgs since the start of the year and intend to lose another 10... the fire is just back in the belly for footy again.
"Footy had been such a huge part of my identity, but over the past three years struggling with my mental health I was feeling very lost like there was a part of me missing and deep down I knew it was footy.
"The heartache I had when I left Brisbane and how ordinary I felt, I didn't want to feel like that again, but when I got the message from Jac (Louttit, Thunder coach) about would I like to play again, I felt ready to come back and give it my all again."
Strong-marking key forward Ayre spent three years in the AFLW - the first with Carlton in 2017 when aged 18 she was the youngest on the Blues' list in the competition's inaugural season.
She debuted in the historic first AFLW match at Ikon Park on February 3, 2017, when a capacity crowd of 24,500 watched Ayre's Blues beat Collingwood by 35 points.
Four weeks later Ayre was the round five Rising Star nominee after playing a key role with two goals in the Blues' six-point win over the Western Bulldogs.
Come the end of the season though Ayre was part of one of the competition's biggest trade moves when she and team-mate Nat Exton were headed from the Blues for Brisbane in exchange for Tayla Harris.
But the move north where she spent two years provided significant challenges both on and off the field for Ayre.
"In my first year at Brisbane I had my second knee scope having already had one at Carlton; and then in my second year at Brisbane I had really bad post-concussion syndrome, which forced me into retirement," Ayre said.
"I had got a knock playing in a game for the Bendigo Thunder before my second season at Brisbane and when I got back up there I spoke with our head of medical (Miranda O'Hara) because I wasn't feeling well and wasn't feeling myself.
"I had a concussion test and failed it. I then saw a neurosurgeon in Melbourne who ran tests that I failed as well.
"I couldn't go above 90 beats per minute while I was exercising without nearly fainting, so that took me nearly six months to recover from and get through all the brain rehab.
"I was diagnosed with depression, couldn't sleep, I had light and noise sensitivity and still have some lingering mental health issues from going through that, so it has been a tough few years post-footy.
"Looking back on my time in the AFLW, at the start I loved it, but the last year in Brisbane I just wasn't myself and couldn't enjoy it like I did in the first year with what I was going through with the post-concussion syndrome.
"I pushed people away that I loved... I don't remember my last year at Brisbane as a good experience and that's why I moved back to Bendigo and footy just didn't mean anything to me anymore.
"I hated the game after that last year in Brisbane because of my concussion."
Ayre officially retired from the Lions in March of 2019 and now, two-and-a-half years on she's not only found the joy for football again, but away from the field her work in civil construction with the City of Greater Bendigo is giving her a new purpose and employment enjoyment.
"I had been in and out of jobs and wasn't happy, but I've been working with the City of Greater Bendigo now for a year-and-half and absolutely love it," Ayre said.
"I've found something away from football that I really love and that has helped me enormously... I've found a good career and now I'm ready to get my footy career going again."
I've found a good career and now I'm ready to get my footy career going again- Bella Ayre
Not only does Ayre promise to be a nightmare match-up for opposition defenders in the CVFLW next year, but she's so invested in the Thunder she's returning as an assistant coach.
And she wants another chance to show her wares in the AFLW, which come the end of 2023 will have a full quota of 18 teams competing.
"When I first got drafted there were girls drafted who were 26, 27... I'm still only 22," Ayre said.
"I don't think I've lost too much in terms of my skills, but the Thunder will definitely help me get my touch back and reading of the play that you can lose if you've been out of the game for a bit.
"I'll play the season next year with the Thunder and then see how I go and, hopefully, put my hand up for the draft again and get another crack at it."
With Ayre returning, Louttit taking over as coach and Jess Kennedy also coming back, the Thunder will have three former AFLW players on their list next season and are already looking a formidable outfit after finishing second behind Golden Square this year.
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