The netball courts at Kardinia Park in South Geelong are a striking blue colour and almost impossible to miss.
On any given night, they are a chaotic mix of balls, bibs and whistles as players of every age group dart from corner to corner to the tune of squeaking shoes and the metallic swish of chain nets.
Back in 2016, as one of Geelong’s best netballers, a three time GFL netball best and fairest winner, and as then playing coach of St. Mary’s, Renee Garing would often wander over to the adjacent football over to catch the second half of the St. Mary’s Saints’ football games.
Both facilities sit in the imposing shadow, both literally and figuratively, of GMHBA Stadium, the home of the Geelong Football Club with whom Garing will play her 25th AFLW game in Sydney on the weekend four years after playing her first in 2019.
Growing up, Garing loved the one day of the year at school when the girls got to play footy, but due to the lack of pathways and opportunity, which is a common story throughout the AFLW, a career in netball won the day.
But in a twist of fate, and swept up in the rapidly changing landscape of women’s football, Garing has found a home in the iconic Hoops.
A remarkable story in so many ways, Garing’s journey has not been a linear one, but from a trial at Deakin University seven years ago where she remembers wondering how it is you can kick and run at the same time, to missing two and a bit years of football having her first child, it’s also an inspiring one.
And it’s one that culminated in a moving video posted on Geelong’s social media channels last week of Cats coach Dan Lowther telling her she was in the Round 1 team for her first game since March 2021.
Let that sink in. March 2021. That's an eternity in top-level sport.
Unsurprising to everyone except for Garing, there were tears.
“I was trying not to let any more emotion in,” she told the Yeah the Girls podcast this week.
“I'm not a crier but I've definitely cried more since having children. It's hormones, maybe a bit of lack of sleep early days, but it was really special putting the Hoops on again and knowing I got to this point, I suppose you do all the work and all along I've tried to control what I can control.”
Garing submitted an impressive season with the Cats’ VFLW team through 2023 but had been a regular fixture at GMHBA Stadium each Monday for a period prior to that following the birth of her son Parker as she pressed for a return to AFLW.
Giving birth via caesarean meant a longer recovery, and in particular, not being able to drive for at least six weeks, so husband Tony would drop the pair off and pick them up later for the weekly mix of cardio and education.
There wouldn’t be too many Geelong staffers who didn’t say hello to the often sleeping but sometimes smiley little boy playing in the Players’ Lounge each Monday, while his Mum cut a contrasting figure of fight and determination, often just metres away.
During that time, the heavy stuff would be done at a home gym the pair had set up in the garage of their Highton home before eventually shaping a schedule that worked for the club, and Parker, which enabled her to ramp up her workload.
Garing forced herself into the selection mix midway through last season just 18 weeks after giving birth, but in a reminder of the unforgiving nature of elite sport, she didn’t get the call-up, which is why pulling the Hoops back on last Saturday night, and especially this weekend in Sydney will mean so much.
“It's up to the coaches in terms of who they select on any given day and if there's an opportunity there,” she said.
“So not knowing if that was ever going to happen again, and then for it to happen it was very, very special and I just wanted to go out there and play a role. That was my aim on the weekend.
“But it was very, very special and I'm thankful I got to do it.”