It’s been a rapid rise for Janelle Cuthbertson. In just two years the defender went from having her first kick of an Aussie Rules footy to her first All Australian selection. And although the pillar of Fremantle’s backline might have a short history with footy, she has never been far from sport.
“Since I was five years old I always had a tennis racquet in my hand,” says Cuthbertson. “I did a few sports as a kid, but I grew up playing tennis and soccer predominantly until I was about 13. I had to pick one or the other, so I picked tennis.”
That decision saw Cuthbertson jet to the USA a handful of years later to hit the professional tennis circuit while studying, but by the age of 23 she had retired and returned home to Perth.
“I took almost five, six years away from the game where I didn’t look at it, I didn’t touch a racquet, I didn’t watch it.”
Instead, Cuthbertson worked on getting her body through a number of built-up injuries, becoming stronger and healthier. Eventually another crack at tennis was on the cards, playing in the state league purely for the social side, but it wasn’t long before it became a bore.
“I’d been thinking about Aussie Rules for a few years, because it was obviously getting a lot of traction,” explains Cuthbertson. “I got to the point where I was in the middle of my tennis season and I was like, ‘I’m so bored of this, I’m done, I’m going to take myself down to the local footy club and just see if I can kick the ball’.”
And kick the ball she could.
“I fell in love, honestly. Instantly.”
An immediate attraction was one thing, but Aussie Rules wasn’t something that Cuthbertson knew much about at all. The rules, the clubs, it was all foreign.
This meant that it wasn’t just the skills that Cuthbertson needed to learn and develop. Simply understanding basic footy terminology was an extra challenge to overcome when she arrived at Fremantle as pick 81 with just one season of footy under her belt.
“My first year was such a blur. I started playing Aussie Rules in January 2019, and got drafted in October, and then debuted round one the following year,” Cuthbertson says.
A change of mindset was the foremost requirement in the switch from tennis to footy. Learning that while in tennis you’re constantly hitting a ball and in control of the game in an obvious sense, in footy you might be starved of possessions but can still have a significant impact on the play.
It wasn’t just Cuthbertson that needed to realise this, but the coaching staff too. Once both parties understood, her development was swift, resulting in All Australian selection after an outstanding 2021 season.
“I just really soaked it up and probably embraced it a little bit more and was able to take a step back and just really enjoy it. It's definitely been a wild two years. I've absolutely loved it, and I mean, a part of me kind of wishes I had maybe started a little bit sooner.”
That tennis background, however, did lend itself to footy in other ways. Cuthbertson is an exceptional reader of the footy thanks to years focused on predicting the flight of a tennis ball straight off an opponent’s racquet strings, which has seen her cause plenty of headaches for opposition forwards.
Her quick-thinking, intercepting play came to the fore in round one this year when she registered the second-most intercepts in an individual AFLW match with 17, overshadowed only by Kate Lutkins’ 20 intercepts in the 2018 Grand Final.
Not that she would know that, though.
“I knew my stats were pretty good from that game, but I didn't realise it was to that level,” Cuthbertson laughs when hearing the record.
But any mention of individual achievement, sees the defender quickly bring it back to the team-first mindset that permeates Fremantle.
“I don't go out there looking for the individual stats. That's not why I play football. I came from an individual sport, so I just want to play my role to contribute to the overall team success, whether that's on the field or on the bench or running water. That's more what I'm focused on.”
Her key contribution to the team coming into season 2022 is to take another step up with her fitness. Seeing the steady, year-on-year improvement across the AFLW, Cuthbertson won’t let herself fall behind, so she ran her guts out during the winter to come back to the Club in better shape than when she left in April.
She has since hit a new personal best in the two-kilometre time trial - and she’s not the only Freo Docker to do so this pre-season.
“It's rewarding at that point in time. But when you're doing it, it’s like 'oh my god, this is never ending.’”
“Gone are the days where you can turn up to pre-season and use that as your pre-season. So I think that just speaks to the skill level and where the game's heading.”
Knowing that 2021 All Australian defender Janelle Cuthbertson is only improving on that form, developing a deeper understanding of the game and combining it with superior fitness is an ominous sign for key forwards across the country: life’s only going to get tougher when you face the Fremantle Dockers.
Gemma Bastiani is the co-founder of Siren Sport, a collective of Australian women’s sports advocates, content creators and fans providing coverage to women's sport across the country. To read more of Gemma Bastiani's work, head here.