While Olivia Vesely’s torrid run with injury has provided its fair share of pain, being forced to watch her teammates from the sidelines for majority of the past two pre-seasons has stung just as much.

An arduous and lengthy rehabilitation from a series of repeated soft tissue niggles – topped off with season-ending calf surgery last March to remove a torn plantaris muscle (that inadvertently adhered itself to her Achilles tendon) – forced the 2020 Best & Fairest out of her role of ball-winning midfielder into that of exasperated onlooker.

The road back has been a frustrating one ever since. Whenever it seemed like Vesely had turned a corner and was and ready to fully resume pre-season training, a new flare-up would come to the fore and extend her time in recovery.

But that vexing game of cat and mouse has at last come to a head, with the 22-year-old named in the starting midfield for tonight’s season opener against Richmond at SkyBus Stadium.

Incredibly, it’s been 664 days since the 2020 Best & Fairest’s last match at senior level.

Surgery on a niggling calf injury benched Olivia Vesely for all of Season 2021, preventing a follow-up to her Best & Fairest winning campaign the year prior. Photo: Lucy Edwards.

“It’s been a bit of a learning curve and definitely made me more resilient, for sure,” Vesely told saints.com.au.

“I’ve struggled a lot in the way of keeping motivated and happy when I am the group. I feed off their energy and I always love being around them, but watching on is really hard for me.

“I don’t mind being on my own, but it is pretty isolating being in rehab. It’s almost… I don’t know what the word is, but I’m literally looking at the girls train through the gym glass.

“I’ve been so lucky they’ve tried to include me in everything, but it’s still different from being out on the track. When they come into the gym happy from a big session, I’m like ‘oh, I would die to be out there, I literally would do anything!’.

“I’m pretty lucky to have the support of the girls. I definitely think I would have been like ‘catch ya!’ if it hadn’t been for some of the girls, Alex Woodward (assistant midfield coach) and Leesa Huguenin our doc, she’s been amazing.

“All in all, it’s been a good lesson, a good life experience.”

Olivia Vesely is presented her playing guernsey by AFLW Senior Coach Nick Dal Santo. Photo: Corey Scicluna.

Vesely’s eagerness to return to the fold has admittedly, at times, been to her detriment.

Undeniable desperation to get back compounded her frustrating wave of niggles, with a subsequent stress reaction injury in her leg late last year the product of pushing too hard.

As the setbacks continued to mount, the onerous rehabilitation sessions merged into one and her pre-season became increasingly interrupted as Round 1 drew shorter, Vesely felt as if she had to be “put on a leash” to counteract her desire to go full pelt; something she says was completely necessary.

“Patience, as much as it is a virtue, is not my virtue… in the slightest!” Vesely laughed.

“I’d have little sniffs of footy and be back for training for a couple of weeks and then get another soft tissue thing or another setback, and that did get tricky.

“It was devastating not playing the second season, especially after how much fun I had in my first. That drove me really to get back and be really fit this season, and I probably pushed a bit too hard at times and subsequently injured myself more.

It’s felt a bit like the carrot’s just dangling there and I’ve been madly chasing after it, only for it to be pulled back that little bit more.

- Olivia Vesely

Now, after almost two years, Vesely has finally caught up to that elusive prize in the form of a long-awaited senior game.

In near-perfect symmetry, the persistent midfielder’s most recent match – the last before the 2020 AFLW Season was suspended due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – was also against Richmond.

It will be a different midfield make-up to the one she became used to in her debut season, with Tarni White, debutants Alana Woodward and Leah Cutting – plus fellow Best & Fairest Rosie Dillon set to join her at centre bounces.

As Vesely has said since she first came through the doors of RSEA Park, any game played in red, white and black is considered a “bonus”.

Tonight’s match might just be that little bit more special for her, however.