Andrew Heffernan grew up on a sheep, wheat, and canola farm in the Riverina town of Junee, NSW.
The oldest of four children, Andrew developed an interest in sport at a young age, taking up soccer when he was five, then shifting to rugby league when he started school.
“I remember going home to my parents and saying, ‘I can't play with my friends at lunch time because I don't know how to play rugby league’. There wasn’t a whole lot of other sports out there at the time and rugby league was very much ingrained in the local community,” Andrew says.
“I fell in love with the sport, and I really enjoyed the physical side, as well as the tactical side, so that's how I developed my game from there.”
His curiosity about the world of sport both on and off the field intensified, after heading to a UC Open Day.
“Back in 2009, when I was 14, I attended a UC Open Day to find out about exercise science, which seems kind of early, but I always saw myself as a student athlete,” he says.
When he turned 17, Andrew moved to Canberra to play rugby league for the Canberra Raiders Under 20s squad and went on to study a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science at UC in 2013.
“I was training full time and studying full time, so it was a hectic period, but I felt supported by my tutors and I’m glad I stayed on top of things, because my rugby league career ended earlier than planned,” Andrew says.
After five and a half years with the Raiders, Andrew went to play for the Penrith Panthers for a year, and during that time he graduated from UC.
“I was offered some opportunities through the club to get some experience as a strength and conditioning assistant coach with some of the junior teams,” he says.
“I also started studying a master’s degree online.”
Andrew continued his studies when he moved overseas to play for the Hull Kingston Rovers in the English Super League, where he had to reassess his ability to continue his career as an athlete.
“I suffered five really bad concussions with multiple sub concussive knocks and was dealing with a bunch of symptoms day-to-day that I had to manage, which meant that I couldn't continue to play, and the advice was to take some time away from the game and review,” Andrew says.
He retired from the game and returned to Canberra to shift his focus to strength and conditioning.
“Even though it was great to have something to fall back on, itwas a big change in terms of my identity around being a rugby league player for so long,” Andrew says.
He soon relished in his new identity, taking up a role with Tennis Australia’s Development Squad as a physical performance coach and then moved on to working with Volleyball Australia, which included a contract as a strength and conditioning coach for the men’s and women’s national teams.
“I love working with athletes to help them reach their full potential,” he says.
In 2022 Andrew was offered a permanent role at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), working with high performance athletes.
“I’ve been working with individuals and teams from a development level to those preparing for international competitions,” he says.
“The best part of my role is that I not only have an impact on the athletes I work with directly, but I’m also part of a wider impact in the world of sport – playing a small part in the lead up to Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games where we can hopefully get some gold medals for Australia!”
Reflecting on the last five years as a retired-athlete-turned-strength-and-conditioning-coach, Andrew says he really is doing what he loves.
“It excites me to be around athletes and be a part of a wider team, but I do acknowledge that it takes a lot of hard work, especially when you’re trying to make connections for internships during your degree – reaching out to people and proving I have the right skill set and that I could add value to the organisation.”
Andrew still finds time to prioritise family, acknowledging their support through his time as an athlete and now in a sports performance role.
“I'll try to get back to Junee every so often. My brothers and sisters are out there and their kids as well. My family also comes to Canberra to watch some of the athletes that I'm coaching which I guess gives them a sense of pride as well,” he says.
“They can see that I’ve reached a position I’ve been striving for - from a 14-year-old knowing that I wanted to be at UC, to working in Australia’s high performance training hub.”
Words by Emma Larouche, photo by Tyler Cherry.