NOW fully fit, Claudia Gunjaca is reaping the rewards of a long injury lay-off at the start of the year, which followed a months-long search for the source of her pain.
The rising Geelong intercept defender has had a career-best year in 2023, with her improvement coming from a combination of hard work, natural development and increased mobility.
Gunjaca battled through soreness in season seven but played all 11 matches for the Cats, with a rare stress fracture in her pelvis detected at the end of the year.
"It wasn't fun at all, and we didn't work it out till the end of the season," Gunjaca told AFL.com.au.
"Me knowing my body quite well [being] a physio as well, it was quite hard to play with, but I just tried to go each week by each week.
"And so that's why I think this year is a big improvement for me, through just being able to move a bit more freely.
"It was a weird spot, the spot it was in, and I don't think it had really been seen in that spot. Treatment for me after the season was just 16 weeks with no running, lots of strength and rehab stuff and built my way back up.
"I then had to put in a fairly solid off-season to get my running and fitness back."
Gunjaca's average intercepts this year have risen from 4.5 to 7.4, with her disposals jumping from 8.3 to 11.4.
She works closely with skipper and fellow key back Meg McDonald, the pair having both started their careers as key forwards before being swung into defence.
"I've worked hard on reading the play and my positioning, just really working along with our defensive group. We all work together and work for each other, not so much individually. So to work within the group as well and understanding our system has been sort of the thing that I've been trying to improve on the most," Gunjaca said.
"From day dot, I've always had a nice connection with Meg. This year in particular, I've felt like it's come about even stronger. We're great friends off the field as well as on the field, so that really helps.
"We do a lot of work together, constantly communicating and talking about things, her leadership is amazing and I really see her as a really good role model for myself. I think she's an incredible person and leader and player."
A bubbly presence around the playing group (Gunjaca ran the team's fines system last season), she is a Geelong local who grew up attending games at GMHBA Stadium, watching her favourites Cam Mooney, Gary Ablett and Joel Selwood win flag after flag.
Gunjaca played local footy with Geelong West, before spending some time with UTS while studying physiotherapy in Sydney, winning the 2020 Mostyn Medal as the competition's best and fairest.
When she returned home, she joined the club's VFLW side and was elevated to the AFLW team ahead of season six last year.
Geelong backline coach Elise Coventry has seen Gunjaca's rapid improvement firsthand, and while Coventry's two-year-old son may not get his wish of seeing his favourite player drift forward to kick a goal this weekend, she's become a key plank of Geelong's defence.
"You could see her developing last year, she showed some really strong signs last season as well. She played through a quite nasty injury, and each week was really sore and battled to get through to gameday, still throwing her body around because she doesn't know any differently," Coventry said.
"Along with Meg, they're the generals of the backline. It's taken some time (to find her voice on-field), but Meg's supported her so much with that. The amount of time they spend together on track, or off the track in front of the screens looking at stuff, they're developing a relationship where they rely on one another.
"She gets along with everyone, she has a beautiful personality. She's very funny, it was the highlight of the week when she gave us the fines rundown. She finds a way to connect with everyone.
"She's not the one who just comes into the club and does her own thing, she certainly works hard individually, but she loves to connect with her teammates and have a bit of fun as well."
Geelong will face Melbourne in Sunday's semi-final, the Dees having comprehensively beaten the Cats by 49 points when the two teams met in round five.
"They got out the back of us quite a bit when we played them a few weeks ago," Gunjaca said.
"Coming from that game, we've improved as a defensive structure as well improved our depth and control.
"Hopefully that comes into play this week as well, but I definitely think we'll study that all this week and improve from there."