Changkuoth Jiath during a Hawthorn training session at Waverley Park, April 19, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

YOU OFTEN hear Changkuoth Jiath before you see him. Step by step he makes the steep descent from Hawthorn's training base at Waverley Park down to ground level with a speaker blasting before training. But he wasn't there on the first day of training in 2024. He was still in Qatar. 

By the time Jiath reported back for pre-season a couple of days later, following an intensive week inside world leading sports medicine practice Aspetar, there was growing confidence he would overcome the nightmare run of injuries that had curtailed his career. 

Jiath captured the imagination of the football world in the winter of 2021, but has been restricted since then due to injuries ranging from a PCL to an Achilles, but most concerning was a spate of soft tissue issues. From 16 games in that breakout season to 14 in 2022 to just eight last year, the Gippsland Power product was tracking in the wrong direction.

One step forward, two back has been the trajectory. Even after turning the corner over the summer, Jiath experienced a couple more setbacks. First it was the hamstring strain in February's disastrous intraclub. Then it was the quad tweak ahead of his VFL return for Box Hill in April. 

It has taken many hands and minds inside Hawthorn to get Jiath back on the park. From high performance boss Peter Burge and long-time physiotherapist Andrew Lambart, to rehab co-ordinator Jack Price and head of strength and conditioning Zane Leonard, to former professional basketballer turned new player development manager Jenni Screen, everyone has played a role. And now 'CJ' is back in business. 

Changkuoth Jiath during Hawthorn's 2024 team photo day at Waverley Park. Picture: AFL Photos

"It is one of the toughest experiences I've had throughout my career. I was 100 per cent (confident in returning). Me and my family are very optimistic people. There are a lot of bigger things in life than getting injured. It was tough at the time, but I knew that things were going to be right," Jiath told after the Hawks' 25-point win over Brisbane on Sunday

"Part of it was just growing, understanding what's best for you, how to deal with a situation like this. A lot of my mates that I got drafted with have started playing 100 games and I was getting really frustrated about that, I was really agitated about that fact, but everyone has their own story.

"For me, it was being present, taking the time I needed to get my body right. I'm a bit emotional talking about it now because it has been so hard dealing with what I've dealt with. The way I handled it was different to how I have previously. Massive thanks to 'Screeny' (Jenni Screen), she is new on board at the club and has helped me deal with it. She had a lot of injuries in her career as well, so she has been great to lean on. I know there are going to be setbacks, but I know I can handle it. I've got a lot of resources guiding me through."

Changkuoth Jiath in action during Hawthorn's training session at Bunjil Bagora, Waverley Park on May 24, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Jiath is right: a lot of players from his draft class have already raced to triple figures. Mature-age recruits Bayley Fritsch (137 games), Tim Kelly (135) and Brody Mihocek (135) lead the way, while top-10 picks Andrew Brayshaw and Aaron Naughton are both up to 134 appearances. There are 21 100-game players from that crop in total, while another 26 have played at least 50 games since they were drafted at the end of 2017. Jiath is now on 47, but counting again in the right direction. 

The 24-year-old played his first AFL game in 372 days against Port Adelaide in round 10. He watched from the bench in the last quarter as the Power recovered from 41 points down to stun the Hawks at Adelaide Oval. Hawthorn opted to sub him out when his physical markers indicated he was at risk in his return game, coming off managed minutes in the VFL a week earlier. The plane ride home was hollow, the early part of last week was brutal. 

"Oh man, that was definitely one of the toughest losses I've had ever," Jiath said after the Hawks showed maturity seven days later to withstand a Brisbane recovery after half-time before cruising to victory in the fourth quarter on Sunday. 

"It actually stung a lot, but one of the key things we did was not forget about that feeling, remember how much it burns, so we didn't want to relive that again. We did a lot of work throughout the week and looked at things we didn't do. It was good to implement that in the game today and get the W."

Jiath adds more than just run and carry to Hawthorn. He injects infectious energy into the second youngest (23.7 years) and third least experienced (58.2 games) list in the AFL. When recruit Jack Ginnivan kicked a goal in the first quarter, the pair completed a handshake and bow celebration that was pinched from NBA superstar LeBron James. 

"It is something we do in training. We are both massive LeBron fans, me and him, so it was just nice that he kicked a goal and we were able to celebrate it," Jiath said. 

Just like James' situation in Los Angeles, Jiath is out of contract this year, although those negotiations will start to progress now he is back playing. He won't command the deal the four-time NBA MVP will, but Hawthorn has always viewed the Xavier College graduate as a key puzzle piece in the rebuild and will look to extend him in the coming months. 

It is why the club didn’t baulk at investing so heavily financially in his fitness when they decided to send him to the Middle East in January. Aspetar is a facility that has treated some of soccer's biggest names – Lionel Messi, Erling Haaland, Neymar and David Beckham – and comes at a high price. Hawthorn isn't Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City. Despite the setbacks early this year, the trip provided Jiath with a platform to launch from again. 

"The reason why we went to Qatar was for my groins and I haven't had any issues since we got back from Qatar. I battled a lot of groin issues from my first year at the club throughout my career, and last year was the worst I'd had with my groins. I was able to gain some experience in what works for me," he said.

"A lot of my issues before I got to Qatar was I have really weak obliques and hips and a lot of that was compensating. We did a lot of testing there. It is one of the best facilities in the world and we were able to identify what was making my groins so sore and we were able to work that out. I've gained a lot from Qatar and even just preparing for games and training. I was really fortunate the club allowed me to go there."


By the time Jiath ran out onto Marvel Stadium on Sunday, two other young players with South Sudanese heritage – Mac Andrew and Leek Aleer – who also arrived in Australia as refugees after being born in Africa, had emerged as two of the most captivating performers of round 11. 

Andrew (pick No.5 to Gold Coast) and Aleer (pick No.15 to Greater Western Sydney) made history in 2021 when they became first-round picks. They then made their debut on the same weekend in 2022. Their performances on the weekend showed they have the potential to leave a profound impact on their community, as well as the game. 

"It is a lot bigger than footy," he said. "There is going to be kids aspiring to be like these guys that are going to be motivated to do good things and it is going to attract a lot of kids to the game. It is great to see Aleer and Mac Andrew do so well because it is inspiring kids to grow and inspiring me as well. It is very cool to see."

Jiath is a key figure in the South Sudanese inclusion in the game. He is a leader in his community and at Hawthorn, where you'll hear him before you see him at Waverley Park, setting the tempo at a club on the rise.