Isaac Heeney And The Pursuit Of The Ultimate Prize

Isaac Heeney and the pursuit of the ultimate prize

After a quiet 2023 the Sydney Swans forward is fresh off his first full preseason in a decade. As he tells Men’s Health, now is the time for he and his teammates to fill the void left by you know who and make a premiership run. For Heeney, that could mean making the leap from star to superstar.

ISAAC HEENEY AND I are walking through Centennial Park on a hot and sticky Sydney afternoon. It’s just over a week out from the opening night of the 2024 AFL season and as we leisurely make our way across the open parkland, Heeney is at ease, barefoot and shirtless.

“I never wear shirts and shoes,” says the 27-year-old, grinning as he treads carefully to avoid pebbles and bindies lurking in the baked brown grass. “Even around the club I cop some slack because I’m always shirtless.” Indeed, the small forward didn’t really hesitate when asked to lose his shirt during his Men’s Health photo shoot earlier in the afternoon, but when you’re built like a glossy golden racehorse, you probably don’t have too many hang-ups about getting your rig out.

Heeney looks like an archetype from a bygone era; the bronzed Aussie, hair the colour of wheat, cheeky of smile, twinkling of eye, laconic of air. It’s all there, save for the white strip of zinc across his nose.

Fitting then, that the Swans veteran has evolved from his farm-boy roots to become a fully fledged beach bum. Loves his fishing; he shows the crew the groove in his front teeth from years spent biting down on lines. He caught a Marlin that might have weighed 70kg in January on his uncle’s boat up in Port Stephens. And he loves his surfing. Heeney’s insta is a barrage of big fish and barrels. If you didn’t know better you might look at this bare-chested bloke ambling across the scrubby parkland on a late summer afternoon and conclude that he might not belong on the lusher, greener grass of the SCG, just down the road, playing Aussie Rules.

Of course, if you do know anything about Heeney, you know better. You know that he’s one of the most dynamic small forwards in the game, a livewire with silky skills, who can also play on the ball or as a loose man in defence. Wherever he is, the ball seems to find him. Doesn’t mind the dirty work, either, but at the same time, can lose a defender and snap from 40 out on a tight angle to give his team a lift. He’s got ‘it’ in other words.

But if he doesn’t immediately strike you as an Aussie Rules player, there’s perhaps a reason for that. A rare homegrown NSW product, Heeney is, despite the inroads the AFL has made north of the border in the past 20 years, still something of an outlier. He could easily have been lost to rugby league. Heck, if he’d got into surfing a little earlier on, it might have been the salt water that claimed him.

As it was, the AFL managed to snare him and fittingly, it was the Swans who have enjoyed his unique gifts. Spending an afternoon with Heeney, you can’t help feeling that he should be a bigger deal in this town—one passer-by yells out “Go Swannies” as Heeney knocks out some dips on outdoor gym equipment—but it’s highly possible many people who see him in the park today assume he’s just an unusually ripped surfie type who’s about to jump in his car and head back east, maybe squeeze in a few waves before dinner.

There is, of course, one thing that could change that and make Heeney an instantly recognisable household name in his hometown. If the local boy could lead the Swans to a premiership, the fickle Harbour City would surely embrace him. Heeney’s been to the big dance twice already, in 2016 and in 2022. And after his best preseason in a decade, he’s adamant something special is brewing at Moore Park this year.

“I’m super excited,” says Heeney of his anticipation of opening night and the Swans’ prospects this year. “I think Horse [coach John Longmire] has done an amazing job with how this preseason has gone. Obviously, the boys are fit, which makes a massive difference with training. I’m extremely excited to see what we can do and all the boys are pumped. There’s plenty of energy around the club and there’s a great vibe there. It looks promising.”

It’s classic late-summer talk, of course. Every player, every club does it. Heeney admits as much but insists this year is different. “You feel like every year you’re building, building, building,” he says. “But I’ve got plenty of excitement for this year.”

Time will tell, but if Heeney and the Swans are able to prevail on the last Saturday in September, he might find it a little more difficult to take an anonymous, shirtless stroll through his city’s most popular park.


Clothes and shoes by Nike; watch by Hublot, available at Kennedy Watches & Jewellery.


HEENEY GREW UP on a farm halfway between Maitland and Newcastle, deep in rugby league heartland. As a kid he and his brother, Beau, played soccer, league and cricket, the young Heeney proving himself something of a prodigy at everything he turned his hand to, racking up some cartoonish stats: he once kicked 68 goals in a season of soccer, including 16 in one game, and averaged 216 one season in cricket.

“That was at a young age and it was funny. I’ve caught a bit of slack for that,” he laughs, explaining that the numbers were just a product of his love of sport. “Sport was everything to myself and my brother,” he says. “Every day we were doing something, whether it was, soccer, cricket, AFL, rugby league, Oztag. And then we’d go to the beach every Friday afternoon, have dinner and go for a swim.” Simple times, but when you’re as gifted as Heeney was, things usually don’t stay simple for long.

Like most of his mates, Heeney was obsessed with League. He idolised Roosters’ fullback Anthony Minichiello and dreamed of playing the same position himself. His dad had played both League and Union. All signs were that Heeney would follow in his footsteps. And perhaps he would have had his old man not developed some reservations about the relentless head knocks he saw in League.

Heeney would be introduced to Aussie Rules through some family friends. As a six-year-old kid, who played in the under 10s, he didn’t know much about the game from down south other than you scored goals, you handpassed, you tackled, you competed. That was enough for Heeney, who began playing for a team called Walls End, before joining the Cardiff Hawks in the Black Diamond League, a club that would become his second family.

If it sounds straight forward, consider that Heeney was the only kid in his school who played the game. “In Sydney schools now, it’s obviously growing and they’ve got the AFL ball in their hands at lunchtime kicking it around and that was just never a thing growing up,” he says. “It was always NRL or soccer.” Naturally, Heeney’s interest in this peculiar game saw him cop it.

“Aerial ping-pong is what they called it,” he laughs. “And you did cop it, but it never bothered me.” Why not? “I enjoyed playing it and had fun and had some decent success doing it. So, I was just never phased by it.” As it’s beginning to become clear, not a lot a bothers Heeney.

He would be spotted by a Swans junior scout and join the team’s Academy at 12. It was a commitment that roped in his whole family. “Once or twice a week we’d have to drive down to Sydney, so two-and a-half hours each way just to train and be there in the Academy,” he says.

In his final year of high school he transferred to Waverly College in Sydney’s east, but even there he was still one of the few kids practising handballs rather hit-ups. Without the Academy, Heeney reckons, he likely would have given up on the sport and focused on League. Indeed, while he was showing immense promise in the game, he could barely name half the teams in the AFL.

“Even now, my history of the game is horrific and I cop a lot of slack from the boys because I don’t know my history too well,” he says. “I didn’t grow up with it as much as I did NRL, but I’m learning.”

In time, he would learn about Barassi, Jesaulenko, Skilton, Matthews, Ablett and all the greats who came before him. And like every young player who enters the AFL with wide-eyed dreams, he would strive to leave his own mark, too.


Clothes by Nike; watch by Hublot, available at Kennedy Watches & Jewellery.


HEENEY’S DEBUT FOR the Swans, at 18, in round one of the 2015 season, seems like one ripped from the pages of a teenage boy’s exercise book, where idle doodles fill the margins in maths class as the teacher drones on about Pi or Pythagorean theorem. Heeney kicked the goal that sealed a historic Swans victory, the team storming back from 41 points down in the third quarter. His teammates would descend upon him en masse, geeing up the youngster as they ruffled his mop of blonde hair.

In one of those delightful glitches in the matrix that sometimes occur, the photographer on today’s shoot swears he was in the crowd that day and caught Heeney’s left-foot on-the-run snap after it sailed through the sticks. He tells Heeney he’ll be at the SCG on Thursday for the Swans’ seasoner opener—the AFL’s first ever Opening Round in Sydney—against Melbourne. “I’ll kick it to you again,” Heeney jokes, as we make our way through one of the park’s bushier trails. “Try and roost it from the goal square.”

Heeney would hit the ground running at senior level, notching 17 touches in each of his first two games, before garnering an AFL Rising Star nomination after kicking four goals in a win over GWS. His teammates quickly dubbed him ‘Golden child’ and ‘Halo’.

That first year, the rookie would play alongside two greats of the game, Adam Goodes and Lance Franklin, both of the Swans’ legends imparting lessons the young Heeney would do his best to absorb. Hard work beats talent, train as you play. Lessons he still draws on today. “Both of them had talent and hard work,” he points out. “Everything they did was at 100 per cent intensity. But then at the same time they had a good balance of what footy was. When you’re at footy you give it everything. When you’re outside of footy you kind of get away and escape and that’s where you relax and recuperate to then give it 100 per cent again.”

That distance from the game can be helpful, he says, not only in maintaining perspective, but also in offering some respite from the ever-present fear that haunts many professional athletes, especially those in sports that involve collisions: you never know when it could all come to an end. Earlier in the shoot, as Heeney had professed how good his body was feeling, he was quick to look for some wood to touch.

“You just never know,” he says. “You never know how long you’ve got left. Anything can happen at any time. So you’re kind of always on edge, in a good way. You hope it’s not taken out of your control. You hope you can get to the end and retire on a positive note.”

It’s perhaps due to a couple of major injuries and a host of minor niggles—Heeney’s only ever been able to complete two full preseasons and lost most of his 2020 season due to an ankle injury—that while he would quickly become one of the Swans’ most consistent and reliable players, it wasn’t until 2022 that he felt he put it all together to reach the league’s upper echelon. That year he kicked a career-best 49 goals and made the All-Australian team. “That’s when I was like, Oh, it’s nice to see a bit of recognition for some of the work I’ve put in.”

Heeney was one of the key cogs in the Swans’ drive to the grand final that year, where the team suffered a humiliating 81-point loss to Geelong. It still stings, he admits, as we sit down on wooden parking rail next to his car. “After the game it was like, What just happened? We’ve had such a great year as a team and we come out here on the biggest day of the year and not show up. How did it go so wrong?

But he insists the team doesn’t bear permanent scars from the loss and agrees that sometimes you need to take your lumps and experience the depths of disappointment before you can claim the ultimate prize. “It’s an experience that you’re grateful you had, but also wish it never happened,” he says of the conflicting feelings that come with defeat on the biggest stage. “And you do everything in your power to make sure that it never happens again.”

That, of course, doesn’t mean it won’t. Indeed, for Heeney and the Swans, 2022 marked only six years from their last grand final loss. “We lost against the Dogs and we were big favourites going into that,” he says. “Where I probably believe we had the better side. It shows you how hard it is to win a premiership. You have such a great year and then it can come down to three hours on one day.”

The pain of grand final defeats doesn’t really go away but Heeney knows that rather than let it roil, you’re best to use it. “It’s never nice, but it does help and it gives you a perspective that it’s bloody tough and it’s the ultimate,” he says. “So I’ve got plenty in my gut burning to achieve that ultimate success. And I think we’ve got a team we can do it with.”


Jacket, TWO.ONE, by Farage; shorts by Nike.


THIS SEASON WILL be the first full one in what you could call the Swans’ ‘post-Buddy era’. You only had to see the way fans stormed the field after Franklin kicked his 1000th goal last year to see how large the iconic forward’s shadow loomed over the Swans in his decade-plus in the Harbour City. Does Franklin’s retirement leave a void, not just among the Swans’ leadership group, which Heeney was a part of last year, but in the team’s ability to capture the public imagination here in Sydney? Heeney does his best to pay tribute to his teammate’s legacy while looking forward.

“He had such an incredible presence,” he says. “And from my opinion, he’s the greatest player that ever played the game. But it is what it is. It sucks to see him go but we’ve got plenty of young players that can stand up and hopefully, and I know for a fact, will continue the Swans’ legacy and build our own legacy.”

At 27, the golden child has grown up. When he looks around the dressing room these days he sees a lot of young faces, looking up to him as he once did to Buddy and Goodes. It’s his turn to set the standard. “It’s nice when you see the young fellows look up to you,” he says. “It’s a matter of bringing them along, driving them as much as possible because the more we bring them along, the better the team will be and the more success we’ll have.”


Clothes by Nike.


Things didn’t go the Swans’ way at the beginning of last season. Perhaps the hangover from the grand final loss was lingering. Heeney believes the poor start was due to the team’s injury-plagued preseason. But the Swans did manage to turn things around, rallying to make the eight before suffering a narrow 6-point loss to Carlton in the elimination final.

Heeney, too, was hampered by injuries in the first half of 2023. “It was one of those ones where once again, my body didn’t have much of a preseason. But I’m not one to do excuses. I didn’t perform as well as I would’ve liked.”

It didn’t help things that his goal kicking was off last year—halfway through the season he was hitting just 36 per cent of his shots on goal, a stat that gets pundits talking. “You kick 50 to 60 per cent, you’re adding plenty more goals and you’re not having that pressure externally,” he says. “And then that pressure I put on myself as well to be an elite player. I guess my season was pretty similar to the team’s season.”

That’s probably not a coincidence. Given how well he and the team performed in 2022, it’s difficult not to conclude that Heeney is both instrumental to the team’s fortunes and an increasingly talismanic presence around the club.

This year, Heeney is buoyed by the fact that 43 of the Swans’ 45 players completed a full preseason. On top of that, a number of players are reaching the 50-70 game mark, the type of seasoning that often precedes a player’s prime, as bodies harden up and the hardnosed habits and rituals that underline consistency are honed. “The young players that have gone from say, 30 to 50 games to 50 to 70, others pushing over a hundred, that’s experience you can’t pay for,” he says.

The sun is getting low in the sky as we wrap up our chat. Before he goes, I ask Heeney about the curious tatts on his feet and ankles. “That’s a buck-toothed llama,” he says of a whimsical looking creature on his ankle. “They’re all drunken tattoos from surf trips.”

Under my gaze, he gets self-conscious for the first time today; his feet are a little gnarly, with the odd blackened toenail or two. “Yeah, not the prettiest of feet,” he grins. You get the feeling he doesn’t mind too much, though. The battered toes speak to hard work, a full preseason, miles on the track. His rig, too, is a monument to hard work and discipline. Together, they’re as much a testament to a guileless, laid back nature, as they are to something Heeney’s been trying to tell me all afternoon: he’s ready.


Get an AFL player’s body

Built like a prime thoroughbred, Heeney has the enviable problem of stacking on muscle too easily, something that can be a liability in an endurance-based game like Aussie Rules. “If I do too much I can sometimes blow out and put a bit too much weight on,” says Heeney, who tips the scales at 88 kg but has played some seasons at 91-92 kg. “Obviously it’s an aerobic game. I’ve played games at some heavy weights that I probably shouldn’t be. So I’ve dropped it back a few kilos to make sure I’m moving around really well but keeping my strength at the same time.”

Heeney likes doing basic bodyweight exercises but adding weight to increase load. Use this workout to build a body that can break tackles and blast through packs.


Watch by Hublot, available at Kennedy Watches & Jewellery; shorts by Nike.



>Push-ups – 4 x 10 with a 20kg weight plate on your back

>Chin-ups – 4 x 10 with weight (Heeney does lower reps carrying 35kg around his waist).


>Leg raises x 10

>Windscreen wipers x 6 each side

>Sit-ups x 20

The 2024 AFL season kicks off tomorrow night, Thursday March 7 at 7.30 pm at the SCG, with the Swans taking on Melbourne in the first ever Opening Round held in Sydney.

Cover (left), Isaac wears: Jacket, TWO.ONE by Farage; shorts by Nike. Cover (right), hoodie and gilet by Nike.


Photography @harryhayes


Grooming @vicanderson

Digital @michael_tartaglia

Assistant @danlinstudio



Your ultimate guide to the 2024 AFL season

By Ben Jhoty

Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Head of Content, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.

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