PITCH darkness greets Sean Darcy as he rolls out of bed for a morning swimming session.
It’s 4.30am in South Purrumbete, a small farming community 71 kilometres east of Warrnambool, and it’s time to hit the road.
His mum Ann-Maree drops the youngest of her four children off at the pool, often with his siblings, including one-time Down Syndrome world record-holder Xavier, and he listens to coach Jayson Lamb dish out instructions.
Then it’s time to jump back in the car and drive another 45 minutes to school in Camperdown.
“I’d eat breakfast in the car, I’d get changed in the car and I’d be at school by 9am,” Darcy reflected.
“It was great fun – I loved swimming.”
It was a routine Darcy – now 18 and on the cusp of making the AFL – repeated regularly between the ages of eight and 16, before he moved to boarding school at Melbourne’s Xavier College three years ago.
The powerful Cobden and Geelong Falcons ruckman calls on the discipline he learned from swimming now in his football.
“People are like ‘ah, I don’t know whether I am going to go to training tonight’ and you hear that and you’re just like ‘I don’t think twice about that’,” he said.
“(In the country) you can’t pull out. City people are a little bit different – their homes are really close – whereas if I’m going to swimming training 45 minutes away or if I am going to footy and it’s an hour and 15 away you have to be committed.”
Lamb believes the traits Darcy showed during his time at Warrnambool Swimming Club go hand-in-hand with AFL football.
“He was a good swimmer and, more importantly, a good kid,” he said.
“He comes from a lovely family and has a great grounding.
“The Darcys have a long association with the swimming club and Seany was a great character to have around.
“He is a very determined young man, which will take him a long way in life.”
Lamb, who will organise a bus to the footy for his former pupil’s AFL debut, if the cards fall that way, said Darcy’s good nature was another important factor.
“He’s always been a big, strong kid and was a state level swimmer and part of many carnivals with us,” he said.
“He’d come on trips with us and would be wrestling in the bus and would always win the wrestling.
“He was always prepared to take on the older blokes too.”
Football was another key part of Darcy’s childhood in the south-west but the possibility of making it a career only dawned on him when he moved to Melbourne.
“I loved my footy but I never thought footy was an option until I moved to Xavier,” he said.
“I had to choose between footy and swimming and swimming wasn’t there for the full year.
“I thought ‘maybe I will choose footy and see how I go’ and I was lucky enough to make Vic Country at under 16s.”
Darcy started at Hampden league club Cobden – his family’s hobby beef farm is on the outskirts of town – at under 12 level.
He made his senior debut for the Bombers at 16 in 2015.
That match against South Warrnambool remains his only top-grade appearance in the red and black.
TAC Cup commitments with Geelong Falcons and school duties with Xavier College took priority, particularly in his top-age year.
A chance to represent Vic Country on the AFL under 18 national championship stage came calling and he grabbed it too.
But juggling the three teams was difficult at times.
“I had a good purple patch of footy in the middle of the year, which I was pretty happy with – the three Country games, one Falcons game and four Xavier games,” Darcy said.
He would stay at his grandparents’ place in Geelong on Thursday nights after Falcons’ training.
And, after school football finished, spent two nights a week learning from Collingwood’s VFL players at the Holden Centre.
Darcy received a call from AFL Victoria Country high performance manager Leon Harris – himself a south-west export – about the Magpies’ offer.
“And I was like ‘of course I’m going to do that, I’m not going to knock that back’,” he said.
“It was unreal. (Magpies ruckman) Lach Howe was quite good with me.
“I probably asked too many questions but he showed me the ropes.
“For the first two weeks I followed him around a lot.”
The 202-centimetre, 113-kilogram Darcy enjoyed the chance to hit the weights room, too.
Physically stronger than many of his teenage ruck peers, he knows he must work hard to maintain that advantage.
“I reckon my strengths are my hit-outs, I’m quite good at that, and my hit-outs to advantage and my tackling and following up in the contest,” Darcy said.
“My weakness is my running – endurance and covering the ground I need to work on.
“The last two years I’ve had pretty interrupted pre-seasons – I had hypothyroidism in my hamstring which kept me out for about four months (in 2015) and then I had stress reactions in my back, which kept me out for another four months.”
Darcy, given the similar physical attributes, is happy to own the Shane Mumford comparisons.
He watches the Greater Western Sydney ruckman closely and loves his attack on the contest.
Melbourne cult hero Max Gawn is another player he follows, paying particular attention to the reigning All-Australian ruckman’s tap work.