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Swans defender Aliir not backing down from challenges

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Sports was a way to connect with other kids (3:48)

Sydney Swans player Aliir Aliir explains his journey from Kenyan refugee camp to a sporting career in Australian Rules Football. (3:48)

Aliir Aliir's knee injury in last September's preliminary final robbed the Sydney Swans of not only their emerging key defender for the decider against the Western Bulldogs, but it also robbed the former refugee a chance at playing on the biggest stage of his life.

Now, in the lead-up to this September, Aliir is striving to regain his place in the Swans' side after spending large portions of the year in the NEAFL.

The 22-year-old is philosophical about his predicament but is desperate to play a part in Sydney's finals campaign.

"It's hard getting into a team that's playing well," Aliir told ESPN.

"At the end of the day, I could be playing well in the reserves but you've got to wait your [turn] and keep your form going. I don't know when that [a return to the senior side] is. All I can worry about is playing great every week and having great training sessions."

Aliir's past 12 months have been a rollercoaster ride. He only made his AFL debut in Round 6 last season. He then established himself as a key cog in the Swans' defence, playing 13 games before injuring his knee in the preliminary final against Geelong.

He played three matches at the start of 2017 but was dropped in Round 5 to work on his defensive craft.

"You obviously don't want to get dropped," Aliir said.

"We all want to play seniors every week. But the reality is there's times where you might get dropped and I think it's just taking that in and going into training just wanting to improve, talking to the coaches, whatever the situation, [learning about] the reason you got dropped, just working on those things but also working on your craft to get better.

"It was disappointing but you've got to take it as a positive. Because it's going to give you that drive to want to improve and add more to your attributes."

His difficult season didn't end there - Aliir was set to return in Round 7 but missed a training session after accidently oversleeping.

"I probably have to set six alarms before the actual time I have to get up," Aliir laughed, before admitting he learnt a valuable lesson from the experience.

"Driving in that day I knew I wasn't going to play, which was obviously disappointing. I guess you just have to be professional with everything you do. Setting your alarm early, doing the little things that the club holds in high value.

"We've moved on. I apologised to the boys and it was a mistake. I can't do much about it."

The defender then suffered a knee injury in the NEAFL in June but was fortunately cleared of structural damage.

Riding such highs and lows in professional sport can be difficult for 22-year-olds to endure. But Aliir is no ordinary 22-year-old. Born in a Kenyan refugee camp into a family that fled Sudan's civil war, he doesn't sweat the little things. He played soccer as a child in the dusty camp using a balloon wrapped in old clothes as a ball, and rocks for goals. He had never seen a building until he arrived in Australia as a nine-year-old.

He's still on a steep AFL learning curve but that's not surprising since he didn't start playing the sport until well into his teenage years.

But he credits Swans stars past and present, Ted Richards and Heath Grundy, for helping fast track his development as a key defender.

"They've both played over 200 games, just to pick their brains during sessions, the right positioning, when to come off, when to close, body work, things a key defender has to do," Aliir said.

"Even just watching vision with them ... whether it's playing in the twos or seniors they were great with that. But it wasn't just those two. You have Jarrad McVeigh and Nick Smith, all these guys, because our club is full of great leaders and it's not just that I'm a key defender they have to help me out. Everyone is part of that.

"I feel very grateful to be at such a great club that everyone is helping me out."