There are a number of things I identify as. Writer. Blogger. Goalkeeper. Soda water enthusiast. Also, visually impaired. I mean, you know your vision is bad when your new optometrist makes a face and says, “Oh my…” when she first sees your prescription.
For five years I threw myself around the goalmouth as the goalkeeper for the Gladesville Ravens after our original keeper was recruited for the Super League. Why me? Because I had played netball and therefore, was qualified to catch the ball. It was only early last year that I was given the devastating news that my eyesight prevents me from playing.
Lydia Williams – the Queen of the Keepers – is my absolute hero
What started as a challenge grew into a great love, an absolute passion for goalkeeping. I loved everything about it; the adrenalin of an oncoming striker, the physicality of the saves, the ability to keep going after a ball goes into the back of the net as fatigue sets in.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that Lydia Williams – the Queen of the Keepers – is my absolute hero. I remember watching her play for the first time and being captivated by the way she moved around the goalmouth. When the opposition broke through their defence, Williams was at the edge of her box clapping her gloves together and riling up the girls once more.
She is fierce and fiercely talented
When she was just 17 years old, Lydia Williams was named Female Sportsperson of the Year in 2006 and became one of the youngest ever recipients of a Deadly Award. The Deadlys are the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards, celebrating Indigenous excellence in music, sport, the arts, entertainment and community achievement. Goalkeeper for the Young Matildas and then onto holding the number one jersey for our national team, Lydia Williams is the backbone, the heart and soul of our women’s team. Whenever I attend the Canberra games, my partner will be watching the teams warm up, nudging me and asking me, “See that? They’re looking on form today!” he can be sure that my eyes will be stuck on Williams prepping for the coming match. Even watching her train floods my veins with excitement and adrenalin. I cheer louder when she makes a save than when Canberra scores a goal.
We are celebrating Lydia Williams today for her contribution to football. She has overcome injury after injury to secure her spot on an international stage. Lydia Williams is a force to be reckoned with both on and off the field; a poignant female sports personality whose journey to the international stage encourages strength, belief and positivity for all who bear witness to her talent.
And after talking to her, I know her to be humble and completely realistic in her pursuits both personal and professional. She has depth and a completely contagious laugh that catches you off guard. Lydia Williams is the perfect example as to why we as a people, as a nation, should take the time to get to know the women that represent us.
She is resilient
“A lot of excitement, tears, frustration and hard work,” Lydia answered when I asked her what it took to get where she is today. The goalkeeper for reigning champions Canberra United and the Matildas, Lydia Williams is testament to where hard work can get you.
“You should probably ask someone else to answer for you!” Lydia laughed when I asked her what she loves about herself - which, funnily enough, is the reaction that women are so often trained to have – a denial of anything beautiful about themselves, the initial self-deprecating reaction. “I am motivated and resilient. Coming back from injury and when people have doubted me I have always been like, ‘I’ll prove you wrong’” she concedes to me. “Motivated. Yeah. That’s a good word. I will always try to prove those people wrong and do the very best I can in whatever I do.”
"I’ve done it, I need to come home for surgery, can I come back for the World Cup or is this it?"
Something that has stood out to me about the W-League since I started participating in its community, was the feeling of belonging. The crowds are smaller, yes, but you will not find a more devoted, supportive or united group of people – at least, not that I’ve ever experience. Talking with Lydia, it was nice to hear that that feeling of belonging and support goes well beyond the grandstand and right into the change rooms; that it is the heart and soul of the league. “When I did it I was playing in the U.S.,” Lydia said referring to her torn ACL, “I got on the phone right away. I called home and said, ‘I’ve done it, I need to come home for surgery, can I come back for the World Cup or is this it?’ All of them were like, just come back as soon as you can, we’ll get you into surgery, don’t worry about anything.”
“After two days of a lot of tears and frustration, a couple of the U.S. National Team members that were in my team motivated me even more and said ‘don’t worry, you’ll be back for the World Cup. Just have this time to cry now and don’t ever look back’.” Even as I type this now, I have goosebumps. Maybe I was wrong, maybe it wasn’t simply the W-League here in Australia that is devout to its players. I can’t help but think, that in the female pursuit to be recognised as competitive and true athletes on an international level, there is an unspoken agreement among us, that we are all on the same team regardless of country or continent. There is something there that seems to break down barriers between opponents; something that you just don’t see anywhere else. “So you know, with them and the girls and the staff all encouraging me I was like, ‘Yep. I’m going to get back.’ I didn’t have time to doubt the rehab, the training. It was a risk, but obviously it paid off.”
She pays homage to her roots
It was a humbling sight, a beautiful sign of respect to see our nation’s two flags flying side-by-side for the world audience to witness. Bunked up in my room before daybreak when I was watching the tournament, the sight brought tears to my eyes. “Kyah’s family came over for the World Cup and they bought a huge, indigenous, Aboriginal flag. To see that in the stands, Kyah and I had a word, and it was pretty special.”
“It was pretty special you know, walking out onto the field and seeing that flag. It was probably one of the best moments”
I remember grabbing the Sydney Morning Herald on the way to work one morning, becoming completely elated when I was met with the image of Kyah Simons and Lydia Williams standing in front of the Aboriginal flag. “This. This is news,” I remember thinking to myself. These women represent the spiritual history of our beautiful land, they are heroes and beacons of hope for children who live in rural, Indigenous communities in Australia today. “It was pretty special you know, walking out onto the field and seeing that flag. It was probably one of the best moments – we were looking at both of our flags,” Lydia reminisced as I smiled down the phone to her.
The 2015 World Cup was held in Winnipeg, which is the most populated Indigenous area in Canada. “It was cool,” Lydia told me, “we were able to learn about their culture there, and they did a piece on us to motivate young footballers in Canada as well.” For the most successful football team Australia has produced, what humbles me the most is the devotion they each show to youth, to children, to the future. To inspire is the greatest gift one individual can give to another, and here these two women are, standing proudly as stories of success, hard work and resilience, inspiring the masses. “Not only to have the Australian flag, but also the Indigenous flag flying right next to it – for us, that was an achievement in itself.” What a flag was to Williams and Simon, they were to us – a symbol of that feeling that whispers, “we made it.”
“Always in the back of my mind, both my parents always said, ‘Be proud of where you come from’. My mum being American and my dad being Indigenous, you know, it’s a strange combination! But I think all the hardships that hey had to go through in their marriage and cultural background, I think it’s kind of been passed on to me. I can be far more resilient than other people in my position because of that.”
She sees things differently
From her mindset in overcoming her ACL injury and her two knee reconstructions, to how she sees herself as a woman in sport, Lydia Williams could all teach us a thing or two. Quickly into our conversation, Lydia’s attitude towards, well, life, became my favourite thing about her. Though she was a part of the pay dispute that occurred at the end of the Matildas stint at the World Cup, she sees that as only one aspect that they have had to face. Instead, she chose to focus and talk about all that she is grateful for and all that she is appreciative of experiencing.
"You’re not a girl, you’re a goalkeeper"
When I query with her whether she has had to overcome many obstacles to get where she is today regarding her gender, she can see the dispute as the only thing that sticks out. “I was pretty lucky that I got to train with the ACT State Team and be a part of that,” she explained to me. “When I was progressing, I got to train with the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) boys – goalkeepers – and my coach always said, ‘You’re not a girl, you’re a goalkeeper’ and you know, treated me as an equal with the boys in terms of how they were going to shoot and the training side of things. I’ve been pretty lucky in that aspect.”
All hail Lydia’s coach. That is the kind of individual that will prove vital in the progression of women in sport; someone who sees a person and a talent for exactly that, and not whether they are male or female. “Even now, my coach has his own academy where 14 year old girls train with 12 year old boys. It’s their ability level rather than their gender. It’s a good way to go. To have that mentality at such a young age is important if you want to go further with it.” Lydia spoke casually about her coach and her experience, which filled me with happiness. Having had such a positive experience as she was honing her skills and growing into the athlete she is today is such a testament to the people who were involved in her career. I applaud you, each and every one of you.
For the duration of our conversation, there was not an ounce of negativity that came from the gorgeous Williams. Not once did she utter any unfair treatment, nor did she speak ill of anyone or anything. For an elite female athlete I found this incredible. It was uplifting and magnificent, truly. “Most of us have been lucky enough to train with boys teams and that kind of thing to get where we are now,” Williams said. What I got from our chat was how realistic she is – and if this is a trait that she got from her parents, then I thank them. Lydia didn’t focus on anything that the media has circulated; in fact, she didn’t focus on anything that wasn’t in the present. In that, is why she is a fantastic goalkeeper – and as she often pointed out in the interview, “I believe in being in the moment.” She goes out there and does a job, and she does it damn well.
“It was weird not being in the goalmouth for me, but the aim was always the national team. And I think it was good for me not having that W-League season for me to still be in an environment where there was training day in and day out, but I could focus on myself more.” This right here? This is why I love this woman. Her relentless positivity is completely contagious. For what could have been a career-ending injury, instead ended up being a miracle story where she recovered in nine months and played for her country. She is the epitome of strength; strength of character, will and soul.
She is determined and quirky and kind of an over-achiever. She is a goalie
“Well I think it is pretty funny now with kids saying, ‘I wanna be a goalkeeper too!’ I mean… I was never like that when I was young!” Possibly naively so, I had assumed that Williams had always played the position of goalkeeper because she is so technically talented and an unbelievable shot stopper. I was wrong. “I came from not really knowing anything at junior level to getting thrown in the deep end and having to be a goalie as the only position left in the team,” she told me. Naturally driven and determined to really make a go of the big move to the country’s capital, Williams worked relentlessly to try and secure her spot in the ACT State Team, “Coming from Kalgoorlie, every kid played every sport. To make the move from there to Canberra and to be around a more competitive environment, even just in club level, that was an eye opener.”
Much like my own experience in being ‘selected’ as a goalie based on unrelated prior experience, Lydia Williams came into the position similarly, “I was okay about being a goalkeeper. I could kick and catch because of AFL and basketball, so my hand-eye coordination was pretty good. Then I just kinda grew to love it!”
“I’m unique. As a goalkeeper, you always have to be unique or quirky or something. People say goalkeepers are crazy"
“It must be the appeal of high-profile goalkeepers performing really well that’s motivating kids. And for me, that’s kinda cool! You know, kids have gloves when they are eight years old, asking you to sign them. Like, WOW!” She is completely on the money with this. Even when I was playing, no one ever wanted to play goalie – they didn’t even want to fill in for me when I got too banged up to play one week. There has been a definite shift in attitude towards this, and I welcome it with open arms!
“But for me it is much more than just the physical side of saving balls – it’s the mental challenges as well,” Lydia started telling me, “it’s a combination of being mentally calm and relaxed, but also being in the game and in the moment as well. Having to control what you can… like if your teammates get tired, you yell out at them.”
“I’m unique. As a goalkeeper, you always have to be unique or quirky or something,” she laughed, and to which I agreed. “People say goalkeepers are crazy. So that might be a part of it too!” Again. Hear! Hear!
Preparing with peanut butter
But it was in the closing moments of our conversation that I really fell for Lydia Williams, “For me personally, I like to keep myself in the moment. I love to listen to music. So I will be jamming away!” It was when she was given the opportunity and the space to expose her playful, energetic personality and practices that I could hear the smile in her words. “On game day it’s always peanut butter, banana and jam sandwiches. I call it the triple threat,” Lydia said to me in complete seriousness. Simultaneously, we then both broke into hearty laughter. For a while. We laughed, and we laughed. “Everyone makes fun of me! I mean, a lot of the girls do the peanut butter and banana, but I’m going for the jam as well to keep the American roots alive. I definitely get made fun of a lot when I call it that.”
For the entire interview she was completely open and accessible, so willing to have a chat about anything I put forward to her. What I love about these women and getting to know them beyond their team’s colours is that each and every one of their personalities is absolutely bursting with enthusiasm and an absolute joy for the game they play, live and breathe. Lydia Williams IS resilient. Lydia Williams IS an inspiration. Long after we hung up from each other, the smile was still plastered all over my face from the optimism exuding from Williams. I kept replaying questions and answers we discussed, forming the sentences of this piece in my head.
So Lydia Williams I thank you. I thank you for your resilience and your determination. I thank you for setting an example and being such a rousing figure for children, teenagers and adults everywhere. By simply fighting for exactly what you want and not letting anything stand in the way of it, you have instilled a fight in me and in everyone who has the privilege of seeing you step onto the field.