Two images which scream ‘Australia’ to the world are that of the brilliant red hue of the outback and the green and gold worn with pride by an Aussie sporting team.
These two elements have both played a significant role in the life of one of Australia’s top sportswomen.
Lydia Williams is the goalkeeper for the Matildas and honed her craft as a teenager in the cool climes of the nation’s capital, Canberra.
But her natural skills with a ball began in the much hotter regions of Western Australia where her childhood, with her American mother and Australian father, an indigenous tribal elder, was spent visiting local communities and playing sport in the red dirt that is so iconic to outback Australia.
While she played various sports at home and school, Aussie Rules was the sport of choice in the local communities and her time spent playing with an oval ball, not a round one, nurtured skills that were to prepare her for the road ahead.
“I think it stems from playing out in the desert -- being able to kick and catch and mark balls and using both hands and feet (became) kind of an easy fit for goalkeeping,” said Williams.
“I was always good with hand/eye co-ordination and I think because I had to choose between basketball and soccer -- I was too small for basketball -- and I just didn’t find the same passion in it as I did with soccer. (But) I grew up in WA where it wasn’t big, so it took until I moved over to Canberra to get a real passion for it.”
When the family moved east, Williams invested in that passion and found her destiny was with the gloves on – and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Coming from a small country town to Canberra where it’s a lot more competitive and it’s more positional based, it was just lucky that I ended up doing really well when I was first in the (goalkeeping) role and then ended up loving it and have just been there ever since,” said Williams.
The 28 year old believes she still has more to achieve and that her teammates have a lot to do with that belief.
“For me, it’s about making a change in the game, whether it is for myself or for the team for the future. We’re all fighting for the same thing and I think that’s really exciting and to see over the next few years where that’s going to take us,” she said.
“If you’d asked me a few years ago I probably would have started thinking about retirement or what’s going to be happening next, but I think with the current crop of players, it’s really motivating to stay on as long as possible.”
“So I guess I’m not too old yet,” she declared with a laugh.
Impressing the press
2015 was a watershed year for women’s sport in Australia and the Matildas were at the forefront of that breakthrough.
The team performed beyond external expectations, although perhaps not their own expectations, making it to the quarter-finals in the 2015 FIFA World Cup in Canada.
The media went nuts, along with all Australian sporting fans and the foundations were laid for a major move in the way women’s sport was viewed, supported and resourced.
Williams acknowledges that the players were aware of their rising profile, for both their success and the stance which followed the World Cup with regard to pay and conditions, but worked hard to keep it all in perspective.
“I think when it first hit the media mainstream we were really focussing on being there for each other; making sure we were all on the same page. All of us were in regular contact every day. If the girls were in a competition, if they were training, if they were having a break -- it was more about making sure we were (all) okay; and then from there, I think we saw how it trickled down to different countries, different sports, different organisations,” she said.
Williams has been excited to see that the Matildas’ efforts last year, both on the field and off, have made a difference to the sporting landscape.
“Not only in Australia but worldwide, I think the times are changing and I think it’s pretty exciting to see where it’s going.”
Team culture plays an important part in sport – especially at the elite level – and Williams believes that all the hard work done in preparation for their World Cup campaign and the continuing success on the back of that has created strong bonds within the team.
“I think that’s really helped us to understand each other both on and off the field. But, being a big squad we (also) understand that people need time alone, people need space and they need to talk. (So) I think we all have a good understanding of each other and we’re not afraid to come to someone and have a chat or just go for a walk and be left alone for an hour or so.”
“I think it’s a very honest environment and I think it’s working well for us,” she said.
She has played with and against many of these women since their days in the Young Matildas and through the development years of the W-League. She places a big emphasis on valuing them as friends and not just as teammates and is looking forward to what the future holds for them all.
Williams’ father sadly passed away before she donned the green and gold but she retains a strong connection to her family and is very conscious of her indigenous heritage and the legacy both she and teammate Kyah Simon are forging.
“A lot of organisations and indigenous people have reached out to both me and Kyah, and it’s been really humbling to know that we’re making a difference,” she said.
Life is busy as a professional footballer, playing the northern season in the USA for Houston, then back here for the W-League, with training camps and practice matches ahead of the Olympics thrown into the middle of all that.
But following Rio, there is a lull in the Matildas schedule and this is where careful planning and player management will come into effect for Football Australia (FFA) if they want to sustain the momentum gained from the Matildas’ recent success.
“After this campaign it’s going to be tough for the next two years with not really any major competitions, so it’ll be interesting to see that rebuilding phase and how we progress from there,” said Williams.
While she is keen to continue with her playing career for now, she knows it will end one day but believes football may still offer some opportunities in the broader scheme of things.
From one keeper to another
Of course it’s always good to have a Plan B and she has never lost her love for animals.
“I have a passion for animals so I got my Zoo Keeping Degree! So possibly I’ll do that after football, but we’ll see what happens.”
Her mother is her biggest fan and while her father is no longer here her mother always tells her how proud he would be of her.
“For me that’s the driving motivation to always do the best I can and always enjoy myself,” said Williams.
While the World Cup was a milestone, the 2016 Olympics is the next big hurdle and is just weeks away.
“Obviously going to the Olympics is going to be one I’ll be ticking off my bucket list. Every athlete dreams to be an Olympian or at a World Cup whatever their sport is. I think to achieve the stuff that we did -- it was really eye opening to see the talent pool and the work ethic of the girls,” said Williams.
“It’s an exciting time to see where we’ve come from and then (look to) what we can achieve. Every camp we have is another stepping stone, discovering more about each other as a team and as people.”