She’s played more than 60 times for the Matildas. Her goals knocked out Brazil in the 2015 World Cup and saw Australia crowned champions of Asia in 2010. Now, Kyah Simon has her sights set on gold as she prepares to lead the line at the 2016 Olympic Games.
“I have to pinch myself every time I think about the fact I will be an Olympian, representing Australia at the pinnacle of sport in the world. I want to win a gold medal with the team, that's my number 1 goal. If I play to my potential and execute my individual responsibilities, then I will be happy with the contribution,” she says.
Australia’s qualification is particularly meaningful as the Matildas didn’t make the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 games. Simon says the team has shrugged off those disappointments and is performing at a level she’s not previously seen.
“I believe this Matildas team is more motivated and determined to succeed than ever before. We have obtained a newfound belief and confidence.
“We have come on leaps and bounds on and off the pitch, in terms of team morale, culture and cohesion.”
For Simon, it sees a lifetime dream come to fruition. Like many indigenous athletes, it was a young Aboriginal woman’s 400 metre sprint to victory, just a few miles from home, that planted the Olympic seed when she was just a young girl.
“I witnessed the great Cathy Freeman win gold at the 2000 Olympics from my family lounge room. Now, 17 years down the track, to be competing at that same level for football is a dream, now reality.”
Football wasn’t an obvious choice for the 25-year-old. She comes from a family of die-hard rugby league fans. She grew up in Quakers Hill, a suburb of Western Sydney, with Jamal Idris and, former Wallaby, Kurtley Beale as cousins. But her childhood best friend persuaded Simon to give the round ball game a go when she was just eight. She agreed, but back then her main goal was to simply make sure she was in the same team as him.
From there, the prolific striker quickly fell in love with the game and, despite family allegiances, her parents were happy to see her move away from the contact heavy rugby.
She possesses an abundance of talent, but has faced major challenges at each stage of her career. At 15 she broke her leg just as she was about to win a scholarship to the NSW Institute of Sport. Determined not to give up, she focused on her recovery and made her debut for the Matildas the next year. Then, at 23, a ruptured ACL threatened to end her career. Simon pushed through to continue playing at the very top.
“To compete at this level consistently is as much a mental game as it is physical. It's taken determination, from a young age, knowing where I want to go and what I want to achieve, to being resilient and mentally tough from long term injury setbacks. It sure hasn't been an easy road, but I tell you once you get here everything seems worthwhile. There is no better feeling than knowing how hard you have worked to earn a green and gold Matildas’ jersey. “
The world of football is certainly better for having Simon in it.
Her touch and vision are sublime. Her ability to run in behind defenders as well as some audacious shots on goal has made her one of the most talked about forwards for Australia. She’s been compared with Brazilian legend Romario, led Sydney FC to 2 W-league premierships and a championship as well as enjoying three stints in the US National Women’s Soccer League, playing for the Boston Breakers.
But one of her proudest achievements is as a role model for aspiring Indigenous athletes. She was the first Aboriginal player to score for the national team and says inspiring others is a priority.
“I experienced, firsthand, the impact of having a strong, empowering, Aboriginal sportswoman to look up to in Cathy Freeman. I know the effect it had on me as an 8-year-old girl”, she says.
“If I have the capability to do what Cathy did for me, for Aboriginal girls all over Australia, then I hope I can empower and motivate them, exactly the way I was by Cathy.”
Winning in Brazil won’t be easy. Australia has drawn a tough group, with round robin games against Canada, Zimbabwe and, world number two, Germany.
But Simon says difficult games come with the territory.
“I’m expecting it to be a competitive Games all round, every opponent is vying for a medal so no matter who we face, it will be tough.”
She’s confident Australia’s performance will win over more fans.
“We displayed glimpses of our potential in Japan and I still believe we have more to show the world, what better stage than an Olympic Games.”
The women’s football tournament at the Rio Olympic Games runs from August 3rd to August 20th. The Matildas kick off their campaign against Canada in Sao Paolo at 4am AEST Thursday, 4th August.