Meet Elise Kellond-Knight, the midfielder helping drive the Matildas first Olympics campaign in 12 years. By Jack Kerr.


The playmaker: Elise Kellond-Knight, 25, soccer player

This is the first time in 12 years the Matildas have qualified for the Olympics. Which is a very long time. Only one of us, Lisa De Vanna, our captain, has been to an Olympics in the past. The rest of us have failed in previous campaigns. That heartbreak is what drove us this time. We were on a mission and nothing was going to stop us. And on the back of the last World Cup, it’s the first time I’ve felt such drive within the team.

Half of the Matildas are based overseas. Four of us are playing in Europe, and there are six or seven in America. If we had all our players in professional leagues, it would be really, really impressive. Slow steps. Slow steps. Unfortunately, we want to go in leaps and bounds. But as I’ve learnt, it’s just about making those little incremental improvements.  

When you train twice a day, every day, like I do in Germany, it takes your game to a whole new level. I’ve always been a player with good technique, but having the ball at your feet those extra sessions throughout the week turns you into a better footballer in every way possible. You’re better with the ball, better physically, and I’ve noticed that in my game in just the 12 months since moving there.

Back home in Australia, football was really only one part of my life. I was studying, I was working,
I was trying to do everything else. The W-League only goes for 12 games, plus two finals. And then for the rest of the year, you’re looking at playing in a competition for 15-year-old boys. The development pathway is not ideal. In Germany, all I’ve got is football. There’s not much spare time to be doing anything else.

Faster? Stronger? I think if I can be smarter than my opponent, I will be better than them. I’m a playmaker. I’m behind the ball, worrying about organising the girls, not frolicking in front of the goal. Even when we’ve got the ball and are attacking, I’ve got to be thinking defensively, about what we are doing when we lose the ball.

We follow sports science a lot more than the Germans do. In Australia, there’s very strict monitoring, and they’re trying to avoid injuries and make sure players are at their optimal through training loading. In Germany, the philosophy seems to be work as hard as you can until you break. When we play Germany at the Olympics, we’ll be staying in the same hotel, and while we’ll be having breakfast, they’ll be going out for a four-kilometre run. Our physios would tell us to save it for training.

All the Matildas and Socceroos use an app to help the coaches monitor our health and training. Sleeping, psychological status, body soreness, fatigue: it’s all logged, every day. We log every training session we do, so that when we come in to camp, they know how hard they can push us. When you’re travelling around the world, it takes a big toll on your body, and anything they can do to help adjust training a little bit is really beneficial.

I don’t have a goal celebration planned. But I should think of one for that rare occasion when I do score. Our top goalscorer, Sam Kerr, can do a backflip. She can do the spectacular, because she gets to practise these all the time. But for those who don’t score the goals, it’s more just a big team celebration, everyone just jumps on you. I think we should create something, we should be creative, so keep your eyes out for it at the  Olympics.

There are only so many football venues in Rio, and we may not play there unless we reach the final. So that’s some added inspiration. It’s almost like going to the World Cup in a way, because we’ll be playing around the country, not in the centre of the Olympics. Not being able to see other sports is a little bit disappointing, but really, my focus has been on my sport and my discipline. In terms of getting the best outcome, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise to be away from it all.

What the FFA have given us for this Olympic preparation is more than we expected. We’ve had many camps in Australia together. We have the opportunity to live together for four weeks in Brazil before the tournament starts, which I don’t think any other team gets to do. What we have is far more extensive than what the Germans have. It’s fantastic, and we’re really grateful. Now we’ve just got to go and get that medal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "The playmaker".

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Jack Kerr is a dual Australian Sports Commission Media Awards winner who writes about the business of sport.

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