Matildas striker Kyah Simon embarked on her Olympic dream at age nine, watching Cathy Freeman sprint to victory at the 2000 Olympics.
Stadium Australia, Sydney Olympic Park, Monday, September 25, 2000: a starter gun pops and more than 100,000 people jump to their feet, screaming for one young woman who is bolting into Australian sporting history. Just 49.11 seconds later, a half-hour drive west of the stadium in the lounge room of a Quakers Hill home, a switch flicks in the mind of a nine-year-old girl who has been glued to her TV screen watching Cathy Freeman fly. “That was the point at which I knew,” says Kyah Simon. “I wanted to represent our country at the highest level.”
Fast-forward 16 years and Simon is now a 25-year-old striker for the Matildas, the Australian women’s soccer team. Although it has been more than a decade since the Matildas have played at the Olympics – their last outing was the 2004 Athens Games – they’re ready. “It’s a huge moment for the Matildas, a huge moment for Australian football and an opportunity that’s within reach for us,” says Simon, who divides her time between Australia and the United States, where she plays for the Boston Breakers.
Huge moments have hardly been in short supply since Simon joined the Matildas at 16. In 2011, she became the first Indigenous player – Simon is an Anawan woman – to score a World Cup goal for Australia; in fact, she scored two in a match against Norway. Last year, another of her goals sent Brazil home in a knockout round of the World Cup in Canada. “There’s no more satisfying feeling than having a team around you; you’ve done it together,” she says. “The team is at its all-time strongest.”
She’s now looking to foster that sense of camaraderie in the next generation of soccer players via the Kyah Simon Football Clinic, which she launched in Sydney’s Glenwood in March. “I wanted to create an environment where girls could meet other girls, play football and get a taste of what it’s like to be in the Matildas world.”
She’s well aware of the positive effect it can have on kids when there’s someone to show them the way. “I want to be someone who little girls can look up to, and feel inspired and motivated by, like I was through Cathy.”
Do you have any superstitions or pre-match rituals?
I used to but as I’ve gotten older I’ve relaxed a bit. Now there’s physical preparation that I do – like I straighten my hair before every game. It makes me feel sharper, more ready, more switched on. On the way to the game, I like having my Beats headphones on with my pump-up music playing.
What’s on your pump-up playlist right now?
Say Something by Karen Harding; Rihanna’s new album, Anti; More Than a Miracle by Mnek; and Flume’s Say It.
You’re sharing a room in the Olympic Village; what’s the upside?
I share with [midfielder and defender] Alanna Kennedy. The best thing is having someone you can chat to, whether it’s about a training session or being homesick. You’re always on the same schedule so you can tell each other to hurry up and keep each other accountable.
And the downside?
I’m always on Alanna’s back about being messy.
Where do you like to holiday?
After the World Cup in 2011, we did a trip to the Amalfi Coast in Italy. It was beautiful; I would go back again. We also sailed down the Croatian coast on a catamaran. Anywhere near the water is a holiday for me.
What’s your favourite city?
Sydney. Living away from home makes me realise there’s no place like it.
What dish would you break your pre-Games diet for?
I don’t think I would. But after the game, I’d have Indian – butter chicken.
If you could have dinner with any athlete at the Olympics, who would it be?
Neymar [da Silva Santos Jr] – he’s a Brazilian soccer player, a football icon. He’s got a bit of swag about him. He seems like a normal person but at the same time is a ridiculously good football player.
When you’re in Rio and the Games are over, where are you going to celebrate and with whom?
I have to head straight back to Boston to finish the season. But given how close our group is, we’ll be together somewhere – hopefully with medals around our necks!