From playing football barefoot in the red dirt of the Western Australian outback to overcoming the heartbreak of losing her dad, Lydia Williams has come to be known as more than just Australia’s first-string goalkeeper.
*WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains images of deceased persons.
Although her skills on the pitch are up there with the world’s best, it’s her humility, tenacity and resilience that have led to the reluctant role model becoming one of Australia’s greatest inspirations, for both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community alike.
Lydia Grace Yilkari Williams’ story began in the rural town of Katanning, Western Australia.
Her father, Ron, of the Noongar mob, was an Indigenous tribal elder and her mum, Diana, took a sabbatical from a demanding life working on Wall Street, to travel across the Gibson desert as a Christian missionary.
A five-month long romance ensued, with Diana eventually returning to the US, but the pair kept in contact via letters, which is how Ron proposed.
Diana returned to Australia to marry Ron. They spent their honeymoon in a cave and shortly after, Lydia was born.
The family lived in Katanning while she was a toddler, before moving 700 km to Kalgoorlie.
The formative years of Williams’ life were spent in Kalgoorlie but involved a lot of travelling.
She spent her days going to school, hunting and learning how to live off the land, but was also home-schooled by her mum in the back of a converted four-wheel drive and camper trailer.
Her mum and dad continued to travel together as missionaries to the remote towns of the Gibson desert, helping the communities recover from poverty, domestic violence and culture of heavy drinking.
“Once a year, we’d pack up our four-wheel drive and camper trailer and go out bush,” Williams explained.
“Dad ripped up the whole inside of the four-wheel drive and put in a bed and a giant drum of fresh water along with all of our cooking and swag stuff. It was really homely.”
“Mum would collect homework from my school, and in the mornings, we’d do schoolwork together in the back, then once we got to camp or to a community, we’d put out the swag and set up."
Williams spent her childhood as a free spirit, setting up camp wherever the missions took her and making friends along the way.
“We’d bring my dog along and I’d play with the other kids in the community. We’d ride bikes, go yabbying and run around the desert barefoot playing AFL.
“I always felt safe growing up as a kid in the bush, it was home” she recalled.
Williams would spend her days exploring and connecting with the land and in the evening, would go hunting with her dad.
During one of their hunts, the pair came across an orphaned kangaroo joey and rock wallaby, and being a lover of animals, the then four-year-old adopted the two marsupials who she named Chambi and Rocky.
“Both of their mothers were hit by cars,” Williams explained.
“We checked the pouches for joeys, which they had, so we brought them home to take care of them.
“One of the things I was encouraged to do from a young age was learn a bit of responsibility, so it became my job to feed them and take care of them. I even made them pouches for them out of pillowcases.”
Williams’ chance encounter with Chambi and Rocky set the tone for the rest of her childhood, which plays out in her children’s book, SAVED!!!
“Being on my own, I always had to make my own fun,” she shared.
“I didn't really have many friends because I was always traveling, so the animals became my friends.
“I felt really connected to them because they also represented freedom and being one with the land.”
She recalled telling her mum that one day she wanted to become a “doggy doctor,” something which she achieved, in a roundabout way, as she is not only a professional sportswoman, but a qualified zookeeper.
When she was 11, Williams’ family moved from Western Australia to Canberra after her mum got a new job. The move to a big city was a massive adjustment for the shy youngster.
“Not knowing anything and not having friends was really hard and scary,” she said.
“I spoke in an Aboriginal dialect when I was in Kalgoorlie and obviously in Canberra there wasn't really any sort of place for me to do that… and I had to wear shoes,” she laughed.
There was no option to play AFL in Canberra, so instead, Williams took up football. She joined the Tuggeranong Rosellas where goalkeeper was the only position left.
She figured her AFL skills would transfer well to the role, but the competitiveness of the game was something she hadn't experienced before.
“I started playing football in Canberra, but everything was a little bit more competitive, you weren’t just playing for fun like you did back home," she said.
“You had to join a team and get a name for yourself, there was a lot of extra pressure."
But the challenge didn’t deter her. Williams took to the position quite naturally and it wasn’t long before her talent became evident.
She found herself a goalkeeper coach at 13 and started playing in the ACT development team, then at 15 was picked up by National Goalkeeping Coach, Paul Jones.
She was selected for the Young Matildas where she played for four years before making her senior National Team debut at 17.
Her rise to the top may have come as a surprise to the youngster who found herself in goal by chance, but not to her dad.
He would tell anyone and everyone how proud he was of his daughter, until he tragically passed away from cancer before he was able to see Williams make her Matildas debut.
This is my dad. He was born in Albany, Western Australia. Our mob is Noongar. He was raised by his grandparents and many of his family members became part of the stolen generation. When the police came into town my great granpop would hide him so he wouldn’t be taken. ••• ••• My dad passed away when I was 15, he would’ve turned 80 this week. Maybe it’s because of the grief of losing a parent or the way in which they pass, that you only remember the good times and replay the moments of joy. But with what is happening in the world I now remember the times in which there was sadness too. Like when we would walk streets together and racist words were thrown at him by passers by. Or when he had to explain to me about why he would get short changed at shops. Or when the comment “that’s your dad?” would be said to me when he would pick me up. ••• ••• I’m only speaking from my experiences in my family. This time of isolation has allowed me to reconnect to my culture, learn and ask more questions about dad. So to all those deadly mob please keep educating me and increasing my knowledge also🖤💛❤️ ••• Happy Birthday dad
“Whenever he would watch Cathy Freeman or other sporting heroes, dad always said that one day I'd represent Australia.
“At the time, he didn't know when or where or what sport, but he just had this belief in me and I’ve actually only been hearing about it over the last couple of years,” she shared.
“He would never say it to me directly, because he knew I would get embarrassed, but more recently people have been telling me how proud he was of me.
“Without him and my mum, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m so grateful for having such supportive parents because that is what allowed me to achieve things that I never thought I could.”
Ron’s passing was exceptionally hard on Williams who had always looked up to her dad for his big heart, character and outlook on the world.
As part of the stolen generation, Ron dealt with much adversity and even spent part of his life living in a rubbish dump, but despite what he went through, Williams said Ron’s love for people was unfaltering.
Even though the now 32-year-old has played at four World Cups and an Olympic Games, her core remains a true reflection of her upbringing and a glowing representation of her dad’s legacy.
“Dad just loved everyone,” she shared.
“He didn't care what their background or the colour of their skin was, and he didn't care how he was treated. He loved learning about people and encouraging them in some way. That’s just who he was.”
“I remember my mum would always get so angry at him for giving people money when he was meant to buy us dinner or something equally important,” Williams recalled.
“Dad would always say ‘Oh, they needed it more than we do.’ He just had a real generosity about him and that's the one thing I try and take away from what he instilled in me.”
Williams says the lessons her dad taught her play out both on and off the pitch, but they aren’t just relevant to those around her. She says it’s just as important to offer yourself the same generosity.
“Being generous allows room for mistakes and it also means being generous with yourself,” she said.
“You can hold yourself to a high standard but if you make a mistake, it's being generous enough to know that everyone's human. We're all trying, and you can allow yourself to feel or be vulnerable.
“I think that's probably been the biggest thing I've had to learn - that being generous is also being vulnerable in those moments when things go wrong. It’s about knowing that it’s okay and it happens.”
Apart from her parents, Williams says the most influential person of her career has been former Matildas Head Coach, Tom Sermanni.
“Tom was the one who kind of ‘found me’,” she said.
“I was out training at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and he brought me to my first camp. He’s seen me grow and develop over the years and taught me so much.”
Sermanni recounted his first memories of a young Williams, and apart from being gobsmacked by her remarkably long arms, it was her steely concentration and humility that stood out to him.
“My first memory of Lydia would be when I came back into the Matildas’ job at the end of 2004,” Sermanni said.
“Lydia would’ve only been about 16 or 17 but what first stood out to me was that she had these arms that seemed to go on forever.
“She’s not the tallest keeper in the world, so at the time you thought she would miss those balls that got knocked up high, but suddenly these extended arms would come out and catch them.
“She came into the high-performance environment very low-key, she was quiet, but she was sneaky quiet, with a great sense of humour,” he continued.
“What else stood out was that even as a teenager, Lydia never got flustered. If I think back over the eight years that I coached her, I can never remember her getting upset with me, her teammates or herself.
“She always had this calm demeanour that carried out into goal, whether she was playing in a World Cup or five-a-side training, it was always about focusing on the game. It’s a calmness, but one that’s got some steel and concentration about it.
Sermanni said that Williams is one of the most well-liked players he has coached, which he credits to her upbringing.
“Even as a youngster, Lydia was always humble, and she still is now.
“I don’t think you’d be able to go into any team, squad or group of players she has played with and have them say anything negative about her, which I believe has a lot to do with her upbringing.”
Although he no longer coaches Williams, the New Zealand Ferns Head Coach is proud of the wonderful woman the ‘gangly girl’ from the outback has become.
Seeing how Williams dealt with the loss of her father, her transition from barefoot AFL to Australia’s first-string goalkeeper and the way she bounced back from some career-threatening injuries has been inspirational for the coaching veteran to witness.
“I'm just really proud of how she's turned out,” Sermanni shared.
“Lydia has had a really difficult past, losing her dad at a young age and then transitioning from that background and coming into a high-performance environment the way she has, has been inspiring to watch.”
“Her mum has been such a great support and I think Lydia draws strength and character from her.
“You hear all these clichés in the sport like, if you're a nice person, you can't be successful, but Lydia is proof that’s not true.
“She brings all those qualities, humility, kindness, hard work and resilience and has still had so much deserved success.
“I've been lucky enough to see her grow and develop into a young woman who cares and is passionate about people and causes.
“I’m proud of the fantastic things this gangly teenager from the outback has accomplished.”