The making of Emily Gielnik

If there was ever a moment that encapsulates the evolution of Emily Gielnik, it was a superb strike against Korea Republic in the 2019 Cup of Nations.

Deep in the match, the 26 year old drifted in from the left wing, sized up the full back, cut inside and rifled a strike at the near post.

It was a strike of a player full of confidence and at the height of her powers.

Gielnik has become a hot topic of conversation for women’s football fans of late, with her newly-commanding presence on the pitch leaving those new to the game wondering where this prolific forward came from.

Her story is one of resilience, grit and determination. One of being knocked down and finding your steel.

Making choices

It was not a forgone conclusion that Gielnik would end up in football. Like many Matildas, Gielnik was a naturally gifted athlete from a young age with a penchant towards competing with the best.

A basketballer to begin with, it was a serendipitous intervention from her mother that led to her finding a ball at her feet.

(Supplied: Emily Gielnik)

“I was one of those kids who could play any sport, I was very competitive and would play basketball and rugby against the boys,” Gielnik said.

“Mum would stress about me getting injured, so as a compromise, I convinced her to let me play football instead and that’s where my journey started.”

Gielnik realised early on that she had a knack for scoring goals – it would be a theme of her career.

“In the early days, I was never about the discipline or the skill of football, I just played for fun and would score from anywhere and everywhere.”

“I actually scored 62 goals the first school season I played and most of them were toe punts because I’d never had a coach to teach me that technique back then.”

Once she received the proper coaching her transition to the beautiful game was seamless. Soon the Queenslander would be impressing those around her, resulting in her selection for U12s State Team.

“When I first started playing in a proper team, I had a world of confidence,” she remembered.

“I was in my prime. I wasn’t the most skilled player, but I had the speed, agility and competitiveness that helped me pick things up really quickly.”

This natural athletic ability would continue to guide her to success.

Taking the long road

Cheryl Salisbury, Diane Alagich, Joey Peters, Heather Garriock – they are some of the luminaries of Australian women’s football.

And in 2007 in Coffs Harbour, they were preparing for what would be a history making FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign in China.

Watching on was a young Emily Gielnik and what she saw on that day changed the trajectory of her life.

“As soon as I saw the Matildas play in Coffs Harbour when I was 14, I knew I wanted to make the team one day,” Gielnik said.

Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Although the decision was made in her young mind, Gielnik’s pathway to elite football was not going to be easy, nor conventional.

She learnt early on, that she was going to have to make the journey her own.

“That year [2007] was really tough for me as I’d had some bad injuries and missed out on selection. So I took a year off, which was really make or break for me.”

“A lot of my friends received invitations from the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) but having that year off combined with some injuries meant I didn’t make it.

“All I wanted was to play in the Young Matildas and the W-League. I saw everyone get ahead of me, which was tough, but it didn’t deter me, it motivated me to find another way.”

While it felt like doors were closing around the young footballer, in another fortuitous moment, a door opened up for Gielnik. And again, it involved the Matildas.

“After I missed out on QAS, I went on a school tour to the Australian Institute of Sport and the Matildas just happened to be training there with Tom Sermanni. My school coach asked if I could join in and I had an absolute blinder,” Gielnik recalled.

“I was 15, totally intimidated and playing against the best female footballers in the country, but Tom called my coach afterwards wanting to get me into the QAS program and that was where I found my way in.”

Mastering the art of resilience

Being a part of the QAS program opened new avenues for Gielnik.

That same year she also achieved another one of her goals by making the Brisbane Roar squad for the inaugural W-League season in 2008.

Coached by Jeff Hopkins, it was a Brisbane Roar team littered with some of the greats of Australian women’s football in Kate McShea and future stars including Clare Polkinghorne, Tameka Butt and Elise Kellond-Knight-Knight.

Again, the progress was tempered by a setback, The 16 year old was sidelined for the entire season after sustaining a stress fracture to her ankle.

Not for the first time in her young career, Gielnik would have to call on her resilience. Gielnik didn’t have time to grieve, as her eyes were firmly set on recovering and proving herself to her teammates and to herself.

“When I first made the Brisbane Roar squad, I was so nervous and more than anything I just wanted to gain the respect of the older players,” she shared.

“It took me a long time to believe I deserved to be there. I was disciplined and just spent the first few seasons earning my spot and spending a lot of time in the grandstands and on the bench.”

Gielnik believes it was a change in mindset that led to her performance improving and earning her moniker, the ‘super sub.’

Matt Roberts/Getty Images

“After years of injury, missing out on squads and spending finals in the grandstands, I finally got my chance in the 2011/12 season.”

“I was subbed on in extra time and in that season scored 12 goals, all while only being on for five or 10 minutes.

“It wasn’t until I started to believe in myself and prove my worth, that everything came together.”

Her form continued and Gielnik ticked another goal off her list, making the Young Matildas squad.

Gielnik with the Young Matildas at AFC U19 Women’s Championships (Photo Credit: FFA)

During her junior national team debut at the AFC U19 Women’s Championships, the then 19-year-old took the Young Matildas from a 3-1 deficit to a 4-3 win, when she scored an incredible hattrick in the second half.

“During that game, I really felt like I hadn’t played a good first half of football,” she said of her first match as a Young Matilda.

“We were down 1-0 and I was panicking. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be subbed off on my debut,’ but then I scored that first goal which gave me so much confidence and I just kept scoring.”

“That game was a real turning point in my career and one of my key memories in the green and gold.”

“For the first time I felt like I belonged and deserved to be in that team. It showed me that even though you may have some bad minutes or a bad half there is always a way to turn it around.”

And turn it around she did, making her debut for the senior Matildas the following year in Japan.

“It was so overwhelming because there were so many girls in that team I had idolised and never truly believed I would be up there with,” Gielnik recounted of her Matildas debut.

“Instead of looking up to them as a fan, I was now competing for their position which was pretty surreal.

“It came to a point where I had to see myself as an equal and understand that I had a job to do in representing my country.

“Instead of thinking about how lucky I was, I had to embrace that this was now my reality.”

The 14 year old who had watched her heroes years before was now playing alongside them in the jersey she dreamed to pull on.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – SEPTEMBER 16: Emily Gielnik of Australia poses with fans after the women’s international match between the Australian Matildas and Brazil at Pepper Stadium on September 16, 2017 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Zak Kaczmarek/Getty Images)

Emily Gielnik’s road to the national team from a 14 year old in the stands to a 20 year old Matildas debutante was the prologue.

The main feature would begin once she reached her dream. It also meant that reality would hit quickly and often as she moved in and out of the national team program.

“My first couple of years in the Matildas, I had some big ups and some really big downs,” she shared.

“I was just very inconsistent. I lost that sense of self-belief and I questioned whether or not I belonged in the team anymore.”

Like many women’s footballers in the Australian system, Gielnik was juggling working and football. Unlike many others, Gielnik had decided go out on her own by creating a small fitness business, Shred Em fitness.

Started in her garage, it quickly grew to become a thriving business that kept the young entrepreneur occupied.

However, the success off the field began to impact Gielnik’s success on it.

“At one stage, Staj (Alen Stajcic) left me out of a tournament against China, which was actually the best thing for me. He had every right to do that because I didn’t believe I was worthy of being there,” she remembered.

“I wasn’t training or performing the way I should’ve been and representing your country is a performance-based privilege.”

“It served as a good chance for me to consider if and how I could come back from that. I was in and out of the squad for a couple of years and was juggling my personal training business, Shred Em, and was just not choosing football, so I had to make a tough decision.”

Gielnik made the call and put her business aspirations on hold to fully commit to football.

“If you want to be at the top level you need to make those changes and really live at the top level, there is no 50/50 you are either all in or all out,” she said.

“So in the end I gave up Shred Em, which I loved, but once I fully committed and just indulged myself into living and breathing the game, that’s when everything changed.

Re-finding focus

Despite her re-commitment to the football, Gielnik found her form just a little too late ahead of the 2015 World Cup.

While there were big changes occurring for the 24 year old off the pitch, there were more subtle but no less career altering changes occurring on the pitch.

At six feet, Emily Gielnik cuts a commanding figure on the football pitch. As a striker, there is the inclination to play her in the traditional centre forward role to utilise her height and strength.

That number 9 role was basis of her early success and selection in the Matildas. The problem with pigeon holing the forward into that traditional mindset is that it didn’t utilise all of Gielnik’s attributes.

As well as her height, Gielnik has always possessed deceptive pace. Running Shred Em Fitness and practicing what she was preaching saw her increase her aerobic capacity and become a more honed athlete. Along with her fitness work, she was also refining her football skills and touch and developing her final ball.

Speed, stamina, dribbling, crossing and goal scoring; Emily Gielnik was no longer a centre forward, she was a now built to be a winger. And out wide she went.

A familiar theme

By the time 2016 Rio Olympic Games qualification came around in February 2016, the 24-year-old was back to feeling like she belonged.

“I really got back into it after the World Cup, I was playing good football. I was happy and Alen brought me back into the squad.”

The Matildas had a barnstorming run to qualify for Rio. They finished the qualifiers undefeated, on top of the standings and, for the first time, the number one ranked team in Asia.

Right in the thick of the action was Emily Gielnik, in her new role out wide.

“We went to the Olympic qualifiers and did really well, it was the first time I’d felt good in a long time. My coach was positive and I was in the best physical condition I’d ever been in.”

What followed next was six months of intense preparation for the chance at realising another lifetime dream – becoming an Olympian.

Scoring goals, playing her best football, with her confidence at an all-time high and her body in peak condition, Gielnik wasn’t prepared for what was to come.

“I had that dreaded meeting where I was told I was the first player on standby for the Rio Olympics and had missed out by one spot,” she remembered.

“That wasn’t just a tournament I was missing out on, the Olympics are so special and so prestigious, every kid dreams of being an Olympian one day, so to miss out was completely devastating.

“That was the biggest emotional toll football has ever taken on me. I was genuinely heartbroken.”

Matildas at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo: Getty Images)

Moving forward, again

After all the sporting adversity, the blow of missing out on the Olympic Games could have been the final straw for Gielnik.

When asked if she considered throwing in the towel she said, “Not for a second.” In fact, it spurred the Queenslander on once again.

“From that point on, I chose to never feel that again. I wanted to be in a position where, ‘No, you’re not coming,’ wasn’t an option anymore.”

The tenacious forward carried on with this mindset and into the 2017 Algarve Cup.

The tournament proved to be another breakthrough moment where she reminded naysayers why she deserved to be in the squad.

Scoring three goals during the Matildas campaign, the 2017 Algarve Cup was a tournament where Gielnik used everything in her arsenal to demonstrate why she is an imposing figure for full backs to contend with.

While an ankle injury ruled Gielnik out of the 2018 Algarve Cup, by the time the AFC Women’s Asian Cup around, the winger was ready for her first major senior international tournament.

Gielnik played in three of Australia’s matches helping the Matildas qualify for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Victorious mentality

The months following the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup have been Emily Gielnik’s best yet.

Football was again the focus when the 26 year old moved her life from Brisbane to Melbourne to play for the Melbourne Victory.

It also saw a reunion with Jeff Hopkins, her first senior coach at Brisbane Roar. The result was a stellar season with her four goals and two assists helping her new side transform from two-time wooden spoon winners, to 2018/19 W-League Premiers.

Kelly Defina/Getty Images

It’s clear that although her athletic abilities are considerable, Emily Gielnik’s path to a Matildas regular is really a story about mindset.

As every inspirational sports instagram quote will tell you, sport is about mentality.

When asked where her upbeat outlook and mental toughness comes from, Gielnik says it was something she needed to learn.

“I was always my harshest critic and put so much pressure and expectation on myself,” she said.

“I had to learn to take a step back and just enjoy the game without worrying what others think about me or how I should play.”

“The shift came when I just got back to doing what’s natural and playing my own game.

“When I got back to the old me, I realised how happy that made me both within and outside of football,” she said.

And her mindset extends to beyond just herself, also wanting the best for her team as a whole.

“I think I am just a positive person, towards myself and towards other players. Even if someone plays over me, I genuinely want them to do well, I want that player to feel so good and I want us to win together.

“As much as I love scoring goals, I love setting others up, so they get the glory.”

The next time Emily Gielnik pulls on the green and gold jersey, there will be an inscription on the inside that reads ‘Never Say Die.’ It is fitting for the poster girl for perseverance.

If Gielnik’s evolution is any indication, her greatest feats are yet to come.

Originally published for Beyond90.com.au

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