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Thea Slatyer interview: Matildas favourite the eternal protector – Ex-Australia defender’s astonishing roles behind the limelight

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After what her many supporters may well have considered early retirement from football last year at 29, Australia’s World Cup defender and Olympian Thea Slatyer gives a deeper insight into a life away from her sport that largely belongs on the silver screen.

The current outlook for Australian women’s football is cause for considerable optimism and the national team’s prodigious talents have plenty to thank the class of 2007 for. The Westfield Matildas made history six years ago when they reached the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup for the first time and defender Thea Slatyer was at the heart of it, while leading a life away from the sport to raise more than a few eyebrows.

Many female footballers’ routines are far removed from that of their male counterparts but Thea, who won 51 caps in the green and gold, took her on-field protective instinct further, as the last line of defence as a bodyguard to celebrities. The former Washington Freedom player captained her country but retired from the game in October 2012 at just 29. She has multiple facets to her character and her vastly different but equally intriguing ventures are proving just the tonic now that number 13 shirt has been passed on for good.

In truth, to cite Thea’s security background barely begins to paint the picture of all she has taken on off the pitch, but we have to start somewhere! Her long-time friend and another national team standout, forward Sarah Walsh who has recently retired too, tweeted earlier this year about Thea being assigned to look after a big name – the world-famous racehorse Black Caviar. The 2012 Diamond Jubilee Stakes winner retired undefeated in April and made an impression on Thea, who begins to describe her part in this line of work.

“Yes I did look after Black Caviar for the day before her final race, which was an honour and she was the most delightful client ever! One of my jobs is riding horses for the Australian Turf Club’s mounted security team and at the time of Black Caviar’s final race in Sydney I was asked to look after her for the day as she needed around-the-clock protection and surveillance before the race.
“I immediately jumped at the chance and was fortunate enough to meet the champion racehorse and spend a day with her.”

It was in 2002 that Thea began to break through into the national team and two years later she had the pride of being an Australian athlete at the Olympic Games in Athens. In the tournament, the Matildas reached the quarter-finals after recovering from a group phase defeat to Brazil to beat home side Greece and draw with eventual winners USA. What is a consistent theme with Thea is how her football career ran parallel with notable moments in her other ventures. In the time that followed her gaining Olympian status she was utilising her image back home, but this would be the prelude for a switch in profession that had some glitz to go with the guarding.

“I got into the security industry whilst I was working for a modelling and promotions company in Sydney around 2004/2005. I had done martial arts for years growing up so it felt like a natural transition for me.
“I was approached by a security firm wanting to recruit females and I signed up and began working as part of a security detail for actors at red carpet events and some close protection work for celebrities.”

Thea always played with such admirable battling qualities and she could mix it with the best attackers in the game, but she might not have expected to cross paths with a Gladiator. The New Zealander in question resides in Australia and just like Thea is a huge music lover. She explains how football and music were the backdrop to this meeting.

“A memorable job was working for Russell Crowe and his band. I ended up giving him one of my jerseys which he framed and hung in his memorabilia museum in New South Wales.
“A few years later I was working in Sydney and he came up to me on the street to ask how footy was going. I didn’t even recognise him at first but I thought that was really cool of him.”

Playing for your nation on the biggest stage is the pinnacle of any footballer’s journey and the World Cup of 2007 provides special memories for Thea. Also a winner of the 2010 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in which she pulled on the captain’s armband on a couple of occasions, the ex-Sydney FC defender had a little more than playing the offside trap to keep track of at one time!

“I got my firearms license and from there I went on to do covert asset protection. This involved transporting millions of dollars’ worth of high-end diamonds and jewellery to movie and photo shoots.
“We would hop in a bulletproof SUV and speed off to a studio and present the impressive collection of fine jewellery to the client. The first job I worked on I carried $4 million (AUD) worth of stock, the tricky part was keeping an eye on each and every piece and making sure it was all accounted for and returned by the models or actors safe and sound.”

 

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The breathtaking endeavours of Thea’s life have barely been touched upon so far but considering the site’s theme it is apt to bring in music in more detail at this point. In football there are club and international teams who have players that like to take the initiative with the changing room music but for Thea it goes deeper than that. Also a Newcastle Jets and Canberra United player in her 14-year career, she noticed how sport and sound were never far apart for her.

“DJing and music has always been a big part of who I am and in a way has formed a narrative throughout my football career. I would DJ for friends and teammates’ birthdays and weddings then I began working in nightclubs in Sydney.
“The late nights were tough to juggle with having football training the next morning after a gig.”

As someone who had to come back from significant knee injuries but always managed to support those she played alongside throughout her own testing moments, Thea’s levels of resilience and her value to the Matildas were undeniable. Some people can think of music as quite trivial in many ways but those who feel that deep-rooted connection with it know how invaluable it can be at points in your life. This is a notion that Thea, who was offered contracts by both Arsenal (2006) and Liverpool (2012), identifies with perfectly.

“In a way, my taste and love of music developed as did my football career. As I matured as an athlete so did my knowledge and understanding of house music.
“I discovered the underground music scene in Europe and in particular, Berlin. It inspired me to keep mixing and I would record live mixes and use them to listen to as a training tool which helped push my body to its limits.
“Whether it be for enjoyment or for a purpose, music always enhanced life.”

Thea’s passion for house music has worked in tandem with her desire for DJing and she recalls her experience of meeting one of her heroes in this sense – a New York DJ who has built up a reputation as one of the very best over the past few decades.
“The first house album I ever bought was Danny Tenaglia’s ‘Tourism’, a deep tribal classic album. My favourite documentary is titled ‘Maestro’, set in New York City in the 70s and based on the legendary and infamous club called Paradise Garage.

 

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“I was lucky enough to meet the master himself (Tenaglia) at his private warehouse in Queens on New Year’s Eve 2010. On one of the levels he had installed a full-scale nightclub and held a party there that night.
“He had ripped out the original neon Paradise Garage sign and hung it up above the entrance to the dance floor.”

As you would expect with such an intriguing person and considering music helps to make Thea who she is, she does like to cast the net of her listening pleasures further than house. She also describes how it led to another of her pursuits, although ultimately not the one that would give her the foundations she needed.

“House music has always been my genre of choice, although the first album I ever bought was by Silverchair and grunge music was where I initially began in the 90s. An innate love of music from the Rolling Stones, The Doors, Neil Young, (David) Bowie is always playing in the car or at home.
“When I left high school I studied sound engineering at college and soon after I was mixing live sound for bands and events. I realised the industry was so competitive and the money earned did not compensate the late nights, so it became just a hobby instead of a job.”

Thea started playing football at the age of five at kindergarten with the boys there and would not get the chance to join a girls’ team until she was 13. On her way to representing the national side she had trained with the New South Wales team and she can take great pride from knowing that she was one of those who helped to pave the way so that girls in Australia do not have to struggle to find a team like she had to. With the Matildas there were stacks of moments she can always smile at and with the link to her skills in the mix she took me back to the AFC Women’s Asian Cup success in 2010 when North Korea were beaten 5-4 on penalties.

 

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“When I first made the Matildas I had taken on the big responsibility of team DJ and had to make sure the speakers were brought to every international game. I always thought the football girls were the hardest audience to play to!
“Most of the girls love commercial music and it was sometimes hit and miss when I threw on a house track that they didn’t know of. My last live gig was actually in China after we won the 2010 Asian Cup.
“We went out to this dingy little pub on the river in Chengdu. They had some old CD decks set up with a bad set of headphones and random untitled CDs with music from Spice Girls to Daft Punk and Armand van Helden.
“After a few drinks, I hit the decks and an impromptu DJ session took place with the team taking over this pub and dancing the night away in style to some delightfully cheesy music. The last two tracks I stumbled across were Armand van Helden’s ‘U Don’t Know Me’ and Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’ and they blended really well together so both these songs take me back to that moment in time.”

Thea gives a look behind the scenes of how the build-up to one of her early experiences of competing against other nations took on a slightly surreal twist. With talk focusing on singing in front of teammates she also describes how a midfielder and member of the 2010 Asian Cup-winning squad had a very testing challenge to overcome in some substantial company!

“The Brazilians sometimes would chant and put us off before games while waiting in the tunnel. I remember once in the first Youth World Cup in Canada in 2002 we had a sing-off against them as we walked out of the change rooms singing ‘Superstar’.
“The Brazilians countered by yelling and chanting but we just carried on unfazed. I think it helped calm our nerves as young players about to play a World Cup quarter-final.
“I never had to sing solo in front of anyone but Aivi Luik had to get up at a dinner in 2011 with the Socceroos and Matildas. There were three from the men’s team who debuted that tour and their tradition is that they have to get up and sing in front of the whole team a song of their choice.
“It was even more embarrassing that both national teams were in the room. Aivi got up and bravely sung ABBA’s ‘Mamma Mia’, she did well.”

As goalkeeper and a player to serve as captain, Melissa Barbieri has herself been a big reason for the progress of the Matildas and she described Thea as ‘Superwoman’. If you are not yet convinced of this being an accurate tag then maybe this will help. Here is what Thea is currently doing in her career.

“I am working in industrial rope access and metallurgy. Lives depend on it as there is no margin for error when you’re hanging off a structure with a 100-metre drop below you.

 

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“Working in this field guarantees a constant change in setting, whether it be in the middle of the Pilbara desert, working on vessels and oil rigs, scaling the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, even swimming with sharks in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
“A friend put the idea in my head years ago and I thought that it consisted of aspects that were all appealing to me – danger, adventure, physicality. It was a job that I could fit around my football most of all, but 12-14-hour days climbing buildings and structures made a two-hour football session that followed even more gruelling.”

 

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Thea’s playing days are responsible for plenty of stories to tell but life away from the hustle of marking strikers and leading from the back has given its fair share of moments to savour. While she works under pressure and the chances to stop and take in the scene are not too frequent, there is quite a picture that is conjured up with this particular memory.

“Once while working on an oil rig off the coast of Western Australia we had to descend over the edge of the platform down to water level. Masses of marine life inhabited the ocean 35 metres below; fish, dolphins, sharks, turtles, jellyfish and sea snakes.
“At sunrise we would descend down our ropes, with a multi-coloured array of light as a 360-degree horizon backdrop. At one point we were literally up to our arm pits in the Indian Ocean, hammerhead sharks around us and all.”

It feels as if Thea has already lived a life so full of incident and adventure that at least five or six people would be happy sharing out the areas she has covered! While her playing career was going on and in the run-up towards the 2007 World Cup she had a pastime to ensure that it was not just her on-field fortunes that were getting off the ground.

“At the end of 2011 I began working in aerospace doing NDT (non-destructive testing) on aeroplanes and helicopters. Some days we would sit inside a jet engine and test the aircraft for cracks, other times we would take x-ray shots on helicopter frames in hangers around New South Wales.
“This linked in with my love of aeroplanes and flying. I began flying planes when I was 23 but my lessons were intermittent due to touring with the national team.
“I flew myself to a couple of interstate games for the Australian W-League which was fun. Although I haven’t flown for a while, now that I have retired I would like to pick up where I left off.
“I am also a volunteer firefighter for the NSW Rural Fire Brigade. For years I have tried out for the permanent NSW Fire and Rescue position but have never been successful in gaining employment.”

 

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It is simply incredible even beginning to try and appreciate the physical and mental tasks Thea has embarked upon time after time. Her final game for Australia was in July last year and ended in a 3-0 defeat to Japan in Tokyo. These opponents stick in her mind when she paints the picture of one of the toughest balancing acts involving football and other work she had to contend with.

“Working in the mines doing physically strenuous activity all day in 40-degree heat and then backing up with a 10-kilometre run on the treadmill to prepare for an upcoming international against world champions Japan. Not to mention trying to fit in time to study an engineering degree – you get pretty good at time management!”

As the Matildas continue to make steps in this new era with Hesterine de Reus in charge, the legacy that numerous players left in the years before, chiefly under the guidance of Tom Sermanni, will live on. In June 2012, the team were facing rivals New Zealand in Wollongong and protecting an unbeaten record against the Football Ferns that dated back to 1994. Trailing by a goal to nil deep into injury-time at the end of the game, Ellyse Perry’s corner was met by Thea, heading home to keep the proud run intact. It was her third and last goal for the nation she took such happiness in giving her all for each time she wore the badge. 

Sydney-born and someone who grew up in the Greenwich suburb on the North Shore, Thea now lives in the Bondi Beach area. Her life is far from ordinary but is every bit as noteworthy as the manner in which she played the game. Thea’s name is sealed in the history of the Matildas and it was not easy for her to leave the team behind. As we bring the interview to a close, she explains why the time was right to say goodbye and she selects her four best career teammates who would play alongside her in her fantasy 5-a-side team.

“I was thinking of retirement in the last couple of years before I made the decision. I wanted to explore other adventures in life and focus on career and education.
“I felt like I had reached the highest level in the sport, competed at Olympic and World Cup levels, played overseas and I had achieved everything I wanted to. When we didn’t qualify for London 2012 that was really the point when I had to start to let go.
“I couldn’t sustain the physical demands of my job and travelling away with full-time sport any more. If the sport in Australia was different and we were full-time athletes and didn’t need to work to support ourselves I might have continued playing a few more years.
“But ultimately I have other goals outside of football and it was time to make the call, as hard as it was to do. My teammates were disappointed as it is like a close family when you are in the team and you spend more time together than your real family at times, so it was sad.
“Money has never been an incentive, just a bonus at times. The Matildas is a special team because nothing but sport and friendship brought us together.

“My team: keeper – Bubs (Melissa Barbieri), because she is the best communicator on the pitch. She organises her defence with absolute conviction and I’ve been playing in front of her for so long that we instinctively know each other as players.
“Midfielder – Collette McCallum, she is a surgeon with a football in the midfield when it comes to precision and execution. She is one of those genius players.
“Forwards – Sarah Walsh and Julie Murray. Walsh is a gun and you need speed up front, we have also played together since we were teenagers so this familiarity projects onto the pitch.
“Julie Murray – enough said. Julie is one of the all-time greats in international football.
“A master of the game.”

@chris_brookes

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