The ParaMatildas star, who earned a runners-up medal in the recent World Cup, speaks exclusively to Impetus’ Ben Gilby about her sporting experiences, an incredible fortnight at the World Cup, and the ParaMatildas’ ability to inspire disabled children around the world (30/5/22).
Above: Tahlia Blanshard (3) in action for the ParaMatildas against Japan in the recent World Cup. Photo: Marianna Galanopoulos/Football Australia.
“My biggest inspiration has been thinking about younger me, and all the other children with disabilities across the world. I am excited and driven by the dreams of what we have the power to create – especially the new pathways and opportunities that are being created at every level of sport.”Tahlia Blanshard, ParaMatildas World Cup silver medallist.
Tahlia Blanshard has been playing football for only three and a half years, but in that time she has gone from being an absolute beginner to a World Cup silver medallist.
Whilst football is a relatively new sport to her, she has had great success in other sports, as she explained to me.
“I have been involved in Parasports, mostly swimming, for many years but my footballing journey only began a few years ago. I had been swimming since I was 13. In 2018 I had the opportunity to represent Australia at the Cerebral Palsy (CP) World Games, where I won multiple medals in the pool, and in 2021, I trialled for the Tokyo Paralympics, where I missed the qualifying time in the 50m Butterfly by just 0.10 seconds.
“In December of 2018, a couple of my friends convinced me to attend a football ‘come and try’ day in Sydney. I was really nervous as I knew nothing about football. I didn’t have football boots or shin pads and didn’t know many people there, but they all invited me to play and I had the best time.
“From there, things moved really quickly. I was inspired by the Australian Pararoos (men’s team) players, so wanted to learn how to play, improve my skills and spend more time with my new friends. In the meantime, the dream to make that inaugural ParaMatildas squad only grew.
“I attended every development day, training camp, and gala day I could find in my state, which resulted in me being one of only five girls who were chosen to play with the men’s teams at the CP Football National Championships in 2019. It was at this event that I truly realised how important football was to me, and that I was determined to put in the training to be there on that first women’s team.”
Whilst Blanshard has been on a thrilling upward journey in the game, the difficulties and negativity she faced in the past still linger in her memory.
“I have faced many big challenges in sport. Exclusion and discrimination were prominent challenges through my younger years, and I believe they are major factors in why I only found my way to football at the age of 18.
“I have spent my whole life living in a small rural town on the Central Coast of NSW. This limited my opportunities in sport, and led me to have to travel long distances to pursue CP Football. Some weekends I would travel up to a five-hour round trip just to attend a training session in Sydney. I am so grateful for my parents’ support, as without them I couldn’t have attended any of these programs.”
Despite attending all those training and gala days in pursuit of a place in the inaugural ParaMatildas squad, the New South Wales resident faced a real race against time to make the World Cup.
“Leading into the World Cup, my biggest challenge was recovering after needing multiple major jaw surgeries. I spent much of the eight weeks leading up to the tournament in hospital unable to eat or walk around, rather than being on the field training, and this was really difficult for me both physically and emotionally, as all I wanted to do was make that team, but I knew how important it was for me to be at my peak performance.
I was, unfortunately, unable to attend the selection camp in Canberra as I was recovering from my surgeries. This definitely made me even more nervous as I had no idea what the coaches would decide, or if I would even be recovered in time. When I found out I had made the team, I had only just recently arrived home from hospital. It is definitely not how I imagined my first team selection to go, but it made me more motivated than ever to put in the effort to recover and prepare in the best ways I could.
“Despite everything, I never gave up. As soon as I could get up, I would do whatever I could to train and prepare. There were tears shed as I doubted my chances of making it to Spain, and even more, but out of happiness, once I was on that bus to the airport with the rest of the ParaMatildas team.”
Once her selection was finalised, it began to sink in for Blanshard that she would be following in the footsteps of her Australian football heroes who have represented the nation in the World Cup, as she explains.
“I’ve always loved watching the World Cup. I grew up watching videos of the Socceroos and Matildas, and in more recent years, the Pararoos too, representing Australia at the World Cup. I would be mesmerised watching them standing proud on that field, and would scream loudly at every goal.
“I envisioned myself walking out on that field for months leading up to the World Cup, but the emotions of walking out as part of the starting five in our first ever game, was something greater than I ever imagined. I will admit to tearing up a little bit when I first stepped on the field, but simultaneously you could not wipe the smile off my face. The full meaning of what we achieved in Spain is something I cannot fully describe, and I don’t think we will even know the true impact for many years.”
The buzzword around the ParaMatildas camp relating to the World Cup experience was “surreal”, and this is something Blanshard agrees with. A team who had been only officially announced as existing two months previously were playing their first match together at a World Cup.
“It was an amazing couple of weeks in Spain,” she reflected. “It featured busy days of emotional highs and lows. The environment was both exciting and stressful, but we were all in it together. It was intense making our debut at a World Cup – it is very rare for a team to play their first game together at the highest level in their sport, but that’s why it was so important we were there to support and motivate each other. We needed to make sure everyone was able to relax and have a laugh and not let that stress take over.”
The tournament schedule had rapid turnarounds which meant that the ParaMatildas played their five matches in a spell of just seven days. There were three matches in successive days at one point. Blanshard highlighted the huge impact that took on her and her teammates.
“It was not easy to back up for those games on consecutive days. The nature of my CP means that I fatigue a lot faster than other people may, and my muscles take longer to recover. For me, pool recovery after every game was the most important thing to ensure I was ready to perform my best at the next game.
“I also had to ensure I was getting the correct nutrition and sleep during the tournament, and that I took time to myself to debrief and mentally recover after every game, often involving having some alone time, or talking to my family and partner who were back home in Australia.”
With the huge highs of their World Cup achievements behind her, Blanshard is not resting on her laurels. Instead, she’s ready for her next challenges and determined to become better than ever.
“From here, I’ll continue training, and work even harder to prepare for the potential opportunities to come next year and further in the future. I definitely have many areas to improve my skills before the next tournament, and most importantly, I want to enter the next competition cycle far more confident in my ability to play football. I’ll return to playing with my local team here on the Central Coast, and I will prepare for selections for the 2022 National CP Football Championships.
“While there aren’t any games planned yet for the ParaMatildas, I am hopeful there will be as we prepare for future tournaments.”
The ParaMatildas story has been one that has inspired people of all ages around the world, and Blanshard is more than aware of her role in ensuring that youngsters can see that in this team there is something to aspire to.
“My biggest inspiration has been thinking about younger me, and all the other children with disabilities across the world. I am excited and driven by the dreams of what we have the power to create – especially the new pathways and opportunities that are being created at every level of sport.
“As a young, disabled kid, I didn’t see many people ‘like me’ in media, and especially not in elite football, but I know that from now on, children across the world will be able to watch us, and know that they too can pursue football.”Tahlia Blanshard, ParaMatildas World Cup silver medalist.
This is the latest in Impetus‘ series of interviews with the ParaMatildas. The others in the series can be viewed by clicking on these links:
Kelly Stirton, head coach pre-tournament: https://impetusfootball.org/2022/05/11/kelly-stirton-on-leading-the-paramatildas/
Katelyn Smith, goalkeeper: https://impetusfootball.org/2022/05/13/katelyn-smith-living-the-dream-at-the-world-cup/
Georgia Biekhoff, top scorer and Kelly Stirton pre-Final: https://impetusfootball.org/2022/05/17/paramatildas-head-coach-and-top-scorer-speak/
We will continue the series when we chat to player Nicole Christodoulou on Friday.