The ParaMatildas World Cup runner-up speaks to Impetus’ Ben Gilby about the challenges that she faced to adapt after two life-changing strokes, and how she overcame them to record some of the greatest achievements in Australian female Para Football (3/6/22).
Above: Nicole Christodoulou (2) in action for the ParaMatildas against Spain in the World Cup last month. Photo: Marianna Galanopoulos/Football Australia.
“I had two strokes. Before that, I used to play a lot of football for my school and clubs as well as indoor soccer. When I had my stroke, the only thing going through my mind was ‘Would I play again?’Nicole Christodoulou, ParaMatildas World Cup Silver Medallist.
ParaMatildas star Nicole Christodoulou’s path to a World Cup runners-up medal is incredible. Two strokes, needing to learn to use her limbs again, and then redevelop her footballing skills which saw her progress to the highest possible level of the sport.
“I had paralysis on the left side of my body and that left me asking questions that no one had the answers to. After my stroke, my limbs started functioning differently. I was born and raised able-bodied. I was strong, I was fast, and agile. To come back not having any of these, having to go back to the beginning and train myself to move my limbs, it was tough.”
Her love of football never diminished and she was determined to get back into the sport again. “I looked up and found an all-abilities team and I played with them. I remember the first game I played four years ago. I’d run a few strides and my leg would get very heavy and I couldn’t run anymore. I wasn’t as agile and as co-ordinated as I used to be, and that was a very big challenge mentally for me as well as physically.”
Yet despite these significant challenges, Christodoulou wanted to aim high and go as far as she could as a Parafootballer, as she explained.
“I wondered if I would qualify to play in the Paralympics, so I looked up and found the Pararoos (men’s national team). I emailed their coach and he replied asking me if I wanted to attend one of the ‘Come and Try Days’ and I did. That was back in 2018. Now in 2022, I am a ParaMatilda.”
Her path to the national team started in her home state of New South Wales where Christodoulou recorded a landmark achievement.
“There is a New South Wales Paralympic football team, and I was the first female to be invited to train with the males, and ever since then, more females have started to get involved. In 2019, I participated in the National Championships where I represented the ACT (Australian Capital Territory). I even scored a goal!”
Fast forward to this year, and the announcement that Australia would have a ParaMatildas team at last. Nicole outlines how the whole process unfolded.
“So, I received an email saying that there was going to be a national selection camp for the ParaMatildas squad at the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) in Canberra. We had three days there and on the Sunday, the last day, just before we left, the coaches took us out one-by-one and told us whether we were selected and I was the first one to be told that I was selected to go to the World Cup. “I was ecstatic! So ecstatic that I fell off my chair!”
The fortnight in Spain was one that will live in Christodoulou’s memory forever. The sheer pride in what she and her teammates achieved in Spain just leaps off the page.
“The fact that we are the first squad, the first ParaMatildas to represent our country in a World Cup, there are no words to describe how thankful I am that this is happening in my lifetime and that I got to be a part in it. I’ve always said that I want to leave something behind.
Now my name is going to be in the history books, and no one can take that away from me. To have scored a couple of goals in the World Cup – my name is going to be there forever. It’s a dream that many people have but not many get to live.Nicole Christodoulou, ParaMatildas World Cup Silver Medallist.
“On and off the pitch, we worked hard to be the very best players that we can be. We went into the World Cup only having been a team for two months and only having had two camps together and we finished second in the whole world. If we had had more time together before, I think we would have dominated every single other nation in that tournament.”
One of the main challenges of the tournament was the scheduling. The competition was effectively played over a week. Australia played five matches in seven days, which included a spell of three games in successive days. Such a program would be tough for an able-bodied player, but for athletes with physical and neurological disabilities, it was an immensely challenging time.
“It’s been physically and emotionally tough because we put a lot of pressure on our own shoulders to perform to the best that we could for our country. There was lots of training, recovery, and preparing to be the best we could be,” said Christodoulou.
“It was tricky playing on consecutive days, particularly when the weather was starting to get warm because as athletes you need time for your body to rest and recover. When you don’t have that, it exhausts you, physically especially. On top of that, we have physical disabilities, neurological difficulties in our limbs too. We fatigue pretty quickly compared to able-bodied players. Rest for us is just as important as training, so it was tough, but we got through it and came second.”
With the World Cup over, Nicole is not resting on her laurels. If anything she is stepping it up
“I’m training weekly now and I’m going to increase that to also attending a gym and going for runs to make sure I am physically fit for the next tournament. We don’t know when our next games are yet, but I’m preparing myself for when that comes.”
Christodoulou has learned much from her challenges, and ended our conversation with an observation that everyone should take note of.
“What has inspired me is going from being paralysed to be back playing football. I’ve had many therapy sessions, one of them being neuro-psychologists, they have taught us lots of things that go on in our brains. They showed us a video of what happens in the brain when a new neural connection is made and that for me was a moment that made me realise that anything can happen. I might be paralysed, but I can form those new neural connections and that is what kept me going.
“The more we practice something, the better we get at something. When you see a new neural connection in the brain, two lines join up, and the more you practice that new skill, the bigger and stronger the connection gets, which means the better you get at your skill. That was a very big motivator for me.”
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/
Tahlia Blanshard, ParaMatildas World Cup silver medallist: https://impetusfootball.org/2022/05/30/tahlia-blanshard-driven-by-the-dreams/