Emily Gielnik is redefining success and herself
The highs and lows of football not only define someone as football, but also as person. Westfield Matildas’ forward Emily Gielnik embodies that notion.
With the world firmly placed on pause during the period of COVID-19, restrictions have shut down the normality of life around the globe.
Being in lockdown with your thoughts to keep you company can be in equal parts challenging and invigorating. For Emily Gielnik, isolation has been a time for reflection and consideration.
“I saw the light; you communicate more and you get to look at life from a different perspective,” she said from her apartment in Munich, Germany.
“I was actually feeling quite fortunate. Even though football is my job, my career, my life and it’s hard to go from doing what you love to not be doing it at all, but watching the news really put things into perspective for me.”
A TIME OF REFLECTION
After returning from the AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifiers, Emily Gielnik and her Bayern Munich teammates soon found themselves returning to their homes as COVID-19 restrictions came into effect in Germany.
For the 28-year-old, the restrictions occurred at a fortuitous time with both her mum and partner on hand to ride out the opening weeks.
“It was nice to have her [Mum] here,” Gielnik said.
“[We were] just sharing some good quality time. There was definitely a lot of laughs and a lot of cooking happening!”
After years of intermittent separation, the time mother and daughter spent together away from reality was a blessing.
“When you go over to their [her parents] house and you see them on the weekend, it’s so rushed and you're not really there. You're replying to people and on social media. I feel like she was here, and I was actually engaging.”
“If we hadn’t been in quarantine, it would have been a lot different if she was here. I was at full time training and I would have only seen her a little bit in the morning and a little bit in the afternoon.”
FATHER & FRIEND
Emily Gielnik admits that her life story is much like her football story; a tale of a late bloomer.
Unlike many of her peers, with basketball and rugby being her first loves, Gielnik didn’t playing football until the age of twelve. Even then, it was after much encouragement on the part of the teenager to coax her parents to let her take to the pitch.
“It took a lot of persuading in terms of my Mum and her letting me play soccer because she thought it's such high injury sport - although I played rugby against boys so I can't comprehend it,” she laughed.
While her Mum may have been apprehensive about those first steps, Gielnik’s Dad was right beside her every step of the way.
“I had that Dad that was always taking me to every sporting event possible,” she remembered fondly.
“He would watch all my basketball games; all my football games and he was without a doubt that man that is running up and down the sidelines of the game and yelling at you to stop watching the play.”
Gielnik credits her father’s patience and support for pushing her to the next level. Criticism, no matter how constructive, can be a difficult to take on as a teenager. Looking back with the time and distance, Gielnik has no doubt his influence shaped her into the player she needed to be in order become a professional player.
“I always wanted to be pro one day,” she said “I didn't grow up with this those skills or that coaching, I just had my Dad,”
“I think he could sense that I wanted to get there so then he was criticising me, maybe at times he was criticising me too tough.”
He just wanted to make me better because maybe he could see that I could make it to the top and he knew I could be good.”
At the age of 15, Gielnik made the Queensland squad for the National Championships at Coffs Harbour but as her friends and teammates made their way into the Queensland Academy of Sport, Gielnik never received a letter.
Opportunities can pop up in the strangest of places and while on a school trip where she visited the Australian Institute of Sport, Gielnik got her chance to train with the Westfield Matildas. Her letter from QAS came shortly after.
That finally put Gielnik on the path she had wanted for so long. A season with the QAS resulted in the striker earning a contract the following year with a star studded Brisbane Roar outfit.
After a successful 2011/12 season with Roar, where she earned the moniker of ‘super sub’, Gielnik finally earned a call up to the Westfield Matildas.
Her first appearance for the Westfield Matildas came in Japan in 2012. While it might have been an ocean away, her father wasn’t far away from her thoughts. These days he is a fixture Westfield Matildas home matches and proudly boasts the number 15.
“He wears that jersey with pride…you can’t miss him!” Gielnik laughed.
“When I’m in the starting line-up whomever is next to me is like ‘oh my god Em, that’s your Dad’.”
“I'm actually playing for two people. Sometimes he lines up a shot and fully kicks like an air swing on the sideline. He's got like that as if he's kicked it. He's a part of the game, like he's a part of us.”
In a scripted Disney production, realising a dream and playing for the Westfield Matildas should have been the beginning of a long and steady stint in the senior national team.
However, in real life, Gielnik’s ride was set to be a rollercoaster instead. That first run with the national team was followed by long periods away, and more frustrating periods of being close but not quite close enough.
2015 saw her omission from the FIFA Women’s World Cup and 2016 resulted in heartbreak after being a part of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games qualification campaign.
Each time, the Queenslander has dusted herself off – although it has not been without some soul searching and exploring different outlets for self fulfillment.
"After I got cut from the Olympics, I started to realise that I’ve got to do something that makes me happy now and I opened the gym [ShredEm Fitness],” she said.
“Everything just went so well, and I had never been so happy so of course my football just skyrocketed.”
“I was like obsessed with helping people. I was obsessed with helping someone from being so miserable and not comfortable at any other gyms and then they came and gave me a shot,” she said.
“I wasn't then putting so much pressure about making the Matildas squad or proving myself that stage I was like I got this gym now I'm just going to play W- League enjoy it and love it.”
Of course I was missing and craving the Matildas, but I stopped putting so much heavy pressure on myself thinking that that's all I wanted. I had the gym and so that created some happiness and some drive for me.”
Eventually the off the field success began to impact Gielnik’s success on it. A breakthrough 2017 Algarve Cup, a brilliant Westfield W-League season with Melbourne Victory in 2018/19 culminated in being named to her first major tournament squads for the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup and FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019.
Finding her confidence and goal scoring touch for the Westfield Matildas saw big clubs around the world begin to take notice of the powerful forward.
After stints in the United States, Japan and Norway, Gielnik joined Frauen Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich.
“I heard from KK and Emily (Van Egmond), and people that have played in Germany, that their regiment was just craziness,” she said.
“For some reason I was longing for that environment.”
Moving halfway across the world with a language barrier was a welcome challenge for Gielnik but the move has also tested her in ways that were unforeseen. It has also precipitated further introspection from a larger than life figure.
Whatever the level of football, success is a personal and intimate topic. It is one that, in her quiet times, she has had to grapple with and redefine to her own satisfaction.
“To put it this way, I don't personally feel like I've accomplished everything I wanted to at this club,” Gielnik said quietly.
“I got to play for this club but in all fairness, I don't feel like I've been successful at this club. I haven't come here and scored a ton of goals.”
“It’s really hard to overcome the feeling of failure and that's how I've actually felt here at Bayern and although I had a massive part of the team and I work hard … I don't feel as part of the success.”
“The physical challenges are what I thought I was getting here, but I'm getting the mental challenge here as a footballer.”
On her own personal football journey, Bayern has proved to be one of the biggest challenges and the most instructive.
Gielnik’s time in Germany over the last year has become her greatest learning experience, demonstrating that perseverance and determination aren’t easily earned traits.
“I could have left on several occasions and I had offers in the transfer window to great clubs, but I thought about it and you know that’s just not me.”
Leaving and giving up and quitting it wasn’t me. I still wanted the opportunity to turn it around and see the light and to make the best of it and that's just like a part of my personality.”
“The success, I will say, is that I came here as a player that the coach wanted. He wanted me because I was that different player but then wanted me to adjust adapt to the German style football and that's not in me.”
“I had to stay true to myself.”
Emily Gielnik is not sure what her next move will be. What is certain that wherever she goes she will once again be better equipped to face it.
After all, they do say good things come to those who are wait – or a late bloomers.