After the first two of four operations on her knees, hockey player Mariah Williams wondered if she’d ever realise her dream of playing in an Olympic Games.
But the 21-year-old from Parkes in New South Wales has a remarkable ability to bounce back.
Her last knee surgery was just two months ago but she will still be among the Australian Olympians competing in Rio as one of the youngest members of the Hockeyroos.
“I’ve had four knee surgeries under the age of 20,” Williams says. “I haven’t had the best run — but I’m still being selected to go. I’m going, so that’s the good thing.
“I thought after my first two (operations) the Olympics were going to be hard to reach. Then I hurt it again the third time and I came back from that. I played 50 games and then I hurt it again. I just had knee surgery eight weeks ago.”
Now, she says, “my knee is going really good”.
Williams is one of eight Australian athletes with proud Indigenous backgrounds who will carry the hopes of a nation at the Rio games in sports from beach volleyball to women’s soccer.
Half a million people will descend on the South American city for the start of the summer Olympics on August 5 to watch 206 countries compete for nearly 5000 medals in 42 sports during an action-packed 17 days.
Williams and the rest of the Hockeyroos will fly out of Perth, where the team is based, this Saturday, after a final gruelling week of training.
They will fly to Chile, where they will play a pre-Olympics match against China, before travelling on to Rio.
“It’s my first Olympics,” Williams says excitedly. “I knew it was going to be very hard training, but I didn’t think it would be this hard. Mentally it’s also exhausting. You can’t switch off because you know you are only two weeks out of the Olympic Games.
“It’s very tough, but it’s what we love.”
Williams and her team mates are training for two-and-a-half hours a day, having team meetings for a further 90 minutes and then hitting the gym for another 90.
She has already packed her green and gold tracksuit.
In Parkes, the locals will be cheering for her. The children at her former primary school, Middleton, are doing a project on her. And her mother Vicki, father Dallas and sister Maddy will all make the trip to Rio to watch her play.
Williams says she has a little superstitious ritual she keeps up before each game — she can’t step on the hockey field without first having brushed her teeth and had a shower.
She says her love of hockey has kept her going through her past difficulties.
“I always wanted to play for Australia, but when I was little I didn’t realise you could go to an Olympic Games.
“It was six or seven years ago that I had a big goal that I’d go to the Olympics. The passion really drove me from seven years ago. I didn’t want to give up. I kept in there and I kept pushing. Obviously I kept coming back for a reason. This is where I’m meant to be.”
So just who are our Indigenous Olympians?
TALIQUA CLANCY, 24
Clancy is Australia’s first Indigenous beach volleyball Olympian — an amazing fact given that the Queensland sports star grew up a long way from the ocean. Growing up in the town of Kingaroy, 200kms from the coast, Clancy began playing indoor volleyball in high school and later took it onto the beach. She and volleyball partner, dual Olympian Louise Bawden, have become a formidable duo, securing their Olympic spot after finishing at number seven in the world rankings in June. They will compete on Rio’s famous Copacabana Beach, centre court, on the opening day of the volleyball competition, August 6, with their first match against Costa Rica.
BENN HARRADINE, 33
Harradine is hoping to win Australia’s first ever Olympic medal in discus. From the Watjabaluk/Wergia people of the Wimera, he is coached by his father Ken and began competing in discus as a child because a rare liver condition meant he couldn’t play contact sports. Fast forward a couple of decades and he’s now a national record holder (he threw a whopping 68.20 metres in 2013) and is heading into his third Olympics. The celebrated athlete from Newcastle made his debut at the Games in Beijing in 2008 where he finished 31st — an effort he bettered at the London Olympics in 2012 when he made the finals and placed ninth. The men’s discus events in Rio are due to start on August 12.
PATRICK “PATTY” MILLS, 27
Mills was a star of the London Olympics where he led the tournament in points per game (21.2) beating the likes of American giants Lebron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. The 1.83m basketballer began his career in Australia before heading to the US to play in the NBA, where he is currently signed to the San Antonio Spurs on a three-year contract reportedly worth about $12 million. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. In 2014, Spurs coach Gregg Popovic was quoted as saying the young star spent much of 2013 on the bench because “he was a little fat ass” with “too much junk in the trunk” — but that’s history. Mills’ father is a Torres Strait Islander and his mother is from the Ynunga people of South Australia. His uncle Danny Morseu was the first Indigenous player to represent Australia in basketball. The Boomers will play their first game against France in Rio on August 6.
BROOKE PERIS, 23.
Williams’ teammate Peris, the Northern Territory’s 2014 athlete of the Year, will make her Olympic debut at the Games. Born in Darwin, she is the cousin of former Olympic Hockeyroo gold medalist and ex-Australian Senator Nova Peris, the first Indigenous athlete to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Brooke Peris was part of the gold medal winning Hockeyroos team at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. She and retired team mate Jayde Taylor became internet sensations when the Queen famously photobombed one of their selfies. The Hockeyroos will face arch rivals Great Britain on the opening day of the Rio Olympics, August 6. The two teams last met in WA where the Aussies won.
JOHN PORCH, 22
It’s been a big year for Porch who will make his Olympic debut the same year he played his first international match. From Orange in New South Wales, he is one of the newest members in the Australian men’s rugby sevens team. He made his international debut in Wellington just this year, where Australia finished fifth. The Australian rugby sevens first match in Rio will be against the French on August 9.
KYAH SIMON, 25, AND LYDIA WILLIAMS, 28
Goalkeeper Williams divides her time between playing for Australia and for US team Houston Dash, which signed her up earlier this year. Williams was born in the WA town of Katanning and grew up in Kalgoorlie. She moved to Canberra when she was 11, began playing soccer and five years later made her debut for Australia. Fellow Matilda’s team mate, striker Kyah Simon, also plays in the US for the Boston Breakers. She grew up in Sydney’s west and made her international debut at the age of 16. The Matildas will meet Canada in their first match of the games on August 4. It is the first time Australia’s women’s soccer team has qualified for the Olympic Games since 2004.