Michelle Heyman is back – fitter, stronger and happier than ever – and the Canberra United striker revealed how a year-and-a-half filled with love, loss and soul searching inspired her sensational return.
The 61-cap Westfield Matilda unexpectedly hung up her boots in May 2019, knowing she had to say goodbye to football to focus on her wellbeing, and she encountered more than expected in her time away from the field.
Fast forward to December 30, 2020, the 32-year-old returned to the Westfield W-League in style, scoring a hat-trick in Canberra's season opening 4-3 win against Adelaide United, and added a fourth goal of the campaign in a 2-1 win against defending Premiers, Melbourne City, four days later.
Heyman has fired the Green Machine to second in the ladder ahead of Sunday's Round 5 clash against Melbourne Victory and the two-time Westfield W-League Golden Boot winner, prizes claimed in 2009 and 2012, is cherishing her new lease of life.
“I think allowing that time to settle, and to be still for a while, let me think what is really important to me. It has brought back a second life for myself,” Heyman told w-league.com.au.
“Being an athlete has always been something that I have been so proud to be. To be part of Canberra United is like family to me.
“To be able to be back here because of certain things that have happened within the world, I look at it as such a blessing.”
From feeling unstable to being her best self
A string of nagging injuries cost Heyman the chance to represent Australia at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup in France – but she admits there were more reasons behind her sudden retirement.
“I think that when I made my big retirement, I was literally not in a happy place,” she said.
“I was mentally drained and I felt deflated. I didn’t feel like myself. I was mentally not stable.
“On top of that, I physically wasn’t that fit and strong enough. I was carrying a couple of injuries that just wouldn’t leave me alone.
“With the amount of rehab, the amount of training, the amount of facilities and people you have around you, it still wasn’t getting any better.
“So, I felt the best way out is to just say ‘catch you later’ and ‘thank you for everything you’ve done’ and ‘I’m out’.”
That clean break allowed the Shellharbour girl to spend the second half of 2019 experiencing the world like a professional footballer rarely does, and reconnect with Michelle Heyman: the person.
“I think having the first six months off, it was like - woo! Let’s go, let’s have fun. I went to Canada for a few months, I went to Doha,” she recalled.
“I learned what a weekend was, and went to restaurants, and enjoyed food and enjoyed being present within Australia and being able to travel when I wanted to travel... and not run around a soccer field.”
Then COVID-19 happened. After months of wondering where her journey would lead her next, a spark was reignited when she started coaching football at a local school, Kincoppal-Rose Bay School, in Sydney.
“It was kind of out of the blue but – I missed that team environment,” she said. “I missed being part of something bigger than myself.
“I missed working hard for someone else, and pushing myself to the limits. I found that quite challenging to find outside of a sports team. I still haven’t quite figured that out yet.”
How love and loss guided the way
One shape-shifting moment on Heyman's journey of rediscovery was when she crossed paths with her new partner, who knew nothing about her football career.
Michelle met Christine in Sydney, and the Canadian-born actress and photographer has helped her find a completely different perspective on life.
“She’s just a beautiful, creative human. She’s the complete opposite of me – but the same as well,” explained Michelle.
“She doesn’t like to run as much as me. She wouldn’t even know how to kick a soccer ball. We kind of teach each other things and it’s quite nice to have that support and not be with someone so similar.
“But at the same time, we have the same values in common. I’m just grateful she walked into my life and we both have that same bond for each other. It’s really nice to feel that love. I don’t think I’ve ever been so loved in my life.”
Michelle added: "It was like I stopped playing football and I met the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with, and it was such a nice feeling because I had her true support with everything.
“She kind of laughed because she didn’t know that I was an athlete and she was like ‘I don’t understand your life’.”
Christine has fast become one of Michelle’s biggest supporters, both on and off the field, through the hard times as well as the good.
“Within that year off, it was quite challenging. I lost my dad. She was there, she helped support me through that time,” Michelle said.
“Even me saying to her, ‘I feel like I’m going to go back and play football again’, she was like ‘ok, if that’s what you want to do, let’s go do it’.”
Asked if she would be in the same place now without Christine, Michelle replied: “Maybe not. Maybe I would have met a person that would have wanted a completely different thing, so probably not.”
‘My Dad was my biggest supporter’
Michelle’s late father, David, had always been an inspiration and a driving force in her football career, and her life, and it felt especially poignant when she found herself making her big return to competitive football for National Premier Leagues NSW outfit Sydney University on September 6, 2020 – Father’s Day.
“I remember, I was driving to the game and it was Father’s Day. I was sad and I was like I’m going to listen to his favourite songs so I put on John Fogerty and Creedance and just listened to his type of music,” she said.
“My Dad was my biggest supporter. I got to the field and I was feeling quite nervous and emotional. I was like ‘Alright Michelle, it’s been a long time. Let’s just see what happens.’
“We were playing Football New South Wales Institute and I got on the field and I ran past the young people and I was like ‘oh wow, I’ve still got my speed.’
“And I cracked up laughing because I was unsure where I was at. Second touch, I scored a goal.
“I just jumped straight back into the swing of things and I was like ‘oh, I’ve got this.’ For myself, to be able to see that and feel that in that game, it was a good feeling, a very positive feeling.”
That emotional moment created a new routine for Michelle, which has since become a tradition on every single match day.
“Now I listen to my Dad’s music when I’m going to every single game,” she added. “That’s something I’ve started only this year. I write on my arm ‘dad’.
“I’ve always drawn a smiley face on my hand to remind me that if something doesn’t go right, just look at my hand and it reminds me to smile on the field.
“It’s like having my dad by my side now. Last home game my mum was able to come down and watch because the borders opened.
“It was such a nice feeling to have family and support around me, even if they are ‘there’ and ‘not there’.”
A phone call to Canberra
Heyman had spent eight of the most successful years of her career in the nation’s capital between 2010 and 2018, and when Vicki Linton was appointed in charge of Canberra United for the 2020/21 season, Heyman did not hesitate to call her former Westfield Matildas coach.
“I called Vicki asking for a place back in the team,” Heyman revealed. “She told me I need to go and play so that’s why I signed with Sydney Uni because I wanted to play for her.”
Heyman explained: “She knew what my strengths were so she would allow me to be free and to find my feet again and to have fun.
“For a coach to be able to do that is incredible. She fully supports my ability and she believes in me probably more than I believe in myself.”
After lacing up her boots, Heyman netted four goals in six games for Sydney University and secured her return to the club where she lifted two Premiership and two Championships.
On November 16, 2020, Heyman was unveiled as a Canberra United player – almost 18 months after walking away from a football pitch for, what she believed, would be the last time.
“I’m loving being back,” she said. “I believe in the girls and I believe that, they are young, but they are professionals. They want to earn their stripes and they really want to play for Canberra.”
And deep in the back of her thoughts, Heyman admits a flame still flickers for one more reunion on the international stage with the Westfield Matildas.
“I think my focus right now is to continue being the best footballer I can be right now, here and each day.
“My reward might be that. Definitely, it’s in the back of my mind. Way back there. But I’m focusing on the present moment right now.”
After a decade of being a Westfield Matilda, playing in Denmark and the United States, and pulling on jerseys for four different Westfield W-League clubs, Heyman has found her happy place.
“I’m sprinting faster than what I was when I was a Matilda, I can jump higher, I’m beating all of my records that I’ve ever set through the Matildas,” she added.
“I look at that and I just kind of laugh at it. I find it so positive and rewarding.
“All I ever really needed this whole time was time for my body to heal.
“I am a fitter, faster, happier and wiser player right now.”
Canberra United v Perth Glory
Sunday, January 24 2021
Kick-off: 4.05pm AEDT
Venue: Viking Park
Stream: MyFootball Live App
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