STEPH Catley describes it as a dark cloud looming incessantly overhead.
The separation, the distance, the not knowing and the helplessness: these were the feelings weighing down on the Commonwealth Bank Matildas defender for months as her best friend, Rebekah Stott, battled with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on the other side of the world.
And then the cloud cleared - on the very day the two friends should have been lacing up to face one another in an Olympic bout between Australia and New Zealand at Tokyo 2020.
Instead, as she sat having a coffee on the morning of that game in the Olympic Village, Catley took a call she will never forget.
“Stotty’s name popped up on my phone, and the connection in the (Olympic) Village wasn’t the best so it was a little bit hard to hear at times,” Catley tells this website.
“I found a good spot, I walked down the middle of this long road, where all the flags line up. She told me that her scan had come back clear.
“I remember feeling this wave wash over me of pure relief and joy. I just felt 100 times lighter within a split-second. I was ready to sprint, run around and basically fly because I felt so light and happy.
Nothing else was important in that moment other than her being healthy again.
When you’re not sure someone in your life is completely healthy or not, it just sort of hangs over you. It was nice that the two teams could play at the forefront of our minds knowing she was healthy again.”
Stott met Catley at an Australia U-17 camp more than a decade ago. An eventual New Zealand international, Stott’s friendship with Catley blossomed through playing seven seasons together in Australia split between Melbourne Victory (two) and Melbourne City (five), where the pair won four Championships together. They both left in 2020, with perfect symmetry sharing City’s record number of appearances.
But back in the U17s, Stott was the instantly comforting figure in a daunting environment who quickly became more than a teammate to a teenage Catley.
“I remember her so well, because she had these braids in her hair, and they had beads on the end,” Catley said.
“It was just the most ridiculous hairstyle you can ever imagine. I remember thinking ‘who is this girl?’ And then the second I started talking to her I felt so at ease, almost like I had met my other half. We just clicked straight away.
“It’s stressful going to those camps and not knowing many people. So meeting a new person and feeling so at ease and loving being around her was such a nice experience for me. I knew straight away we were going to be friends.
“I have never met someone so selfless and so genuine in my life, she’s been through a lot which has showed me a completely different side to her.”
IN 2021 Stott headed for England and her new home at FAWSL side Brighton and Hove Albion.
It was a little more than an hour’s drive from London - home to Arsenal, where Catley and fellow Commonwealth Bank Matildas star Lydia Williams had moved.
At the height of the COVID pandemic in the UK, Stott already knew that something was wrong.
“I had a bit of a lump on my neck going to England to start with, and then had tests but they came back inconclusive,” Stott said. “I was just like, ‘Alright, if it gets bigger I’m going to have to go see a doctor again’, and they knew that.
“I was living with Lydia in Melbourne when I went to get my first appointment, so she was in the know from the get-go. When it started to get a bit serious, when I was getting biopsies and they were speculating it could be cancer, they were so supportive and they helped me out a lot.”
The problem was that Stott’s diagnosis had stalled, as COVID-19 overwhelmed England’s health system.
“I was told, ‘We’re pretty sure it’s lymphoma, we’re just not sure what type it is or what stage it is’,” Stott said. “As soon as I heard that I was like, ‘Alright, I’ve got to get back to Australia, I’ve got to get some treatment’.”
The scarcity of flights was a major concern, but a travel agent found her a seat - leaving the very next day. She had 26 hours to pack up her Brighton apartment and bid her new teammates a premature farewell.
Amidst the chaos, Stott conceded she would not be able to bid Catley and Williams a proper farewell.
“I told (Catley and Williams) that. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’ll see you’,” Stott said. “They drove up that night. They said ‘We’re coming to see you’.
“They helped me pack up the apartment, and I left literally that night to go to the airport. They were such a big help.
“Lydia still has some of my stuff, she’s got my pizza oven at her place waiting for me to come back for it. They were incredible, I couldn’t have done it without them.”
For Catley, that was “a no-brainer… we just wanted to be with her and make sure she was okay, give her a big hug. We were standing outside on the footpath saying goodbye, and I just didn’t want to let her go. I wanted to go with her, I didn’t want to have to stay. I just wanted to be by her side through the whole thing.
She did make it slightly easier in the way that she was, and how strong she was holding herself together. Classic Stotty, really.
“That was one of the harder moments in my life, if I’m completely honest.
"As Lydia was driving home I had a few silent cries in the car. I just felt really helpless, and with so much unknown it was hard to know what to do, what to say. I just wanted to jump on the plane with her and go home.
“It felt like that for a long time when she was first properly diagnosed, when she had her first chemo session, when she had her first booking I just felt so far away and so helpless. It was something I carried around with me for a long time.”
Catley’s feeling of helplessness was unwarranted. Stott received her constant messages and calls and felt uplifted, buoyed by the unwavering support throughout her four-month stint of chemotherapy.
“Steph was the main person, my support,” Stott said. “I would call her up any time and she would always check in on me.
“It was quite often, but then I guess sometimes I was feeling pretty sick and I wasn’t talking to anyone. So it just depended on how I was feeling, but she was always there asking how I was doing, calling me up and checking in.”
In July, during Stott’s fourth and final month of an intensive chemotherapy program, athletes from around the world converged in Japan for the Olympics. Stott’s love for the Games made watching on from home another challenge to overcome for the New Zealand international.
Accentuating that was the fact that first up for the Football Ferns was a clash with the Commonwealth Bank Matildas on Wednesday, July 21. Remarkably, though, that date proved to be significant for Stott in a way she hadn’t imagined. In the hours before kick-off she called Catley to explain why.
“(My doctor’s appointment) was in the morning over Zoom,” Stott said. “It was pretty cool to hear the words, ‘You’re in complete remission’.
“I called Steph up straight away, I said I was in remission and she had to walk away from a few of her teammates to give me the time of day. It was pretty special. She was so happy for me.
“I probably shouldn’t have told her before the game, she said it gave her extra energy for the game - so sorry New Zealand! That wasn’t the best idea.”
In truth, the news was celebrated on both sides. “It is quite a crazy coincidence that all of those worlds collided on that one day,” Catley said. “But I think as well it was a nice tribute to her before the game.
“She has so many friends on the Matildas team, she has so many friends on the New Zealand team and for that big moment to happen with her in everybody’s thoughts was really, really nice.”
Now Stott is returning to Melbourne City this season, signing a contract that should allow her to own the appearance record outright.
Stott says she was honoured to share that record with such an “incredible, down to Earth person”. It should come as no surprise that Catley says the same.
“I think there’s a power about football, about the way it brings people together,” Catley said.
“Your teammates often do feel like your family, you spend so much time with them and go through so many highs and lows together. I think that does bring you really close to people.
“She’s one of those people I just love playing in the same team with, I just trust her with my life so on the football field it’s a no-brainer.
“Off the field she’s my ultimate support and the person I love spending time with and have the most fun with.
“I just feel lucky to have played in the same team as her as much as I have; that’s allowed our friendship to stay as close as it is. I’m very grateful for football in that sense.
“When I look back on my friendship with Stotty, we share so much together, things we will have for life.
“Not a lot of people would go through what she’s gone through, come back and want to get straight back into something as hectic as professional football. It just shows her mindset again, her bravery and just wanting to get back to normal life, and back to what she loves doing, and that’s playing football.
To see her get back to this point after what she’s been through, and to do it with such grace and character and bravery, it was the best feeling in the world.”