Cheryl Salisbury is staring out to sea, watching surfers rip down the faces of large waves off the Merewether shore. I follow her stare and comment that it looks terrifying.
She smiles and says, “I’d love to be out there.”
For just about all of her 43 years, Salisbury has not just stared at challenges, she has ridden them to glory. As a giant of Australian women’s football, who represented her country in four world cups and at two Olympics, Salisbury played in some of the world’s biggest arenas. But in sport and life, she’s also learnt how to negotiate playing fields that are not always level.
GROWING up in Lambton, Cheryl Salisbury played with the boys.
“They were a bit more active,” explains Salisbury, as she sips on a thickshake at the Surfhouse cafe. “Mum definitely wasn’t going to let me play rugby league.”
So young Cheryl played football, or soccer. She played with the boys at school, and in a Lambton Jaffas team. In her teenage years, she kept playing with the boys, because she found that more competitive than adult women’s games.
“For me, it was just natural to play with the boys,” she muses. “But to be on the field, I had to keep up. I had to be as fast, as strong, as skilful. I played on the field because I was good enough. No one gave me a break because I was a girl.”
By her late teens, Salisbury was selected in the national women’s team. She played for the Matildas in the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1995. But even then, she couldn’t imagine making a career out of football.
“As a kid, when you start to look at people and want to emulate them, there weren’t any other female footballers,” she recalls.
“The only person who I had any connection with who I wanted to follow was Craig Johnston; local boy playing in Liverpool, Mum watched the soccer on TV and followed Liverpool. That was the only person who I really had to follow in their footsteps, but I was a girl. That pathway wasn’t there.”
Salisbury went to Japan to play for a few seasons, she played for Australia in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, then she was part of the Matildas in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She scored Australia’s first ever women’s football goal at an Olympic Games.
Even as Salisbury talks about being an Olympian - “look, I’m getting goosebumps!” - it is evident that she is one humble person. Walking into the stadium for the opening ceremony, she explains, was not a moment of crowning glory, as exciting as it was; rather, it gave her perspective: “I think in that moment, I realised I was just this small little speck in a small little team, part of something that was so much bigger than anything on the planet.”
After the Olympics, Salisbury was in South Australia. She struggled to find a job and ended up working on the production line in a chicken factory for a couple of weeks.
What’s more, she couldn’t play the game she loved. Salisbury wasn’t allowed to play with the men, or in the state institute of sport’s women’s team because they were in a teenage boys’ competition and she was considered too big to play. Salisbury felt she was being discriminated against and launched an equal opportunity case.
Salisbury had known for years what it was like to be treated differently to male footballers. The men received a profile, conditions and money the women were denied. Before the Olympics, she and her Matilda teammates had decided to do something about it. They posed nude for a calendar.
“It was more about the profile, just to try and get it out there,” she says. “And unfortunately - and it still is - for women, sex sells. Guys don’t have to do things like that.
The calendar became a collector’s item.
“I still have a few actually!,” she laughs. “Maybe I should put one on eBay and see how much I can get for it.”
While the pay and conditions have improved for the women footballers, Salisbury says, the men still have it better.
“If I was still playing, as a two-time Olympian, four World Cups, two FIFA World All-Stars, I’d be getting changed on the bus and not being able to shower after the game, because the boys get priority. Those sort of discrimination problems are still going on. That’s what most people don’t hear or see.
“I think it basically comes down to the presumption that girls will just put up with it. Could you imagine trying to tell an A-League team, ‘No, you can’t go back into the change rooms just yet, the girls are showering’? It’s still a social issue as well, that those expectations are there.”
Back in the early 2000s, Salisbury left behind Adelaide and her frustrations for a couple of years in the United States, where she was “treated like an athlete”.
“That was the first time I ever felt I could make somewhat of a career out of this,” she recalls. “And when you’re talking about earning money, back then it was only the bare basics.”
All the while, Cheryl Salisbury continued representing her country. By the time she retired in 2009, Salisbury was the captain of the Matildas, having played a record 151 times for Australia.
Salisbury was still “having fun” on the field, but she was ready to unstrap the boots.
“I wanted to have a child, so I had something already to look forward to,” Salisbury says.
She is the mother of seven-year-old Nate, and works part-time as a vet nurse.
“I enjoy being a Mum and I enjoy watching Nate grow up,” Salisbury says. “I want to be there after school to ride a bike, go to the skate park, to kick a ball - even if it’s the oval shaped one he wants to kick at the moment. That’s what I want to do.
“I waited nearly 35 years to have a child, and I didn’t want to not be there to watch him grow up.”
Cheryl Salisbury’s partner is Chelle. Being in a same-sex relationship, Salisbury would like to have the choice to marry her partner.
“As long as you’re not hurting anyone, why not? We pay taxes the same as everyone else, we’re treated the same on child support, Centrelink, the same as any other couple; we don’t get any special treatment.”
This week for Salisbury holds a return to her past and a view to the footballing future.
On Tuesday, she will watch the Matildas play against Brazil at McDonald Jones Stadium, knowing that she played a huge part in promoting women’s football in Australia.
“Hopefully people will get their kids out to watch these girls,” she says. “Because unlike when I was a kid, 10-year-old girls now can look at those girls and say, ‘I can travel the world and make a living doing something I love’.”
A couple of days before the match, Salisbury is to be presented with Australian football’s highest honour, the Alex Tobin Medal. She is the first female recipient.
“I think it’s an acknowledgement of changing times,” she says. “While it’s still a massive honour and achievement to be the first female on there, and to have people recognise my contribution to football and the amount of work that I did do … at the same time, it’s like, why did it take so long? Why wasn’t there someone before me up there? There’s been a lot of women who have done a lot of incredible things.
“We were always the curtain raiser to a men’s game. We were never put first. So that’s probably where I come from. To have equality is probably more important than what I’ve done.”
I ask her how she reacts to being called a “legend”.
“I just take that as being ‘old’,” she laughs. “You come down to earth pretty quick when you’ve got a seven-year-old son: ‘Mama, can you just come and play with me’.”