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‘It’s the next level’: Ellie Carpenter has grown up in the spotlight — now she’s basking in it

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Ellie Carpenter is dawdling along a beach somewhere in Dubai.

She’s dressed casually in a white T-shirt that reads “Peace Through Practice” and a pair of comfy green shorts. Her iconic, white-blonde hair hangs loosely behind her shoulders, a pink hair-tie wrapped around her wrist.

She sways gently as she walks, answering fun, light questions about herself for a quick-fire interview: her favourite time of day, three things she can’t live without, what makes her smile.

Asked to describe herself in one word, she says “bubbly” before giggling into the next question.

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This sunny, care-free young woman stands in stark contrast to the Ellie Carpenter football fans often see on the field: a right-back who is uncompromising, fearless and daring beyond her years.

Now Carpenter is on the verge of achieving something no other Australian footballer has done: winning two Champions League finals when her French club, Olympique Lyonnais, take on reigning champions Barcelona on Sunday morning.

Looking at her life from the outside, it’s hard to believe she has only just turned 22.

On the inside, Carpenter can hardly believe it, either.

Trying to figure out how to play football at the highest possible level is one thing, but trying to figure out who you are and how you fit into the world at the same time is quite another.

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“I’ve had to grow up very quickly,” Carpenter told ABC from her home in Lyon.

“I didn’t have a normal teenager kind of life. I went straight from leaving school [at 17] and into a national team with girls so much older than me, so I kind of missed that stage in my life: being a kid, being a teenager, doing those kinds of things.

“It has been hard. I’ve been away from home since I was 15. And, thinking now, I just turned 22, and it feels like I’ve been doing this for so long. Sometimes I forget how young I am.

“It’s funny because a lot of people around me at the club here, they still can’t believe my age. So they think I must be mature, which is nice.

It certainly has. For a player so young, Carpenter has already lived a robust footballing life.

Growing up on a farm in the small town of Cowra in central New South Wales, Carpenter played with and against boys until she was 12 before her family relocated to Sydney to find her better opportunities.

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Three years later, while still studying at Westfield Sports High School, she made her professional debut with Western Sydney Wanderers in the 2015-16 W-League season, starting every single game.

Even back then, you could see the raw materials of what Carpenter has been forged and sharpened into now: the natural athleticism, the one-on-one physicality, the desire to gallop forward and help attack, the ferocious dedication in defence. She was the archetypal modern full-back before she knew it.

Ellie Carpenter (left) burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old with Western Sydney Wanderers in the 2015-16 W-League.(Getty Images: Scott Barbour)

It was the spark that got her noticed by then-Matildas coach Alen Stajcic, who handed her a senior national team debut against Vietnam in 2016, becoming the first Australian footballer born in the 2000s to pull on the green-and-gold.

Four months later, at 16 years of age, she became the youngest Australian competitor at the Rio Olympics, as well as the youngest-ever woman footballer to compete at the Games in its history.

She followed up these age-based milestones at club level, too, becoming the youngest player to appear in America’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) when she debuted with Portland Thorns, aged 18, in 2018, as well as their youngest-ever goal-scorer when she netted for them 10 days later.

A stand-out season back in Australia with Melbourne City resulted in one of the biggest moves for an Australian woman footballer when she was signed by seven-times Champions League winners Lyon in 2020.

Matilda Ellie Carpenter
Ellie Carpenter is now playing for Olympique Lyon, who are on the hunt for their eighth Champions League title this weekend against reigning champions Barcelona.(Getty Images: UEFA/Gualter Fatia)

Carpenter’s life has come at her fast. She didn’t get to experience the regular stuff that most of us do as we try to figure out who we are or what we want our lives to look like.

She admits that — even though she had to skip that awkward, stumbling teenaged chapter — she still felt a child-like fear when the big European move beckoned.

“The most scared I’ve been was this move to Lyon,” she said. 

“It’s obviously such a big club. You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how the team is going to be: the language, the culture.

“But the transition into this team and into France is the easiest transition I’ve had to do anywhere. It’s the nicest team I’ve  been part of, the most welcoming team I’ve been in. I was so surprised.

“After a week or so, I could be myself. And I really appreciated that … it’s an environment that makes you thrive and makes the best come out in yourself because you feel comfortable on and off the pitch.”

It helps that she’s not the odd foreigner out: Several of her team-mates — such as Catarina Macario, Christiane Endler, Tokyo gold medallist Kadeisha Buchanan and Ballon D’Or winner Ada Hegerberg — come from elsewhere in the world, too.

They all share a group chat and meet up regularly outside of football, exploring the city that’s famous for its food and its history: They’ve become her second family.

Norwegian footballer Ada Hegerberg won the women's Ballon d'Or award.
At Lyon, Ellie Carpenter plays alongside inaugural women’s Ballon D’Or winner and Norway striker Ada Hegerberg (pictured).(AP: Christophe Ena)

But what glues the team together is arguably its French veterans, anchored by captain Wendie Renard, midfielder Amandine Henry, winger Amel Majri and striker Eugenie Le Sommer.

They’ve formed the foundation of this all-conquering women’s club — the most successful in women’s football — and continue to set the tone and standards for newcomers like Carpenter, who has since become a starter in the side.

“First, coming into the team, I was scared of them,” Carpenter laughs. “But, honestly, they’re so nice. They help you with anything.

“I’ve learned a lot from them, with their experiences. Some of them have won eight Champions Leagues … like, that’s incredible.

“Everyone’s so professional here, some of the most professional I’ve seen.

“Coming from previous clubs and seeing what everyone does here, it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, this is why you guys win everything. This is why you’re so good.’

“It’s the next level here, but it’s nice to be exposed to that, for me to see that so young so I can follow in their footsteps.”

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It’s this environment that has made Carpenter more ready than ever for the biggest game of her career: Sunday morning’s Champions League final against holders Barcelona, who continue to topple records after winning every game of their most recent league while also repeatedly attracting more than 90,000 fans to their home games.

However, the intensity and pressure of Carpenter’s daily life has moulded her into the fierce, mature competitor she always knew she could be, to the point where she is barely even bothered by the occasion now.

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“For me, it’s just another normal game,” she shrugs casually. “I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t really put it up above any other game or think that I’m going to do something different.

“Obviously it’s a bigger stage and a bigger atmosphere, but these are the games we live for and you want to play for.

“I love the pressure. It makes me perform better. It really makes you get the best out of yourself, and that’s one thing that, when I came here, I knew was going to be the hardest thing: to perform when you’re supposed to and not crumble.

“I’ve handled that well — now, it’s just kind of normal.

“It’s going to be an amazing game. Hopefully we can win.”

The bubbly young footballer from Cowra has grown up in the footballing spotlight. Now, Ellie Carpenter is basking in it.

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