“I don’t think I ever was a teenager,” Australia defender Ellie Carpenter says, relaxed and amused as she does so, almost like she is realising it for the first time all over again. “I kind of skipped that and went from a kid to an adult overnight.”

She sits with one leg crossed and the other bent, foot on the couch in Disney’s “Matildas: The World at Our Feet” documentary series, wearing a yellow t-shirt and a letter ‘E’ charm on her necklace.

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It feels like your friend is telling you a story you already kind of know, and on the surface, many Australian fans familiar with Carpenter can see how she comes to the conclusion that she basically skipped her adolescence.

The kid from Cowra was always playing above her age bracket, debuting for the national team at 15, leaving school not long after, signing for the best club in women’s football at 20.

Her story has become common knowledge but, somewhere along the way, that morphed into her story being mistaken as common — the rule rather than the exception.

At 22 years old, the Matildas star is a player who has been doing extraordinary things her whole career and she’s done them so often that the extraordinariness of them is undersold, glossed over, taken for granted.

It’s a story worth revisiting to appreciate just how far Ellie Carpenter has come.

COWRA. Tidiest town in New South Wales, 2002. Friendliest town in New South Wales, 2006. Population: 12,753.

“Two sets of traffic lights, a couple of roundabouts and one main street. That’s Cowra,” Carpenter explained with a laugh.

It’s about a four-hour drive west of Sydney. Plus another 20 minutes out of town if you’re Carpenter. “So literally the middle of nowhere,” she smiled. “But I loved it.”

Like many Aussie country kids, Carpenter’s childhood was one spent playing outside, participating in any sport that was available, something that was encouraged with two PE teachers for parents.

From little athletics to soccer, Carpenter was impressing from a young age. She could have just as easily been a sprinter, winning medals at a national level in primary school. But football was the sport she wanted to pursue.

Footballers often speak of sacrifices, those made by them and their families so that they can give everything to a career that is inherently finite. Carpenter and her family are no different. She and her family knew from a young age that while Cowra was a great place to grow up, it wasn’t the kind of place that could accommodate a young footballer’s lofty ambitions. Though the family tried.

Trips to Sydney, Canberra, and other regional centres for training, games and tournaments became a regular occurrence, meaning Ellie and her brother, Jeremy, spent as much time in the car as they did on the pitch for years.

Eventually, the family collectively decided a change needed to be made.

“Around 10, 11 they kind of thought we have to move to Sydney like it’s not possible to make it from the country,” Carpenter said.

It was decided that she, Jeremy, and their mum Belinda would make the move to Sydney to give both kids the best opportunities in football.

They would have access to the kinds of facilities, coaches, and training that just aren’t possible in a country town. Her dad would stay behind.

While the move was obviously for a good reason, it was still an enormous change. Belinda quit her job to support the kids. Both Ellie and Jeremy left their school, their friends, their childhood home all in pursuit of a footballing dream.

The Carpenter siblings would both end up at Sydney’s renowned Westfields Sports High. Ellie played for NSW in the national championships and soon enough would get her first taste of national team football, the first indicator that this massive move had been worth it.

ANTE Juric remembers the first time he saw Carpenter. Back in the early 2010s, the current Sydney FC coach was a part of the youth national team setup as head coach of the Mini Matildas — Australia’s under-17s — and was interim coach of the Young Matildas — the under-20s.

At the national championships in Coffs Harbour a barely teenaged Carpenter impressed those watching along, including Juric.

He remembers a kid who was raw but had great physicality What was most impressive for him was that she was a good defender, something you didn’t find too often at that age.

Despite only being 14 at the time, Juric has no qualms about selecting Carpenter for the Mini Matildas and in October 2014, she would make her debut at the AFC U16 Championship qualifiers.

She debuted for the Young Matildas, the under-20s, a month later.

The snowball had begun. With youth national teams now under her belt, the next stop was the W-League. At 15, Western Sydney Wanderers coach Norm Boardman signed the youngster to her first professional contract, impressed with her Young Matildas performances. So impressed in fact, she didn’t even need to trial.

Carpenter had no expectations regarding game time in her first season in the W-League. She would go on to play every minute of every game.

Having impressed in the youth ranks and the W-League, a call up to the senior Matildas came in February 2016.

“I was at school when I saw my name on an email [about squad selection] and I thought, ‘Is this real, have they made a mistake?’,” Carpenter told FIFA in 2016.

On March 2, 2016, in the Olympic qualifiers, Carpenter would make her Matildas debut in a 9-0 victory over Vietnam. She became the first player born in the 2000s to play for either of Australia’s senior national teams. Not long after she quit school in Year 10 to focus on football full-time.

In the four years following that decision, Carpenter ticked off an Olympics, an Asian Cup, and a World Cup. She was routinely a young footballer of the year winner, playing for the Wanderers, Canberra United, and Melbourne City in the W-League.

At 17, she spent the offseason in Norway at Avaldsnes alongside Chloe Logarzo and Emily Gielnik, two of her very best friends in the Matildas, as well as Gema Simon. However, she never took to the pitch as visa restrictions around working as a footballer as a minor meant she wasn’t allowed to play.

At 18, she signed for Portland Thorns, joining the long list of Aussies and Americans who spent the year splitting their time between the W-League and the NWSL. At the time, she was the youngest ever player and goal-scorer in the league.

Carpenter had always been willing to travel for her football, even more so now that it was her full-time job.

This was a player who was always going to go places because she wasn’t going to be told otherwise. If she didn’t make it, it certainly wasn’t going to be because she didn’t do everything in her power to get there.

The next obvious stop was Europe.

Lyon is a long, long way from Cowra. 16,680 kilometres to be exact.

Carpenter carries a little piece of Cowra with her wherever she goes, with the town outline tattooed on her ankle; a permanent reminder of where she’s come from.

“Sometimes when I go through the training, I’m like: ‘Whoa, this is how far I’ve come.'” she said.

Carpenter signed for European powerhouse, Olympique Lyonnais, in 2020, taking a different path from most of her teammates who were scattering across England. By signing Carpenter, Lyon picked up one of the most promising young right-backs in world football. That they wanted to sign the Aussie, to a three-year deal no less, was an incredible indication of how she was viewed globally.

Widely regarded as the best club in women’s football with a trophy cabinet that silences anyone willing to make an argument to the contrary, by signing for Lyon, Carpenter was able to fulfil yet another dream.

“It’s always been a goal of mine to be here at Lyon and be amongst these world class players. It’s known as the best club in the world for women’s football,” she said.

Training is tough. The schedule is hectic. But it’s exactly the kind of environment Carpenter wanted. While she is no stranger to uprooting her life, she had never had to do it on this kind of scale and under these kind of circumstances before.

“I’ve never experienced this before,” Carpenter explained. “Definitely a culture shock, like they hate speaking English. So, for me I was like well I’ll have to learn the language.”

Vision of Carpenter doing postmatch interviews in French with a distinctly Aussie twang did the rounds on social media in her first season at Lyon. Just when fans thought she couldn’t get more impressive, she had dazzled them all again. The French language wasn’t the only thing she would become accustomed to.

“This is my first time living in Europe and I love it. Everything is so close. It’s like an hour flight to somewhere else and I’m like an hour flight and you’re in another country,” she said. “Like what? That’s so crazy to me.

“I’m a country girl at heart. And I can go rough and go camping and not shower for weeks. But since living in Europe, I’m just like nails every week, eyebrows, hair, facials.

“My mum laughs at me. She goes Ellie like how many Louis Vuitton bags do you have now? I’m like, oh, just a couple. It’s me now you know. I love it.”

It’s not all shopping and manicures though. Since moving to Lyon, Carpenter has picked up a Division 1 Feminine title, a Coupe de France, and two Champions League medals.

Carpenter and the Women’s Champions League final have a bit of a strange relationship. The Aussie is a two-time winner of the most prestigious club competition in women’s football.

Her first medal came without her stepping foot onto the pitch; she was an unused substitute as Lyon defeated Wolfsburg 3-1 in 2020. Carpenter, who was 20 at the time, was second-choice right-back to Lucy Bronze, who was set to leave Lyon to join Manchester City.

A Champions League medal is nothing to scoff at. But knowing how hard Carpenter had worked and how competitive she is, there was no doubt that she would want to contribute to Lyon’s next win from the pitch.

After two seasons of cementing herself as the first-choice right-back, Carpenter got her chance to play in a Champions League final in May 2022.

On a warm day in Turin, she walked out with her teammates to take on the emerging powerhouse of women’s football, Barcelona, in a contest that was highly anticipated.

Up against Swedish attacker, Fridolina Rolfo, she and Carpenter jostled for the ball on the left flank. The Australian’s foot planted slightly and her leg jerked subtlety but unnaturally. She buckled and fell to the ground.

The frequency of anterior cruciate ligament ruptures in the women’s game make every fan — regardless of actual occupation — somewhat of an expert at diagnosing a tear.

Australian fans, still barely awake from the 3am kickoff, rubbed their eyes a little harder, hoping it was sleep making them see Carpenter falling onto the floor, clutching the back of her knee.

“Every time I play I put everything out there. I am quite tough. Like I don’t just come off,” Carpenter said.

In the hands of the trainers, Carpenter moved off the pitch to continue being assessed. Unsurprisingly, hopefully, naively, she re-entered the fray.

For Australian fans watching at home, a brief reprieve, a small sigh of relief, a marginal unhunching of the shoulders. To prove she was ok, Carpenter called for a pass. She was in space on her own on the right flank in Lyon’s defensive half.

As she went to change direction, to run forward to meet the ball and burst into the attacking half as she’s done for club and country so many times, she fell in a heap on the ground. It looked as though the rug had been pulled out from under her feet and in an intangible way, it had.

They say when you’ve done your ACL, you know, even if you’ve never done it before. Carpenter’s mind reflects that.

“The first thing I thought of was the World Cup. And then I like counted the months,” Carpenter recalls, the threat of tears in her voice.

The World Cup was 14 and a half months away.

“I think Ellie’s probably one of the only players on the team that’s irreplaceable. Going into a World Cup, it’s the biggest blow to the team that we could have taken,” Sam Kerr admitted.

WHAT Carpenter brings to the Matildas is the byproduct of years of hard work.

“We can’t find a new Carpenter. Everyone knows that it’s just one Ellie Carpenter there,” head coach Tony Gustavsson said in the weeks following her injury.

Kerr describes Carpenter as one of the Matildas’ strengths in defence and going forward. The combination of her speed and her engine mean she can get through a mountain of work in the backline and down the flank. One of the Matildas’ greatest weapons is being able to overload both wings thanks to Carpenter and Steph Catley.

There was never a doubt in any of Carpenter’s teammates’ minds that she was going to do everything she could in her rehab to come back fitter and faster.

“When you’re injured, you have time to work on those finer details and you come back more determined and Ellie’s already a super determined person. So, I have no doubt that she will come back better,” Kerr said.

But Carpenter is so much more to the Matildas than an elite defender and professional.

“We miss her grittiness on the pitch, but we also miss her silliness off the pitch. She’s a character, makes everyone laugh with just who she is,” Kerr added.

The vision of her antics at mealtimes, around camp, on the team bus, and singing the team song in the changerooms throughout the Disney documentary confirm that. Although she is younger than a lot of her teammates, she’s grown up with these women. In year eight of her national team career, she’s become a part of the furniture at such a young age.

Her incredible fitness gave her an indestructible aura, so that neither the Aussie set up nor the Aussie fans thought they would need to contemplate a line up without her. Until they did.

THERE’S no good time to do an ACL. It’s the kind of injury which rubs out whole seasons, testing the mental, physical, and emotional resolve of a player.

“When I fell down on the pitch, I can’t get that image out of my head. I was in a lot of pain and couldn’t really walk,” Carpenter said.

While she didn’t let her inability to walk stop her from celebrating Lyon’s Champions League win — the vision of her hopping across the pitch, crutches aloft or on the backs of her teammates did the rounds on social media — the reality of what had just occurred was about to hit.

After an MRI confirmed the ACL tear, Carpenter was straight into prehab. The ACL rupture was her first major injury. She would undergo surgery for the first time in her career. In her Lyon apartment, partner and teammate Danielle van de Donk was there, ready to explain what to expect as a member of the ACL club herself.

Carpenter on the pitch has always been defined by her fearlessness. Now, hampered by injury, there was a very real and very justified fear in her.

“Mentally this injury, I think it’s going to be the hardest for me. Who knows what’s going to happen? Maybe I’m not the player I was. Maybe, I’m not back for the World Cup,” she said, the genuine worry evident in her voice.

And while any anxieties or fears she had were valid, allowing them to consume her wholly wasn’t something Carpenter was about to do. For every moment of anxiety, there was another of fierce determination, of finding the silver lining. The Champions League final was set to be Carpenter’s last game before a well-deserved break.

“I haven’t had a break since I was 15 so I haven’t had longer than a week off in six years,” Carpenter said pre-final. She would have been among the Matildas players not selected for the June 2022 international window to give them a rest. The ACL tear created that same end by a much more traumatic means.

“Honestly, I think this injury is one of the best things that could have happened. I haven’t really been rested since I started since I was 15,” she said. “I think I needed this break and, I know I’m going to come back stronger and fitter and everything.

“I think I’m going to learn a lot about myself during these months. But I’m confident that I’ll be back. That is one of my main goals. I’ll be back, bigger and better, which is nice.”

Seeing Carpenter switch between fear and confidence, determination and anxiety allowed fans to see that recovery from a major injury isn’t linear and neither is navigating the emotions it produces.

While her teammates continued to prepare for the World Cup, Carpenter was undertaking her own preparations.

She was able to return to Australia to continue her rehab, spending four hours a day in the gym, Monday to Friday. If she wasn’t doing conditioning on the bike, she was in the pool doing swimming conditioning — a part of rehab Carpenter didn’t enjoy.

“My physio is very happy with how I’m progressing and very soon I could run, which I’ll be very happy about so I can get out of the pool,” she said.

Four months post-surgery, Carpenter was able to begin running again. Such a simple act became one of the most meaningful milestones in her rehab.

“When I ran for the first time, I think I got a little bit emotional,” she said. “It’s just really nice to feel like an athlete again.”

When you’ve been a professional athlete since you were 15, getting to feel like yourself again is powerful.

“Thinking long-term, I think I’m definitely on the right track for the World Cup. I don’t want to jinx myself but everything’s going well and I’m really happy with where I’m at.

“I think just not getting ahead of myself and staying patient is going to be the most important thing for me.”

CARPENTER continued to rehab diligently and ticked off all the necessary milestones.

She returned to the pitch for Lyon in the league in February 2023, then returned to the Champions League. All that was left was to don the green and gold once again.

“I don’t think I’ve worked so hard in my life, honestly, through my rehab,” she told the Matildas website upon her recall. “I feel stronger, faster, better than before. I think it was a great time off as well, just working on myself to be better. I feel almost refreshed — I feel like a refreshed Ellie.”

Carpenter returned to the Matildas playing 62 minutes against Scotland and a full 90 against England in the April international window.

For many fans the sight of the blue prewrap headband and blonde ponytail bursting down the wing was a sight for sore eyes. Carpenter said she felt stronger, faster, and better than before and she barely looked like she had missed a beat upon her return. Matildas coach Gustavsson was effusive in his praise for Carpenter the player and Carpenter the person.

“She’s beyond her years when it comes to maturity and professionalism. So now when she’s back, she’s back fitter than she was when she got injured,” Gustavsson told ESPN.

“And then you need to understand when she got injured, she’s fitter than most players that I’ve ever seen. She is just a machine when it comes to professionalism. But the other thing is, she comes back healthy, appreciating the game mentally fresh.

“So, seeing her in training it’s just amazing to have her back and not just as a player, but Ellie is also spreading so much positive energy, and there’s always a lot of energy and laughter with her.”

There is one final item on Carpenter’s rehab checklist that she’ll have to wait a little bit longer to check off; the thing her mind immediately thought of when she went down.

If she can complete the domestic season with Lyon without hiccup, there is no reason why Carpenter won’t be named to her second World Cup squad and continue this incredible story.

BACK on the couch, in her yellow shirt and charm necklace, Carpenter muses out loud.

“When I think back to little 12-year-old me running around the farm, to think where I am now, like, what if I never left Cowra? What would I be doing?” she wonders.

It’s a relatable thought: what would my life have become if I had made this choice instead of that one? What would have happened if Carpenter had been a normal teenager? Does she regret the way things panned out?

“No, definitely no regrets,” Carpenter told ESPN. “I think when I was that young, you just think of the dream and what you want to achieve. And I guess for me, that was all football and not really off the pitch teenager life.

“I don’t regret it at all.”

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Why it’s easy to forget Ellie Carpenter is just 22 years old