Olympic links: the keeper of the ferns and her diving instructor
In the final countdown to the Tokyo Games, our Olympic Bonds series speaks with Football Ferns No.1 goalkeeper Erin Nayler, who is indebted to her father for teaching her to dive.
It all started when Erin Nayler and her father, Mark, dragged the family’s mattresses out of their beds and onto the back lawn of their home in Whenuapai, on the outskirts of Auckland.
Nayler was 10, an aspiring footballer who had been put in goal for a half-game every week because no one else on her Lynn Avon club team wanted to. You know how the story unfolds.
She decided she wanted to take the goalie seriously. She had bravely broken her wrist while saving a goal.
“I saved him, didn’t I?” she turns around and asks her father, during a rare home visit.
“Yeah, you saved him. And you played the whole game. We didn’t realize he was broken until after. She was a tough little girl.
At the time, she had asked her father – one of her two biggest supporters and her toughest critic – to help her learn to dive without landing awkwardly, so she wouldn’t hurt herself again.
“All the mattresses came out on the grass in the back, and I taught him to dive without fear,” recalls Mark Nayler. “We gradually removed the mattresses until she sank into the grass.”
It worked. Over the next 19 years, Nayler never broke another bone. And her mother, Diane, never complained about the grass-stained mattresses.
It wasn’t just Nayler hopping and scurrying over the bedding in the backyard. They were joined by their brothers, Hayden and Cameron, and they eventually became goalkeepers (their younger sister, Katie, didn’t want one).
“I like to pretend I was the first, don’t I daddy?” Nayler laughs. “I was always trying to dive higher than Hayden. He was also very good at it. It was always very competitive between us.
“We were all tall, so maybe that’s why we all ended up in the goal.” Nayler stands 5’9 ” (1.76m) tall before extending his long levers. “Or maybe we weren’t just very good on the pitch, now that I think about it…”
But none of the boys would reach their sister’s lofty heights. During an international career spanning eight years, she played 71 games for the Football Ferns and served as goalkeeper for professional clubs in the United States, France and England.
Tokyo will be its second Olympics, which kicks off tomorrow night when the Football Ferns face Australia’s Matildas, two days before the opening ceremony.
Her father remembers spotting Nayler’s abilities soon after she joined her brothers’ workouts when she was eight years old.
“The most important thing I recognized with Erin was her very, very quick reflexes, and for a goalie this is a fundamental skill to have. Fortunately, she still has them, ”he says.
“That’s what sets goalies apart – if they react quickly, like a racquet sports player. It is really essential. “
Mark Nayler has never been a goalkeeper himself. He spent his days playing football in defense. He knew enough, however, to teach his daughter the basics – first as a school coach, then as a high school analyst. “I was able to give him constructive criticism,” he says.
“Yes, he’s been good – and bad – sometimes,” says Nayler. “As a child, I always asked him for advice, and he gave me very critical advice. Sometimes I didn’t want to talk to him after the game.
“But most of the time Dad was really helpful. He helped me refine parts of my game at a young age and taught me to really enjoy the game and believe in my goals.
She knows he would always stand behind the goal, cheering her on, if he could be.
While Mark played the role of the diehard parent, his wife Diane (pictured above with their three oldest children) was the sweetest.
She was Nayler’s No.1 fan, cheering on her daughter at the 2015 World Cup in Canada and the 2016 Rio Olympics. She would get up at 3 a.m. with Mark to watch Nayler play in the goals of the French club. FC Girondins de Bordeaux.
But, sadly, Diane passed away in April 2018. Just six weeks before Nayler played for the Football Ferns in a rare home game with Japan in Wellington – a game her mother would have loved to see her play.
“Just so you know, daddy is definitely the difficult parent,” says Nayler. “Mum would be very upset if I went to play abroad; she still wants me to come home. But it was great to have the balance of the two.
Mark Nayler says he’s now trying to be both in Diane’s absence.
“I am who I am, but trying to be who Diane was is not easy. I sometimes had a hard time with that, ”he says. “But it’s just that life isn’t?
For the past four years, Nayler has only been able to make fleeting visits to his home, usually only a few days here and there. Her most recent trip was last month, when she returned to train with the Football Ferns before the team was nominated for Tokyo. It was the first time she had returned to New Zealand in a year.
Nayler keeps in touch with his father regularly through online messaging and video calls. “Thank goodness for the technology,” says Mark.
He tries to keep up with his daughter’s games, even though there wasn’t much to watch this season – she only played one game for the English Women’s Super League club she was with under contract, Reading.
With most of a frustrating season on the bench, she was able to focus on training for these Olympics.
She is now looking for a new professional club team and would like to stay on this side of Ecuador – perhaps playing in the Australian W-League (especially if Wellington Phoenix can put together a women’s team) – at the approach of the 2023 World Cup, co-organized by New Zealand and Australia.
Being so close to home would make the Naylor family happy.
When the Football Ferns open New Zealand’s Olympic campaign, taking on their Australian rivals at Tokyo Stadium on Wednesday night, there will be no family in the stands. There will of course be no one in the stands of these Covid-hit Games.
To be honest, says Mark Nayler, he half-expected these Olympics to be canceled all together.
“But I’ll be up to watch every game early in the morning,” he said. He and Diane went to Japan in 2012 to watch their daughter play her second U20 World Cup.
At 29, she considers herself an “old hand” in the Ferns Football team. “I think as a goalie you can tend to outlast other players a bit,” she said.
Now she conveys all the tips and tricks she’s learned during her career in an eBook she wrote last year, titled The goalkeeper’s manual.
After the Rio Games, where New Zealand claimed their first victory in an Olympic tournament but could not make it through the group stage, Nayler was not really looking forward to the next Games. “You can hurt yourself; anything can happen during this time, ”she said. “But Tokyo was on my radar so it’s a real honor to be part of the Olympic team again, given the year I’ve had with little playing time. I can’t wait.”
She is not disturbed that the Football Ferns are in the “Pool of Death” with Australia, World Cup champions USA and 2016 silver medalists Sweden.
“Any group you get at the Olympics will be tough. And as Kiwis, we are still the underdogs and we rise to the challenge, ”she says.
“It would be great to get some points from Australia in the lead. The United States is a different kettle, and if we could score one point, or maybe even three, that would be amazing. But I believe we can do it.
Mark Nayler is sure he will have the chance to see his daughter play for the Football Ferns up close in the not too distant future.
“I would also like to see her play at the next World Cup. In just two years, eh Erin? I’m sure you’ll be in the mix, ”he says.
“I’m crazy about football [he has a soccer-inspired number plate], so I live vicariously through Erin. She is doing very, very well, and I’m immensely proud of her. Like his mom would be too.
* The Football Ferns’ Olympic opener against Australia kicks off at 11:30 p.m. New Zealand time on Wednesday and will be broadcast live on Sky Sport 8.