To win at the Women’s World Cup, you don’t technically have to play – just ask Sarah Walsh and her new fiancée, Toni Knowlson.
The day before the final between the United States and the Netherlands in Lyon, France, Walsh claimed her own victory.
She shocked Knowlson when she got down on one knee and proposed.
Walsh described the proposal as an ‘Operation’ to GSN, which ‘required help from plenty of good people’.
‘Prior to me heading off to France, Toni and I had briefly discussed engagement and we looked at rings. This was the moment I set the wheels in motion,’ she explained over email.
‘With the help of her jeweler, we had TK believe the rings would take months to make, meanwhile we had them shipped to Lyon.’
Walsh wants to normalize same-sex relationships
Walsh and Knowlson were in France to cheer on the Matildas, Australia’s women’s soccer team. For nearly a decade, Walsh was a Matilda herself. She represented Australia at the 2004 Summer Olympics, the 2006 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, and the 2007 Women’s World Cup before retiring in 2012.
After gaining a platform as an international soccer star, Walsh began to prioritize things in her life differently.
‘Believe it or not, I am actually a very private person and would prefer keep my relationship with Toni close to me, family and friends,’ she said.
‘I have come to realize over the years however, people with platforms and a voice have a responsibility to help normalize same-sex relationships. I now put this before my personal preferences for privacy every day.’
She posted the moment right after the proposal on Twitter. Love, happiness, and shock are evident in the photo.
Knowlson confirmed she was, indeed, shocked. Walking across the bridge, she was daydreaming about lunch, not expecting a proposal.
‘When I looked down and saw the loveheart with my name on it and a marriage proposal, I couldn’t believe she’d managed to pull this off in such a romantic location without me knowing,’ she admitted to GSN.
‘Then as it all unfolded it was quite overwhelming the amount of effort that she’d gone to. Including organizing some of my friends to come up to Lyon from Provence for a couple of days to celebrate with us. It was incredible.’
‘Smitten from the start’
The couple met on a dating app in March 2014.
In Knowlson’s own words, there were four days of ‘awkward flirting (on both sides)’ and then a first date.
Their relationship progressed from there before it took an unexpected detour and they split in 2015.
‘Both of us had some growing to do but we stayed in touch and started to date again last year,’ Knowlson explained, before gushing: ‘There’s always been an intensity in my feelings for Sarah. I think I blurted out that I loved her by about the third week. Our relationship has certainly never been dull.’
Walsh reiterated these sentiments, saying she was ‘smitten from the start’ over Knowlson’s ‘overwhelming intelligence, kind nature and everlasting energy’.
The fight for equality marches on
Australia only recently legalized same-sex marriage. For Knowlson and Walsh, the day brought mixed emotions for them both.
‘I remember catching the lift into work in the morning and feeling like there was this air of judgement,’ Knowlson recalled, explaining she was working in Melbourne on the day, and away from her friends in Sydney.
‘Whatever the upcoming decision, people voiced their opinion about something very personal to me.’
She added she eventually felt relief and solace from the overwhelming vote.
For Walsh, she also felt relief at the outcome, but bothered the process hurt LGBTI people.
‘The plebiscite allowed members of the broader community to have philosophical debate and discussion (on a topic that didn’t personally impact them) about real life issues that impact real life people (particularly young vulnerable people),’ she said.
‘Some of the damage done through this can’t be undone.’
Both are also aware marriage equality isn’t the end of the fight, not for the LGBTI community nor in other areas of life.
In their respective careers, professional sports and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the work isn’t over.
Walsh said equality in soccer is when she can ‘honestly tell a 5-year-old girl she won’t be discriminated against’.
‘She will have the same professional career opportunities,’ Walsh explained. ‘She will be respected and judged purely on her ability to play football, no discussion about her appearance, sexual orientation or colour.’
She added during this year’s Women’s World Cup, people finally admitted and discussed the neglect of women’s soccer.
‘We as a football community have the responsibility to correct the imbalance we have created over time,’ she continued.
‘That young 5-year-old girl shouldn’t face disadvantages simply because of the choices we made in the past. This can only be a great thing for the sport.’
Knowlson added on to Walsh’s comment, saying it’s a similar situation in STEM. She currently works for Amazon Web Services, leading Innovation in Australia and New Zealand.
‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ she pointed out. ‘We need to do more in the crucial ages of 8-12 where kids are becoming more aware of their interests and are in a position to start choosing paths in their education to keep girls in the STEM courses.’
What does the future hold?
Currently, the couple is resting and hasn’t started wedding planning. Knowlson, though, noted they’ve thrown around ‘destination wedding in Mexico’ as an idea.
No matter where or when the wedding happens, Walsh and Knowlson are taking on the future with love and an eagerness to see a better world.
‘I have always been challenged by Toni in the most wonderful way, I am a better person for knowing her and can’t imagine my life without her in it,’ Walsh said. ‘I am a very lucky woman.’
This interview has been edited and condensed.