Sydney FC star reveals 10 months of hidden illness: ‘I get brain fog… I’m still not 100%’

Rachel Lowe tells KEEPUP’s Tom Smithies about fighting back from sickness, and the toll of reading online criticism

You get the impression that Rachel Lowe isn’t the loudest talker normally, but still her voice tails off appreciably as she starts to describe the effects of the illnesses that have disfigured the last 10 months for the Sydney FC midfielder.

It’s not just the physical toll of post-viral syndrome followed by COVID so bad that it confined her to bed for a fortnight; after effects mean she is still suffering physical and mental fatigue after each game.

But compounding the anguish is reading comments on social media questioning why she is even in the Sydney team, written by those with no idea of the effort it was taking just to play.

In fairness, few people outside her club were aware of the severity of a reaction from her body to the flu that Lowe was warned could last for a year and a half. The fact she has been able to return close enough to fitness to start last weekend’s semifinal is something of a blessing when any involvement this season was questionable.


That maybe explains why she is ready to talk about an exhausting 10 months for an athlete good enough to play state-level cricket in her teens, but who gave it up in part because there was “too much standing around”.

The other silver lining may be the fact she has timed her return to be able to contribute at the apex of the season; in 16 appearances this term she has started only nine, but most have come in recent weeks. Even now, though, each one is not without cost.

“I feel like no-one really knows this, but I’ve had post-viral fatigue, pretty badly,” Lowe says.

“I’m still not 100%. I got sick when I came back from the Matildas (in the middle of last year) and I’ve been really struggling with it. I didn’t even know if I was going to play this season.

“I’ve been struggling for fitness, I guess for the whole season. It’s been difficult and I guess people don’t really know.

“I’ve seen all these articles saying, like, why am I playing, all this kind of stuff. I just kind of ignore that but people don’t know what’s going on.

“Everyone (at the club) just said, get your head down, do what you need to do and don’t worry about what people think.

“But it’s been hard to see people kind of speculating why I’m out of form or something. It’s been frustrating for nearly a year.”

Rachel Lowe’s season has been hugely disrupted by illness.

Part of that was the double whammy of contracting COVID on the eve of the season, setting her recovery back even further. “I saw a specialist, they said it can take six to 18 months,” she said “It’s been getting better and better but I still just get really fatigued after games, I get symptoms like brain fog, all that kind of stuff.

“It’s been going on since I got the flu quite badly and then the specialist said, ‘Look, it can just happen freakishly’. As an elite athlete your immune system is knocked down a lot, and I’d been flying so it was just bad luck really.

“But (just as) I was feeling ok, I got COVID I think two weeks before the season started and I was in bed for two weeks basically.

“So I missed round one and then I just missed a lot of rounds – it’s hard to get back in the team anyway, and Ante (Juric) is very understanding but he’s also quite superstitious.

“He’s not going to change the team if things are going well. At the same time, I haven’t been ready to play 90 minutes for a while. So I’m just trying to just slowly ease my way back into it.”

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Which is an ironic choice of words, for Lowe has not until now been one to ease into anything. As well as the state cricket she was in the Young Matildas aged 14, made her W-League debut before turning 16 and pulled on a Matildas jersey aged 17 after just 17 games of professional football.

Her cause was championed by her coach at the Football NSW Institute, one Craig Foster, who had opened Lowe’s eyes to a very particular style of play.

“He was awesome, one of my favourite coaches,” she says of the former Socceroo who has since become a prominent activist for human rights and social justice.

“I’ve had a few good coaches but he was just tactically something that I’d never really had before. A lot of the girls in this (Sydney) team were with me in that team and we just did so much on possession.

“He really drilled in lots of technique, a bit like Pep Guardiola with the tiki-taka style. I loved playing under him. He wasn’t really intense, he was really nice and always really encouraging. Like, I never saw him very angry.

Craig Foster was one of Rachel Lowe’s most influential coaches.

“He was very calm and spoke about soccer methodically, not irrational at all. We’ve kept in contact a bit, he’s always been a supporter of mine and I would take his advice any day.”

Another proponent was Gary van Egmond, now head coach of the Newcastle Jets women’s team but then Young Matildas head coach and assistant with the national team. That’s why, days after getting her P-plates in 2017, Lowe’s phone rang in the car but sensibly she ignored it – only finding out later after arriving at training that the caller was then Matildas head coach Alen Stajcic, calling her up to the national team before she had even played NPL first grade.

 “I think I’ve always had high ambitions, I wanted that to come – but I guess it came quite quickly,” she says. “I knew that I wasn’t going to get a lot of game time, it was more just learning.

“It was definitely a big step up considering I hadn’t played NPL first grade.”

In the end, Lowe did get a few minutes off the bench, another of a series of formative experiences for someone still very young. That included the sporting scholarship she won at UCLA, moving to America to play at such a prestigious university. In the end, thanks largely to COVID but also the disruption of continual Young Matildas call-ups, she returned to Australia after a year.

Rachel Lowe at Matildas training in Portugal in 2018.

“t was quite, like, chaotic,” she says with a smile. “So I didn’t really get a lot of time to settle. I did miss a lot of the season (through international call-ups) but looking back I realise how good the players I was playing with were. 

“I was probably disappointed I didn’t play more, but like Jessie Fleming was in my position, she now plays for Chelsea and Canada, Ashley Sanchez plays with the US national team. I could rattle off 10 names that are playing a really high level. It was a great learning experience.

“But the US was struggling with COVID, it was a bit all over the shop. People think the US and Australia are quite similar (culturally) but I feel like it’s quite different.

“I’m quite an introverted person really, and a lot of Americans are… quite loud. It was right in LA, just off Sunset Boulevard, very much in the thick of it.

“I’ve spoken to girls who went to colleges in different states and it sounds very different, much more suburban and leafy green. LA was very kind of intense… I don’t think I researched it enough!”

The experience definitely hasn’t diminished her desire to play overseas again, but first there are other priorities – Sunday’s Grand Final, for one, and also her health.

“I’ve been pretty lucky with my career so far not to have any like major injuries and always been selected for things,” she says.

“So it’s been difficult to get knocked back a bit but I just want to kind of reset next season, put my best foot forward and hopefully go overseas in Europe.

“But for now I’m focusing on getting myself healthy first.”