This article includes references to mental illness. If you or anyone you know is at risk, always seek help. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636. If it is an emergency call 000.
Kalinda Howarth has always been a happy person by nature.
But after family tragedy struck when she was just eight, her whole world was thrown into disarray.
Howarth’s mother passed away 14 days before Christmas in 2007, leaving her father to support his four kids solo.
He’s an interstate truck driver, which meant he spent days at a time away from his family trying to provide for them.
Howarth was essentially raised by her older sister Bianca (20), Bianca's partner Scott and brother Rhys (17).
“It was quite a difficult time for all of us,” Howarth told SUNS Media.
“We pretty much played sport to try and cheer dad up and make him proud.
“I really looked up to my brother and sister.
“We had a lot of support around us as well - my grandma and poppy live on the Gold Coast so they were taking me and my sister to and from school.
“But it was tough.”
The constant battle:
The entire Howarth family were sport fanatics.
Kalinda’s brother is a talented sportsman who was naturally gifted at whichever sport he decided to pursue.
He moved to Melbourne and started playing AFL, which led Kalinda to want to pursue the sport.
“I was always competitive with him and wanted to be as good as my brother,” she said.
“My mum always wanted me to play contact sport but dad would never let me so it was actually after my mum passed away that I started playing AFL.
“I guess it probably made it more special to be playing it because every time I run out I think of her.
“I always wanted to make her proud.”
She was pretty good at it too.
First giving the sport a go at 12 years old, she was selected in her first representative team the next year after joining her local club Southport Sharks.
Within two years she was selected to represent Queensland and joined the Gold Coast SUNS Academy.
By 2016 she was representing her state in the Under-18 Championships, was selected in the inaugural Women’s Academy and had earnt All Australian honours.
Her footballing ability was never in doubt.
But there was something ominous brewing under the surface.
She was dealing with mental illness without even properly realising it.
“I have been battling with it pretty much since my mum passed away,” Howarth said.
“It was always there but it was always irrational.
“If you look back and reflect on what it ended up to be it definitely started back then after my mum passed away.”
Kalinda was in a dark place, but to the outside world everything looked fine.
She was working in her “dream job” at the Gold Coast SUNS where she’d just been involved in the club’s bid for an AFLW license and was weeks away from being drafted by the Brisbane Lions.
But there was pain behind her smile.
“I had an amazing year that year and mental health just clouded my vision through that,” she said.
“I guess the best thing was opening up to people about it.”
She realised she had to make a change, so quickly sought help from those around her to begin the process of becoming healthy again.
Despite her struggles off the field, Kalinda still found a way to achieve her goal of being drafted.
She joined the Brisbane Lions for the 2017 AFLW season, but wasn’t able to earn a debut and was released after one season at the club.
On reflection, Howarth admits she wasn’t in the right headspace to fully appreciate the position she was in.
“I probably didn’t have the resilience at the time and the mindset to realise what a great opportunity I had,” she said.
“As it came to the end of the season I found myself losing my passion for footy.
“I didn’t really want to play and that was seen in the next year when I took pretty much the year off.
“I just needed time away from footy.”
She was 19 at this stage, and admits she felt lost in life.
Without football to keep her mind occupied, she started to return to old habits and make some poor choices.
Then came a day where she flipped a switch and made the decision to turn her life around.
Taking the advice of a friend, Howarth signed up to The Healthstyle Emporium - an online 16-week health program designed to nourish your mind, body and soul.
“I got involved in that and learnt some key things about myself which I didn’t know,” she said.
“It was all reading, learning and discovering more about myself.
“It was an opportunity for me to reflect and set my goals and look at what I wanted to do with my life.
“If I looked at what I was doing and the people I had around me, I didn’t like what I saw.
“My goal has always been since the start to get to the SUNS and I kind of reflected and thought if I continued on the path I was on, it was pretty definitive that I wouldn’t get there.
“That was a turning point where I sought help around me with the guidance of Fi (Fiona McLarty) and Lakey (David Lake).
“I was always asking how to improve rather than having the mindset of this is who I am.”
She says it was a turning point in her life, but at the time it was a simple decision to make.
“I didn’t like the person I was,” she said.
“I was a frustrated, pretty angry, unhappy person and probably kept all the battles with me and just thought the world was against me.
“It helped to see the light, I’m generally a very happy person so I wanted to be more like that.”
Kalinda’s turnaround has been dramatic and nothing short of inspirational.
She’s stronger, braver and more driven than ever before.
Her maturity to recognise the need for a change, and resilience to actually make that happen speaks volumes about her personal development in the last 12 months.
“If I looked at myself last year compared to now it’s just completely unrecognisable,” she said.
“I’ve always been known to muck around and be cheeky with my teammates and coaches but it was probably always at the wrong place and the wrong time.
“I guess the past couple of years I’ve matured and been able to understand the time for training is to train and it’s all well and good to have a joke but there’s a time and a place.”
She found inspiration in another professional athlete’s achievements, champion UFC fighter Conor McGregor.
“I read Conor McGregor’s book The Notorious and that really helped with my mindset,” she said.
“I watched his movie and then got heavily invested in that.
“He did his ACL before a fight and then still competed and won it.
“It’s unbelievable the mental toughness that he has.
“That sort of kickstarted the mindset thing that I had to learn to develop.”
Another technique Kalinda has used is positive visualisation.
“No one knows this but I’ve got a vision board that I made at home,” she said.
“It’s got different things that I wanted to achieve on it.
“The idea is that if you wake up and look at it every day it will come true and it reminds you to keep working towards it.
“At the top there’s the SUNS and Metricon Stadium.
“On the rest of it there’s a lot of Connor McGregor quotes so I would pretty much wake up every morning and read a different quote that he’s said and it’s a powerful way to start your day.
“I haven’t changed it yet, I still just wake up and smile.”
Year of the SUN:
The Aboriginal meaning of the name Kalinda is ‘a view’, but perhaps more appropriately the Hindi version of the word translates to ‘the Sun’.
After becoming a SUN this year, Howarth will be looking to make an impact with her second chance at a football career.
She holds a love for the club like no other on the AFLW list and will be doing everything in her power to achieve success next season.
“I was speaking to Fi and Lakey and obviously my short term goals are to debut and help drive the standards around the club,” she said.
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone more passionate about the SUNS than myself.
“I think long-term I’d like to captain the SUNS so that’s probably my next thing.
“I don’t know how I’m going to depict that on a vision board but I’ll find a way.”
Howarth’s mental health issues are now in her rear-view mirror, but they’ve also shaped her into the person she is today.
She’s healthier, happier and hungrier.
“I’m very well and truly over it – pretty much since December last year,” she said.
“Something just clicked and it just made me realise that everything means so little in the best way.
“It was a wake up call that I was like ‘wow, I’m literally complaining about nothing.’
“It really brought everything into perspective and now when anything happens and my initial reaction is to get upset and now I just realise it doesn’t actually matter that much.”
She’s begun training for the 2020 AFLW season after the full squad came together for the pre-season in November.
“I’m very excited,” she said.
“I just genuinely can’t believe this has happened, I didn’t think that I’d get another opportunity.
“The goal is to work hard and then earn my spot wherever that may be.
“For such a short period of time we already have an amazing culture and I think that’s led by the men’s group and the staff and the culture that’s already been established.
“We have a broad mix of a lot of different styles and experience so it’s going to be very interesting and exciting to see how we all come together.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis or needs support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636. If it is an emergency, call 000.