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Twelve months after online trolls tried their best to bring her down, Lucy Zelić is back on top

“I had the last laugh!”

By Thomas Mitchell and Cynthia Wang
Sitting alone in a hotel room in Russia in June 2018, Lucy Zelić made a decision. The journalist was staring down the barrel of the most significant challenge in her professional career: hosting SBS's official broadcast of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
So, a few days out, rather than allow herself any digital distraction, she chose to embrace the experience fully by switching off social media. But social media didn't switch off from her.
"My instinct told me it was going to be a bad idea [to pay attention to social media], and I figured I'd rather just enjoy the tournament in real time," Lucy, 32, explains, looking back.
It turns out her instinct was on the money. While much of the focus during the World Cup was on the football, there was a nasty story brewing.
Lucy comes from a proud European background: her family hails from the tiny village of Vrana on Croatia's Dalmatian Coast. Because of her heritage, she makes it her business to pronounce foreign names accurately.
While this should be applauded, online trolls began to target her efforts. Before long, Twitter was awash with criticism. "Insufferable", "annoying" and "painful" were some of the least offensive accusations levelled at Lucy.
However, with her social-media blanket in place, the journalist was shielded from what was going on, until the support started to roll in.
"I opened my phone one day [in Russia] and had all these texts from friends, saying things like, 'Keep your head up,' and, 'Don't listen to the haters!'" Lucy recalls.
"I was so confused. I didn't know what had happened, so I called our publicist back home and she slowly gave me a little context. Then I spoke to my partner, Corey [Gameiro], and family and friends and started to understand."
Lucy faced criticism for pronouncing names correctly during the broadcast (Image: Instagram/@lucyzelic).
Half a world away and with her phone all but silent, for Lucy, ignorance was bliss. But back home in Australia, the abuse was gaining momentum.
"Everyone was concerned [for me], which I understand," she says. "But can I be honest? I hated that – I didn't want people to pity me or feel sorry for me. I didn't want people to cry for me; I wanted to be bigger than that."
A lifelong football fan, the sport runs deep in her DNA. Her older brothers Ivan and Ned both played professionally – Ned captained the Socceroos in the 1990s – Lucy knows the power of a second-half comeback.
So in the face of her detractors, she doubled down, blocked out the noise and helped SBS deliver wonderful coverage of the tournament.
"Once I knew [about the abuse], I was even more determined to ignore it," she says. "I couldn't have anything ruin this experience of a lifetime. Instead, I'd call my sister and ask her to talk me through my niece's day at school – or I'd call Corey and get him to tell me about how training was going [partner Corey is an A-League footballer]."
The tactic ensured Lucy was able to survive the storm relatively unscathed.
Lucy with David Zdrilic and Craig Foster (Image: Instagram/@lucyzelic).
"Lucy is renowned in Australia for experiencing the now infamous tweet storm," her colleague and friend Craig Foster, 50, says.
"But equally, she's even more renowned for the dignity, grace and strength with which she dealt with it. And, in so doing, she's showing all the women of Australia – particularly the young generation, who are experiencing discrimination, bullying and sexual abuse on social media – that you can stand up to it. You don't need to be diminished by it."
During the controversy, Craig went on air and spoke passionately about the importance of Lucy's dedication to getting the names right.
In an emotional clip that quickly went viral, he said, "This is what SBS is about. Respecting every single culture and the way you use the language is the most important way to show respect to someone and their background. If you can't get someone's name right, it shows you have no regard."
Lucy says she had no idea Craig was about to speak out so publicly.
"The day Craig sat alongside me and made that speech, I wasn't expecting it," Lucy recalls. "We hadn't talked about it. But all of this collectively helped galvanise the team; we were already operating on pure passion, so to add something like this to the mix was further inspiration for us to deliver this incredible event to the people of Australia."
WATCH: Craig speaks out against Lucy's critics...
It's little wonder, then, that the SBS broadcast of the 2018 FIFA World Cup won the TV WEEK Logie Award For Most Outstanding Sports Coverage at this year's event.
"It makes me emotional, the pride that bubbled up in me when I heard," Lucy tells TV WEEK following the win. "To bring the World Cup to an Australian audience on free-to-air was the biggest win. And to have that acknowledged by the TV WEEK Logies is an incredible feeling."
Given everything that went into broadcasting the World Cup, the barrage of criticism included, Lucy can walk away with her head held high (and a Logie to boot).
She's under no illusions as to who's on top.
"To be honest, I had the last laugh," she says.
As if the past year hasn't been enough of a rollercoaster, Lucy and Corey became parents in April, welcoming a baby daughter, Mila.
"It feels like Mila was always meant to be, and this has always meant to be for us as a couple, to become a family," Lucy says. "I've dedicated so much to my professional life over the past six years, but now I've reached a level of contentment I've never felt before."
Although Lucy concedes that motherhood hasn't been smooth – the long nights, the feeding, the loss of freedom – she's had lots of preparation.
"Covering European football has given me excellent training, so battling sleep deprivation hasn't been the worst of it!" Lucy says with a laugh.
"Of course, there have been challenging nights, and it's been overwhelming in respects," she adds. "You go from being this independent person who can sleep in, have a long hot shower, do whatever you like, and then suddenly that's all wiped away...but it's so worth it!"
Lucy back with her daughter Mila after accepting her win at the TV WEEK Logie Awards (Image: Instagram/@lucyzelic).
Hearing Lucy gush over her baby, it's clear Mila's arrival has muted the noise of the past 12 months.
"There's a bigger picture now," she says. "How could I give someone online a second thought when I have a child who needs me? When I look at her and realise she's my daughter, it still blows my mind."
While motherhood seems to suit Lucy perfectly, the magnetic pull of the world game is never far away. The bottom line: Lucy Zelić needs SBS, and SBS needs Lucy Zelić.
Craig Foster says, "There's a lot of double talk, and failure to talk, these days, but Lucy has the courage of her convictions. Her passion for football shines through the screen, and our football community loves that."
Fans will be glad to learn that Lucy intends to return to work in the coming months.
"I don't have a specific date set just yet," she explains. "But towards the back end of the year I'll be back on the air. It's important to nourish my soul through work – and I'll be a better mum because of it."
Lucy and Craig at the TV WEEK Logie Awards (Image: Supplied).
There will undoubtedly be some parents who'll raise a judgemental eyebrow at her decision to return to work with a young baby, but you can bet Lucy won't listen. In fact, she'll probably have her phone switched off.
"I'm more focused on teaching Mila the same lessons I learnt from my mother: to work hard; to work for your family with a view that you're working toward a better life," she says.
"So I'm excited to set a positive work example for my baby."
Looks like Lucy will have the last laugh once again.

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