What an afternoon for soccer in Calgary. The weather was stunning for the friendly match, which saw over 1,200 pack Encana Field at Shouldice Park. It was an absolute pleasure being behind the lens and taking in the match from this perspective. Congrats to Foothills on their 2:1 victory. The club is working toward the goal of bringing back professional ball to this soccer-starved city.
During the winter months, nothing is better than a sunny Saturday afternoon in Calgary at the ski hill. The FIS Freestyle World Cup made one of its only two Canadian stops at Canada Olympic Park with hundreds of fans on hand to get a preview of the athletes before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. There was plenty of Canadian content including 2010 Olympic hero and gold medalist Alexandre Bilodeau, Mikael Kingsbury, Simon Pouliot-Cavanagh, Marc-Antoine Gagnon, Philippe Marquis and Pascal-Olivier Gagne.
Thanks to the great folks at Canada Olympic Park and WinSport Canada for putting on a tremendous, world-class event. The facility continues to attract the best competitors from around the globe.
Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian. Maybe it’s because I love soccer. Because I’m a broadcaster? I guess when I think about it now, it’s all of the above.
I’ve seen a lot of highs and lows in the world of sports, but I have never been so emotionally invested or impacted by a game or series of games as I was by the Canadian Women’s National Soccer Team at London 2012. You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. They turned me into a blubbery mess on more than one occasion.
Rewind to last summer. The team went winless in Germany at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. The results shocked many who thought the squad was ready to take the next step on the world stage.
Now fast forward to January 2012: A new coach and Olympic qualifications on their home turf. The team oozed with a sort of understated confidence. The long ball game they previously employed was gone. Instead, the midfield and forwards were working together with crisp passes and a sense of creativity I had never seen before with this squad.
It was also at this time the chemistry really started to show between forwards Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi. If you listen to the broadcasts of those qualification games, all you hear is “Sinclair finds Tancredi. What a goal!” or “Tancredi with an amazing pass to Sinclair and it’s in the back of the net!” They trusted one another and had little trouble getting the ball to each other. Obviously, the connection was always there, but something was different in Vancouver. They had matured and the whole team had a sense of “we can do this.”
The win against Mexico that sealed their ticket to the Olympics proved they were going places, literally and figuratively. The loud, boisterous, Canadian fans knew it and soon the world would too. London was calling.
The Olympics were the culmination of years of hard work and for some, it marked more than a decade of international play. The 2002 U-19 Women’s World Cup featured a number of players we are seeing in their primes today. Not just Sinclair, but Erin McLeod, Brittany Timko, Candace Chapman, Melanie Booth and Carmelina Moscato. During that tournament, Sinclair potted 10 goals to win the Golden Boot. She also claimed the Golden Ball Award. McLeod was named to the tournament’s all-star team along with Chapman, Sinclair and Moscato. It was obvious the country had a strong generation of female footballers coming through the ranks.
As years went by, they evened out their squad with a number of key players. Tancredi, for example, reminds me of a typical power-forward in hockey. She has no fear. She’s willing to put her body on the line to benefit the team, while having the skill and finesse to leave the opposition confused as to what just hit them. The midfield? Solid. Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott, Diana Matheson, Kaylyn Kyle and Kelly Parker. Don’t forget about a one-two punch in net with veterans McLeod and Karina LeBlanc and a steady, dependable back line with the likes of Moscato, Emily Zurrer, Rhian Wilkinson, Lauren Sesselmann, Chelsea Stewart, Marie-Eve Nault and Robyn Gayle.
There’s no point rehashing what happened in the semi-final between Canada and USA. It’ll be debated for years to come. However, you cannot deny the kind of impact it had on Canadians. It made them care because they saw how much the girls care. Call it Canadian nature or whatever, but people who weren’t even soccer fans were talking about that match. Canadians from B.C. to Nova Scotia were finally understanding how special this team is and how the world’s best player is a soft-spoken, shy girl from Burnaby, who has been carrying the national team on her back for most of her life.
I’ll still never forget how I felt after that semi-final: gutted. It was like someone had ripped out my heart, threw it on the floor and then proceeded to do the Macarena all over it. The ride home on the media bus was one of complete silence. I sat on the top level of that double-decker in the front seat like a zombie. I closed my eyes, leaned my head back and thought about the last 10 years of women’s soccer in Canada and how far it had come. I thought about the dressing room at that very moment and how the veteran players must have been feeling. Years of blood, sweat and tears. The sacrifices made by their parents and other loved ones. You can’t deny the squad left absolutely everything they had on the pitch.
My phone was filling up with text messages and I was getting tweets like crazy that night. Everyone back home wanted to know the same thing: “Why?”. I had no answer for any of them. And that’s when it happened – the “a-ha moment” – a phrase now in the dictionary thanks to Oprah Winfrey. I said to myself, “this is what it is all about.” Sports bring people together. Broadcasters get out the message and that night, they united a country. This story brought together Canada.
As the girls prepared for the bronze medal match against France, I’m sure everyone wondered if they had anything left in the tank. As the half drew to a close, it was obvious the girls were physically and emotional drained. Truly though, can you blame them? The last 48 hours had probably been very surreal to each and every person on that team, from the players to the coaching staff. The reality is that many of these players are in the prime of their careers: Sinclair, Tancredi, McLeod, Moscato. All of them are 28-31 years old and they may want other things in life in the next few years. It must have dawned on them that the same team might not be together when Canada hosts the 2015 Women’s World Cup and that added to the raw emotional magnitude of everything.
Coventry Stadium itself was quiet that day. You could almost hear a pin drop expect for John Herdman: “Come on girls. Let’s move it up!” and most poignantly “Christine, I need to you to take it to another level.” At the 90 minute mark, the stats told the story: 25 shots for France. 3 for Canada. McLeod kept them in the game, despite a scary moment when she went down after punching out a ball. And how about Scott’s goal line save? I won’t forget the slow-motion replay of her keeping the ball out with her right leg and her exhale of relief afterward.
Herdman used up all of his subs and the girls just needed one break. They got it during injury time. When Matheson put that ball in, celebrated and kissed the Canadian crest on her jersey, all of Canada cried. I cried. They had done it. And how about the image of Sinclair on her knees, arms raised, looking to the sky with tears streaming down her face? That’s all you needed to see. Bronze around their necks. Gold in their hearts and in the hearts of all Canadians (The Vancouver Southsiders said it nicely….)
I looked at the people around me when Matheson scored. I was surrounded by international broadcasters with whom I had really connected with over four weeks in London during my freelance stint. They clapped and said “Congratulations Sandra. Congrats Canada.” I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life. It’s like every single Canadian was on the pitch with the girls at that very moment.
What an emotional rollercoaster. Forget the broadcasting though. I’ve been playing soccer for more than half of my life and yet it took what happened in London for me to truly appreciate my teammates. Yes, I now play for a division four women’s team and perhaps it’s not the nicest soccer to watch, but dammit, we are a family. You form a bond with these girls you probably don’t realize is there until it’s gone. That’s what this wonderful Canadian team taught me.
Thank you, girls. Thank you.
Canadians from coast to coast gasped when they saw footage of Alexandre Despatie’s recent diving accident.
He suffered a major cut and concussion after hitting his head during June training in Spain. The incident sent him to surgery and there were serious doubts about him competing at the Summer Games. This week though, Despatie confirmed he is indeed going to London. He is now back in the pool training, but is still not practising the dives he’ll be using at the Games.
During his media availability late this week, Despatie simply said he’ll do his best facing this adversity as he leaves for training in Italy with his Canadian teammates in a few short days. The 27-year-old certainly knows a thing or two about adversity. During the Beijing Games in 2008, he won silver, despite a broken ankle that derailed much of his training that season.
Despatie will first compete in the men’s three-metre springboard synchro event with Reuben Ross on August 1st. He’s also slated to take part in the three-metre individual event on August 6th.
Canada’s first ever men’s medal in diving came at the 2004 Games in Athens. Alexandre Despatie, then just 19, captured silver in the 3-metre springboard. At the 2008 Games in Beijing, he grabbed another silver in the same category. Can he three-peat?
He certainly has the experience to find himself on the podium again, while also being a mentor to some of Canada’s younger athletes. A few days shy of his 27th birthday, Despatie is one of Canada’s best chances for a medal in London. He’s qualified for three events: 3-metre springboard, 10-metre platform and synchronized 3-metre springboard with Reuben Ross.
Although he missed almost a year of training because of a knee injury, adversity won’t de-rail the Montreal native from pushing himself for another Olympic top three finish. At Beijing in 2008, Despatie fought back from a broken ankle to secure a place on the podium.
The Canadian Olympic Committee’s assistant Chef de Mission, Sylvie Bernier, has a special place in her heart for this year’s Canadian Olympic Diving team. Bernier herself captured gold in the 3-metre springboard event at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. When the country’s nine athletes were announced in late May, she said she had a soft spot for the team and added that she couldn’t wait until they competed.
Despatie will be joined by three-time medalist Emilie Heymans. This will be the 30-year-old’s fourth Olympic appearance.
Meaghan Benfeito, Jennifer Abel, Roseline Filion, Francois Imbeau-Dulac, Riley McCormick, Eric Sehn and Reuben Ross round out the group of Canadians heading to London.
The first diving event, women’s synchronized 3-metre springboard, goes July 29th at the Athletics Centre. Diving events will run throughout the duration of the Olympics. The last event is slated for August 11th with the men’s 10-metre platform.
As of this afternoon, Milos Raonic is ranked 22nd in the world. If he can hit the top 20, he will be the first ever Canadian men’s singles player to do so.
His 2012 performance thus far has been impressive: two titles (San Jose and Chennai) with a record of 22-7. He beat Andy Murray and was “thisclose” to getting by Roger Federer.
Up next for Raonic is Roland Garros.
He finds himself in the fourth section of the draw and his first match will be against Ruben Ramierz Hidalgo. The Spaniard is a top 100 player, but the 34-year-old is on the tail-end of his career, while it appears 21-year-old Raonic is just starting to hit his stride. The Canadian is the 19th seed at the French Open. This is just his second appearance at the clay Grand Slam. He was bounced in the first round last year.
Other Canadians in this year’s French Open include Frank Dancevic, Vasek Pospisil, Stephanie Dubois, Aleksandra Wozniak and Heidi El Tabakh.
Action starts Sunday, May 27th.
It’s hard to believe, but the 2012 Summer Olympic Games kick off in London in only 72 days. It feels like just yesterday we were watching Alexandre Bilodeau embracing his brother in Vancouver, after capturing Canada’s first ever gold medal on home soil.
The question on the minds of many Canadians is, “How will Canada fair in London?”.
In 2008, Canada tallied up 18 medals: three gold, nine silver and six bronze. That was good for 15th overall in Beijing. Frustation mounted after the first week, as Canadians were struggling to reach the podium. However, a strong second half pushed Canada to its second best ever finish at a non-boycotted Games.
The country’s best medal count came at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. Canada finished with an impressive 44 medals. That year, the USSR didn’t take part in the Olympics, while China sent a team for the first time since 1952.
Although Canada’s not well known internationally for its prowess in summer sports, the expectations are still going to be high. A number of high-profile athletes will be representing the red and white including footy dynamo Christine Sinclair (soccer), Brent Hayden (swimming), Ryan Cochrane (swimming) and three-time medalist Adam van Koeverden (kayak).
And remember the name Cam Levins (athletics). He’s going to turn some heads in London.