Misty Thomas was tough as nails on the court, an athletic and creative player known for her ability to run the floor.
These days, the fastest Thomas might move is chasing down stray balls at soccer practice. But the battle-scarred former basketball player, one of the finest the country has ever produced, still stokes that competitive sporting fire regularly — not through basketball, but on the sidelines with Canada's women's soccer team.
Thomas, who led Canada to a bronze medal at the 1986 world championships and a fourth-place finish at the ‘84 Los Angeles Olympics before her career was cut short by a string of devastating knee injuries, is the general manager of Canada's women's team.
“The thing that makes it fun, the best two hours of every day are the two hours they're practising or the two hours they're competing,” Thomas said of her squad.
“And I think it's also nice to not have the soccer background. I'm just enjoying what they do as a fan. I get more of an inside view of it, but I'm really just a fan when they're on the pitch playing.”
The Canadian women open the Pan American Games on Tuesday against Costa Rica.
For their part, the women know the 46-year-old Thomas was once a great athlete, but the details are foggy.
“We know she's had Olympic experience, so we know she's not a rookie to this environment. But she's humble about it, she doesn't speak about it,” said Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc.
“We know that her knees are bad now.”
Thomas had to walk away from the game at the age of 25 after an almost unfathomable nine surgeries that have left her knees a latticework of scars.
Besides her illustrious — but too brief — national team career, she played college ball at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where her No. 4 jersey has since been retired. At 34, the Vancouver native became the youngest individual inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame.
She was also the first to play both Olympic and Paralympic basketball, helping Canada to a fifth-place finish at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics —her battered knees qualified her as a Paralympic athlete.
These days, Thomas, who still carries an athletic build on her 5-11 frame, is at once chief wrangler and den mother of Canada's women's soccer team. She does everything from booking practice times to arranging transportation.
“She knows the ropes, she knows the people, she deals with everything so we only need to worry about we're doing on the field,” LeBlanc said. “I'm always last at everything, last out of the dressing room, so she's always all over me. It's my Caribbean background I think, she's always like, ‘Come on Karina, let's go.’ But she's very soft spoken, which is nice.”
Thomas, who has a graduate degree in health and wellness from Arizona State, worked on a consulting basis with the team before the Beijing Olympics through her job with the Sport Medicine Council of B.C. Carolina Morace sought her help when she was hired as head coach after Beijing, to help the Italian navigate Canada's sports system.
The job evolved into a full-time position, and Thomas was on the sidelines to help pick up the pieces after the team's devastating exit from the women's World Cup last summer in Germany
“Like any athlete, they had very high expectations and it was hard to watch them disappear,” Thomas said. “But at the end of it, I've never been more proud of a team than I was of this team, and how they as athletes sort of pulled themselves together following just a devastating loss to France (the game that guaranteed Canada wouldn't advance).
“They viewed film, they motivated each other and really worked hard. I don't think I've ever seen a group of players take on so much responsibility that way.
“It makes you go, ‘Yeah, I can work for this team.’ It's a team that anybody would want to work for because they were working so hard — even after how emotional it was — to show Canada the kind of team they really are.”
Morace resigned as Canada's coach following the World Cup, and Thomas is one of three remaining staff members now working with new coach John Herdman. The others are Sian Bagshawe, a video and apprentice goalkeeper coach, and equipment manager Maeve Glass.
Thomas retired from Paralympic basketball because of the demands of her job with the soccer team, but said she cherished the experience of playing the game.
“The thing that was so much fun was there's so much of basketball that's in it, it's a sport that's familiar and obviously a sport that I love, but mastering trying to do it in a chair made it really challenging,” she said. “It was almost like you're back to square one with something that's very familiar.
“So it was just fun trying to get better, to try to get better to learn how to use the chair. I never quite mastered that. But it was great.”
While she loves watching soccer, she said she's never been very skilled with a ball at her foot.
“I don't kick it very well,” Thomas said, with a laugh. “I'm just good at chasing down the balls that go awry.”