The players on the Canadian women’s soccer team set a lofty goal this season, but it was about much more than winning an Olympic medal.
They wanted to inspire a generation of young women coming after them.
The Canadians captured a bronze medal at the London Games – the country’s first Olympic medal in a traditional team sport since 1936 – with a spirited performance that tugged on the heartstrings of Canadian fans, and laid down the footsteps for so many little girls to follow.
The team was honoured for its spectacular season by being named The Canadian Press Team of the Year for 2012 in voting by sports editors and broadcasters across the country.
“The girls knew, even before going into this, they were committed to moving this country to another level,” said coach John Herdman. “It wasn’t the bronze that was driving them, it was the legacy for themselves and for this country that drove them through. It sounds corny, but it’s not.”
The women’s soccer team received 228 points, including the majority of first-place votes (68), to run away with the honour that was first awarded in 1966.
The Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts were second with 99 points, ahead of the men’s eight rowing team and women’s hockey team – tied with 43 points apiece – and Glenn Howard’s men’s curling rink (41).
“Canada’s first team medal in the Summer Olympics in 76 years could easily have been gold or silver,” said Sean Rooney of the Medicine Hat News. “Yet after suffering through the disappointment of their semifinal loss to the U.S., Canada’s women made the country proud with their ability to come back with a thrilling bronze medal victory.
“It’s their emotion and perseverance that made them heroes.”
No-one could have predicted the drama that would play out on sport’s biggest stage in London.
The beleaguered Canadians were coming off a last-place showing at the 2011 World Cup. Herdman was brought in to pick up the pieces. The first sign of what would be a remarkable turnaround came at the Pan American Games, when Canada defeated Brazil for gold.
Once in London, the Canadians clinched their spot in the quarter-finals with a 2-2 draw with Sweden, and topped host Britain 2-0 to set up their semifinal showdown against the archrival Americans.
Then, in what will go down as one of the most memorable games in this country’s soccer history, captain Christine Sinclair struck for three goals in Canada’s 4-3 heartbreaking semifinal loss to the Americans – a controversial result that took 123 minutes to decide and wound up getting Sinclair suspended for four games for a post-game “incident.”
In the bronze-medal match, Diana Matheson scored in the 92nd minute to provide a stunning end to a game that saw the French utterly dominate a weary Canadian side.
And in a year that saw Canada’s men’s team crash out of World Cup qualifying in spectacular fashion, the women gained a country full of fans.
“I think our women’s program transcends gender, to be honest with you,” said Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani. “Just the amount of emotion that is attached to this team. It’s not just Christine, the team is deep with character.”
It’s been an emotional four months since the players returned home from London, as they’ve seen in the faces of fans who know all their names just how big an impact they’ve had.
“It’s something we’ve all embraced and I think we understand that this is what we wanted, we wanted to bring home an Olympic medal, we wanted to change the sport within Canada,” said Sinclair, who won the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award on Thursday as Canada’s Female Athlete of the Year.
She and some of her teammates have been conducting camps across the country since returning home.
“We think it’s very important because when we were growing up we didn’t have female soccer players to look up to. I looked up to baseball players, other teammates looked up to hockey players,” said Sinclair, who still wears No. 12 for her favourite athlete growing up, former Toronto Blue Jays star Roberto Alomar.
“I’ve been a primary school teacher back in the day,” said Herdman. “I love working with kids. So it’s great to actually be able to start having a little bit more influence on the younger generation.”
Veteran goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc said fans young and old have come up to say “hi”, pose for a picture, or ask for an autograph literally every day since they returned to Canada.
“Every time we put on that jersey for Canada it’s an honour,” said LeBlanc. “The next time we put on that jersey, we’re going to know for sure that the country we’re representing is the best country in the world. Coming home with the bronze medal and being treated the way Canada has treated us, it’s bigger than gold, it’s better than gold, and it’s inspiring us to be better.
“So the best way to sum up this year is just to thank Canada for making us feel so special and making us fall in love again with playing for them and playing the sport that we love.”
Recent winners of The Canadian Press team of the year award:
2012 — Women’s soccer team
2011 — B.C. Lions
2010 — Olympic men’s hockey team
2009 — World junior hockey team
2008 — World junior hockey team
2007 — Saskatchewan Roughriders
2006 — Brad Gushue curling rink
2005 — World junior hockey team
2004 — Calgary Flames
2003 — World Championship men’s hockey team
2002 — Olympic men’s hockey team
2001 — Jaime Sale and David Pelletier, figure skating
2000 — Daniel Nestor and Sebastien Lareau, tennis
1999 — Team Canada ‘72 named Team of the Century (no team of the year)
1998 — Sandra Schmirler curling rink
1997 — World junior hockey team
1996 — Canadian 4x100 relay team
1995 — Canada’s world junior hockey team
1994 — Montreal Expos
1993 — Toronto Blue Jays
1992 — Toronto Blue Jays
1991 — Team Canada (Canada Cup)
1990 — Edmonton Oilers
1989 — Calgary Flames
1987 — Team Canada (Canada Cup)
1986 — Montreal Canadiens
1985 — Toronto Blue Jays
1984 — Edmonton Oilers
1983 — Toronto Blue Jays
1982 — Edmonton Eskimos
1981 — Montreal Expos
1980 — Montreal Expos
1979 — Montreal Expos
1978 — Montreal Canadiens
1977 — Montreal Canadiens
1976 — Team Canada (Canada Cup)
1975 — Edmonton Eskimos
1974 — Montreal Alouettes
1973 — Montreal Expos
1972 — Team Canada
1971 — Montreal Canadiens
1970 — Montreal Alouettes
1969 — Ottawa Rough Riders
1968 — Olympic equestrian team (Jim Day, Jim Elder and Tom Gayford)
1967 — Toronto Maple Leafs
1966 — Montreal Canadiens