Christine Sinclair was convinced Canadian women’s soccer had the potential to stand atop an Olympic podium.
She just didn’t think there was enough runway left in her storied, landscape-altering career to experience the moment first-hand.
Well, Sinclair – the conscience and heartbeat of the program – got that one wrong.
And she couldn’t be happier.
Canada’s 38-year-old captain and her teammates downed Sweden in an engrossing final that ended with an edge-of-your-seat penalty shootout Friday to win gold at the Tokyo Games.
“When I started playing with the national team, we were losing to the U.S. 9-0,” Sinclair said. “That was, like, the norm. And to be a part of this group now standing on the top of the podium, honestly, I never thought I’d be a part of that group.
“I thought Canada was capable of it at some point, but man, it’s happened fast.”
The native of Burnaby, B.C., was asked after the game if it was her last wearing the red Maple Leaf.
“No, it’s not.”
“At the very least we have a victory tour,” said Sinclair, the all-time leading scorer in women’s international soccer with 187 goals in 304 appearances. “I haven’t thought about it. I’m not gonna make a decision out of joy or pain, depending on how this tournament ended.
“I never do that.”
Sinclair, who led Canada to bronze at the London Olympics in 2012 and again four years later in Rio de Janeiro, took a beating throughout her 86 minutes of action Friday inside a sweltering International Stadium Yokohama, where temperatures were 33 C with the humidity at kickoff.
She picked herself up off the turf numerous times, including after winning a second-half penalty that Jessie Fleming fired home – just like she did in Canada’s 1-0 semi-final victory over the powerhouse Americans – to tie the score 1-1.
But with her legs starting to show their age in the stifling conditions, Sinclair was subbed off in the 86th minute, and would play the role of cheerleader and motivator from there.
She hugged Jordyn Huitema, who replaced her on the field, worked to massage Fleming’s troublesome left calf before extra time and brought water to her teammates.
Anything to help get the win.
And she was there to support the youngsters carrying the torch – many of them inspired by Sinclair’s past heroics – in the shootout.
“She has our back,” said Canadian midfielder Julia Grosso, the 20-year-old substitute from Vancouver who scored the winning penalty in the shootout’s sixth round. “I wanted to win this especially for her.
“She’s changed the game of soccer.”
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Canadian head coach Bev Priestman said it was a tough call to remove Sinclair, but one that had to be made, especially with extra time looming.
“We needed some fresh legs,” she said. “But it was just amazing watching (Sinclair) on the sidelines during the penalties.
“She enjoyed every moment. She knew we were going to win.”
Priestman added it’s hard to describe what her captain means to the team and country.
“You see this group of players, deep down I think a whole lot of them have done it for Christine to get the gold she truly deserves,” said the 35-year-old from Consett, England. “She’s a special human being.
“She shows the values of Canadians’ humility, will do whatever it takes to make her country proud, and she absolutely deserves it.”
Huitema said Sinclair has been one of the biggest inspirations in her young career.
“Since I was young watching Canada, I was looking up to her,” said the 20-year-old from Chilliwack, B.C. “To play alongside her, to win a gold medal with her was just incredible.”
Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, who stopped two Swedish attempts in the shootout and saw two more hit her woodwork, said Sinclair’s impact during her two-plus decades with the national team showed in the gold-medal game.
“It didn’t have to be her in the final moments to bring that glory,” said the 34-year-old from Stony Plain, Alta. “She carries the team, but then people are willing to step up and take over.”
One of 14 returnees from the roster that finished third in Rio, defender Kadeisha Buchanan said Sinclair’s influence quite simply can’t be measured.
“She’s the G.O.A.T – she’s the greatest of all time,” said the 25-year-old from Brampton, Ont. “More importantly, she’s just a true captain and a true friend.”
And after Friday, an Olympic gold medallist.
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