When she was 42 years old and tired of facing players 20 years younger than her, Linda Sullivan came up with the idea of starting a North Shore soccer league just for women of a certain age.
It would be for fun – they wouldn’t keep standings – and it would be social, and recreational, and they wouldn’t have to chase after 22-year-olds anymore. She told this plan to her coach at the time.
His answer? We’ve tried that before, he said. It won’t work.
She wasn’t convinced, and so she did what any sensible person should do when they want to get something done around here. She took out an ad in the North Shore News.
“Are you tired of aerobics classes?” it read. “Do you want something more fun? Are you sick of standing on a cold field and watching your child play soccer? Would you like to play yourself? No experience necessary.”
The first meeting was held in the old Delbrook rec centre. She was expecting a handful of people to show up. And by the time the meeting started?
“The room was packed.”
She started having practices, and the numbers grew by the day.
“People just started turning up,” she said. “Every time we had a practice, I would set up a table and sign people up.”
The first weekend that they played games, there were four teams. The next weekend, there were six. It turned out that her old coach was wrong. The league worked.
Thirty years later, the North Shore Thirty-Something Women’s Soccer League is still going strong, with 12 teams spread through two recreational age divisions – 30-plus and 45-plus – across the North Shore and up to Squamish. On March 5, the Thirty-Something league – the name was inspired by a popular TV drama that folks of a certain age will remember – celebrated its 30th anniversary with a pub night reunion, in the process raising more than $2,000 for two good causes, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, as well as a Ukrainian family living on the North Shore.
In a world where face-to-face physical connections feel harder than ever to maintain, and the benefits of movement and exercise have never been more clear, the Thirty-Something League seems like a near perfect creation for building a healthy community.
It’s not just a bunch of players on soccer teams, said Linda Tranter, who has played in the league for more than 20 years and served as president for the past five. “It’s a sisterhood.”
“A lot of people come into this league who’ve never played soccer before,” she said. “They’ve watched their kids play on the sidelines, and then they hear about our league and say, ‘I’d like to try it.’ And they typically stick with it…. It’s not just about the Sunday morning games or the Friday night games. We get together socially, quite frequently. We do stuff in the summer together.”
Those connections were more important than ever at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the local soccer league – no out-of-region travel required – allowed the women an outlet, a place to step outside of their bubbles and kick a ball around.
Sullivan said she felt a lot of love when she attended the recent anniversary event for the league she founded 30 years ago.
“So many people came up to me that night to say, ‘Thank you so much for starting this, you don’t know how much soccer has meant to me,’” she said. “That means a lot to me.”
But year 31 will have, for the first time, Sullivan watching from the sidelines instead of playing in the games.
Now age 73, it’s time to hang up the cleats, she said.
“Your bones are more brittle,” she said. “You have to recognize when it’s time to say goodbye. And my very last game was my best game of the season, so that seemed like a really great way to have it end…. I played in goal, my team won 2-1.”
Yes they may not keep standings, but they do keep score. But in a league like this, it does really feel that everyone wins.
Registration is open now for the spring season. If you’re of a certain age, it may be something you’d want to try.
Andy Prest is the acting editor of the North Shore News. His lifestyle/humour column runs biweekly.