It’s not often that you get to meet your heroes, let alone spend a whole weekend with them.
That’s the good fortune, however, that befell some of the members of the North Shore Girls Soccer Club, as luck of the draw – as well as luck of the snow – allowed several players to get up-close and personal with members of Canada’s national women’s soccer team.
Amongst the lucky ones were 22 players from the club – out of more than 300 hopefuls – who were randomly selected to be the walk-out girls for the bronze medal celebration match between Canada and Mexico at BC Place on Saturday.
Nine-year-old Claire McJannet, a member of the NSGSC U10 Wahoos, was one of the players picked for the honour of escorting the starting players from both teams onto the pitch before the game. She remembers nervously waiting in the tunnels underneath the stadium as 22,000 fans filled the seats. Then the players arrived and in no time they were all headed out into the noise and fanfare of the BC Place field.
“I was just looking around, like, oh my gosh I didn’t even believe I’d get this far without passing out,” Claire said, recalling the moment she emerged from the tunnel. “It was amazing. … Once I got out there and started singing the anthem, I didn’t feel nervous at all.”
Claire was matched up with Canadian Josée Bélanger, one of her favourite players along with, of course, the great Christine Sinclair. Claire said she was “super excited” when she learned she’d be paired with Bélanger.
“She’s very fast, and she’s good with her skills,” she said, adding that the pair had a nice little chat before walking onto the pitch. “She said ‘it’s a very nice day to play a game.’ She kept saying, ‘Are you excited?’ She had a really deep French accent, so some of the things I didn’t really know what she was saying.”
After their official duties were over, the girls got to stay and watch Canada earn a 3-2 win in what would be the final national team match for retiring players Rhian Wilkinson, Melissa Tancredi, and Marie-Eve Nault.
“It was actually a really good game,” Claire said, adding that she enjoyed watching the skills of the Canadian players. “They’re great role models for me.”
The excitement for the North Shore club didn’t end at the final whistle. Team Canada was scheduled to practise at UBC on Sunday, but the winter weather wreaking havoc across the West Coast also scratched their practice plans, sending the team scrambling to find an indoor facility. Their first call was to NSGSC to see if the Bubble was available, the club’s training facility at Windsor secondary. It took a little schedule juggling, but the club happily slotted the national team into a prime time slot on Sunday afternoon. That bumped approximately 150 NSGSC players off the pitch, but they were thrilled to get a front row seat for a national team practice, as well as an autograph session at the end.
“Being the one club in the Lower Mainland with an indoor facility, it does bring some perks,” said NSGSC technical director Jesse Symons. “(The girls) were pretty impressed. They were cheering every time a goal was scored in training. … You could see that they were really engaged in terms of watching them and seeing how they trained, how they acted – it was a great little atmosphere for all involved.”
The whole weekend left his players inspired, said Symons.
“It was a great moment for them to sort of get that taste of what it’s like to be an international soccer player,” he said. “The national team has always had the motto that they’re trying to inspire the next generation. All of them do that – you can see it’s within their culture and a really big focus of their team to continue the legacy that they’ve created not only from a performance perspective, but also from a participation perspective within the sport. They’re just unbelievable people, as well as soccer players. You can really see how they interact with the young ones.”
Moments like these give young players something to dream about, but also give them a reality to aspire to, said Symons.
“(It) humanizes the players a little bit, which I think is an important part of the national team environment,” he said. “They are people that were young players themselves. They’ve obviously excelled in the sport, and hopefully these girls see that it is a sport that they can play for a long time. If they do have those aspirations, they can see that some do make it.”