Sinclair spends summer in spotlight

Mark Masters, National Post 

TORONTO -- It is an image that sticks with Christine Sinclair: Clive Charles, her head coach at the University of Portland, cradling the championship trophy in the moments after winning the 2002 NCAA title.

Charles was battling prostate cancer and would succumb to the disease eight months later. The championship game was the final one in his 17-year coaching career.

Sinclair scored the winning goal in overtime to get Charles the victory.

"He had been to final fours and managed to lose in overtime, and he was just a tremendous coach, and it was nice to finally get him a national championship," Sinclair said.

In a career full of remarkable achievements Sinclair lists winning a title for Charles, who recruited her to the school, as her favourite memory.

That alone speaks volumes about the 25-year-old, who has twice been a finalist for FIFA's women's player of the year and is the Canadian national team's all-time scoring leader.

Next month, Sinclair will lead the Canadian women's soccer team into the Olympics and look to build on what has already been a remarkable career. On Wednesday, she will lead Canada in its last game in the country before the Olympics in a friendly with Brazil at Toronto's BMO Field.

"I'm trying to treat it as the same as any other set of games and just another tournament, but obviously in your mind you know it's the Olympics and most likely a once in a lifetime opportunity," Sinclair said.

The Burnaby, B.C., native is not a household name in Canada, but is quietly becoming one of the world's best women's soccer players.

Bob Lenarduzzi, president of the Vancouver Whitecaps and a former coach of the Canadian men's national team, said Sinclair's ability to raise her game at a moment's notice makes her a special player.

It's a trait that has been on display when she plays for the Whitecaps in the W-League, North America's top women's soccer league.

"I remember one game this year when we were tied 2-2 and Christine went down in the box late in the game. The referee told her to get up and said she dived. I've never seen her more mad," Lenarduzzi said. "A few minutes later she scored the winning goal. It was like she said, ‘Okay, you pissed me off so now I'm going to take it to the next level.' "

After the game Lenarduzzi said he talked to Sinclair who was still fuming.

"She told me, ‘I don't dive.' "

Sinclair's development as an elite player started long before she joined the Whitecaps.

In a hockey-mad nation, Sinclair was born into a family of soccer fans and she was playing by age four. At 11, Sinclair was selected to B.C.'s under-14 girls' all-star team. She said dealing with the pressures of high-level soccer at an early age was her biggest challenge.

The decision to go to Portland was a key moment in her career. Her uncle, Brian Gant, played for the Canadian national team in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was close friends with Charles. The pair of friends would eventually convince Sinclair to go to Portland.

In leading the school to a pair of national championships, the second in 2005, it was Sinclair's attitude and not talent that stood out most to school officials.

"You look at Christine, and you can say everything about her makes her world class," said Garrett Smith, who replaced Charles as head of the women's soccer program Portland. "Everything she does on the field is what makes her special off the field."

Smith said Sinclair is soft-spoken and quick to downplay her personal accomplishments.

"As good a goal scorer as she is, I think she enjoys watching her teammates score even more than scoring herself," Smith said. "She just wants to share that celebration."

The profile of women's soccer and women's sport in general is growing and that means Sinclair will only receive more attention.

Lenarduzzi said Sinclair's career may go down as one of the greatest ever.

"In the end, she'll be the top or near the top of the list of great players," Lenarduzzi said. "With every World Cup and every Olympics the profile of women's soccer grows and more people will get to know her and her accomplishments."