Women go for the gold - The Vancouver Sun

Six years after U-19 title, Canadian team gears up for Beijing Games
Vicki Hall, Canwest News Service

BEIJING -- Erin McLeod will never forget the intensity of her sultry summer romance. In Edmonton, of all places.

Neither will Brittany Timko or Kara Lang.

"That was such an incredible summer," Timko says. "Still gives me goose bumps."

In an incredible display of serendipity, an entire nation fell head over heels for a group of Canadian teenagers headlined by Christine Sinclair at the 2002 FIFA U-19 women's world championship.

And the feeling was mutual. Capacity crowds and record television audiences tuned in to watch women's soccer, of all things.

Six year later, the girls are all grown up, and the romance has gone long distance with Canada kicking off the 2008 Summer Olympics Wednesday in qualifying action against Argentina in Tianjin.

The stakes, this time, are so much higher, yet Timko, McLeod and Lang all swear to build on the lessons from the summer of their dreams.

"In Edmonton, we learned to embrace the attention and embrace the opportunity," Timko said. "Edmonton started a trend for the rest of Canada. People treated us like celebrities. They asked for our autographs and everything.

"That was so special and so crazy to think about. Now, we're going to the Olympics, and we're used to being in pressure situations where people want you to do the best."

Pressure situations? That was Edmonton. This is China.

And the Olympics? History is full of stories of superstars crumbling under the spotlight of the five-ring circus.

"What's our goal? To medal," Lang said. " For sure, we want to medal. We're capable and we're confident."

According to FIFA, Canada is ranked ninth in the world of women's soccer. The Canadian women are rolling in advance of the Olympics with a record of eight wins, five draws and five losses in 18 international matches this year.

Buoying hopes even further, Canada tied Brazil 1-1 in a friendly match last month in Toronto. Brazil is considered one of the favourites to win gold in China.

Keep in mind, the Brazilians played without Marta -- known better in some circles as Pele in a skirt.

But the Canadians believe they can beat the best, including Brazil and the United States. And with all their star players in uniform.

"As amazing as it is to be part of something like the Olympics, that's not the only reason we're going," Lang said. "We don't want to just participate. We want to perform."

Just like they did back in 2002 when a group of Canadian teenagers captured the imagination of an entire country.

Against all odds, the Canadian teenagers advanced to the gold-medal game with a stunning 5-4 shootout victory over Brazil.

St. Albert, Alta., native Erin McLeod tended the goal for Canada that day, just like she will in Beijing.

She's older now. Wiser too, with a creative advertising degree from Penn State. And she's slightly more conservative, thanks to an edict from coach Even Pellerud banning McLeod's wacky hair jobs (she once had her mop died red and styled into a makeshift Maple Leaf.)

"I think Even made a comment that if I ever tried that again, I would not be playing on this team," McLeod said. "But it was fun at the time. We were all so young."

She's 25 now. And sometimes, she still can't believe that 47,874 spectators crammed into Commonwealth Stadium for the final 1-0 loss against the United States.

And they fell in love, even though the game ended with Lang and McLeod in tears.

"At first, we were so worried," McLeod said. "We didn't want to play in Commonwealth, because we thought it would be empty. We never imagined filling the whole stadium.

"To represent Canada and to have so much support was amazing."

Six years later, signs of that support flicker across the internet with well-wishing e-mails from the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Canada is grouped with Sweden (ranked No. 3), China (No. 14) and Argentina (No. 29.) The top two teams in each group will advance to the quarter-finals along with the top two third-place teams.

Come Wednesday, Timko, Lang and McLeod hope Canadians flash back to 2002 when they turn on their televisions to watch the very first competition of the Games.

But this time, they want to take the romance from a summer fling to the real thing.

"I think this time we're capable of doing something as great, as we did in Edmonton." McLeod said.

"Or even better."

© The Vancouver Sun 2008