Women ready for challenge - The Province

Kerfoot's help makes breakout Games a possibility
By - Ed Willes

This is the reality for most Canadian athletes and teams preparing for the Summer Olympics.

While other countries have the wherewithal to invest in top-flight coaching and centralized training facilities, Canadians have learned to make do with whatever they can afford.

Within reason, of course.

Coaches come and go. Players are brought in at the last minute for Olympic participation from all over the world. There never seems to be enough time or money but, to quote noted sports psychologist Todd Bertuzzi, it is what it is and most everyone connected with amateur sport in this country has learned to shrug and accept their lot in life.

Then there's the Canadian women's soccer team.

If most of their colleagues live in the world of the Florida Marlins, the national women's team have been granted resources through Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot, which makes them the New York Yankees of the Summer Games.

Kerfoot, among other things, has underwritten a residency program which has allowed the team to stay together for the better part of the last two years and prepare for Beijing amid optimum conditions with head coach Even Pellerud.

They've lived together. They've trained together. They've toured together.

For these women it has essentially been soccer 24/7 in an atmosphere of intense professionalism and, if they fail in Beijing, they can't fall back on the standard Canadian excuse at the Olympics.

Not that they're thinking about failing.

"It's going to be a great experience," says defender Clare Rustad. "It's going to be phenomenal to be part of an atmosphere like that and be part of a Canadian team. But we're going there to win."

That attitude is also un-Canadian. In writing their ticket to Beijing at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament this spring, the women's team became the first Canadian soccer side to qualify for the Olympics in 24 years. But this is hardly a plucky group of underdogs who are just happy to go to China. This is a team with credentials.

The core group was first identified at the 2002 world under-19 championships in Edmonton, a seminal moment for soccer in this country, and they've been there or thereabouts on the world stage ever since. Rustad was on that team. So was striker Christine Sinclair, who remains one of the 10 best players in the women's game. So were goalie Erin McLeod, midfielder Kara Lang, midfielder Brittany Timko and midfielder Candace Chapman. Of that group, McLeod is the oldest at 25 years and five months while the irrepressible Lang is an impossible 21.

Together, they've also finished fourth at the women's World Cup in '03, failed to make it out of the group stage at the World Cup in '07, then came back to finish second to the States at the CONCACAF qualifier in April while, more importantly, beating the host Mexico side 1-0 in the semifinals to advance to Beijing.

They're now ranked ninth in the world and two of their long-standing nemeses, Sweden and China, are in their group.

But you can't say they're intimidated by the job before them.

"Qualifying for the Olympics was a huge accomplishment for us but that's not the end," says Lang. "We're not going to participate. We want to be on the podium."

That confidence can be traced back to the residency program which had its roots in a series of conversations involving Kerfoot, Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi and Pellerud. Kerfoot, one of the game's biggest champions in Canada, had been impressed by the women's team and offered his assistance a couple of years ago.

What do you need, Pellerud was asked.

I need this team together for two years, Pellerud answered.

And Kerfoot wrote the cheque which made it happen.

The women's team has other sponsors. Teck Cominco and Winners have stepped up from the corporate world. They also receive money from the Canadian Soccer Association, Sport Canada and Road To Excellence. But Kerfoot's contribution elevated the program to a world-class level and that is not lost on the players or coaches.

"It creates a more professional atmosphere," says Lang.

"I think that's the big thing. When you're in that kind of environment, you begin to think more professionally and act more professionally. Hopefully, we'll play more professionally."

"There are big advantages," says Pellerud, who will retire after Beijing. "We've been able to run the club along the European model and take control of the physical part, the tactical part and the mental part of the game. The only minus is they haven't played competitive games on a weekly basis."

Still, they've been able to cobble together an interesting schedule this year.

On July 10, the Canadians played No.1-ranked Brazil to a 1-1 draw in Toronto, leaving them with an 8-5-5 record on the season. That was also the first game they'd played in Canada in two years and the experience was a tad more rewarding than, say, playing in Mexico a couple of months earlier.

"I really enjoyed having a crowd cheer for us and not throwing beer at us," says Rustad.

And who knows? Maybe even better things await in China.

© The Vancouver Province 2008