Whitecaps' Andrea Neil awarded at B.C. Sports Hall of Fame - Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Whitecaps and Canadian national team midfielder Andrea Neil was recognized by the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Ian Walker

VANCOUVER - One hundred and thirty-two caps over her 18-year career. Twenty-four goals scored internationally. Four World Cup appearances. Three Gold Cups. Two league championships. And more games, assists and minutes played than any other Vancouver Whitecaps women's player in franchise history.

Andrea Neil's contribution to soccer in this province and country is hard to overstate.

She's the sport's most decorated Canadian player, male or female, and her international goal totals are the fifth-highest all time. Not only was Neil an integral part of Canada's best-ever placing in a World Cup - fourth at the 2003 tournament in the United States - but she led the Vancouver Whitecaps to W-League championships in 2004 and '06, and helped lay the foundation for a women's club that today is the envy of many.

But even those quite familiar with Neil's background may be surprised to discover before she represented Canada on the pitch, she was a member of the country's junior badminton team. And if not for a motorcycle accident, she could be Canada's most decorated badminton player. Which would have been great for badminton, but -more to the point - sadder for soccer.

"I couldn't choose between the two," says Neil. "Both national team coaches were saying you need to quit the other to concentrate on this, so I did what I thought was the logical thing and went away on a boat for a year to think about it."

It was while docked in the Dominican Republic that she suffered a gruesome gash in her right knee after crashing the rented motorcycle she was riding. Gangrene later set in and she was lucky not to lose her leg.

"All of a sudden when you're faced with something being taken away form you ... I just realized the passions for the sport of soccer in my short experiences in it," says Neil, who made her debut for Canada's senior national team one year later at the age of 19.

"I loved it. I knew I needed to go that direction. Once that happened there was no decision, the decision was already made in my mind.

"It was so critical for me. Badminton was hugely important to me and helped define me as a young athlete, but the door was opened from the accident to the sport of soccer. I don't know if a lot of people know that, I forget about it."

Neil was one of three women recognized earlier this week at the annual In Her Footsteps ... Celebrating B.C. Women in Sport gala at the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Tricia Smith and the late Roberta Ann Steen were also honoured by the permanent exhibit, which celebrates women who have made a difference through sports for girls and women in the province.

Like Neil, Smith also made a choice early in life that would come to define her athletic career. The daughter of former UBC rugby star Marshall Smith and Thunderbird basketball player Pat McIntosh, Tricia was a noted swimmer before excelling in rowing. She was a member of UBC's first - yet unofficial - women's team in 1973 and went on to medal at seven world championships, and took Commonwealth Games gold in 1986 and silver at the 1984 Summer Games.

Smith started her career at the 1976 Olympic Summer Games, in the first-ever Olympic regatta for women. She is the only athlete in UBC history to have been selected to represent Canada at four Olympic Games (76, '80, '84, '88).

Steen was honoured posthumously in the builder's category for being a dedicated teacher, coach, volunteer, sport and recreation administrator. She was a founding member of ProMOTION Plus, a non-profit organization which promotes access and opportunity in sport and physical activity on behalf of women and girls in B.C. It is the first provincial sport advocacy organization for women in Canada and remains one of only three in the country.

Steen, who died at age 49 in 1995, was represented at the ceremony by her sister, Sally Samler.

Launched in October 2006, the In Her Footsteps exhibit is a joint initiative between the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, 2010 Legacies Now, ProMOTION Plus and the BC Centre of Excellence for Women's Health. It pays homage to all women helping to make a difference in the lives of women and girls through sports and physical activity.

"When we were kids, we didn't have these images of what was possible," said Smith, who is now a lawyer and partner with Barnescraig & Associates, and a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee Executive Committee. "It gives girls an opportunity to imagine. It's all about honouring the future. But it's important to know where we came from."

Neil and Smith lauded the formation of the recognition program.

"There's so many past soccer players that came before me that don't get the recognition that they should and are so much part of the fabric and having paved the path for other soccer players," said Neil, who along with Smith and Steen bring the exhibit's membership up to 41 honourees. "But being woven in with some of the sporting figures of the provincial sporting world for future generations, what an honour. When I grew up you didn't really hear ... it's not that these female role models didn't exist, you just didn't hear about them. It's really remarkable to part of that fabric. It's a very humbling experience."

Neil said it's becoming more and more important for women to have female role models that are tangible. Growing up, her sporting idols were male athletes like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky.

"They were great people to look at for what they had done, but I wasn't going to be an NBA player or NHL athlete," says Neil, 36, who officially retired on Dec. 3, 2007. She played her last international match on September 15, 2007 against Ghana during the FIFA Women's World Cup where Canada won 4-1.

"But to have somebody who is a little bit closer, who you can reach out and say 'I can do that', is an incredible thing for females to have and for females to look towards."

No matter their sport.

iwalker@vancouversun.com

© Vancouver Sun 2008