VANCOUVER, BC – It was a trip that would change her life forever.
Having just completed her first year of university, Andrea Neil dropped out and set sail on a tall ship through the Caribbean for an entire year.
Neil was at a crossroads.
She needed to make a decision between badminton, the sport she grew up playing competitively and always saw herself pursuing at the national level, and soccer, which she only just started taking seriously at the age of 19.
It’s a decision all multi-sport athletes dread making. Everyone was telling her she needed to pick one sport. She wasn’t ready. So she took off on a tall ship and worked as a cook, hoping to find clarity.
She found it – just not the way anyone would have anticipated.
Neil was involved in a serious accident while the ship was docked in the Dominican Republic.
The roads were bumpy and she was riding the back of a motorcycle that hit a lip of cement before crashing into the ground.
Her right knee split opened almost instantly. So they stitched it up with dirt and gravel, which caused an infection that led to gangrene – a potentially-life threatening condition.
When she got back to Vancouver, it became an emergency situation once doctors saw the extent of the injury. If immediate action wasn’t taken, there were concerns that Neil would lose her leg.
“Right then and there, I decided that I love soccer and if I was able to recover from this injury that’s the direction I wanted to go,” Neil told whitecapsfc.com. “It kind of happened by accident, literally.”
From there, Neil went on to represent the Canadian women’s national team 132 times, including playing in a record four FIFA Women’s World Cups.
Neil through the years (1991, 1994, 2001, 2004)
The Vancouver native also captained Whitecaps FC women for the first six years of its existence and led the team to two United Soccer Leagues W-League Championships.
Neil was inducted into the Whitecaps FC Ring of Honour on August 10, ten years after captaining Whitecaps FC to their first W-League Championship on August 8, 2004 – a title that remains one of the highlights of her career.
“People think it’s about the medals and the trophies and the records, but it’s about moments and lessons,” Neil said. “That particular championship came down to penalty kicks for the second time in my career and the penalty kicks were settled by a goalkeeper. Maybe only a few players have a role in scoring goals, but you realize it’s an entire team and staff and support staff around that go into making a championship team. I think that was sort of my lesson learned in looking back. Of course it was a fond memory, but it was so much more than coming down to that one kick.”
The former ‘Caps midfielder, one of the players to score in that penalty shootout, will be the second player inducted into Whitecaps FC’s Ring of Honour, which was launched this year in celebration of the club’s 40th anniversary. Bob Lenarduzzi was inducted in May.
“Here’s a club that was so important to women’s soccer and my development as a soccer player,” said Neil, who actually wore #5 because of Lenarduzzi. “It’s kind of unfathomable. Partly because there are not many people who have been inducted, just one person right now who really bleeds the organization. I’m kind of without words about this honour.”
Neil’s resume speaks for itself.
She left Whitecaps FC women as the club’s all-time leader in games, minutes played, and assists and had her number five retired. She also enjoyed an illustrious 18-year career with the Canadian women’s national team.
Her fondest memory with the national team was the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup in the United States, where Canada finished fourth – the highest they’ve placed in a Women’s World Cup to date.
“Against Sweden in the semifinals, we were 11 minutes away from getting into the gold medal game,” Neil recalled. “That was massive. Because here’s this little Canadian team ticking along in a competition that nobody saw the Canadian team coming.”
In 2007, Neil retired as the leader in games played for Canada. Since then, she’s been inducted into the UBC Sport Hall of Fame, Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame, BC Sport Hall of Fame, and was the first female soccer player ever inducted into Canada’s Sport Hall of Fame.
At the time, Lenarduzzi called Neil "a true pioneer who paved the way for future generations to succeed.” That couldn’t sum up Neil’s legacy much better. Growing up, Neil didn’t even know a women’s national team existed. She helped put it on the map.
And it’s very possible that none of it would have happened if it weren’t for that motorcycle accident in the Dominican Republic.
“People often mislabel things as good or bad,” said Neil, who’s now the head coach of UBC’s women’s soccer team. “Especially when given the time, context, and perspective that I get to look back on that moment, it changed my life. Not only did I choose soccer and realize that I loved and adored the game, all of a sudden I realized that in school I was underachieving and not using the potential of my mind.”
“I slacked off in school and even just with my on-field approach, it gave me an opportunity to come back and work on things like leadership, communication skills, and how I interacted with teammates,” she continued. “Because you realize how quickly life can change in a moment.”