By Jennifer Hoegg
When Rhian Wilkinson and Diana Matheson were growing up, their soccer heroes were Americans. Now the Team Canada players are role models for kids across the country.
“We just didn’t know anyone from Canada who played,” wingback Wilkinson said during a visit to Kings County Dec.9. “There was no professional soccer. We never saw the women’s team play. We never heard any news about them and there was no real training.”
How things have changed. When Valley District Soccer brought the teammates to Kentville Dec. 9, they were met with a police escort, the mayor, waving flags and a crowd of boys and girls, many in soccer gear, along with the Acadia Axewomen soccer squad – all eager to have a few moments with the Team Canada players and an autograph.
“We’re female athletes; this is not how we’re used to being treated,” the Montreal native said. “It’s an honour really and I love meeting these young kids, boys and girls, ‘cause I see how excited they are about the sport.”
Her teammate Matheson used the opportunity to thank local fans for their support during the Olympics.
“It’s just so nice to go around and meet different people who were affected by it a little bit because we were affected by the support we got.”
After a tough loss to the Americans in the semifinals at the Olympic tournament last summer, the Canadian team gathered themselves up and took on France for third place. Matheson’s goal after 90 minutes of play earned the women the bronze and, she said, a moment of “pure joy.
“From that goal, the final whistle and afterward the locker room, the bus ride to Wembley for the medals and the four days after that was just surreal – it was non stop madness,” the Oakville, Ont., midfielder added.
“I remember waking up the first night and just looking at (the medal),” Wilkinson said, “and feeling it and thinking ‘Oh my gosh, that really happened.’”
The Olympic experience has been a dream come true, both said.
“I remember dreaming about winning a medal and it wasn’t a dream I thought was a possibility,” Wilkinson said. “It was more like ‘Imagine what it must feel like!”
“Making my first Olympic team in ’08 and going to Beijing I was so proud, I am so proud of that Olympics, being an Olympian for the first time.”
The 2008 experience was a career highlight, Matheson agreed.
It was a long road to that medal for the women. Wilkinson, 30, and Matheson, 28, have been with the national program for a decade.
Both began playing soccer at a young age – but didn’t focus on one sport until later in life. Matheson, who signed up for soccer at five, also played hockey and Wilkinson played “anything and everything.” While she started soccer at six, Wilkinson didn’t concentrate on the sport until her late teens when she had a scholarship opportunity.
“Up until 17, I was playing tennis, I was swimming, I was playing ringette, hockey - I played everything and I loved it,” Wilkinson said. “I just think you should have fun. It doesn’t have to be soccer, just enjoy what you’re doing and you become a better athlete by playing a tonne of different sports.”
Both have been told they weren’t good enough to make the team. Matheson was cut from her first provincial team and then failed to make the national U17 and U20 teams. “I just kept going, because it was fun.”
Wilkinson has a similar story. In fact, in 2005, she was cut from the national team and took a year’s “enforced vacation.
“I didn’t like it,” she said, “ so I went back to work.”
That experience is common to many on the team, she noted.
“That’s the driving force that makes you work harder to catch up those that did make it and then overtake them when they stop working and you’re still working.”
The entire Team Canada went from the “pit of our careers” to the peak through hard work, Matheson pointed out.
“A lot of people forget that 11 months before the Olympics we came dead last at the World Cup,” she said. “It was the exact same team that won the bronze medal at the Olympics.
She credits the turn around to coach John Herdman.
“He brought back the love of the sport,” Matheson said. “You can see a team enjoying the game and experiencing the game together… I think he reminded us of that.”
Right now Matheson and Wilkinson spend part of the year playing professionally in Norway, but Matheson is hopeful an American pro league planned for next year will give them opportunities closer to home.
“Hopefully in the next few years we can get Canadian club teams,” she said, “and then the kids can look up to those growing up. That would be fantastic.”
It’s just so nice to go around and meet different people who were affected by it a little bit because we were affected by the support we got. - Diana Matheson
Wilkinson said she thinks the London experience will make a difference for younger athletes.
“I’m a huge fan of women’s hockey and I’ve watched their successes proudly and I hope that this soccer medal does the same thing for soccer in Canada for women and men,” she said. “I hope it’s something that pushes soccer in general in this country because we’re right there but there’s still a step that we can be taking.”
The articulate, compelling speakers had the all-ages crowd at the indoor soccer arena listening, laughing and asking for advice.
“If you love it, you work at it,” Wilkinson told them. “So just love it, whatever you’re doing. My sister is a nurse. She has wanted to be a nurse her whole life and she worked really hard to be a nurse and she’s awesome at it. I don’t see my accomplishment as any different than hers.
Matheson backed up her teammate.
“Just work hard. Ninety-nine per cent of the national team, with the exception of Christine Sinclair didn’t get there because they have the most talent. They got there because they were willing to outwork other people – that’s it.
“It’s not a huge secret. You put in the time in something and you get better at it.”
For the local kids, the visit was a highlight in itself.
“It was just really cool to stand by them,” 12-year-old Jada Foley said.
Name: Rhian Wilkinson
Team Canada number: 16
Plays for: LSK Kvinner, Norway
Position: Right wingback
Best advice: “Love what you do. Be it soccer, be it teaching, be it whatever career or goal you have it’s to just love it because that makes you work hard, that makes you go for it and dream big.”
Name: Diana Matheson
Team Canada number: 8
Plays for: LSK Kvinner, Norway
Hometown: Oakville, ON.
Best advice: “You work hard and that’s the secret. None of us are on the national team because we’re always the most talented, we’re there because we were willing to work hard and that’s it.”