Burnaby's Christine Sinclair helps Canada chase Olympic soccer dream
As the crowd files in to watch Canada's women's soccer team play Costa Rica at the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament there's a row in section 244 at BC Place where almost everyone wears a Canada No. 12 jacket or jersey.
The number is supposed to symbolize Canada's involvement in the 2012 Games in London, but 12 also happens to be the number the team's star, Christine Sinclair.
And most of those in the row—and there are many of them—are related to the Burnaby native.
"It's exciting, absolutely exciting. We're all very proud of her," says Marilyn Bullock, Sinclair's great aunt.
The tournament is a rare opportunity to watch Sinclair's mastery in her own backyard. She's been away in the United States playing professional soccer for the last few years and collegiately prior to that, in addition to appearing with the national team around the world.
"It's nice to see her at home," says Sinclair's brother Michael, who last saw his sister play (in person) a few years ago in San Francisco. "It's very cool, very cool."
Michael says nobody, including himself, could have predicted his sister would become the best women's player Canada has ever produced.
Soccer is certainly in Sinclair's DNA. Her father, Bill, played senior soccer and her mother, Sandra, is one of two girls and four boys from the Gant family that grew up near Wesburn Park. The siblings include Brian and Bruce, both of whom played in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s and ’80s.
So when she was a little tyke Sinclair was always game for going to a game, or even a practice when she'd work out with Michael's teams.
"You couldn't get her off the field," says Michael, 31.
Even though she had natural talent, Michael gives his sister huge credit for all the work she put in to become one of the best players in the world.
"She always had something special, but she always put in more time than anybody I know," he says.
When Sinclair reached Grade 9 at Burnaby South, the senior girls team didn't have a coach so Michael and their aunt, Sue Jensen, took it on. Despite having only one Grade 12 player, the Rebels reached the provincial final, losing to perennial powerhouse Argyle Pipers in overtime.
"I joke with Christine that we taught her everything she knew when we coached her at Burnaby South," laughs Michael.
"It's almost surreal," adds Jensen. "We don't really think of her [as the best women's player Canada has produced]. We just think of her as Christine. When she was young we knew she was a strong player, but we certainly didn't expect her to turn out that way."
Prior to the 2002 FIFA under-19 women's tournament in Edmonton, Jensen and her brother Bruce told her, "If you make the final we'll be there."
Since Canada's success on the world front had never reached the top two stage before, the odds suggested their wallets were safe.
However, in watching the games as the tournament went on they began to realize they just might have to pull out their credit cards. Canada ended up losing the final to the United States in overtime with Sinclair leading the tournament in scoring.
"It was great. It was an expensive little weekend but it was well worth it," says Jensen, a South Slope resident. "We've always been a big supporter of hers."
Only six minutes into Monday's game, Sinclair receives a pass off her knee near the opposing goal and with her left foot punches it past Costa Rican goalkeeper Julieth Arias for Canada's first score.
"Every time [Sinclair's mother] used to talk to us she'd tell us Christine scored goals here, she scored goals there. There's never been a time when she hadn't scored," says Uncle Bruce.
"Of course I'm prejudiced, but I think she's the most natural goal scorer in women's soccer."
However, it's not her only talent on the field. She's also adept at setting up teammates—including a goal by Kaylyn Kyle on Monday night for Canada's third marker—and helping out in her own end.
"People don't understand how complete a player she is," says Gant, just as Sinclair proves him right by heading away a Costa Rican scoring threat in Canada's penalty box out of harm's way. "There might not be another one like her in my lifetime."
Gant says Sinclair, at 28, is in her prime, the fittest she's ever been, and capable of being even better than she is because she understands the game so well.
"She just gets it. She's got a soccer brain. She sees things that others don't," says Gant.
The legend of Christine Sinclair grew exponentially at the 2011 Women's World Cup when she kept on playing and scored a spectacular goal after breaking her nose in the opening game against Germany.
"You knew she would just keep playing," says Gant.
"It was just a broken nose, not a broken leg," chimes in Jensen.
Just before halftime at BC Place, Sinclair chests down a pretty pass from Rhian Wilkinson and with her right foot calmly slots the ball into the corner of the net to give Canada a 4-0 lead. Sinclair runs over to Wilkinson with a big smile, her blue eyes blazing and fists pumping to acknowledge the fine setup from her teammate.
Christine's parents are watching from a higher VIP location where the spectators include Vancouver Canuck Manny Malhotra. As the second half starts, mom Sandra is so into the game she immediately spots the change in the style of system implemented during the intermission by Canadian head coach John Herdman.
Sandra says they had a rule for Michael and Christine growing up: "You don't get to play sports until your school work is done."
They must have done a lot of studying because they sure did a lot of playing. Sinclair even starred on the baseball field playing on a boys team where she was a league all-star as well as taking a turn at basketball.
On home turf
Although Sinclair went to the University of Portland on an athletic scholarship, before she was done she was on a full academic scholarship. That allowed the school's women's soccer team to use their money on another player. On the field, she was named the nation's best women's college soccer player her last two years, as well as the best women's college athlete the final year.
Although Sinclair is not known for having a sparkling personality in front of the cameras and microphones, when she's at home it's a different story.
"She's quite a jokester when she's with the family," says Sandra. "She has 12 cousins and they're all over each other's case teasing each other. She just doesn't like saying anything about herself, but she'll talk to you about her team and anybody on it ... In our family we don't talk about it or boast about it. We don't brag but we're all proud of her, all of us are."
Although Sandra and Bill went down to San Francisco to see their daughter play professionally for FC Gold Pride a few years ago, Sandra says the Olympic qualifying tournament is the first time she's been able to see Sinclair play on home turf in several years. So to have everyone in the family get a chance to watch her live is a huge bonus.
"Magic," says Bill as the game, a 5-1 Canada victory that put them into Friday's semifinal against Mexico, comes to an end. "This is magic with her being home."