Heartbreak & triumph: Tancredi, Wilkinson reflect on Olympic soccer journey

For retired Canadian soccer star turned chiropractor Melissa Tancredi, unseasonal sunshine in Vancouver has been one of the bright spots during a dark time around the world.

When the COVID-19 crisis set in, the three-time Olympian and two-time Olympic bronze medallist had no choice but to shut the doors of her burgeoning health and wellness business. The Workshop Performance Clinic, which she operates with business partner Selenia Iacchelli (also an ex-national team player), has been closed since March 16 with no signs of opening anytime soon.

Like many other Canadians, she’s been sidelined from what she loves most.

“It’s hard. You’re doing what’s best, obviously, for the community and everyone’s health, but at the same time you almost feel helpless,” she said. “We’ve done our best to go with the times and switch to telehealth so we can offer some kind of help for our patients and clients, but we have two massage therapists who are basically out of work until who knows when.

“It’s a trying time for all of us but we’re all just doing our part, being patient.”

But in reminiscing with the upbeat striker ahead of CBC Sports’ Olympic Games Replay of their the bronze-medal win at Rio 2016, you could hear the spark in her voice at the other end of the phone.

WATCH | Canada’s women’s soccer team scores bronze medal in Rio: 

Watch highlights of the bronze medal won by the Canadian women’s soccer team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. 0:52

For Tancredi’s longtime teammate Rhian Wilkinson, also a three-time Olympian and bronze medallist from 2012 and 2016, these pandemic times mean an extra year of planning and preparation. She’s the head coach of Canada’s U-17 and U-20 squads, tasked with identifying and shaping the next generation of soccer stars.

Rio 2016 was the final Games for Tancredi and Wilkinson, both pillars of the Team Canada for nearly two decades. Together, they’ve lived the highs and lows of the national program – from the awe of their first Games in Beijing 2008, the heartbreak and redemption in London 2012, and solidifying Canada’s reputation as a soccer world power in Rio 2016. It’s been a rollercoaster they’d ride over and over again.

Olympic beginnings 

Wilkinson thought her Olympic dream was over when Canada failed to qualify for Athens in 2004.

“It was a huge upset at the time. And for me, my dream had always been to be an Olympian. And when we didn’t make Athens, I thought ‘that was my chance, gone.'”

Lucky for her, four years later in Juarez, Mexico, Tancredi scored the goal that sent Canada on its inaugural Olympic journey in 2008. While it was a clutch goal, like many in her career, that one wasn’t one for the highlight reel.

Canada’s Melissa Tancredi scores off a diving header in their women’s first round match against Sweden at the Beijing Olympic Games on Aug. 12, 2008. (File/AFP via Getty Images)

“It was one of those plays as a defender you hope never happens and as an attacker you hope happens every single time,” Tancredi laughed. “The Mexican defender tripped over her feet and the ball came loose at half and I went on the longest breakaway ever and ended up scoring that goal to put us through.”

Both Tancredi and Wilkinson acknowledge that Beijing was a practice run of sorts.

“I hate saying this because I’m supposed to be professional, but I was taken aback by all of it. Some of my heroes were sitting at the same cafeteria tables as us and I was in lineups with some of the world’s greats in every sport,” Tancredi recalls. “Phenomenal experience absolutely, but as they say, at your first Olympics you’re kind of like a tourist.”

Wilkinson agreed. To see the stars up close like Lionel Messi, Serena and Venus Williams and watch Usain Bolt win gold in world-record time was surreal but it also came with a lesson.

Usain Bolt of Jamaica, shown celebrating after winning the men’s 4 x 100m relay final at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, was just one of the superstars Melissa Tancredi and Rhian Wilkinson would’ve encountered in Beijing during their first Olympics. (File/Getty Images)

“What we learned was it is a competition like any other if you want to win a medal. You cannot get caught up in the Games part of it. I’m lucky I’ve had three [Olympics] to practice on. Looking back, we weren’t there to fully compete yet.”

But four years later in London 2012, they were.

A team that Canada fell in love with 

John Herdman had taken over as coach. They were ranked seventh in the world. They not only made the quarter-finals but they smoked host Great Britain on home soil. Confidence was at an all-time high. Then came the most pivotal game in the team’s history – and what many call one of the greatest soccer games ever played – the semifinal against arch-rivals the United States.

You’d need an opus in the variety of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to describe everything that happened at Old Trafford that day, but here’s a Coles notes version: It was a high-scoring affair, the momentum swings were enough to induce vertigo and Christine Sinclair scored a hat trick in what was the finest game of her career.

But in the 78th minute with Canada leading 3-2, Norweigan referee Christina Pederson called a six-second time violation (time wasting) on Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod. The rarely-called foul changed the complexion of the game. An ensuing indirect kick bounced off a Canadian arm in the box. Pederson awarded the Americans a penalty kick, which tied the game. From there, the Americans would go on to win 4-3 in extra time. The Canadians were devastated.

Team U.S.A. celebrate scoring the winning goal during injury time of extra time against Canada at the London 2012 Olympic women’s football semifinals on Aug. 6, 2012. (File/AFP via Getty Images)

That sequence of events could never happen twice. And even eight years later, the players in this game can’t believe it happened.

“That will go down as probably the most emotional highs to lows I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Tancredi. “It was crazy. And it is something that you’re never prepared for, so nothing has touched that. London was so special and unique and so destructive and amazing at the same time.”

While this was unfolding in London, back home, the Canadian public had fallen in love with the team.  

Deflated and emotionally and physically spent, the Canadian team still had to get up for the bronze-medal game against a talented French team. How did they gut it out?

Canada forward Christine Sinclair (12), defender Rhian Wilkinson (7) and midfielder Brittany Timko (left) and defender Candace Chapman (9) hoist midfileder Diana Matheson (8) into the air after she scored the game-winning goal against France in the bronze-medal match at the Olympic Games in Coventry, Great Britain on Aug. 9, 2012. (File/The Canadian Press)

“Our mission going into the Olympics had been to see our flag rise. It was our slogan,” explained Wilkinson. “What we discussed as a group was we could still see our flag rise if we’re on the podium. It was a huge and heavy moment. But we made that decision as a group to go for it.

“I can’t tell you how many shots they had against us. My teammates didn’t give up, Erin McLeod stood on her head. Our legs were gone after 20 minutes. If one of us stopped running, it would’ve been over, but we never stopped.”

WATCH | Diana Matheson’s favourite Olympic moment is a no-brainer:

In an interview with CBC Sports’ Anastasia Bucsis before her induction into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, soccer midfielder Diana Matheson discusses her bronze medal-winning goal for Canada at the 2012 London Olympics. 3:46

And at the very last possible moment, the 92nd minute, fellow veteran Diana Matheson scored that iconic winning goal as the team captured bronze, the first team medal for Canada since 1936.

Youth movement in Brazil

And then came Rio.

In the four-year Olympic cycle in between, the depth of the Canadian team had grown. A new, younger group of players emerged on the scene. Players like Jessie Fleming, Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, Janine Beckie, Nichelle Prince and Deanne Rose among others.

For a team with a core group like the Canadians, where players had been with the team for more than a decade, losing playing time or even a starting position to a new player could mess with team chemistry. That wasn’t the case.

“When I think of those Games I think it was the greatest tournament I was ever a part of in terms of leadership and my own leadership ability,” Wilkinson said. “We had an incredible generation coming through. I think about how hard our veteran group worked to make sure that they felt as much a part of a team as those of us that had been there for 15-plus years. That’s hard to do.”

The Canadians rolled through their group stage. Three decisive wins, including a 2-1 defeat of Germany thanks to a monster two-goal effort from Tancredi. It was their first win over the European powerhouse in 22 years.

Canada’s Melissa Tancredi, celebrates with teammates after scoring during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games first round match against Germany at the Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia on Aug. 9, 2016. Tancredi scored twice in the 2-1 victory. (File/AFP via Getty Images)

The gold-medal game would elude them once again, but the feeling going into the bronze-medal game in Brazil against Brazil was much different than the experience four years earlier.

“I guess this is where we pulled from London 2012. Beating Team GB at home in London. I don’t think we felt intimidated at all,” Tancredi said of playing in front of 40,000 Brazilian fans at Corinthians Stadium in San Paolo. “This is every soccer player’s dream to play in Brazil, against Brazil for a medal in the Olympic Games.

“You could see from the beginning whistle how energetic and excited our team was to play. The motors were running, everyone was firing, the youngsters were stepping up. We just knew this was our chance to do something special once again.”

And they did.

Seventeen-year-old Deanne Rose scored the opening goal in the 24th minute on an assist from Ashley Lawrence (a “true next generation goal” as Wilkinson described it as) and Sinclair, naturally, added the other in the 51st minute in a 2-1 victory.

WATCH | Looking back at Christine Sinclair’s best goals:

Canadian captain Christine Sinclair scored her 185th international goal on Wednesday to break the all-time record, so we look back at some of her best. 3:54

“That was everything you wanted out of young players. Usually it doesn’t happen in big games or big moments like that to just break out of their shells, but you had Jessie Fleming playing one of the best tournaments ever and Deanne Rose coming out of nowhere, scoring goals,” Tancredi said. “And I think these players are the example of what we would want for this program and they’re going to take it well beyond where we never imagined it would go.”

Life after Rio

Retired since 2017, Wilkinson can’t get away from life on the pitch. In her new calling as coach, she knows there’s responsibility developing the next generation, but she says it’s the greatest job in the world.

 “I work with the very best people. These young Canadians have a clear vision of what they want to do with their lives and I’m someone who plays a part in getting them there,” she says.

Rhian Wilkinson, left, and Melissa Tancredi of Canada’s women’s soccer team attend a news conference in Vancouver, on Jan. 13, 2017 to announce their retirement from the team. (File/The Canadian Press)

Some of Canada’s current youth players are stepping into the senior-team level already, like Olivia Smith and Jade Rose. And if you look at the current national team roster, it’s dotted with recent youth internationals like Jordyn Huitema, Julia Grosso and Jayde Riviere. Two of those players were on Wilkinson’s U-17 team in 2018.

Tancredi also retired in 2017, but often trains with the team to keep in shape. So does that mean we might see Tancredi make a comeback for a fourth Olympics?

“I joke about it. But I think the last camp proved it all for me. It took me all of five minutes after subbing in for Sincy to throw my back out and tear my hamstring,” she laughs. “I think I’m good.” 

But she does hope to be in Tokyo 2021 as a member of the team’s medical staff.

Olympic Games Replay will stream on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on CBCSports.ca as well as air across the CBC television network. Check your local listings for the time in your region. 

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