Last week, when Kerry Olahan stood inside BC Place – host venue for the FIFA Women’s World Cup – and saw thousands upon thousands of fans cheering, she marvelled at just how far her sport had come.
The international tournament – which is being hosted by a number of Canadian cities this month – has captivated fans across the country, and members of Canada’s national women’s team have become household names.
Sunday’s game between Canada and Switzerland, for example, drew more than 53,000 fans.
But the interest in, and support for, women’s soccer – and for women’s sports, in general – has been a long time coming, Olahan points out. In fact, lost amid the screaming fans and national television broadcasts is the fact that it was barely 40 years ago that girls fought just to play at all.
When she was a seven-year-old growing up in Coquitlam in the mid-1970s, Olahan wanted nothing more than to play soccer, like her older brother, Greg.
“He stuck me in net usually, and just drilled balls at me. I loved it – just loved it. I just wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
The trouble, of course, was that there were no girls teams in the area.
“Girls just didn’t play soccer,” said Olahan, now 49 and a longtime resident of the Semiahmoo Peninsula. “We had to form our own team.”
Forming a team from scratch had its challenges. For starters, there weren’t enough interested girls in the same age group, so the first teams had players that ranged from seven to 12 years old. It was a few years before Coquitlam’s Blue Mountain Soccer Club had real teams of different age groups.
A few years after starting their girls’ program, three Blue Mountain teams – with players ranging from U12 to U14 – were invited to participate in the Sun Cup, which had previously been a boys-only tournament.
In 1980, Olahan’s team won the tournament, and earlier this month, all three teams from that season were recognized for their trail-blazing ways with induction into the Coquitlam Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1973, there were just three girls soccer teams in B.C., according to Anne Russell, one of Olahan’s Blue Mountain teammates. By 1980, that number had grown to more than 300. By 2002, there were more than 307,000 girls and women playing soccer across the country.
“My generation was really the first one that pushed the boundaries, and eventually they allowed us in. Of course, at seven years old, you don’t realize you’re a pioneer or anything like that, but as a teenager, you start to figure it out a little bit more. That’s when the penny started to drop.”
Growing up, Olahan continued to be an advocate for equality in sports – knowingly, or not.
As a teenager, she was an excellent golfer and a member of a Vancouver golf club, and even then, faced discrimination because of her gender.
“Women weren’t allowed to golf before 2 p.m., and our locker room was small, compared to the men’s, which had a restaurant and a bar, and this was back when girls also had to wear really long shorts in order to be allowed to golf,” she explained. “I just thought, ‘wait a minute, what is going on here?’”
When she was 16, she won the club’s girls championship, and rather than be congratulated, the course pro instead told Olahan’s dad only that his daughter needed to wear longer shorts the next time she teed off.
“That was the last time I golfed there,” she said.
Olahan instead stuck with soccer, playing into her 20s on various teams.
When she moved to the Semiahmoo Peninsula in 1990, Olahan – in her mid-30s and tired of trying to keep up with 19- and 20-year-olds at the premier level – decided for the second time in her life to start a team from scratch.
“I’d be out there against these younger girls, and I just thought ‘This is crazy, I’ve got to work in the morning,’” she said.
She formed an over-30 women’s team, the Semiahmoo Supra, which over the last 12 years has become one of the most successful women’s teams in the country. The team – now called Coastal FC Supra – have made five appearances at natio nal club championships, and last fall won its first-ever gold medal in the over-30 division.
Olahan retired a few seasons ago after seven surgeries on her left knee, but she still follows the team and is proud of their recent success.
“I’m hitting 50 this year, and more than half the team is my age – and they just won a national over-30 title. That’s just crazy. The only player under 40 was our goalie,” she said.
“It’s still the best soccer I’ve ever played in my life.”
In retirement, Olahan has traded in her soccer cleats for cycling and yoga, and though she misses “the girls” there are parts of her soccer career she is happy to be done with.
“We still didn’t get field time for practice until 9 p.m, and our games were nine o’clock on Friday nights, because we’re women. I don’t really miss that,” she said.
It’s for those reasons and more – like every time she hears someone utter the phrase “you play like a girl” – that Olahan knows there is still much work to be done when it comes to achieving true equality in sports, and elsewhere.
It’s why she’s proud to be associated with her hall-of-fame Blue Mountain team, as well as her Supra teammates, and also why she’s happy to see the next generation of young players grow up with role models such as Canadian women’s team captain Christine Sinclair.
“Things irk me, but you keep going back because you love the game. There really is no feeling quite like scoring a big goal, or making a big save. That’s the point of the whole thing – it’s not male or female, it’s the thrill of participating in a sport.
“But at the same time, there’s still so far to go.”