Soccer women cap thrilling season with The Canadian Press Team of the Year award

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - The players on the Canadian women's soccer team set a lofty goal this season, but it was about much more than winning an Olympic medal.

They wanted to inspire a generation of young women coming after them.

The Canadians captured a bronze medal at the London Games — the country's first Olympic medal in a traditional team sport since 1936 — with a spirited performance that tugged on the heartstrings of Canadian fans, and laid down the footsteps for so many little girls to follow.

The team was honoured for its spectacular season by being named The Canadian Press Team of the Year for 2012 in voting by sports editors and broadcasters across the country.

"The girls knew, even before going into this, they were committed to moving this country to another level," said coach John Herdman. "It wasn't the bronze that was driving them, it was the legacy for themselves and for this country that drove them through. It sounds corny, but it's not."

The women's soccer team received 228 points, including the majority of first-place votes (68), to run away with the honour that was first awarded in 1966.

The Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts were second with 99 points, ahead of the men's eight rowing team and women's hockey team — tied with 43 points apiece — and Glenn Howard's men's curling rink (41).

"Canada's first team medal in the Summer Olympics in 76 years could easily have been gold or silver," said Sean Rooney of the Medicine Hat News. "Yet after suffering through the disappointment of their semifinal loss to the U.S., Canada's women made the country proud with their ability to come back with a thrilling bronze medal victory.

"It's their emotion and perseverance that made them heroes."

No-one could have predicted the drama that would play out on sport's biggest stage in London.

The beleaguered Canadians were coming off a last-place showing at the 2011 World Cup. Herdman was brought in to pick up the pieces. The first sign of what would be a remarkable turnaround came at the Pan American Games, when Canada defeated Brazil for gold.

Once in London, the Canadians clinched their spot in the quarter-finals with a 2-2 draw with Sweden, and topped host Britain 2-0 to set up their semifinal showdown against the archrival Americans.

Then, in what will go down as one of the most memorable games in this country's soccer history, captain Christine Sinclair struck for three goals in Canada's 4-3 heartbreaking semifinal loss to the Americans — a controversial result that took 123 minutes to decide and wound up getting Sinclair suspended for four games for a post-game "incident."

In the bronze-medal match, Diana Matheson scored in the 92nd minute to provide a stunning end to a game that saw the French utterly dominate a weary Canadian side.

And in a year that saw Canada's men's team crash out of World Cup qualifying in spectacular fashion, the women gained a country full of fans.

"I think our women's program transcends gender, to be honest with you," said Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani. "Just the amount of emotion that is attached to this team. It's not just Christine, the team is deep with character."

It's been an emotional four months since the players returned home from London, as they've seen in the faces of fans who know all their names just how big an impact they've had.

"It's something we've all embraced and I think we understand that this is what we wanted, we wanted to bring home an Olympic medal, we wanted to change the sport within Canada," said Sinclair, who won the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award on Thursday as Canada's Female Athlete of the Year.

She and some of her teammates have been conducting camps across the country since returning home.

"We think it's very important because when we were growing up we didn't have female soccer players to look up to. I looked up to baseball players, other teammates looked up to hockey players," said Sinclair, who still wears No. 12 for her favourite athlete growing up, former Toronto Blue Jays star Roberto Alomar.

"I've been a primary school teacher back in the day," said Herdman. "I love working with kids. So it's great to actually be able to start having a little bit more influence on the younger generation."

Veteran goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc said fans young and old have come up to say "hi", pose for a picture, or ask for an autograph literally every day since they returned to Canada.

"Every time we put on that jersey for Canada it's an honour," said LeBlanc. "The next time we put on that jersey, we're going to know for sure that the country we're representing is the best country in the world. Coming home with the bronze medal and being treated the way Canada has treated us, it's bigger than gold, it's better than gold, and it's inspiring us to be better.

"So the best way to sum up this year is just to thank Canada for making us feel so special and making us fall in love again with playing for them and playing the sport that we love."