Soldier and warrior are two words that first come to mind when describing Rhian Wilkinson. The defender has been through all the ups and downs with the national team during her long-tenured career, which began in 2000 as a member of the youth program. In 2014, she became the third female player to make her 150th appearance for Canada.
She also quietly goes about her business of giving back to the sport by coaching the younger generation, providing technical assistance to the youth programs and serving as a member on the FIFA Strategic Committee.
One particular memory of Rhian stands out though and it happened post-match of the now infamous Canada USA meeting in the 2012 Olympic semifinal. With the rawest of emotion, she made her way through the media mix zone just moments after exiting the pitch. She spoke from her heart and those words resonated with an entire nation. As she headed to the team’s dressing room, the Canadian journalists were left speechless. It was one of those indelible impressions you’ll talk about many years down the road.
The Road to Canada 2015 interview series continues with Rhian Wilkinson, who is currently gearing up for her fourth Women’s World Cup:
You spent time with the U-20s last year at their World Cup here in Canada. How did that experience prepare you for what’s coming up in June?
I think seeing a little bit of what it’s like to be at home and to have your fans there at the stadium so interested in the team and what they’re doing is great. A lot of my career with the women’s team has been somewhat anonymous. I don’t mean in a bad way. It’s just as a female sport, there wasn’t much interest. Obviously, the Olympic bronze changed that and having the World Cup here has taken on a whole new dimension and I saw a tiny glimpse of that last summer with the U-20s. I don’t think I can be completely prepared for this summer. I think what’s going to happen is going to be very special and unique. It did definitely give me a small window into that though.
Has it at all been weird for you to be coaching them one minute and then have them playing alongside you the next minute? Was it an easy transition?
It was an easy transition and I’ve said it before, I think that really comes down to the girls, specifically my teammates. When I’m their teammate, I can joke with them, I can be a pal and then all of a sudden I’m their coach. It’s not as difficult for me as it probably was for them, but they were great about it. Being realistic, I was there more as a mentor than as a coach. I tried to coach as much as I could, but I was also there for them to come to with any issues or problems they had. I hope I do that as a teammate as well. We all worked on the transition, but it was really seamless.
I’m curious about the team’s preparation for this summer. You can watch endless video, you can have tactical sessions every day, but how do you mentally prepare for something of this magnitude?
We do have a mental coach who works with us full time. The mental aspect of the game is something that just started to be understood slightly; it’s not been in the game that long. It’s something we work very hard at, knowing that it’s not going to be easy. Pressure is a terrible thing or it can be if you allow it to be. I remember watching Brazil this past summer and watching them crying with the anthem on and thinking, “Oh my gosh. We can’t let that happen to us”. That, of course, is an emotional moment and it’s massive for the country and you’re so proud, but you can’t be thinking those things when you’re standing out there. I think we’re very aware that it’s going to be a mental game as well as a physical game and just keeping control of our emotions during this amazing ride that’ll be the highlight of many of our careers.
As a Quebec kid, what’s it going to be like when you play in your home province because that doesn’t happen often. I’m sure your family has watched you in other cities, but to be playing in Montreal at the Big O, the province you grew up in, that has to be a very unique experience in itself.
The last time we were in Montreal, I think, was 2003 and that was the first year of my senior career. It’s very special. One way I deal with the pressure is I’m not overthinking it. It’s in the future. When I’m there, I see my family before and after game, but when it’s game time, I could be anywhere. It’s just a game that we need to win for the World Cup. I’m excited to be there. I’m happy my friends and family can be there to see my team and myself, but I’m not trying to overthink being home.
You’ve had a long tenure with this team, over a decade in fact. The bronze medal in London likely tops this list, but do you have any other moments that standout as turning points with the squad?
In 2003, we came in fourth at the World Cup, which was supposed to be in China, but got moved to the US. We actually beat China in a game that we shouldn’t have won looking at statistics. It was sort of one of those games that we got a goal, sat back and just had waves and waves of Chinese attacks, but we managed to hold on and win. That was one of those games where all of a sudden we were in the semifinal of the World Cup. It sort of came out of nowhere because no one expected anything from us. We ended up at the last minute losing to Sweden on a free kick. I was actually talking to Sincy [Christine Sinclair] about it and how we were young then, thinking these World Cups are easy. We were so young at that first one and all of a sudden we were in the semis. Then the next two World Cups were gut punches and we realized these actually aren’t easy. I think that win over China 2003 was definitely a turning point for the program.
The hiring of John Herdman is a massive one. Being a visionary — not just in sport, but just a visionary — because he’s a man that’s really changed out careers.
2011 must have been one of the most difficult years for the team, given the performance at the World Cup in Germany. However, that fall, you had a new coach who came in and basically changed the entire program.
Absolutely. That was a very tough year for all of us. I don’t think our behaviour was always that excellent. I think that it’s easy to point fingers when things are going wrong and we didn’t play well in that World Cup. We let a lot of people down and we let ourselves down. We were pretty broken. Then John showed up. It must have been a very interesting time for him to show up with this broken team. He was able to give us so much belief and confidence in such a small amount of time. I hope people appreciated the job he did because that was not a very different team from 2011 to 2012 at all. I’m talking one or two players. It’s a testament to his abilities and us as a team.
I realize this is a broad question to ask, but when you think about it, what does it mean to be hosting the Women’s World Cup and being a part of it at this point in your career?
I think this is something I’m going to look back on in the years to come. You talked about turning points earlier and if you ask the majority of the older players on this team who they looked up to growing up, most will say one of the American stars. I remember I had a poster of Mia Hamm on my wall. The others had a male star, like someone they watched in the Premier League or Serie A. All of a sudden, I’m bringing this sport I love, that I’ve dedicated so much to — and it’s been a pleasure representing my country, which is such an incredible gift — and all of a sudden, we’re on television. That means these young girls and boys will see Canadian sports figures on TV and they can also see it down the road. They are going to see people in the streets with flags. There will be people with Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson jerseys on. All of a sudden, it’s not a pipe dream. This is absolutely something they can aspire to do and we want them to. Our national team is a really up and coming one and if you go see our youth teams, it’s just such an exciting time. I can’t even imagine the people who are going to be influenced by watching this World Cup and hopefully get out and start training to try and make the team in 10 years time. Our program is in such a great space. With this coming, it’s just a cherry on top for both men and women’s programs. Soccer in Canada is going up and it’s going up fast. It’s just an exciting time.