Opportunity of a Lifetime
by Caroline Wissing
The players arrive at the Oz Dome in Stittsville in dribs and drabs. Some are already dressed in their soccer gear, some change after they get to the field. They chat and laugh easily while they stretch by the bench alongside the pitch.
These aren’t children who were dropped off by their parents, or even teens or young adults. These are members of a soccer league for women over age 35. And the reason they get along so well, beyond being teammates, is because they’ve shared an adventure of a lifetime.
When the FIFA Women’s World Cup came to Canada—and Ottawa—in 2015, local players got to see, first hand, what’s possible in women’s soccer. With that inspiring experience in their rearview mirror, the ladies of the Ottawa Women’s United Soccer Club (OWUSC) began planning to compete at the 2017 World Masters Games in Auckland, New Zealand. An international multi-sport event that has been held every four years since 1985, the World Masters is the largest event of its kind; 28,578 competitors from 100 different countries competed this year.
After Paddy Vargas, a New Zealand native and OWUSC member, found out the location for the 2017 games, she was pumped. ‘How can we not go?’ she thought. ‘I want to show people this beautiful country.’ So right away Paddy formed an organizing committee with her sister, Kate.
They set to work, bringing together a diverse group of mothers, sisters, teachers, public servants, baristas, paramedics, high-tech workers, businesswomen, nurses, and more. All were willing to train and then travel across the globe to play soccer at a level that at one time they never imagined was achievable.
Paddy, the team’s goalkeeper, explains why. “When people reach this age, often we don’t know what our opportunities are to challenge ourselves. So for a lot of people it was a fit- ness challenge, it was a weight challenge, it was an I-can-do- it challenge, and an opportunity to do something we didn’t think was possible.”
Team member Celeste St. John says she took the training very seriously. Despite a busy lifestyle as a mom and nurse at CHEO, she went to the gym every day, joined a boot camp, and made use of any soccer tness information she could get her hands on. As a single parent, she scheduled as much of her training as possible during her son’s school hours, and also made the undertaking a family affair. Not only did Celeste enlist her mother’s help during the lead-up to the games, she shared the travel opportunity with her nine-year-old son, Connell.
“My mum helped me out (with Connell) a lot,” Celeste says. “ The whole point of the journey was to bring him. And to show him what hard work does.”
Amanda Leighton says she had to re-prioritize herself over the demands of her family. It was a challenge, she admits, after spending years raising two children and then caring for ailing in-laws.
In the spring of 2017, on the other side of the globe, the women experienced the rush of the World Masters Games opening ceremonies; they felt like Olympians.
The motto for the games was For the Love of Sport, and that feeling was never more present than when they stepped onto an emerald green Auckland soccer pitch to face their first opposing team.
Unfortunately, the Ottawa team ended up competing in a group of over 30-year-olds instead of over 35-year- olds, and, as Paddy says, “ Those five years make all the difference.” The team struggled to match the level of competition and didn’t manage to win any of the five games in which they competed.
“Although we didn’t do so great on the scoreboard,” Kerry says, “it was amazing to be with each other.” Celeste agrees, adding she loved every minute on the field and was grateful no one got hurt. All the team members were fit enough to play every game and then continue on to enjoy travelling in New Zealand or beyond. They split into groups and some went north, some went south, and some went off to Australia and further.
Although young Connell was at first “more excited that he was getting a month off school” than he was about the soccer, he enjoyed the trip and spending time with all his “other mothers.” Celeste says Connell’s a Lord of the Rings fan, so he was also thrilled to visit the Hobbiton movie set featured in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films.
For Linda Fytche, the camaraderie of her teammates was the best part. “I loved the sisterhood that developed among us women. We all come from different backgrounds, but we all really pulled together.” After the tournament, Linda and her husband celebrated their 20th anniversary by taking a second honeymoon through Australia.
Exhausted but thrilled to have had the experience, they came home to husbands, children, parents and friends who could not have been prouder of their accomplishments. It takes a village to raise an athlete, and for these ladies it was often their families who stepped up to be that village. Husbands learned to cook, siblings became babysitters, children worked as fundraisers, and grandparents opened their homes to the grandkids. As such, everyone shared in the joy, triumph and pride as these dedicated women met their goals and fulfilled their dreams.
And maybe, with continued grit, determination and family support, some of these same women will play in the next World Masters Games in Japan in 2021. ◆