By Ali Lee ,Files from Field Hockey Canada
TORONTO, Ont. – For the first time since 1999, the Canadian women’s field hockey team is taking home a medal at the Pan American Games. Key members of the squad were co-captains and former Vikes Danielle Hennig and Thea Culley. Goalkeeper Kaitlyn Williams back-stopped the team for the bronze-medal win on Friday night at Pan Am/Para Pan Am fields in Toronto, Ont.
Canada defeated Chile 1-0 Friday in Toronto to take third place and write a new chapter of success in its Pan Am Games history.
“That what we wanted,” says team captain Kate Gillis, who is one of three players from Ontario on the bronze medal roster. “Even though it’s not quite the colour that we wanted, that was our goal to get a medal and contribute to this amazing run that Canada’s had with the medal count.”
Canada was disappointed not to be playing in the Pan Am final after a 3-0 loss to the United States in the semifinal, but as the third ranked team in the tournament, its finish is right on par with outside expectations.
“I think we played a really good tournament,” adds Gillis. “A tough game against the U.S., and Chile always plays well, especially against us.
“We’re trying to gain more experience as a team and I think it’s slowly and surely coming.”
The performance is a validation of sorts for the Canadian side which has slightly risen in the world rankings to twentieth in the world, but has had sustained growth in its level of play for the better part of two years.
“The goal was to put our best performance on the pitch and improve from a very good performance in the semifinal,” says Canadian head coach Ian Rutledge, who has led the Canadians through this transformative period.
After the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Canada lost 3-0 to Chile in the bronze medal match, many of the Canadian veterans left the team. It was handing over the reigns to the young group that led Canada to a bronze at this year in Toronto.
One of those players was Brienne Stairs, who as a 21 year-old in the 2011 tournament scored six goals, and this year scored the bronze medal-clinching goal in the fifty-first minute on a Canadian penalty corner.
“We were obviously disappointed that we didn’t make the gold medal game,” says Stairs, now 25. “But to come away with a win in this game is very important to us and we’re very ecstatic.”
Important because the goal has always been more than just the Pan Am Games and Rio 2016 Olympic qualification (which the women narrowly missed out on).
“We’ve been talking about an eight year plan towards Tokyo (Olympics),” adds coach Rutledge. “We wanted to get to Rio and be desperate to get to Rio and that didn’t come. We’re already three years into an eight-year plan. We have a world cup to prepare for in 2018, and the girls effectively were talking about starting our Tokyo program in this game.”
The average age of the bronze medal winning squad is just twenty-three, and with that the future is bright for Canadian women’s field hockey. Four more years of experience would bring the Canadians to an age where many of the top teams in the world sit.
For now, they savour in the rare feat of winning a medal at the Pan Am Games, and even rarer, doing it on home soil.