I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mentors and how fortunate I have been with the people that I grew up in the game around. I’m going to talk about a couple of more of them in other blogs, but this is a story about one of them.

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A couple of years ago, I was back in Vancouver and spent the afternoon at my storage locker, spending time sifting through a mountain of papers when I came across an envelope with the name Andrea on it. Curious as to what it was, I opened it and saw that it was a note that I had wrote but never delivered to Andrea Neil, the winter break of my second year of university. The same Andrea Neil, who a couple of years ago became the first women’s soccer player to be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame as a 20 year veteran of the Canadian national team, and who is currently the head coach at UBC.

The Story Behind the Note

It was December 1998, I was nineteen, and had been invited to come in and scrimmage at a Canadian U20 camp that was being held in Victoria. I didn’t have a car while I was home and had taken the bus from my house in North Van, onto the ferry and then caught it to the University of Victoria to play in the game. The game itself I don’t remember much about, besides I was nervous, there were national team coaches there, and at the end of the game, I jumped on the bus and headed back to the ferry terminal.

Once I was on the ferry, I happened to see Andrea Neil, who I already watched play for Canada and who I idolized. I was passing by her when I had a burst of courage and said to my hero, “Are you Andrea Neil?” She looked at me confused as I quickly rushed out that I had played against her a couple of times and had just been at UVic playing in the game. I probably threw in a fair share of “ums” and “likes,” as I often do in situations where I feel nervous and flustered.

Instead of brushing off an awkward super fan, Andrea had all the time in the world for me. We chatted the rest of the ferry ride home, the “ums” and “likes” dissipating, as she immediately treated me like an old friend. Once we got to the terminal in Tsawwassen she asked me how I was getting home, and I told her that I was taking the bus back to North Van. She immediately insisted on driving me home, even though it was completely out of her way and long past her stop on the west side of Vancouver.

The note I found in my storage locker, in my box of old notes and cards, was a note that I had written her, but forgot to send, holding the awestruck tone that one would have thought had after crossing paths with a rock star. In reality, “rock star” would be a pretty apt way to describe Andrea.

Since that day in December of 1998, I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Andrea many times, in many different circumstances and I am privileged at this stage to call her a good friend. She was the captain of the Whitecaps when I played with the team over the course of a decade and “Andie” truly was the kind of captain that I looked up to and aspired to be like.

It didn’t matter if training was informal, from Saturday mornings on a patch of grass with a high school aged Christine Sinclair and other soccer die-hards at Killarney in East Van, to intense games of 4 against 4 at Ambelside when she was in her mid-thirties; she always was playing with an immense passion and the zest of a sixteen year old. I might have even tripped her or hit her with an out-of-control tackle a couple of times through the years. For my efforts I definitely received a signature Andrea Neil finger wag or two, served with a complimentary swear-free admonishing. Even in the most heated of times, Andrea Neil was pure class.

In addition to our soccer pursuits, we spent hours upon hours at physio together with the legendary Randy Celebrini, overcoming injuries. No matter where we were I watched her and learned that part of what made her so successful was that no matter in what arena Andrea was in, she had the purest of integrity in every situation, diligently giving 100 percent, whether carrying ball bags as a captain, talking to a younger player, or battling it out on the field. Through her effort and example she always demanded the same from everyone around her. She’s the kind of person I still think about when I think of who I want to be like even so many years later.

When I look back to the one-time aspirations that I had to play for the Canadian team, it truly was because I wanted to be like Andrea and the other girls that were older than me that I trained with like Amy Apps and Amber Allen, who were also on the team. They all oozed honour and integrity and the ideal of always giving everything you have, to be your best. That to me was the essence of what it meant to represent your country, these older player’s example, and what drove me towards reaching for that goal.

In an era now where athletes measure their worth in twitter followers and attention, Andrea shunned the spotlight and always handed it over to others. As an older player, she was always kind, always set a good example and was the kind of person and player that you simply felt inspired to be like. Even to this day, as she has become a close friend, she is still someone I walk away from interacting with, wanting to be better. Seeing her in the role now as coach, the diligence and the integrity of what she gives her players is truly inspiring.

She also is someone with courage. There were many situations over the years as a player that Andrea went out of her way to speak up when she didn’t have to, or it would have been easier not to, when other people didn’t have a voice. Not everyone in the privilege of Andrea’s position has that within them, which over the years has polished the shine even more of what a truly special person she is and something that I aspire to be like to those younger people who have less of a voice.

I am truly privileged to have played with many wonderful older players over the years, Andrea being one of them. They all taught me how people are always watching us and how we can make an impact, by just giving our best and by being ourselves.

So in the words from that undelivered storage locker note that my nineteen-year-old self wrote to Andrea Neil, the rock star, after the ferry ride chat and the ride home:

“Thanks so much for everything. You’re not only an amazing soccer player, but someone to aspire to be like as a person as well, Ciara.”

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