I follow a woman Sandra Mikulic on Instagram and I frickin love her. She is 45, a mom of 4, is proudly 250 pounds and runs marathons. She started 4 years ago. Her whole message is that do whatever you want at whatever age you want in whatever way you want. In the realm of a world that has a timeline hammered into our heads for everything, playing top level soccer at age 43 can make me wonder how far the railway car has run off the railway tracks of my life, but I watch Sandra’s stories and remind myself that yes, we can do whatever we want at whatever age we want, and my god do I love playing serious soccer again. And it’s a good reminder that our lives are our own journeys and our only job is to trust and move towards wherever it leads us with an open heart. And to have gratitude for being lucky enough to be alive and well enough to do crazy things in the first place.
Last week was my first full week in Ireland back playing in the top level of the national league.
It was also my first time playing organized soccer since 2019. The last time I had been on an organized soccer field was the week that I published the blog that would lead to my former coach, Bob Birarda’s criminal conviction for sexual assault against his former players. And it was one of the worst moments I’ve faced since coming forward in Feb 2019.
The week I published the blog, it went viral and journalists were reaching out to interview me. One of those interviews was 3 days after, and I had been interviewed early on a Thursday, for my hometown newspaper. The writer asked when I was on a field again so they could come take a headshot. The timing worked out as I happened to have my own practice the same evening. So that night I found myself on an empty back field inside a soccer bubble while my team warmed up, getting a head shot taken by the photographer from my hometown newspaper. It was a completely innocuous affair that no one took much notice of.
That is until suddenly the newly hired technical director of the soccer club, North Shore Girls that I had spent parts of 32 years representing, came on the field and in an aggressive manner, ordered the photographer to leave. I was thrown, both in trying to figure out who had tipped him off to what was going on, as well as how he had blown past me in such a rude, aggressive manner. My instant thought was he would never have dared to a treat a fellow white man in his 50’s the way, and so I addressed him shaking, as calmly as I could.
“Hi Colin, I’m Ciara McCormack, what’s the problem here.”
“I know who you are,” he spat back at me, while I bit my lip, trying not to cry, already feeling fragile in the days after I blew open Canada’s biggest soccer secret.
When I asked him if the situation we found ourselves in was about the blog I wrote, he said, “yes Ciara, we don’t want the club to be associated with the blog. You understand right?” Like it made sense that writing a blog standing up to a sexual predator who was on a field with teenage girls for 11 years in the same town, was something for the club to not want to associate themselves with.
Regardless of how absurd the whole situation was, I felt the burn of embarrassment, shame and all feelings that come with being pegged with a troublemaker, boil up around me. And so I walked off an organized soccer field in Vancouver for the last time.
I would later find out that this man was a good friend of the soon to be disgraced Whitecaps President, as well as did some radio for the Whitecaps, which made his palpable venom towards me and the photographer make sense. His pal was the same Whitecaps President who would later be found in official reports to be at the center of Birarda’s cover up. What I’d dared to reveal had thrown a wrench in the good old boys Vancouver world soccer order.
The same good ol boys club in Vancouver that was at the root of the harm female players experienced for over a decade, would rear its ugly head again a few days later, in a call that I would have with the President of the Board of North Shore Girls 2 days after I had left the field for the last time.
I was acquainted with this North Shore Girls President, as I had ironically sat on the Board of the same club, NSGSC, the year before. And I wasn’t surprised when we got on the phone 2 days after I left the field with the kicked out photographer, and he doubled down and supported this Whitecaps President friend/technical director of North Shore Girls.
And 2 days later, the tears and embarrassment that I’d felt getting unexpectedly made feel unsafe in a space where I thought I’d be protected, had turned to anger. “Let’s just make this quick because it’s pretty simple,” I said to him, interrupting his small talk.
“Does the club support the way Colin treated me and the photographer” – I asked.
“Yes we do,” he answered matter of factly.
“Great that’s all I need to know,” I responded.
“But Ciara we respect and admire what you did in writing the blog-.” I cut him off before he could say anything else.
“No that’s the thing Dean. You can’t support what I did which was stand up for the 3000 vulnerable girls in this club, as well as support how Colin treated me and shamed me for doing what I did. You either support one or the other. It’s black and white, and the lack of understanding of that fact, is the problem that’s allowed the whole city to watch Birarda on the field this whole time.”
And I abruptly hung up the phone, shedding for the last time, the polite acquiescence that being female can be synonymous with.
I was furious although not surprised. It was the last time I played for my childhood club and the last time I engaged in organized soccer until this past weekend suiting up for Treaty United in Limerick, Ireland, almost exactly 4 years later.
I spent the last 4 years finding my joy in the game again playing pick up with guys in Vancouver and California. I loved it. Anyone that knows me from when I was a kid, knows how obsessed I am with soccer. How much I love the game and the power it has for good. But from when I left Vancouver in 2007, after reporting Birarda’s behavior to authorities for the first time, and until his arrest in 2020, the game was a painful place for me to be around. It was like my place of solitude and joy had been turned into the scene of a car accident.
It was painful.
It was like every time I was around it I was reminded of how broken I was from all of it. How my joyful place became a reminder of all the bad in the world. A reminder of what had been taken away from me. What had been taken away from my friends and other teammates with integrity, values and the courage to stand up to the monsters that controlled how high we could climb in the Canadian women’s soccer world. For 12 years, from 2007-2019 soccer reminded me of predators allowed by leaders to roam free, and a world that was not right.
My mental health was a mess, trying to move on from something I loved so much but continued to hurt me so deeply, knowing a predator was on a field with teenage girls in full view and with the knowledge of many.
It was a hard place to be.
One of the most significant things about playing again, is that it is the first time since I wrote the blog, that my location is publicly known. I have been scared standing up to secrets that were buried so deep, and have been aware that a consequence of those whistleblowing actions was maybe someone would do something to me.
I have felt safety cocooned in my nomadic ways and lack of clarity in my location. So when the announcement came out that I was playing for Treaty in Ireland, it’s the first time since I wrote the blog in 2019 that my location will be publicly known. But I don’t have fear anymore. If anyone was to hurt me, I have peace in that I would rather be harmed by at external force than have my insides corrode in silence as they did for over a decade.
Furthermore, being back on the field again has been mildly traumatic in ways I wasn’t expecting. We have the most incredible coaching staff – as kind and approachable as they are capable and professional technical coaches. Yet at times, I find myself being triggered being back playing on a team, and feel like I’m a mother calming an anxious child, reminding myself with my internal voice that things are different and I’ll be ok.
Even though there is nothing to stress, the old familiar feelings of anxiety that riddled my playing career within the realm of some asshole coaches envelop me, like an old blanket waiting to smother me. How I’m fighting old feelings surfacing of worrying and stress that everything is going to go wrong.
I have to remind myself how different everything is now. How different who I am now and how I think now. I have to remind myself of this gift that I’ve been given, to play another spell of time, to be free from all the harm.
In a world finally made right.
On the other side of the hellscape that soccer represented for so many years.
It’s a gift and I’m grateful to be reminded of all the good back in it that myself and so many of my former teammates have fought so hard for.
So I take a deep breath and I soak it all in deep in gratitude and sometimes uncomfortable feelings.
Because as my new fave social media follow Sandra Mikulic says, quoting the great Ted Lasso, “if you’re comfortable doing life, then you’re probably doing it wrong.”