Kara Lang eventually found her way to the soccer pitch.
But at first, it didn’t matter what sport she participated in.
She had a dream to be a Canadian Olympian, and it didn’t matter how she got there – performing a triple Lutz, speeding down frozen ice on a bobsled or skeleton sled, sinking a jump shot or booting home the game winner on a penalty kick.
“It’s funny that I became a summer Olympian because at first I was willing to try anything to get there and one of the first sports I tried was figure skating,” the Calgary-born, Oakville-raised Lang said.
“My proudest moment was representing Canada at the Olympics. I knew at an early age I wanted to be an Olympian. I didn’t know what sport, but this was something I knew I wanted to do.”
As with most stories, young Canadian Pan Am Games athletes can learn plenty from Lang’s journey in sport.
Her dream was born back in Oakville, when she was five. As the 1992 Winter Games from Albertville, France were going on, she nestled beside her mom and they cheered Canada on while taking in the Olympics on TV.
Lang’s mom was an accomplished gymnast and ballerina, so both were drawn by the figure skating competition. They cheered on Canadian Josée Chouinard. Back then, Lang wanted to be a figure skater.
She tried skating first. But she later excelled in basketball and soccer.
Then the women’s national soccer program came calling.
At 15, she became the youngest member on the women’s national team when she made her debut for Canada against Scotland at the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March 2002. Two days later, she came in as a second-half substitute and scored two goals in a 4-0 win against Wales.
She immediately drew comparisons to United States whiz kid Mia Hamm. Lang played her first senior game for Canada at age 15, 132 days. Hamm made her debut for the U.S. at age 15, 139 days.
But Hamm didn’t score her first goal until she was 18.
Lang continued to turn heads later that summer in 2002, when she starred for Canada at the World Under-19 championship in Edmonton. In the semifinal against Brazil, there was Lang calmly kicking home a penalty kick to send Canada to the final against the U.S.
“It was strange to have other 15 year olds cheering me on,” said Lang, now 28. “It was a little bit overwhelming. I felt like a kid, but yet my peers were looking up to me. It was odd for me.”
She contributed to Canada’s cause at the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, the 2007 Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro, and then finally living out her dream in playing in Beijing at the 2008 Olympic Games, when Canada advanced to the quarter-finals.
“I’m proud of a lot of things in my life so far,” she said. “But if I had to pick out a couple, it would be representing Canada at the Olympics and graduating [from UCLA with a history degree].
“It’s surreal to represent your country. In the moment, because you’re so competitive, it doesn’t always hit you. But when you’re anthem is playing, that’s when it hits you. It always brings me to tears.”
Youngest to hit 50 caps
In total, Lang made 92 appearances for Canada. She was the youngest to reach the 50-cap milestone in 2005 at age 18. She also scored 34 goals during her remarkable career, fourth most in national team history.
Lang is one of six Canadians to score four goals in a match, and one of just two players to score 10 or more goals in back-to-back seasons.
She was not only the youngest Canadian to score a goal in an international match, but also the youngest Canadian to score in the FIFA women’s World Cup, a CONCACAF women’s championship and the Olympics.
Unfortunately, her brilliant career was cut short because of knee injuries. She had been hindered with knee troubles as a youngster, but the first devastating blow came when she was playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2006.
Her right knee injury, an anterior cruciate ligament tear, forced her to miss the entire 2006 UCLA season. She couldn’t build on a freshman season that bestowed her with all-American honours.
The second major knee injury occurred in her final college campaign in September 2009. So young and so much time on the sidelines with injuries.
But each time she bounced back. It wasn’t easy. Rehab is never easy.
Yet there was Lang in Cancun, Mexico in November 2010, a key figure in helping Canada win the CONCACAF women’s championship.
The pain, however, had become too much. The worry about long-term damage was there, too. So Lang retired on Jan. 15, 2011 at age 24.
A little more than a year later, though, national team coach John Herdman planted a comeback seed in Lang’s head. She took up the challenge and worked hard with the 2015 FIFA women’s World Cup in Canada as the main carrot and a possible trip to a second Olympics in 2016.
That plan died when Lang’s troublesome knee suffered another setback about a year ago. She was forced to call off her comeback.
These days, Lang still is in good shape. She can’t run yet, but she feeds her fitness appetite with bike rides and sessions on a stairmaster. She continues her promising broadcast career. She also teaches yoga in Milton, Ont.
Lang also has embarked down a new path. She’s a mentor in CIBC’s Team Next program, in which she has become a sounding board for younger athletes who will compete in the upcoming Pan Am Games in Toronto.
“It’s a way for me to give back. It’s a way to help another athlete navigate their way through their sport,” she said.
“There obviously are a lot of amazing things that come your way from playing a sport internationally, but there also are a lot of sacrifices. There is time spent alone. There is time spent on the road. These are things not often thought about, but it’s nice to have someone who’s been through all that to talk to.”
When Lang became a household name in this country, there were teammates who helped her adjust to being an elite-level athlete and deal with all the trappings.
She roomed with national team legends at various times early in her time with Canada. Andrea Neal and Amy Walsh had been through what Lang was experiencing. They were like doting mothers.
You can lean on your parents, but most don’t know exactly what a young soccer player like Lang was going through.
“[Neal and Walsh] saw me go through graduate high school and college. They had been through that,” Lang said.
“I had so many older teammates to look up to because I was so young. But that’s not always the case for athletes who play individual sports. So I’m just trying to be an ear for those athletes.”
From Neal, Walsh and others, Lang learned how to deal with injuries, how to physically and mentally prepare for games and how to balance life off the pitch.
“A big one was balance,” Lang said. “It’s very easy to make this your life. It’s easier to fall into making what you do define yourself. You need time away. You need a period to refresh.
“I’m the type of person who can make my sport my life 24-7. Even if you’re not on the field, but thinking about it, you’re not really recovering and resting. You can’t be going a 100-miles an hour all the time. It will catch up to you.”
Have there been any other lessons that Lang has passed on?
“Worrying about what you can control,” she said. “Especially in sports in that they’re being judged. Trying to get rid of those outside distractions. It’s a different kind of pressure being an individual athlete because it’s all on you.
“I’m learning as well, which is an awesome part of this. We’re all athletes and we’re all like-minded. It’s really made me sit back and look back on my career to see what worked and what didn’t, how to pick yourself up when you’re down, learning to stay positive when you’re not feeling so positive.”