FIFA Women's World Cup brings back bittersweet memories for Canada's 1st national female soccer players

Before Christine Sinclair and Erin McLeod, there was Tracy David and Carrie Sewetnyk. Two Canadian soccer pioneers reflect on how times have changed for female players in three decades.

A lot has changed in the 29 years since 1st Canadian women's team got together in Winnipeg

The original Canadian Women's National Team wore second-hand boys' jerseys (Canadian Soccer Association)

As the opening extravaganza of the 2015 Women's World Cup unfolds in Edmonton and the Canadian team kicks off the tournament with a game against China Saturday afternoon, spare a thought for the women in hand-me-down jerseys who got the ball rolling in Canada 29 years ago.

Appropriately, it was Canada Day, July 1, 1986, when the Canadian Soccer Association brought together 20 players to make up the first women's national team.

The squad had three days in Winnipeg to get to know each other and sort out strategy before embarking on a day-long bus ride to Blaine, Minn., to face the U.S. in their first game.

Tracy David, then a 26-year-old fullback, remembers the emotion of hearing the Canadian anthem played before the game.

"Absolutely, there was a sense of history," said David from her office at the University of Victoria, where she is head coach of the women's soccer team.

"Especially among the older players. We were so proud to put those jerseys on."

Those jerseys, it should be noted, were previously worn by a boys' youth team. And because the women didn't have sponsors, they were expected to provide their own cleats and pay out of pocket for some expenses.

'I was conflicted'

For Carrie Serwetnyk, those things made playing on the inaugural Canadian team both thrilling and disappointing.

"I was conflicted," said Serwetnyk. "I had been playing at the University of North Carolina, which was a soccer paradise, and when I came back to Canada to join the national team, it felt like things were a decade behind: funding, support, knowledge of the game, everything."

Carrie Serwetnyk, a talented goal scorer, will be reporting on the 2015 Women's World Cup for the Vancouver Sun.

Serwetnyk, a talented goal scorer, remembers feeling envious watching many of her college teammates thrive on the U.S. national team, winning Olympics and World Cups.

Meanwhile, the Canadian team struggled to be taken seriously. The joy of wearing the maple leaf faded.

"We lost so many games," said Serwetnyk. "We were always coached to play defensively for the tie."

Sports science of the era

The early days of women's soccer in Canada also meant a certain amount of starvation. 

Nothing diabolical, just the sports science of the era that claimed the best way to avoid jet lag was to avoid food and sleep. That's what Canadian coaches ordered on a long trip to a tournament in China.  

I was caught eating half a muffin and got in so much trouble.- Carrie Serwetnyk, member of Canada's 1st women's national soccer team

"We weren't allowed to close our eyes or eat," recalls Serwetnyk.

"It was miserable, especially after a month of hard training in Edmonton. Some players smuggled snacks into the bathroom. I was caught eating half a muffin and got in so much trouble."

David agrees it wasn't always easy being a Canadian soccer pioneer.

"The young players now have no idea of the struggles we had," says David, who juggled her national team duties with a full-time job.

"I'd work all day, then go running or do weights, then go to soccer. Most of us it did it in isolation, as well."

'They're living the ideal'

David and Serwetnyk are both now involved in the 2015 Women's World Cup.

Serwetnyk is working as a special correspondent for the Vancouver Sun. David will be recognized alongside other Canadian team alumni on June 8 in Vancouver.

For the record, that groundbreaking game 29 years ago ended in a 0-2 loss.

To make matters worse, the very first Canadian team players weren't even allowed to keep their second-hand jerseys.

So, the only enduring memento remains that sense of history — blazing the trail for the teams and players who followed.  

Serwetnyk says today, her envy is directed at the current Canadian players.

"It's the pinnacle moment," she says of the chance to play in a World Cup on home soil.

"What's happening now is actually the dream of being a national team athlete. They're living the ideal."

About the Author

Karin Larsen

@CBCLarsen

Karin Larsen is a former Olympian and award winning sports broadcaster covering BC teams and athletes for 25 years.