Canada wins first-ever soccer gold at Pan Am Games

Canada's women's soccer team claimed its first Pan American Games gold medal in dramatic fashion Thursday. Christine Sinclair scored in the 88th minute to tie the score 1-1 as Canada went on to a 4-3 shootout win over Brazil.
Canada's goalkeeper Karina Leblanc reacts after making the winning save in a shootout against Brazil to win the gold medal during women's soccer action during the Pan Am Games on Thursday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

After a couple of tumultuous months for Canada's women's soccer team that included a heartbreaking performance at the World Cup and the loss of its coach, Karina LeBlanc said she couldn't have written this script any better.

Canada claimed its first Pan American Games gold medal in women's soccer in dramatic fashion Thursday in a game that took 120 thrilling minutes and a penalty shootout to decide.

Christine Sinclair scored in the 88th minute to tie the score 1-1 as Canada went on to a 4-3 shootout win over Brazil, a welcome boost to a team left reeling after its quick World Cup exit in July and the first tournament win for coach John Herdman.

"This story is perfect," said LeBlanc, Canada's veteran 'keeper who was brilliant in the victory. "We were knocked down after the World Cup, we fell down, and John came in and he said: what do you guys want? We said, we want a gold medal. To go down and to show the resilience our team has. … The message moving forward: you know what, you can knock us down, but we'll find a way."

Diana Matheson, Sinclair, Melanie Booth and Sophie Schmidt scored in the shootout for Canada, while veteran LeBlanc stopped shots by Brazil's Grazielle and Debora to cement the victory.

After a game that took 120 minutes and penalty shots to decide, the Canadians danced in a circle at centre field while Queen's "We Are The Champions" played over the stadium's sound system.

"You win tournaments here and there in random countries that, yeah, mean a lot," said Sinclair. "But to stand up there and listen to your national anthem being played, it's unbelievable. It's absolutely unbelievable."

Sinclair said the victory was a present to her mom Sandra, who celebrated her birthday Thursday.

"Happy birthday mom! That's all she wanted," Sinclair said.

Canada's medal haul

Elsewhere on Thursday, Canada won silver in the men's K4 1,000-metre race, while Catherine Roberge of Charlesbourg, Que., won the silver in women's 78-kilogram judo, while Meaghan Benfeito of Laval, Que., and Montreal's Roseline Filion took silver in women's 10-metre synchronized platform diving. Jennifer Park of Nanaimo, B.C., won silver in women's bowling, while Montreal's Caroline Lagrange earned bronze.

Canada's men's fencing squad also took bronze in the team epee event, Malindi Elmore of Kelowna, B.C., was third in the women's 1,500 metres in athletics, Toronto's Olivia Grant won bronze in the women's 68-kilogram karate event and Shaun Dhillon of New Westminster, B.C., won bronze in the men's 84-kilogram karate division.

Montreal's George Kobaladze won bronze in the men's 105-kilogram weightlifting competition, Antoine Valois-Fortier, also of Montreal, took bronze in the men's 81-kilogram judo event, while Alexandre Emond of Laval, Que., earned bronze in the men's 90-kilogram judo division.

In the women's soccer final, De Oliveira scored just four minutes in on a long run for two-time defending Pan Am champion Brazil, sprinting through Canada's backline before firing from long range to beat LeBlanc.

Appearing destined

The Canadians appeared destined for silver before Sinclair got her head on a corner kick from Matheson, steering the ball past Brazilian 'keeper Barbara Barbosa and sending the game into two 15-minute overtime periods.

Two 15-minute periods of extra time couldn't have been easy for two teams playing their fifth game in a week. Both sides finished the preliminary round dead even on points, goal difference and goals scored. Their preliminary-round game, not surprisingly, ended in a 0-0 draw — the fourth straight between the two sides.

The Canadians, bronze medallists at the Pan Ams four years ago in Brazil, went winless at the women's World Cup this past summer in Germany, which led to the resignation of coach Carolina Morace. They'd played just a pair of friendlies with Herdman versus the U.S., before arriving in Mexico, where they fielded a side that includes 11 players from the World Cup squad.

Brazil, with 12 of its World Cup players in Guadalajara — the one notable absence was star Marta — was ousted by the U.S. in the World Cup quarter-finals.

Canada had several earlier chances to score, including what had the potential to be a highlight reel goal from Sinclair in the 20th minute — a nifty back-heel to herself that she fired just high. Then in the 57th minute, the Canadians coudn't get a head on Matheson's dangerous free kick.

LeBlanc, who's made a record four World Cup appearances for Canada, did well to keep the score close in regulation with several spectacular saves, including a minute-long stretch that saw her dive right to stop a shot from close in, tip a corner kick over the net and punch the ball out of danger.

The 45,000-seat Estadio Omnilife, which locals have dubbed "the toilet seat" for its circular, white partial-roof, is normally home to pro team Chiva Guadalajara. The stands were more than half full of mostly Mexican fans for Canada's game — a holdover, no doubt, from the bronze medal game that saw Mexico beat Colombia 1-0 in extra time. The festive crowd banged drums and chanted, and cheered good plays by both teams and booed dirty ones.

The inaugural game at Omnilife saw Manchester United play Guadalajara in 2010, a match that included the ceremonial crossover of Javier Hernandez. The Mexican, recently signed by United, played the first half for Guadalajara then switched sides to his new team for the second half.

The tournament comes less than three months before Canada will host the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver. Brazil has already qualified for London.

Earlier, Richard Dober Jr. of Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Que., Philippe Duschesneau of St-Denis-de-Brompton, Que., Toronto's Steven Jorens and Connor Taras of Waverley, N.S., finished in three minutes 2.653 seconds in the kayak final.

Cuba won gold in 3:01.061, while Brazil (3:02.821) took the bronze.

'A great race'

"It was a great race, probably one of the best K4 races I've ever had," Taras said. "It was great to be on the podium and it was rewarding after a long year of hard work. It sets the mood for the rest of the regatta."

Added Duschesneau: "It was a smart race. We stuck to our plan perfectly and I am happy about the result. We were really relaxed and in control, compared with a lot of K4 races I've competed in."

Roberge lost to Kayla Harrison of the U.S. in the gold-medal match of the women's 78-kilogram judo event. Brazil's Mayra Da Silva took bronze.

"I'm very happy I came to Guadalajara," Roberge said. "I would have liked to win the final. I still have some small technical details to work on. It was a good fight."

Benfeito and Filion finished second with 318.66 points. Mexico's Paola Espinosa and Tatiana Ortiz won gold with 326.31, while Cuba's Yaima Mena and Annie Rivera were third with 269.28.

Park fell 2-0 to Elizabeth Johnson of the U.S. in the women's bowling final. Park beat Lagrange 2-1 in the semis.

Canada's men's fencing team consisting of Vancouver's Tigran Bajgoric, Igor Gantsevich of Richmond, B.C., Quebec City's Vincent Pelletier and Montreal's Etienne Lalonde-Turbide beat Chile 45-27 to take bronze in the team epee event. The Venezuelans took on the U.S. for gold later Thursday.

Elmore finished third in the women's 1,500 with a time of 4:27.57. Cuba's Adriana Munoz won in 4:26.09, while Colombia's Rosibel Garcia (4:26.78) took the silver.

"I had to be patient," Emore said. "The group got the pace at 150-200 metres. Usually, it's about 400-600 meters. I wanted to win or at least get a silver medal."

In the women's 68-kilogram karate division, Grant lost to eventual silver medallist Xunashi Caballero of Mexico in the semifinal. Guatemala's Maria Castellanos won gold.

Kobaladze won bronze in the men's 105-kilogram weightlifting competition behind Brazil's Fernando Reis and Venezuela's Yoel Morales.

"I'm very happy with my performance," Kobaladze said. "Naturally, I wanted to win gold and I thought I was in good shape, but I'm satisfied and very proud."

Valois-Fortier defeated Argentina's Emmanuel Lucenti for bronze in the men's 81-kilogram judo event. Brazil's Leandro Guilheiro took gold by downing Puerto Rico's Gadiel Miranda in the final.

Intimidation factor

"It's my first Games and there is something very intimidating about that," Valois-Fortier said. "I think I reacted well to the pressure."

Emond defeated Jacob Larsen of the U.S. for bronze in the men's 90- kilogram judo division. Brazil's Tiago Camilo bested Cuba's Asley Gonzalez for gold.

"I wasn't expecting too much," Emond said. "I wasn't sure I would be able to fight today, after an injury last week. So I didn't have an easy day today."

Meanwhile, Canada's men's field hockey team beat Cuba 3-2 in semifinal play.

A victory over Argentina on Saturday would give Canada an automatic berth at next year's Summer Olympics in London.

"We are here to win this tournament and we are here to qualify for the Olympic Games," Canada coach Robin D'Abreo said. "With this performance we have given ourselves an opportunity to allow that to happen."

In men's water polo, Canada overcame a 4-2 halftime deficit to defeat Brazil 8-6 in the semifinals.

The Canadians will face the U.S. in the final on Saturday with the winner also earning a London berth. The Americans hammered Cuba 12-2 in the other semi.

"It was a very difficult game," Canada head coach Dragan Jovanovich said. "Our team is not very experienced and the average age is 22. But I can tell you there are few teams that would have been able to come back like that. This is a match that is really going to make our team grow."