Retiring Wilkinson excited at 'so many roads to take'

Rhian Wilkinson, who says goodbye to her playing career Saturday with her 181st appearance for Canada's women's national soccer team, will likely never stop challenging herself.

Long-time national team defender will move on to new challenges

Canadian defender Rhian Wilkinson will play her final international on Saturday. (Andy Clark/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of winning bronze at the Rio Olympics, Rhian Wilkinson ran a marathon and crewed a yacht in the Mediterranean.

After the 2015 Women's World Cup, she walked part of the famed Camino de Santiago trail in Spain with her mother.

The 34-year-old fullback, who says goodbye to her playing career Saturday with her 181st appearance for Canada, will likely never stop challenging herself.

So rather than a post-Olympic holiday on a beach, Wilkinson ran the Montreal marathon. "Just wanted to get that out the way," she said breezily. "Check it off the bucket list."

There was a little more to it than that, however.

"A lot of times when I do public speaking I talk to people about living in that uncomfortable space and pushing their boundaries. I hadn't done that for a while," said Wilkinson, who ran her first marathon 10 years ago.

"At the end of my soccer career I personally wasn't pushing any boundaries. I had this opportunity to run the marathon. Why sign up for a 10K if I'm telling other people to push boundaries? So I went for it. I jumped in."

Next was crewing a 15-metre yacht for nine days from Majorca to Malaga, Spain, with nine Germans.

"It sounds huge until you have nine other people in it. It was pretty tight," she said dryly.

Wilkinson, a native of Baie-D'Urfe, Que., who now calls North Vancouver home, saw it as an adventure.

Got 'violently' seasick

"I've never been on a sailing boat before. I was violently ill," she said with a laugh. "But I've done it."

It was also a chance to do something she knew nothing about — with people who had no idea she was an elite athlete whose playing career has stretched across 14 years, four World Cups, three Olympic and three Pan-American Games.

Wilkinson will step on the field one last time, along with retiring teammates Melissa Tancredi and Marie-Eve Nault, in a friendly against Mexico at B.C. Place Stadium in a so-called celebration of the 2016 Olympic squad.

Not one to live in the past, Wilkinson was working on her coaching badges as a player and, along with former international Carmelina Moscato, is already involved as a youth coach with the Canadian Soccer Association.

Wilkinson's hope is to learn from national team coach John Herdman along the way. She was wearing a coaching hat with Herdman and the Canadian team at its recent camp in Los Angeles before jumping back onto the field for the Mexico match.

Wilkinson is already marvelling at the next wave of young Canadian talent coming through and how well they understand the game already.

"Everybody's just been blown away by them," she said.

But while she hopes coaching will be her next career, she is open to anything.

"Who knows? So many roads to take and so many things to explore. I don't want to narrow my focus yet."

Wilkinson expected the Olympics to be her farewell so Saturday's game is a "wonderful bonus." As such, she's just enjoying the chance to be back among friends.

It's been a long and distinguished run. She debuted for Canada in April 2003 in a 6-1 loss to the United States in Washington, D.C.

"I remember fouling Shannon MacMillan, who was one of my heroes," she recalled with a giggle.

"I can't remember much of the game other than fouling her. The scoreline seemed so irrelevant because I played against the U.S., and they were the reigning World Cup champion. I never thought I would have the chance to play for Canada and I thought I was one-and-done."

Far from it.

She scored in her next game in July 2003, a 2-1 win over Brazil in her hometown of Montreal.

"I'm pretty sure it probably went in off my butt or something like that," she said. "It was a lot to do with heart and not much to do with skill. But to score at home on a second cap with family and friends there was amazing."

Her hometown is understandably proud of Wilkinson. Last June, Dorset Park was renamed Rhian-Wilkinson Park in her honour.

Wilkinson played under three vastly different national team coaches in Norway's Even Pellerud, Italy's Carolina Morace and England's Herdman.

"All three were such important steps along my journey," she said.

Pellerud gave her her first opportunities, pushing her to meet his high standards. "He gave you the opportunity to succeed in that environment. It was hard work."

Morace changed the way the Canadian women played the game, "from very direct soccer to controlled tactics."

Former coach Morace an 'important step'

"If she hadn't been that middle step between Even and John, we wouldn't have won the (bronze) medal in London (at the 20120 Olympics). I truly believe that. The work she did with us was a very important step on the journey."

Morace stepped down after the team finished last at the 2011 World Cup. Not one to shift blame, Wilkinson says she is still embarrassed by the way that part of the journey ended.

"Finger-pointing is a horrible thing to do and I was culprit of that. And I didn't take too much of the heat when I should have. We disappointed ourselves and her and Canada in the World Cup in 2011. And from that broken place emerged John."

Wilkinson credits Herdman for giving the team the confidence to succeed — "and built us from scratch, because we really were broken after the World Cup experience."

An impressive figure on and off the field, Wilkinson has a BA in communications from the University of Tennessee and a degree in anatomy and physiology from Athabasca University. She is a member of the FIFA Strategic Committee, tasked with dealing with "global strategies for football and its political, economic and social status."


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