• With health at stake, UP soccer star is torn between her college, her country
BURNABY, B.C. Ñ It's not easy learning to be one of the world's best soccer players.
For Christine Sinclair, it means learning to make hard choices about the game she dearly loves.
Sinclair, the star forward who led the University of Portland to its first NCAA women's soccer title last December, is struggling with a big decision:
Should she skip the college season to concentrate on leading Canada in its bid to win the World Cup in September and October? Or should she go ahead and enroll in school but miss the first half of the semester and the first half of the Pilots' regular season to play in the international competition?
Sinclair, one of the best goal scorers in the world, is recuperating from mononucleosis, which she contracted during her hectic, global travel schedule over the past year.
Because of that, she believes she needs to focus on her biggest priority right now Ñ the World Cup.
'I'm learning how to listen to my body a lot better,' Sinclair said last week from her home in the suburbs of Vancouver, British Columbia. 'I'm learning there's only so much you can do before you run yourself down. And I don't want to be doing that now.'
In 2002 alone, Sinclair played in a combined 56 games for four teams ÑÊthe Pilots, Vancouver Breakers of the W-League, Canada's under-19 national squad and the Canadian national team. She scored 76 goals, including an overtime tally against Santa Clara in the NCAA final.
She has scored six goals for Canada's national team in 2003 but is skipping Vancouver's club season this summer as well as giving up a spot on Canada's Pan-Am Games squad. If she sits out the Pilots' season, the only team she would play for this year is the Canadian national team, which is ranked No. 12 in the world.
Team Canada begins its World Cup training camp on Wednesday in Vancouver. The team will remain together through at least September, when the opening round of the international tournament ends. The quarterfinals, semifinals and final will be played in October, when students at the University of Portland are taking midterm exams.
Sinclair, who has two years of college eligibility remaining, said she is concerned about the amount of missed homework she would be saddled with on her return to the UP campus, not to mention missing half of the Pilots' regular season.
And she has a newfound respect for how much she can push her body.
'The World Cup is something you wait your whole life to play in,' Sinclair said. 'I want to be ready for it.'
The Pilots soccer office did not return calls this week.
Getting back into shape
Sinclair, who is 5-9, has long been a soccer standout in the Vancouver area, but her standing as a Canadian national hero has skyrocketed in the last year.
She captained the under-19 national team to the finals of the world championships, where Canada lost to the United States, 1-0, before 47,784 fans in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium.
Sinclair then was named the tournament's most valuable player and earned a trophy called the 'golden boot' for scoring the most goals. That was just last August.
In October, she led Canada to the finals of the North American region during World Cup qualifying, where it again lost to the U.S. team.
Despite missing five games of the 2002 college season, she led the Pilots in scoring with 26 goals and contributed both goals in the 2-1 victory over Santa Clara in the NCAA final Dec. 8. She was voted college player of the year.
Her achievements have left a definite mark on Canada.
Maclean's, a magazine that focuses on Canada, listed her as the No. 18 most interesting Canadian to watch in 2003. The only athlete listed ahead of her was Steve Nash, point guard for the Dallas Mavericks, who was No. 10.
Earlier this year, a high school student from Alberta, Canada, invented a Web site at www.superstriker.ca and dedicated the content to Sinclair.
Sinclair has been spending part of almost every day this summer training with Bob Birarda, who is a member of the Canadian national team coaching staff. She jogs, sprints, does flexibility exercises, lifts weights, works on finishing shots into a goal Ñ and sweats. She does a lot of sweating.
Birarda, 36, said he's happy that Sinclair now is outworking him during training sessions. Just weeks ago, he said, he was outworking her and she was looking sluggish in games. So sluggish, in fact, that Canadian national team coach Even Pellerud sent her home and held her out of recent national team matches.
She was 'not as sharp as she normally is,' Pellerud told the Canadian Press in June. 'She has a job to do to come to the World Cup well-prepared.'
And that was after Sinclair had scored six goals for Canada during a seven-game stretch that included four games in Portugal in March, a game with the United States in April, and two games in Canada against Mexico in June.
'She scored six goals in seven games, and she was awful,' Birarda said, shaking his head. 'She's amazing.
'I don't know if there's anyone who's as good as she is. She's a special player. And she's not fully developed yet as a player.'
Sinclair, focused on taking care of herself, is skipping the Pan-Am Games in Jamaica next week.
Andrea Neil, a 13-year veteran of the Canadian national team and frequent training partner, said Sinclair's fitness level is returning as the World Cup nears.
'She's up to the level of some players with the national team,' said Neil, who is something of a mentor to Sinclair. 'She made huge strides in the last couple weeks.
'She still has the technique, the ability and the mind for the game. The fitness will come.'
If Canada finishes in the top two of its four-team group in the World Cup, it will play its quarterfinal match on Oct. 2, at PGE Park in Portland. Both semifinals will be played Oct. 5, also at PGE Park. The final is set for Oct. 12, in Carson, Calif. Ñ the same day the Pilots begin their West Coast Conference schedule.
Sinclair said she would like nothing better than to play a World Cup match in Portland.
'I love Portland,' she said. 'It's my second home.'
Deep roots in the game
Sinclair, it seems, was born to be a soccer player.
Her father, Bill, played on teams for 40 years. Her mother, Sandra, helped start the first women's league in Vancouver in the 1970s. Two of her uncles, Brian and Bruce Gant, played for the Portland Timbers in the North American Soccer League. Brian Gant coaches the girls teams at Catlin Gabel, which has won nine consecutive Class 3A state titles.
Her brother, Michael, played soccer for years and still plays for a city league baseball team in Burnaby, B.C.
Christine Sinclair began playing soccer as a 4-year-old. Her team didn't win a game. A year later, she moved to a more competitive team and went six years without losing. She was the goal scorer for those teams.
She also played second base for a coed baseball team until the eighth grade, when she gave up the sport. But baseball stays close to her heart and is on her uniform. She wears No. 12, the number her favorite player, second baseman Roberto Alomar, wore as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.
By the time she got to Burnaby South High School, she was well on her way to being a soccer star, already having been selected to play for a provincial all-star team at age 11.
She has always been the goal-scoring forward.
At Portland, she is a threat to break Tiffeny Milbrett's career scoring record of 103 goals in four seasons. In her first two seasons, she has 49 goals, putting her third on the all-time scoring list. Shannon MacMillan is second with 87 goals.
On the Canadian national team, she is No. 2 all-time in scoring with 38 goals in 47 games.
Those early successes were grooming her for the national team, which has become an international power in the last four years since hiring coach Pellerud away from the Norwegian national team in late 1999.
Pellerud promoted Sinclair to the national team almost immediately, and she responded by scoring nine goals before her 17th birthday.
Learning to deal
Sinclair has paid a price for fame, particularly because she is naturally shy. She gets noticed almost daily Ñ at the gym, at the mall, outside her favorite Starbucks.
Most people just want to say hello and congratulate her on Team Canada's success.
'It's awkward,' Sinclair said. 'People talk to you like they know you. Sometimes it's awesome, but sometimes it's embarrassing, like when I'm around my family because then I really hear it from them Ñ 'Hey, you're Christine Sinclair.'
'I don't know if you can ever get used to that, but I'm getting used to it.'
Sinclair's on-field persona has come under some scrutiny as well. During the under-19 championships, Edmonton Sun columnist Terry Jones wrote that Sinclair needed to spice up her goal-scoring celebrations to add to the festivities. She didn't.
But her leadership skills seemed to work. Before one practice, she called for her teammates to dress up in funky uniforms, calling it 'bad (uniform) day.' Some players dressed up in Halloween costumes. One wore a diaper. Sinclair dressed as Mia Hamm, a stalwart for the U.S. national team. Her teammates roared.
Birarda said Sinclair's personality is developing along with her soccer skills, and he's happy to see it.
'She will actually joke with me now,' said Birarda, who's been working with Sinclair for six years. 'For the first three years we worked out, she didn't say a word to me. Nothing.'
Neil can see Sinclair being a superb professional player some day, despite her shyness.
'She'll never be a rah-rah type of person,' he said. 'She's a leader by example. Off the field, she handles herself with a lot more maturity now than she did even last year.
'You have to remember, she's really just a few months beyond being a teenager. She's only 20, and she's had a lot put in front of her.'
Sinclair could become a professional player today if she wanted, joining the WUSA, an eight-team pro league that features Milbrett and MacMillan as well as several members of the Canadian national team. Her salary probably would be around $50,000.
And she could probably endorse products, too, although that's another level of professionalism that involves image as much as ability. And more scrutiny.
Sinclair said she's more than happy to leave decisions on pro soccer and product endorsement until well into the future.
'I like the way my life is right now,' she said. 'I'm still in college. Can't I just enjoy that?'
As the summer wears on, Sinclair happily works out, keeping the World Cup firmly focused in her mind. She's eligible to play for Canada's Olympic team as well, a tournament that's set for next summer in Athens, Greece.
She eats dinner with her family at their Burnaby home Ñ on Portland Street Ñ and keeps tabs on her mother, who is recovering from a serious auto accident that has left her in a wheelchair since April.
And she's awaiting a consultation with the Pilots coaching staff regarding her plans for this season.
Sinclair said that whether she skips this season or not, she will return to the Pilots. She's committed to finishing her degree in life science before becoming a pro soccer player.
'But I'm not going to graduate school,' she said. 'When I get my degree, that's enough school for me.'