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Port Moody's own Geri Donnelly

Geri Donnelly was recently inducted into Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame this past November. The highest honor for a female Canadian soccer player!

Read about her experience as she reflects on an amazing career playing the beautiful game that proved to be program changing for women's soccer! 

Did you know Geri Donnelly got her start right here in Port Moody with the PMSC?

Photograph - / David Connop

Born in London, Donnelly played street soccer with local boys before her family moved to Port Moody, British Columbia when she was eight.

Port Moody’s Geri Donnelly was there in the beginning, competing and training without the luxury of a high performance centre, a big budget or glossy media attention.

There was virtually no budget, and the expectations from the higher ups were unknown. But the players’ determination rose above it all to plant a seed that is now in full bloom.

Inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in November, Donnelly recalls when a group of women given a few days to prove that a women’s national soccer team deserved a chance.

“Whatever they have now, we didn’t have then — that’s how best to sum it up,” Donnelly recalls, with no sense of envy. “I think our team picture was in black and white.”

That her career would evolve into 71 caps, a leader of the Canadian side for 12 years, twice selected Canada’s player of the year, along with various club championships, seemed to hinge on that inaugural friendly two-game series against the U.S. in 1986.

It came together quickly, as a group of 20-plus players were chosen after a tourney featuring provincial teams in Winnipeg. Immediately from there, a mini-camp reduced that number to 18 who boarded a bus for Minneapolis, known then as the home to the NFL’s Vikings and where the ’70s classic Mary Tyler Moore TV show was set.

The Canadian women were told bluntly that a true program rested on their shoulders.

“We were basically told this was the future of the women’s program,” she told the Tri-Cities NOW. “If we don’t do well — and I don’t know what they meant by doing well — then it may be [our] first and last game.”

Donnelly sat out the first game, a 2-0 loss, but started the second test and scored twice in a 2-1 victory.

To paraphrase the old MTM theme song, they did make it after all.

Soccer Canada agreed to continue the program, but had no funds for the players. Equipment, travel and training was left to each player — an obvious disparity from the men’s squad, where players had access to sponsored equipment, travel expenses and even per diem money.

“[Prior to 1995] we had to raise money ourselves to go to Taiwan, $1,500 to go. I asked the local community and they were great. Safeway, the Port Moody Soccer Club and the Port Moody Legion donated.”

An offensive forward to start, she settled in at midfield in her second season with the national team — admitting that speed was not one of her main assets.

Donnelly’s early roots in the game, which began prior to the family’s emigration from Great Britain when she was seven, offered a solid foundation. But the organized club game here — which meant playing on a girls-only team, after learning to play the sport on an open pitch in London with all the neighbourhood kids at the ready, didn’t appeal to her.

Instead, the newcomer to Port Moody was ready to join cousins Fin (current Member of Parliament) and Liam (SFU head swim coach) in the pool on an invitation from her aunt — until her first practice.

“My aunt failed to tell me that I had to get up at 5 a.m. in the morning and it was an outdoor pool,” recalls Donnelly, smiling. “I went to one [practice] and no, I wasn’t into this. In England we’d go swimming, it was an indoor pool, we’d have fish’n chips after.”

So back to soccer she went, and she never looked back. Growing up in Port Moody, Donnelly had a number of coaches help guide her — including her father. At the under-16 level, the local coach brought her up to join his women’s team in Surrey, providing her a chance to groom her game against bigger, stronger and faster players.

Even a basketball scholarship to Simon Fraser University proved to be beneficial for the beautiful game, as she gained valuable experience and skills that translated onto the pitch.

Photograph - Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame

“I learned from two national team basketball players (then-SFU coach Bev Bland and assistant Gale Sayers) who had that mentality as well. I learned from them and developed as a basketball player and then was able to transfer those skills as a soccer player.”

Throughout it all, brother Vince was there, working with her and helping her take each new step to prepare for international competition.

“There was no training centre in the early days, so [Vince] was my personal coach and trainer. I don’t think I would have played as long as I did without his help. He was awesome.”

There were numerous highlights beyond that first game in 1986. She recalls playing before a large, vocal crowd of 40,000 people in China in 1988, and competing in Haiti where the intense soccer game was played in a country ravished by poverty.

Donnelly would go on to represent Canada at two World Cups, in Sweden in 1995 and the U.S. in 1999, before retiring from the national team.

She would continue playing soccer another 10 years, finishing her run with six consecutive provincial club titles in Surrey.

A school teacher, the 49-year-old said hanging up the cleats wasn’t a difficult decision but knowing when needed some helpful signs.

“My parents would still come out and watch me play, in their 60s and 70s now, but I knew it was getting time to retire when they’d only come out to the important games, the playoffs or cup final,” she says with a laugh.

To have her name immortalized in the Soccer Hall of Fame is an honour that she never expected.

“It’s just a phenomenal honour, that they voted me in.”

Photograph - Lisa King

Reflecting on it all, she says there was so much to be thankful for and so many to thank for the help along the way. In a sense, that path that so many women have followed since that fateful series in Minneapolis has been a shared journey.

Getting to this place meant rising up then.

“No pressure,” she says, half tongue-in-cheek. “Being Canadians, you know how we are —we’re tough, we’re gritty. We knew the Americans had probably been together for four years, we just played like Canadians and got lucky.”

Article Source - Dan Olson / Tri-Cities Now

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