Twenty years is a long time, but it’s how long the Canadian Women’s National Team had to wait to beat the United States and propel themselves to their first ever gold medal match at the Olympics. The Canadians went on to win against Sweden in an agonizing six rounds of penalty kicks.
NJ/NY Gotham FC starting goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan joined Canada as the backup goalkeeper for this historic moment. Although she faced a momentary setback when she picked up a quad injury just months before the tournament, she fought her way back through surgery and recovery, and earned the call up.
We sat down with Kailen Sheridan to discuss her injury recovery, her first Olympics call up, and what can be done to support women’s sports in North America.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
First of all, congratulations on winning the gold medal! What an historic win for Canada. In general, what was it like to be at the Tokyo Olympics this year, and how did team chemistry play into your win?
It was a remarkable experience, and definitely one that I’ll never forget. It was definitely different from any other Olympics before, and that has its challenges. It makes the result even more special. Not having fans or family there was just another thing that we had to adjust to. It changed the atmosphere, and it was important to us at that point to create our own atmosphere and be each other’s family far from home.
Our team is really connected. A lot of us have known each other for a really long time now. Even the ones that haven’t, it feels like we’ve known each other forever. That helps a lot! The people that were there - we are each other’s family in a lot of ways. It can be a really tough environment that can cause a lot of stress. But we did so well at knowing what we needed from each other, what we needed from ourselves, and doing what we needed to do in order to get the best out of each other and ourselves. It really brought us closer together. We’ll have that experience together forever.
Bringing it back to February 2021, you got the start for Canada against the United States during the SheBelieves Cup and picked up that quad injury in the first few minutes. What was going through your mind at that moment?
The only thing that was really going through my mind was this dream of the Olympics was gone. The games had already been pushed back a year. I was really pushing to get on the roster and become that starter. I was in some pain, but it was more pain knowing that the dream might not be a reality anymore.
Sometimes it’s obvious when you’re on your highs that people support you, but it’s so important to remember that when people are in their lows that you’re their family and they need you. I’m really thankful for both Gotham and Canada and everything they did for me during my recovery process.
What was the road to recovery like after that? Did you have doubts throughout the process about still being able to make it to the Olympic roster for Canada?
It was a really tough recovery. Any injury recovery has its challenges, and mine had quite a few. I had amazing people helping me push through that and get to where I got to right before the Olympics. The biggest thing was trying to stay positive and optimistic. I just stuck to the plan and process, and didn’t get too ahead of everything. I think that was really key for me - having a goal and really pushing for that goal. It was a testament to the people around me keeping me grounded and consistent with my process. I definitely would not have been here without those people.
Speaking of the people around you, you could clearly see the support of your Gotham teammates in that viral video of you getting the Olympic call up while on the bus traveling with the team. You could see the joy and relief on your face, but what was it like to get that call?
I was really nervous! I knew the calls were coming out that day and nothing is ever guaranteed. As much as you can feel confident, it’s in somebody else’s hands. That’s a scary place to be. I blacked out right before because I knew what was about to happen and I was going to be told something that was going to change the next few weeks of my life, and I’m really grateful to have been around my team. They made it so incredibly special for me. They were probably more excited for me than I was, as much as I was over the moon and crying. My teammates had such an impact during my injury recovery, too. They reached out to me to help even when they probably didn’t realize I needed it. They were there all the time, so positive, and so supportive. It’s the little things that you don’t realize have such an impact on recovery.
You can see by following the Gotham players on social media or seeing their on field chemistry that this group is close.
Absolutely. We’re really close as a group and I’m so thankful for that. We have such amazing people on this team, and not just in soccer ability. They make a huge difference in your life. There’s not a lot of people who understand what we do or understand the things that we go through - physically, mentally, emotionally, it’s a challenge. It seems kind of glamorous sometimes, but there’s a lot that we go through. These people that we get to do it with, they’re our family. I’m really grateful that our family is so close and supportive, and always there when we need each other. I learned more than ever during my recovery how important they were to me. The same goes for my teammates in Canada. Sometimes it’s obvious when you’re on your highs that people support you, but it’s so important to remember that when people are in their lows that you’re their family and they need you. I’m really thankful for both Gotham and Canada and everything they did for me during my recovery process.
Speaking of your Canadian team, Stephanie Labbé had an amazing tournament. What is it like being teammates with her?
She’s awesome! She’s someone that I’ve looked up to for a really long time and continue to look up to both on and off the field. She’s helped me grow into the person and athlete that I am. I am forever grateful for her. I think we have such an incredible relationship and I’m really lucky for that. I think all the goalkeepers for Canada do. We have gotten to a point where we are really, really competitive but not in a negative way. It’s not that we are at each other’s throats, but rather it’s how we can learn from each other and be better. Labbé has told me that I have done that for her many times, and I know that she has done that for me. It’s pushed me to levels that I’m at now and it will continue to push me to higher levels. She is a great person, she had an incredible tournament, and I think that all of Canada will remember her name forever.
When Labbé came out with an injury in the second half of your first game against Japan, you had to come in during the middle of the game. Can you describe what that was like and what was going through your mind at that point?
It’s a really tough moment for anyone to come in for someone who has gone down. You never want to see one of your teammates go down and you’re never wishing it on anyone from the other team, either. It’s a stressful moment for everybody. It’s something that you’re not really expecting, but always prepared for. Getting up and warming up is tough while also trying to check and see if your teammate is ok. But I knew that whatever was going to be needed, I would be ready for it. At the end of the day, we just hoped she was going to be fine and that I could get in there and do what the team needed me to do.
You definitely did! And you went on to start the next game against Chile, getting an Olympic start, which is momentous considering how hard you had to work to come back from an injury only a few months before. I know it is unfortunate that it happened because your teammate was injured, but how did that feel otherwise to get that start?
I am incredibly honored and humbled by it, and I’ll never forget either the Japan game or the Chile game. It’s something I’ll always be able to learn and grow from. It’s a starting point for my Olympic career. It’s important to have those minutes and learn from that experience. I definitely was nervous and wanted to do everything I could possibly do. On the field, the biggest thing I can remember was to live in the present and know that everything that I had done leading up to this point was to get me here, and it had. At that point, it was just about me being me on the field and living with my teammates, enjoying the game, and knowing that we were capable of anything.
So Canada advances to the finals against Sweden, the game goes into extra time and then penalty kicks. What was it like watching that with your team?
It was crazy. Both teams had played 120 minutes and left everything they possibly could have on the field. At that point, it was really up to everything we had put into practice beforehand and just sticking to our principles, all the research we put in off the field to study the other team, and make sure our takers were ready to go. I think from the bench it’s important for us to give them the energy that they need. We’re excited, nervous, and feeling all the emotions like everybody else. We are stressed, but the biggest thing is to be there and do what we need to do for them. It was an incredible thing to be part of. Like I said, the team did so well at being composed. It was tough when we missed some, but at the end of the day it was the best thing for us because it showed the amount of effort and hard work our team had put into that kind of outcome. We were ready for it.
In terms of preparation and training, from watching the tournament you could see the incredible defense Canada has. On Twitter people were joking that Canada was channeling Gotham-level defense and clearing crazy balls in the box. Was there a strong focus on defense as a game plan?
I think defense is a big part of our DNA as Canada. We’ve always had a very strong defensive unit. We are gritty and resilient, and have some world class defenders. I am so proud of my friends and how amazing a performance they put in. It is definitely something we work on a lot, but it’s a testament to their ability and how much work they put in.
For your teammate Christine Sinclair, finally getting this gold medal must have meant so much to her, and it was well deserved. What is it like playing with the living legend Christine Sinclair and what is her leadership like for the team?
One of the biggest things that we discussed in meetings before the tournament was that this was a really great opportunity to put everything on the field for our veteran players, including Sinclair, knowing that they have deserved this for a very long time now. We knew that this was an opportunity for us to really push, and things were starting to line up and go the way we needed them to go. We are all celebrating the momentous occasion of being a gold medalist, but it meant so much more to us because of how much it means to Sinclair. We wanted to be the ones to give it to her and say, you had everything in the world but this and now you have it. She deserves it more than anyone. She’s one of the best players and people that I’ve had the opportunity to call my friend. I don’t know if she agrees, but I call her my friend! She deserves it more than any human on the planet. She’s put in so much work when no one is watching. She’s the one leading us, and she’s not the most vocal leader, but when she says something, you definitely hear it, and you listen. She shows you exactly what it means to be an elite level athlete.
— Canada Soccer's Women's National Team (@CANWNT) August 10, 2021
When you beat the United States to even get to the final, it felt like the win heard around the world. What was the plan going into that match?
We knew going into that game that we had done so much extra work to make sure we knew exactly what we needed to do. I think the biggest thing was belief. There was positivity around knowing what we were capable of. If there was ever a time, this was the time. There was talk going around that it was kind of like the 2012 Olympic match-up all over again. It just happened to be an opportunity for us to set it straight and give those veteran players the chance that got taken back then. I think we were destined to meet the U.S. during the tournament, but that was the time for us to really put a stamp on things. The game was something else! It was tough for us. There were opportunities we didn’t take, opportunities they didn’t take, but both teams were strong. It’s crazy that the score was only 1 - 0 because it could have been so different.
Up until Canada’s penalty kick, I don’t think most people knew where the game was going to end up! It could have gone any way.
100%! We all felt that way at some point during that game. One thing that we know is that Deanne Rose who earned the penalty kick is one of the fastest people on our team. That pk was a tough one, but it’s a testament to how hard she worked to just be in the right place and sometimes you just have to put pressure on people and you get something out of it.
Do you have any funny stories from your time with the team during the Olympics?
We had a lot of fun during it! We were stuck together in a confined space for so long. There are so many silly little things that come out of it. I’m sure more will come back to me, but for a while we were all watching Love Island together to pass the time. We were having Mario Kart tournaments that got really intense. People needed to cool down after! We were also celebrating huge occasions in people’s lives like Sinclair's 300th cap and people’s birthdays. It’s your family, and we’ll never forget it.
— Canada Soccer's Women's National Team (@CANWNT) August 12, 2021
Turning to the NWSL, would you like to see an expansion team in Canada?
That is one of the goals. That was a big thing we talked about as a team. We always talk about inspiring the next generation, but the biggest way we can do that is by creating opportunities at home. When we set out to achieve our goal of winning gold, we knew that with that would come the ability to make statements about how we are the only one without a professional team and we’re still here. Despite the lack of resources, we’re still here. What can we do now? That was an important statement, and Sinclair was so elegant when she put it out into the world saying that we’re at the top now, and we still don’t have the resources we need. That’s one of our biggest goals as a team to make that happen for us and for the future.
It was noticeable that it took until after this Olympic gold for the Canadian Women’s National Team to even get their own Twitter account, and many fans were confused about how to buy jerseys. Obviously these are just small ways they could improve, but what more would you like to see for women’s professional soccer in Canada?
There are a lot of things that make it hard to be a fan of our team, or a fan of women’s soccer in general. It’s really hard to be a supportive fan when you don’t even know where to buy a jersey and it takes months to get them! We need easier access. We go and play these international friendlies all year and we need those games televised. People want to watch! People watched our Olympic final. They care. There are so many little girls at home dreaming of being on this team, but they don’t even see what we do half the time. They don’t even know what they’re dreaming of! We can bring so much more light to what it looks like, and what people need to do to get there. In Canada, growing up, it was unclear what avenues to take to get to this level. Having a pro team in Canada is at the top of the list. We should have an avenue of academy to pro, and we should put a spotlight on women’s soccer across the country so people can say they want to play for their home team. Toronto, Vancouver, these are huge markets.
To your point, your Olympic final against Sweden had 4.4 million viewers in Canada, many of whom had to wake up pretty early to catch the match! There is clearly an opportunity here.
Absolutely. Winning the gold has put us in a position that will help us to make the arguments we want to make, and people will start listening to us.
Bringing it back to Gotham, you’ve been with the team for a few years now. What is your favorite part about living and playing in New Jersey?
My girlfriend lives here, which is definitely one of the biggest positives. Getting to see her a lot and feeling like I’m at home is a huge plus. The people at Gotham also help. You saw the way they were so excited for me when I made the Olympic team and got back from it. I’m really lucky to have the people that I have here in my corner, pushing me, supporting me. I support them to the end as well.
— NJ/NY Gotham FC (@GothamFC) August 10, 2021
You also got to travel to the Olympics with your Gotham teammate Evelyne Viens. How is it to play for both Gotham and Canada with her?
I am so proud of her. I think her future is incredibly bright. I can’t wait to see and be part of everything she is going to accomplish. This experience was so invaluable for her to work with our team, learn from some of the best players in the world, and get her minutes in the Olympics. She’s really proven that she’s in our league and is going to make a huge impact for Canada and for any team she plays for. She’s still so young and just has so much ahead of her. She’s incredibly humble, and she wants to learn and work every day. Our relationship has grown so much. No matter what happens at Gotham or with Canada, we’ll support each other. I think she’ll do big things when she comes back. She’s got a drive in her. She’s coming back ready to go!
In terms of Gotham, you have been a real bright spot for the team even during some of their darker days. Now the team is a contender for a playoff spot! It’s a total turnaround from a couple years ago. What’s been making the difference this season?
A lot of it is that relationship with the girls and how much more we connect. That chemistry on the field is so important. There is a buy-in of doing everything for the team. We have some very talented soccer players. We are really lucky that we have the people we have who are continuing to grow all the time. No one is even close to their peak. Every day at practice it’s an honor to watch everyone grow and learn. It’s a testament to the relationships that have been created, and being able to push through those hard moments like when you’re down a goal or still tied towards the end of the game. Those are the moments when you rely on those relationships. It’s really key for us.
Do you think that the switch to Red Bull Arena made a difference for everyone’s mindset?
Absolutely! Feeling and being treated like a professional definitely comes out in acting like a professional. When you feel like you’re being treated the right way and you’re being given the opportunities that you should be given in the job that you’re in, you get a better performance. You would see that in any industry.
It’s been a long time coming and you’re starting to see a difference shifting in the minds of players. There are more things to come, and bringing in Yael Averbuch West is an honor. She’s going to do big things for the club. She’s the perfect person for this. She’s going to make some changes at this club and in the league.
With Gotham, our goal is to win that title. We’re completely capable of it.
What are your thoughts on the rebrand of going from Sky Blue to this new identity as Gotham?
I think it helps! It’s something fresh, different, and is a restart. It was a good way to set a new standard. This is who we are now. We know who we were before, you don’t forget, and you learn from it. But it’s more than just a face lift. We’ve had a lot of change internally. It was important for us at this moment. With a name change, rebrand, playing and training at Red Bull, having new staff, it was a really good shift for us.
When you’re not playing soccer, what are some things you like to do?
I’m a really good couch potato and beach bum. I like going down the shore with my girlfriend, or going home to see my family, which I don’t get a chance to do often.
Looking forward to the future, what are some of your goals?
With Gotham, our goal is to win that title. We’re completely capable of it. It’s the goal every year, but this year there’s a true belief behind it. There’s an ability to achieve it. We’re looking forward to that. With Canada, the World Cup is the next big tournament coming up. As much as we are going to celebrate and enjoy what we just accomplished, when that comes around we’ll be truly focused on going for number one again!
How to watch Kailen Sheridan and Gotham FC
You can catch Kailen Sheridan and the rest of NJ/NY Gotham FC’s returning Olympians at Red Bull Arena on August 29.