It takes a village to raise an Olympic star

Many of the people who helped Sophie Schmidt get to the Olympic podium – friends, neighbours, teachers and coaches – celebrated on Saturday.

Paul Giesbrecht and his daughter Michelle pose for a photo with Olympic medalist Sophie Schmidt

Paul Giesbrecht and his daughter Michelle pose for a photo with Olympic medalist Sophie Schmidt

The scene in Eric and Irene Wall’s backyard on Saturday evening offered a glimpse into the investment it takes to win an Olympic medal, and the payoff.

In a pasture alongside the rural Abbotsford property, dozens of cars were parked in neat rows. On the other side of a tree-lined fence, roughly 100 people socialized in small groups, waiting their turn to embrace the party’s guest of honour, Sophie Schmidt.

When Schmidt and a handful of her Canadian women’s soccer teammates arrived at the Vancouver International Airport last week, they were greeted like rock stars by hundreds of screaming fans. It was a measure of their status as Canada’s Olympic sweethearts, gained during a roller-coaster run to the bronze medal at the London Games.

The vibe in the Walls’ backyard was decidedly different. Whereas the airport crowd only knew Sophie from TV, these were the folks who really knew her – friends, neighbours, youth soccer coaches, and members of her church, King Road Mennonite Brethren.

Their deep sense of pride was almost palpable as Schmidt made her way around the yard posing for photos and signing kids’ soccer jerseys, the bronze around her neck touched by dozens of hands.

“Even though we may not know each other, everyone here is connected because of Sophie,” observed Paul Giesbrecht, who taught Schmidt in school at John Maclure Elementary and Howe Middle. “We’re just coming from different avenues. We aren’t responsible for this, but we helped mentor and support her and get her through. That’s what the Olympics should be about – the way you nurture someone on to better things.”

Schmidt said it was “amazing” to reconnect with so many people who helped her get to this point.

“It kind of sums up everything that this medal signifies,” she said. “The public sees certain percentages of the journey, but I think these guys have been here for the whole ride.”

You couldn’t take a step in any direction without bumping into someone who had a Sophie story to tell.

Elmer Schmidt recalled the time he drove his six-year-old daughter to her first soccer practice. When it was over, the coach approached him and said, “You know this is a girls-only team, right?”

“She played so hard and tough, he couldn’t believe she was a girl,” Elmer said with a chuckle. “I think he felt pretty bad after.”

Bill Broadfoot, who coached Sophie’s club soccer teams from U13 to U18, recalled his first practice with the young phenom, who had moved up an age group in search of a stiffer challenge.

During a shooting drill, the goalie threw her gloves on the turf and said she didn’t want to face any more shots from Schmidt. Her hands were burning after trying to stop a couple of scorching kicks.

A couple years later, Broadfoot realized his team didn’t like to do headers, so he offered a $5 bounty for every header goal. All of a sudden, Schmidt took a shine to scoring with her noggin.

“She’d be down two feet off the ground to try to do a header when she could have kicked the ball,” Broadfoot said with a laugh. “I paid her a lot of money that year. I didn’t carry it over to the next year – it was too expensive.”

There was a wide variety of Sophie stories in circulation, but conversation inevitably circled back to a common theme.

“She has inner beauty, I call it,” said Eric Wall, who knows Sophie from church. “She isn’t like, ‘Here I am!’ She’s soft-spoken, she doesn’t hog the limelight. She’s one of the kids, you know? That’s what makes this so awesome.”

As the night wore on, partygoers feasted on a rectangular cake with a soccer ball in the middle and Schmidt’s jersey number, 13, written in red frosting on the corners. Local MP Ed Fast made an appearance, presenting the 24-year-old midfielder with a certificate from the Government of Canada.

It’s all been a whirlwind for Schmidt, who has been inundated with requests to make autograph-signing appearances at various local sporting and charity events.

“I think eventually, I’ll be able to get my rest in,” she said with a smile, noting that she’s planning to be at home until January, when she’ll seek a pro soccer contract overseas.

“It’s almost overwhelming, but it’s great. I don’t want to turn anything down because you don’t know how long it’s going to last. The support has been phenomenal and I like giving back, so it’s hard for me to say no.”

Apart from the main festivities, in a corral adjacent to the backyard, a dozen kids congregated for an impromptu soccer game. Some were running around in bare feet, others in flip-flops. They continued playing even after the sun went down.

If there was a future Olympian in the bunch, it was impossible to say. But because of Schmidt, that notion didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“That’s what we hope for – that kids want to go play soccer in a field with their friends,” she said. “It’s what I did when I was little.”