Minutes after the Canadian women’s soccer team won an unlikely Olympic bronze medal, Canadian captain Christine Sinclair was asked if she could believe it.

“No,” she said simply, her eyes a mixture of shock and jubilation, as teammates celebrated wildly behind her and pockets of red-and-white-clad Canadians proudly waved the maple leaf around the City of Coventry Stadium. The reaction of six million Canadians watching back home from coast-to-coast was much the same. For many, the lasting memory of the 2012 Olympic Games in London would be this plucky Canadian women’s soccer team, who banded together just a year after a devastating performance at the 2011 Women’s World Cup to produce one of the more unlikely stories in recent Canadian sport history.

Canadian soccer fans had been starved for something significant to celebrate for years. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Canadian women had finished eighth overall. Three years later at the World Cup, it was far worse: elimination in the group stage before playing their third game.

Widespread changes were made. New coach. New players. New approach. New attitude. Promising results followed, including gold at the 2011 Pan American Games and qualification for the 2012 Olympics by winning a CONCACAF silver medal in front of a loud and proud BC Place Stadium crowd. Still, expectations for the Canadian side approaching London remained modest.

Coach John Herdman selected five BC-born players to his roster: Burnaby midfielder/striker Christine Sinclair, back as team captain; Abbotsford midfielder Sophie Schmidt; Coquitlam midfielder Brittany Timko; Crofton defender Emily Zurrer; and Maple Ridge goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc. Two-thirds of the Canadian squad had played club soccer with the Vancouver Whitecaps in the past decade.

Canada opened the tournament with a tight 2-1 loss to defending World Cup champion Japan, before rebounding with a comfortable 3-0 victory over South Africa and a come-from-behind 2-2 tie against Sweden. In the quarterfinals against host Great Britain, goals by Jonelle Filigno and Sinclair gave Canada a 2-0 victory.

Then came a semi-final date with arch-rival USA at Manchester United’s historic Old Trafford pitch. Sinclair scored a hat trick and had Canada in front 3-2 before a controversial refereeing decision awarded the US a penalty shot to tie. The Canadian women continued to bravely battle through thirty minutes of extra time before the Americans scored the heartbreaking game-winner with seconds remaining.

Fighting disappointment and exhaustion, three days later the Canadians faced France in the bronze medal match. The French dominated throughout, firing 25 shots toward Canada’s goal and hit the woodwork twice. Canada managed just one shot on net, but unbelievably it was all that was needed. With seconds remaining in added time, a shot by Schmidt deflected off a French defender right into thepath of Diana Matheson, who fired into the open net, celebrating before the ball even crossed the goalline. The result gave Canada its’ first Olympic medal in a traditional summer team sport since 1936. As the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons put it best, it was a bronze medal that looked and felt a little like gold.

Sinclair, who finished as the tournament’s top scorer with an Olympic record six goals, later served as Canada’s flag bearer at the Closing Ceremonies and was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year. The Canadian Press named the Canadian women its’ 2012 team of the year.

Team Members: Karina LeBlanc, Sophie Schmidt, Christine Sinclair, Brittany Timko, Emily Zurrer

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.