There seems something fitting about the fact Geri Donnelly’s first role model was Christine Sinclair’s aunt, Sue Gant. Donnelly patterned herself after Gant while they played on the BC provincial team. Later as a leading pioneer of the women’s game in this country, Donnelly helped lay the foundation for Canada’s recent emergence as a world soccer power led today by Sinclair. If it seems full circle, well, the ball in the beautiful game is round.

Born in London, England, Donnelly was kicking a ball as soon as she could walk and following her brothers Mark and Vince to the park across the street for family kick-abouts. Her dad coached and her mom was always supportive. Soccer was a family affair in the Donnelly house. They came to Canada in 1973, settling in Port Moody. There she played organized soccer for the first time on all-girls teams, often combining varied ages due to lack of players. That changed as girls soccer began to take off.

Through youth soccer in Port Moody and playing against senior women in Surrey in the summers, Donnelly developed outstanding on-field vision and playmaking ability. Upon graduation from high school, Simon Fraser University offered her a basketball scholarship and she played four years at Burnaby Mountain. At the same time, she made the BC provincial soccer team and in 1985 was selected to Canada’s first women’s national team.

In Canada’s second-ever women’s international match in July 1986, Donnelly scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over the USA in Blaine, Minnesota—the first and second goals scored in the history of Canadian women’s national soccer. She remained a midfield fixture on the national team for the next 13 years, accumulating 71 international appearances, then a Canadian record. She scored nine goals in that time and served as Canada’s captain at both the 1995 and 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cups, the latter a true turning point for the women’s game worldwide. In between World Cups, she led Canada to the 1998 CONCACAF women’s championship, defeating Mexico 1-0 in the final.

Few understand the tremendous sacrifices Donnelly and her teammates made in those fledgling national team years. Most kept full-time jobs and fundraised to cover their own flights to overseas tournaments, but they blazed the trail for Canada’s current generation to succeed internationally.

On the club side Donnelly won three Canadian national championships, with Coquitlam Strikers in 1990 and 1994 and Surrey United in 2006. Along the way, she also helped Surrey to two national silver medals and three bronze, and retired fully at age 43 after helping Surrey to six-straight BC titles.

Donnelly was named Canadian Player of the Year in 1996 and 1999 and in 2012 she was named to Canada’s all-time women’s team.

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