Rachel Leborgne still feels as though it was only yesterday that her soccer team took the first World Indigenous Games by storm in Palmas, Brazil.
“The heat there was no joke, but we all knew that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and nothing was going to keep us from giving it all and leaving it all on the field,” said the Kahnawa’kehró:non. “That’s exactly what we did, and winning gold was the best feeling in the world.”
In 2015, Leborgne was among the roster of 23 Onkwehón:we soccer players representing Canada’s women’s team in the competition.
With the majority of the group consisting of athletes from nations in BC, including players from the Sk̲ wx̲ wú7mesh Úxumixw (Squamish Nation), the group also counted nine Kanien’kehá:ka athletes from Kahnawake, Kanehsatake and Akwesasne.
Last week, the winning team was informed that it would be inducted into the Soccer Hall of Fame of British Columbia for the Teams of Distinction category.
“I’m still in awe! And now for the team to be placed in the BC Soccer Hall of Fame is the cherry on top of the icing on the cake,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Harry Rice, who held the role of assistant coach in the 2015 games. “We made history with a victory, and we will be immortalized with the induction.”
While taking home the gold medal was made achievable through the talent of the players and coaches; it was Rice’s confidence in the athletic abilities of Kanien’kehá:ka soccer buffs that led them to join the team.
When members of the BC-based Native Indian Football Association (NIFA) were gearing up to make their international soccer debut in Brazil, Rice saw an opportunity to unite Indigenous talent.
With the encouragement of NIFA's founder and head coach, Cowichan member Dano Thorne, Rice and a selection of players attended a round of tryouts in BC.
A few last-minute adjustments to the roster later: the group finally came together to form a fierce lineup of competitive athletes.
“Seeing them play together for the first time on the field, there was this instant sense of comradery that the players grasped right away,” recounted Rice. “The girls just performed with the utmost class – they really represented themselves and us in a manner that makes everyone proud.”
Throughout the event that ran from October 23 to November 1, 2015, the team was among some 2,000 Indigenous athletes from over 25 countries who were brought together to compete in a medley of sports.
“Something that surprised me about the experience was Brazil itself,” said Kahnawake’s Tiorahkose Jacobs, who was just 16 years old when she competed in the games.
“Going to Brazil was such a culture shock because we played teams from Peru and Colombia where they did not even speak English or had never even played soccer with cleats before.”
As a grade 11 student at the time, Jacobs became acquainted with not only Indigenous cultures from Mongolia, Russia and New Zealand, but also with those of her teammates.
“Playing on a national team with all-Native women is such an accomplishment because all my teammates were so badass,” exclaimed Jacobs.
This sentiment was further echoed by Leborgne.
“Every single one of my teammates has unbelievable soccer skills and deserves this recognition beyond measure,” said the seasoned goalkeeper.
“On top of being such talented soccer players, each one of these women is so strong and beautiful, inside and out. I couldn’t have imagined playing and winning gold with any other team.”
When the decisive moment came during the seventh and final game while facing off a Xerente tribe team from Brazil, the score was 0-0 and came down to penalty kicks.
As many as 10,000 spectators watched as the team took gold with a 3-1 outcome.
“With the victory came a lot of tears and a lot of emotions,” recounted Rice as he held back tears of joy. “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the lineup to receive our medal and even afterwards – it was just a remarkable experience.”
Although the medal ceremony represented the end of a chapter for the team, the news of their induction into the BC Soccer Hall of Fame is a symbol that speaks to the significance of the achievement.
“The best part about us being recognized is the fact that it’s showing our youth and everyone else that it is possible to reach such a high level of distinction in sports – you can make it!” expressed Leborgne.
“We worked our butts off to get where we are now, and I think it’s important for everyone to see that and realize that they too can make their dreams come true and have your skills be recognized.”
The honour of this recognition was not put past Rice, whose passion for the sport earned him nearly two decades of coaching experience.
“I do it because I love to coach soccer, and I want to see these girls progress in a sport that they love,” said the chief. “I never in my life would have dreamt that soccer would take me to those places, and now I want to give them the experience that I got when I went to Brazil.”
Following the 2017 games held in Edmonton, athletes across the globe today remain eager to find out when they too will have the chance to compete in the third World Indigenous Games.
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door