Soccer superstar Christine Sinclair heads to London 2012 Summer Games in top form

For most athletes skilled and determined enough to meet the lofty qualification standards, competing in the Olympics is the pinnacle of their careers. But Canadian soccer superstar Christine Sinclair is taking a much different approach to the London 2012 Summer Games. Sinclair, the captain of the Canadian side that bowed out to the eventual champion United States in a quarter-final match in Beijing four years ago, looks back now and feels that perhaps she lived in awe of the Olympic spectacle in China and failed to execute at the level to which she’s accustomed.

So this time around, the 29-year-old from Burnaby vows not only to enjoy the experience, but also to view her time in England as a business trip. And if all goes according to plan, Sinclair will put a podium visit on her itinerary.

“Obviously, Beijing didn’t end quite as we had planned, losing to the U.S., but they went on to win gold, so we can take something from that,” she tells the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview before departing for the Games. “Being a part of it in 2008 was a great experience, but this time around the veteran players on the team are treating it less like an Olympics and more like a soccer tournament. And we’ve all played in enough tournaments in our career to know what to expect and how to prepare.”

One fact that will be helping Sinclair and the rest of the Canadian crew with their preparation and focus is that women’s soccer is the event to launch the London Games, with the first game of the tournament happening on July 25 in Coventry against Japan—two days before tomorrow’s [Friday’s] official opening ceremony.

It’s a chance for Canada’s team to fly under the radar 150 kilometres from the epicentre of activity, where the rest of the Olympic athletes and organizers will be putting the finishing touches on their own preparations for the Games.

And that should help Sinclair achieve her goal of making this more about Canada and its chances of success than about the outside distractions that come with the largest sporting spectacle on the planet. In addition to representing her country in Beijing four years ago, Sinclair has taken part in three women’s World Cups, so there is basically nothing in her sport that can faze her at this point of her legendary career.

“It’s interesting with soccer, because the World Cup is our main tournament and that’s how I look at it heading into the Olympics,” she explains of her approach to the Games. “The Olympics are right up there, and it was a dream come true to take part in the last one, but in soccer you grow up with the idea of winning the World Cup. And that’s what makes soccer unique, because it’s one of the few sports that has a tournament that compares to the Olympic Games.”

After opening against the reigning World Cup champs from Japan, Sinclair and Team Canada face South Africa on Saturday (July 28) and wrap up preliminary-round play on Tuesday (July 31) against Sweden, with the hope of being one of the top eight teams in the competition to advance to the elimination stage.

One area in which Sinclair thinks Canada will have an advantage over its Olympic rivals is conditioning. When new head coach John Herdman took over the program last fall, he was discouraged by what he learned about the fitness level of the team he was inheriting. And he was quick to use the latest technology—heart-rate monitors and GPS devices—to track how hard his players were working and how far they were running during every training session leading up to the Olympics.

“Stats were released showing that we were the seventh-fittest team at the last World Cup [2011], and you can’t expect to be on the podium with that,” Sinclair says bluntly. “Fitness is a huge part of the sport, and John is hoping that we’re the fittest team at the Olympics. You can feel it paying off in everyday life and during training. John has done tremendous things with us. He’s brought back the passion that I think was lacking and has us playing a very attractive style of soccer.”

And although she has been the best female player in Canada for a decade and included in any discussion about the best player on the planet for the past five years, Sinclair says the new training methods are making her better and more dangerous than ever heading into the Olympics.

“I want to believe that I’m always improving,” Sinclair says. “Experience is a huge part of this sport, and still being in my prime and having the experiences that I’ve been fortunate to have, I think, is unique, and that really helps me in these types of tournaments.”

Sinclair knows she’ll need to lead the way if Canada is to have the success it hopes for in England. And although she tries to downplay the hype and simply approach the Olympics as another soccer tournament, Sinclair says a recent cross-country publicity tour for corporate partner Tide made her realize just how high the expectations are for Canada’s women.

“As a female soccer player, I couldn’t have imagined this even three or four years ago,” she says. “I think this shows the growth of the sport in this country.”

Sinclair has played a big role in that, and her legend will only grow if Canada rises to the challenge and earns a medal at the London Olympics—or, as Sinclair sees it, simply at this next tournament in which she and her teammates are scheduled to compete.

Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter @patersonjeff.