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FIFA echo: Former Ottawa women’s national team player’s impact still being felt as West Ottawa head coach

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Kristina Kiss was one of five new members inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame. Photo: Dan Plouffe

By Dan Plouffe

Long before Christine Sinclair sent Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium into a frenzy with a 92nd minute penalty kick goal, there was an even bigger Canada vs China FIFA Women’s World Cup match.

It was Oct. 2, 2003 in Portland, OR, and the two red foes were battling in the quarter-final round of the 2003 World Cup. Team Canada’s captain was the goal scorer on this occasion as well, Ottawa native Charmaine Hooper having tallied early on. Canada was nursing its 1-0 lead in the late stages, and that’s when another Ottawa native, a 22-year-old Kristina Kiss, was brought into the match in place of striker Kara Lang to defend the lead.

“I was feeling anxious and really, really nervous,” recalls Kiss. “I didn’t want to be subbed on and have them score.”

Fortunately for the fresh-faced midfielder, Canada held on to reach the semi-final round for the first, and only, time in the country’s World Cup history.

“That was a dream-come-true for me to play in a World Cup,” Kiss reflects. “Just stepping on the field meant everything. It was a fantastic feeling and a great result for us.”

The Canadian women’s dramatic London 2012 Olympic bronze medal remains much closer in memory, but Kiss & co. were darn good in their own right a decade earlier, part of the generation that pushed Canada into a powerhouse on the global women’s football stage.

“It was an honour to be part of that group of women,” Kiss indicates. “To be part of that and really raise the level in Canada, it was really something special.”

And even today, the retired 34-year-old can still say she was part of Canadian team that’s gone the furthest in World Cup play with that 2013 result, a 4th-place finish.

“Hopefully that ends soon,” Kiss smiles.

The veteran of 75 international appearances plans to see all the FIFA games at Lansdowne, and she’d love nothing more to be watching her former mates playing in the final, when Adidas will fly her out to Vancouver for the game. And one of the biggest reasons she’d like to see Canada succeed is because of the impact the tournament being played on home soil will have on the next generation.

“It’ll raise the profile of soccer in Canada,” Kiss explains. “It’ll make a lot of young girls want to play and achieve that kind of status in their own careers. It can only be good for us. Hopefully Canada will really do well and inspire the nation once again.”

On the eve of the 2015 World Cup opener, Kiss was fêted next door to the Lansdowne Stadium at the Horticulture Building as she was welcomed into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame.

“It’s a bit nerve-racking,” says Kiss, who doesn’t like to be the centre of attention. “But it’s really, truly, a huge honour. I’m just thrilled. I can’t believe it’s really happening.”

Kiss’s induction comes two years after Hooper joined the local sports Hall herself.

“Charmaine was an idol of mine growing up,” highlights Kiss, who fondly remembers her very first national team game in 2000 when she got to play alongside Hooper. “She was an amazing player and an amazing role model. It was such a thrill to step on with my childhood idols.”

Much like Hooper did for her, there is now a slew of young talent looking to follow in Kiss’s footsteps.

“It’s inspirational,” says 15-year-old Kathleen Carson, who’s been coached by Kiss at the West Ottawa Soccer Club. “Sometimes you wonder, ‘Could I ever make it to that level?’

“To see somebody who you know come over and coach you, it’s like, ‘Wow, I could do that too some day. If she can do it, I can do it.’

With aching knees and a tired mind, Kiss decided to hang up her cleats at age 28, but quickly “moved on to a career that I actually enjoy more than playing.”

Kristina Kiss and her son at the Fun Run 4 SchoolBOX in Kanata. Photo: Dan Plouffe

“I love soccer and everything about it, so it was just very natural to go into coaching,” details the mother on a 3-and-a-half-year-old boy. “Now that I don’t have to do the running, I’m even happier.”

As technical director for the West Ottawa Soccer Club, Kiss’s impact continues to spread. She’s had a number of players write her notes or send e-mails after they’ve worked with her to tell her she’s inspired them and thank her.

“It’s always very, very nice to see,” notes the Kanata native. “Being able to be a role model and to affect the lives of kids – that for me is a huge part of it. Seeing kids coming in smiling and happy to see you there, and the fact that you can teach them something, it makes it all worthwhile.”

Kiss is more than a talented player who’s good at coaching though, she’s a needed female leader in sports, says Dina Bell-Laroche, a coach with West Ottawa who attended the Hall induction ceremony.

“It was beautiful to see Kristina be honoured in that way amidst some of the hockey legends,” underlines Bell-Laroche, alluding to Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray and long-time Hull Olympiques GM/governor Charlie Henry, who were 2015 Hall inductees alongside Kiss (as well as broadcaster Dave Schreiber and 1975 University of Ottawa Gee-Gees Vanier Cup-champion football team).

“So much of the sport is driven by men who are coaching women, which is great, but we also need women to coach women, and women to coach men,” Bell-Laroche adds. “When I see someone like Kristina – who is one of only two female technical directors in Canada, I believe – she inspires me.”

4th SchoolBOX run a success

Bell-Laroche is a driving force behind an inspiring event of her own called the Fun Run 4 SchoolBOX, which supports the Canadian charity carrying the mission of making education possible for those who can’t afford it.

The 5 km run took place on June 6 from Stonemeadow Park in Kanata and lifted the event’s four-year fundraising total close to $20,000 mark (with Sydney Millar earning the prize for most donations collected).

Two summers ago, a group from West Ottawa traveled to Nicaragua to help build the school that their SchoolBOX fundraising efforts supported. They’ve also run a soccer tournament for the local community located outside the Nicaraguan capital.

“We’re not sure what the next project will be, but that’s OK,” indicates Bell-Laroche, noting they’ve added 4th “annual” to the title of this year’s run to reinforce the group’s long-term commitment to the cause. “Our heart is really connected to that community.”

Bell-Laroche is a big backer of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport’s True Sport principles. One of those is of “giving back” – the importance of which she emphasizes with the players she coaches in hopes that they’ll continue to make a positive impact of their own in the future.

“You’re teaching life skills that I think translate off the field into being a really good Canadian citizen,” highlights the former Canadian Olympic Committee press chief who now works for the Sport Law & Strategy Group. “If kids are inspired through their time with me as a coach and go on and do good things, you know, it’s more than just teaching them how to kick a ball.”

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