By Sam Loveys
It was going to be a dream night for Annabelle Chukwu. The National Development Centre-based player from Ottawa had scored one of the precious tickets to the sold-out Canadian women’s soccer team final Olympic qualification match at BMO Field in Toronto. But her plans suddenly changed.
“My coach called me and told me I was called up” for Team Canada’s training camp, recounts the 16-year-old Ottawa South United Soccer Club product. “I was honestly shocked. It was after (NDC) training and the camp was starting in two days.
“Our coach had gotten my whole team tickets, so we were gonna go, but it turned out I was going to be with the team instead. That was a really cool moment.”
Chukwu didn’t end up taking the field in front of 29,212 fans, but she got a first-hand view of the team’s preparations for the decisive game when Canada made good on its final opportunity to clinch a berth in the Paris 2024 Games with a 2-1 win over Jamaica on Sept. 26.
Tokyo Olympic champion Vanessa Gilles played the full 90 minutes in the match, like the 27-year-old defender from Ottawa TFC Soccer Club did four days earlier in Jamaica when Canada built a 2-0 lead in the two-game, total-goals series.
“It was a really good experience,” reflects Chukwu, who found spots next to Kailen Sheridan and Kadeisha Buchanan in team photos behind a “Qualified” banner. “Obviously I wasn’t in the game, but it felt really cool to be a part of that team and see them achieve another ticket to the (Olympics).
“Playing with people you look up to and getting to be in the same room as them every day was really cool. I definitely learned a lot of things that I can take back to work on my own game.
“Collectively, they’re all role models to me. They show the grit, the hard work, what it takes to be at the next level. Not just as a player, but also as a person.”
Chukwu starred on local pitches with the OSU Force before moving full-time to the NDC, where she just completed her first full season. The savvy striker won the Ontario Player Development League scoring title with nearly three times as many goals as anyone else in her under-14 year.
Her squad won the OPDL title that season and repeated as league champions in 2022 before many players moved on to the NDC, including her twin sister Isabelle.
Chukwu says she’s enjoying the bigger city and higher level of competition at the NDC.
“You’re playing with all the best people in Canada who are trying to get a spot on the national teams. The level is way different than back home,” notes the former Ottawa Christian School student who moved to Ottawa from England in 2017.
“The Centre here helps me prepare myself for opportunities like being called up to the senior team. It also helps to train with people who have the same goals as me.”
This wasn’t the first time Chukwu was summoned by the senior team. Last November, she participated in Canada’s training camp around a pair of friendlies against Brazil.
In 15 career international appearances for the Canadian U15, U17 and U20 women’s national teams, Chukwu has scored 16 times.
Getting the call in advance of a match as important as a do-or-die Olympic qualifier certainly bodes well for the young player’s future with the women’s national team program. But Chukwu isn’t yet getting too carried away with thoughts of cracking Canada’s 18-player roster for the Paris Olympics next summer.
“I feel like I have a lot of areas to grow and improve in if I want to get a spot in the Olympics next year,” indicates Chukwu, “but it would be a dream.”
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.