Shelina Zadorsky's journey to the Rio 2016 Olympics
Shelina Zadorsky has always dreamt of competing on the world’s biggest soccer stages — either as a World Cup contender or an Olympic athlete.
Once the London, Ontario, native ended her storied career for the Michigan women’s soccer team in 2013, she debuted for the Canadian National Team and traveled the world to play professional soccer in pursuit of those dreams. Zadorsky has worked tirelessly in that two-year span, waiting to see which major opportunity came first.
When Zadorsky missed the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, she had one last goal: qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics.
On June 25, Canada Soccer and the Canadian Olympic Committee unveiled the 18-player women’s soccer roster that included Zadorsky, who is looking to be the starting center back alongside Kadeisha Buchanan.
“It’s incredible just knowing that it’ll be such a big stage,” Zadorsky said. “I’m more excited than anything. I’m excited about the team connection we have and just the work we’ve been putting in as a team. We have incredible individuals and incredible leaders in our staff, as well. To play with the likes of Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson and these veterans that have been there and know what it takes, to be able to learn from them, show up, do my absolute best and not only play for Canada but our goal is to win for Canada.
“Getting on the podium, that’s my goal, that’s our goal and I’m excited to see that happen.”
— Shelina Zadorsky (@Shelina4) June 21, 2016
Zadorsky’s path toward Rio has been long in the making — nine years exactly. In 2007, Zadorsky made her debut with the Canadian Youth National Team under coach Bryan Rosenfeld. Later in 2008, she scored two goals for her team en route to a bronze medal at the CONCACAF Women’s Under-17 Championship.
From 2010 to 2012, Zadorsky joined the Canadian U-20 Women’s National Team, which earned a silver medal at the 2012 championship in Panama. That same year, Zadorsky co-captained the FIFA U-20 World Cup team that competed in Japan.
During those two years with the U-20 team, Zadorsky was also making huge strides at the collegiate level with Michigan under head coach Greg Ryan — who had spent three years coaching the U.S. Women’s National Team. When Zadorsky arrived in Ann Arbor in 2010, the Wolverines were in a major rebuilding phase.
But the arrival of Zadorsky marked a turning point in the program, as she was part of what would become arguably the program’s most successful and memorable senior class by 2013.
Zadorsky started every game her freshman year as Michigan wedged itself into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. In 2011, the Wolverines lost seven players to injury or illness, giving Zadorsky the opportunity to shine on Michigan’s backline. That season, she scored her first goal and started all 19 games on defense.
After a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2012, Zadorsky captained the team with Holly Hein, Meghan Toohey and Nkem Ezurike (Michigan’s all-time leading scorer) in their run to the 2013 Elite Eight.
With one goal and nine assists, Zadorsky had her best season yet, and she was ready to take her game to the next level.
That same year, Zadorsky made her senior debut with the Canadian national team, giving her an opportunity to pursue soccer after Michigan.
“I knew I still wanted to play, and I knew I had an opportunity with the Canadian national team,” Zadorsky said. “I had a little bit of improving to do and just maturing and growing.”
After graduating, Zadorsky also signed her first professional contract with Perth Glory in the Westfield W-League in Australia. In just her first season with the club, she made 14 appearances and scored one goal as Perth Glory placed first in the league at the end of the regular season.
Rather than stay in Australia, Zadorsky spent the 2015 season competing for Vittsjö GIK, a football club in the Damallsvenskan, which is the country’s top women’s soccer league. During the 2015 season, she appeared in 18 of 22 games.
“It’s been awesome,” Zadorsky said. “It’s kinda been a bit of a whirlwind going from tournament to tournament and just learning from the best players and really improving my game.”
In July 2015, Zadorsky also participated in the Pan American Games in Toronto, which she described as a “smaller-scale Olympics.”
Though Zadorsky had spent the past two years traveling the world in pursuit of an Olympic dream, she somehow found herself rooming with Ezurike, who was also representing Canada in the games.
“It was like college all over again, which was really great,” Zadorsky said. “It’s such a small soccer world, but it’s great to see her doing well too.”
Unfortunately for the reunited duo, Canada fell in the bronze medal match to Mexico, which had rostered then-senior midfielder Christina Murillo — Michigan’s 2015 captain and former teammate of Ezurike and Zadorsky.
Though Michigan’s 2013 senior class are no longer together, they have still kept in touch in part because they all run the same soccer-centric lifestyle. Former midfielder Tori McCombs is also getting married this October, and the senior class, including Zadorsky, will be bridesmaids.
Zadorsky hasn’t forgotten to stay in touch with the coaching staff, and said she occasionally emails Ryan and associate head coach Dean Duerst. After the 2013 season, Ryan had emphasized that he would focus on helping his seniors transition to the professional soccer world in order for them to fulfill their goals.
According to Zadorsky, it was less about Ryan’s connections in the soccer world and more about physical preparation.
“Ultimately, I think it was more of his training and his coaching that helped me get to the level I needed to get to and then I was able to branch out and find my own connections,” Zadorsky said. “At the same time, he was always such a great reference to have, he would always speak highly of us and he was always supporting us in that way.”
Part of Zadorsky finding her own connections has involved hiring a business manager and creating her own website, which includes a biography, media gallery, her agent’s contact info and information on her involvement with the Canadian National Team and the National Women's Soccer League.
Most recently, Zadorsky began her first season with the NWSL’s Washington Spirit based out of Boyds, Md. Luckily for Zadorsky, she was part of a historic fourth season for the NWSL, which is now the longest-running American women’s soccer league.
“The other leagues before this have folded, but this one is growing and is going to stay around for quite some time,” Zadorsky said. “It’s really cool to be a part of the fourth season.”
Having to adapt to a faster-paced NWSL, Zadorsky said her technical ability has grown “leaps and bounds.” At this level, it has to: everyone is stronger and everyone is faster, so her touches need to be better and her decision-making needs to be quicker.
“(In college), everyone’s still developing and has a lot of room for growth through college,” Zadorsky said. “At this level, people have so much experience and you just bring another level of professionalism to it. That comes with all the things on and off the pitch that’s a bit different because it is your job — you’re not juggling school and soccer, now you’re a true professional.”
Not only has the speed of the game changed, but Zadorsky has also noticed a changing fan base. At Michigan, she said everyone could unite around the block M and say “Go Blue.”
Throughout the past few years, though, she has been able to reach an even wider audience with fan bases in Australia, Sweden and, most recently, Maryland. The bigger fan base has also brought an opportunity to mold young and upcoming soccer players around the world.
How Zadorsky and her team interact with the fan community on and off the field doesn’t go unnoticed as fans wear their jerseys, share photos through Twitter and make signs for Zadorsky at games.
“It’s really, really inspiring to see young girls looking up to you and wanting to work to be a professional,” Zadorsky said. “Hopefully I can inspire them in a positive way.”
— Shelina Zadorsky (@Shelina4) April 17, 2016
Zadorsky’s next chance to inspire her fans will come on August 5, when the Rio 2016 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament begins in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The reigning bronze medalist Canadians will face Australia, Zimbabwe and Germany in Group F.
This year has already been a successful one for the national team, which qualified for the Olympic Games in February and later won the Algarve Women’s Cup in Lagos, Portugal, after defeating Brazil, 2-1, in the championship match.
The team has already developed chemistry as well, with Diana Matheson and Stephanie Labbé currently playing with Zadorsky on the Spirit. The national team will train together all of July, missing just a few NWSL games before the league goes on break in August.
When Zadorsky returns to the United States at the end of August, she will have fulfilled her dream of representing home country in the Olympics.
The only thing left to do? Return with a medal hanging around her neck.