Reflections on competing for Canada internationally: Walton’s experience (Part 1 of 3)

Today, CFC begins a three part exclusive series on the experiences of representing the nation on the international stage.  The following is the first in a three-part series on Erin Walton’s experiences competing for Canada at the 2013 IFAF Women’s World Championships.

Having had the opportunity to represent Canada at the inaugural IFAF Women’s World Tackle Football Championships in 2010, Erin Walton was part of women’s sporting history. The opportunity to do so again in Vantaa, Finland in 2013 was a privilege.

Originally named to the 2013 roster as a member of the reserves, Walton was promoted to the national team a few weeks before the event. The opportunity to don the jersey a second time was a cherished one which was enhanced by the fact that teammates from her club team, the WWCFL’s Calgary Rage were in attendance.

“Oh man, I am not even sure I can put that into words, but it was AMAZING! They did an outstanding job of representing the Canadian spirit and sportsmanship we are known for around the world. I guess, also, to be clear – Kait (DiNunzio) is A LOT more than just my teammate…we met through football and play on the same team in Calgary.

She is my partner, my fiancée (we are getting married this November), so just in that respect alone, having her in Finland with me was extremely special and very rewarding.

I have also known Sue (Childress) for a long time and we are great friends and have played a lot of football together over the years, to have her there meant a lot as well!

It is a pretty surreal experience just to play in a tournament like this; the added bonus of having people there who you love and care about, who get to watch it all live and be a part of it made it even better!”

With Canada winning their first match-up against Spain, there was strong national pride in the stands. Along with her Rage teammates in the stands, there was a strong contingent of Canadian supporters. Despite competing in Finland, the Canadian flags waving certainly made Walton and her teammates feel like there truly was home field advantage.

“I will never forget hearing our Team Canada fans cheer behind us in our game against Finland; they were so loud and boisterous!  They waved flags, they were dressed in red and white, they were so proud to be there and cheer us on, it was very special. Being able to celebrate with our loved ones on the field after the gold medal game was simply fantastic.

To be sure, Kait and Sue had the TOTAL fan experience and had a blast doing it! By the end of it all, they were not just there for me, they were there for the whole team; they were Team Canada’s super fans throughout the tournament and they forged some great and lasting friendships with many of the other Team Canada players and family members in attendance.”

While Canada had the opportunity to compete in the gold medal game for the second consecutive time, it nearly did not happen. A semi-final match against the host country Finland created some nervous moments.

Entering halftime, the Canadians faced a six-point deficit. With a Finnish team led by strong play from their quarterback Tiina Salo, an upset was all too real. Walton acknowledges that the first half of the contest was a difficult one.

“Finland was an incredibly hard game and it truly did define and show the character of our team. Finland is a great team and they really pushed us to our limits throughout the game; it was a tough first half for us.

We did not execute well, we were playing on our heels a little bit and we just had a hard time finding our rhythm on both sides of the ball. We had sparks and moments that kept us in the game in the first half, but we knew we had to do better.”

Mounting the comeback against Finland was a character defining moment for the team. With Canadian head coach Jeff Yausie (who has coached the Saskatoon Valkyries to the 2013 WWCFL title) reassuring the team at halftime, Walton believed the team was capable of winning.

“At halftime, coach Yausie just came in and told us to go out there and have fun. To reset, to remember why we were there and to believe in what we are capable of doing and if we did that, the score and the end result would take care of itself. It was a message we needed to hear. We knew what we had to do….execute well, trust each other and our systems, and have some fun!

No matter the score in any game we played, we always made sure to reset at half time and go into the second half with the mentality that the score was 0-0; that was definitely the case against Finland. We were very fortunate to have two quarterbacks on our roster that brought two different skill sets to the team.”

While Saadia Ashraaf of the Montreal Blitz and Aimee Kowalski of the Regina Rage were the two pivots in question, it was Kowalski that would help engineer the comeback. Also pulling double duty as the punter for Canada in the 2013 Women’s Worlds, she was the catalyst that helped inject the confidence Canada would need to overcome the Finns and advance to the gold medal game.

“Aimee Kowalski started the second half against Finland and her mobility and ability to run the ball was a key driver to our success in the second half. It made their defence respect our running attack from both the RB and QB position and we were able to capitalize through the air a little more because of it.

As we gained confidence on O, the D held and dug their heels in and they played a great second half stifling any momentum Finland was fighting for. Simply put, we dominated the second half and it felt great!”

As one of the veteran leaders on the Canadian squad, Walton understood the symbolic importance the comeback possessed in terms of team building. Having never faced a deficit in the preceding contests, the strong character displayed by Walton and her teammates was incredibly stimulating.

“We won that game because we believed in the system our coaches taught us and we never gave up on ourselves or each other. I have played in many football games in my career, that one was definitely one that was very rewarding to be a part of.

The one thing I loved so much about this team was that no matter what the situation we found ourselves in, we had no quit in us. It did not matter what the score was, or who we were playing, we were all there to win and play hardnosed football to get back to the Championship final.”

The comeback against Finland is a powerful memory in the experience of the 2013 IFAF Women’s Worlds. While Kowalski’s play helped to diversify Canada’s game, the presence of veterans like Walton, a football scholar and effective leader helped to ensure that Canada muscled through and prevailed.

“I knew we would have a better second half, I knew we would come out firing. You could feel it at half time, no one panicked, no one got down, we knew we had business to take care of and we knew we were not playing ‘Team Canada’ football in the first half…so we decided to show them what that looked like for the rest of the game – it felt great to play like we did in that second half comeback.”

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