By Michael Sun
Ottawa’s Ariel Young, Olivia Cooke and Carmen Marin woke up on the morning of April 22nd looking forward to playing against each other on an international stage. Instead they received some unfortunate news.
They were in Managua, Nicaragua, and Canada and Costa Rica’s teams were set to face off in the second group stage game of the CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championships.
For Young and Cooke of Canada, and Marin of Costa Rica, it was going to be the next significant moment of their careers. Until it wasn’t.
Tensions between demonstrators and authorities had been escalating since the week before when Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega announced reforms to the country’s social security programs that included raising taxes and reducing national pension benefits. By April 22, nearly 30 people had been killed in protests across the country.
The tournament was called off.
“It was just a shock,” Young noted of the cancellation. “We had no idea it was going to happen. We woke up the day of our game against Costa Rica…everyone was just shocked. We had no idea it was even a possibility to happen.”
She, Cooke and Marin’s paths were about to cross again. Cooke and Young have known each other since the Under-9 level. Now they’re roommates at the Regional Ontario EXCEL (REX) program in Toronto. Cooke’s known Marin since the U-12 level. The trio played on the same U-12 team in Ottawa at that age. Last year, Marin and Cooke were teammates on West Ottawa’s League1 team.
Cooke earned her first Team Canada cap in Managua as a sub for Canada in its 3-0 win over Bermuda. She called it an “incredible moment”. Young was an unused sub in that game. She expected to play in Canada’s next game against Costa Rica. Marin started for the Costa Ricans in their only game of the tournament: a 4-0 loss to the United States.
Cooke said they were excited to play each other internationally.
Young made her debut on Canada’s senior team in a friendly against the United States on Nov. 12, 2017. She recalls standing on the touchline of the game in San Jose, California as a dream come true.
“I was completely shocked,” Young recalls of getting the call up. “My dream is to play for the senior team and I never thought that it would happen, especially at the time that it did. I was super excited though.”
She says she was star struck training with her Canadian soccer idols Christine Sinclair and Shelina Zadorsky.
“Being with them on their team was just a whole different experience and I remember the first couple of days, every time I would see Christine, it would be like ‘oh my gosh, she’s sitting beside me at the dinner table or she’s telling me what to do as her centre back.”
The 16-year-old says playing against Americans Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe was “one of the craziest things I’ve ever done”.
Growing up in Ottawa, her mother got her into soccer when she was seven. A year later, she made a local rec team.
“My parents actually thought that I was one of the worst players on the team and they’re like ‘if I was picking the team, you wouldn’t have made it’, but I did make it and from there, I got better,” Young said. “I went from the worst player on the team, to two years later being one of the better players on the team.”
That would be a constant theme for Young, who says she was never be the best player on the teams she made.
When she first made the provincial team in U-13, she says she was one of the last to make the cut. After that she joined Ottawa South United, then the Ottawa Fury at U-15 and is now with the REX program, where, once again, she says she was one of the final players to make the team.
She credits her focus on individual skill development and dedication as for what’s made her rise through the soccer ranks possible. This, she says, comes from her dad.
“He pushed me every day and would be like ‘let’s go outside, and we’re going to practice this and do some more reps of this’,” she noted. “I think a lot of individual effort, not just playing with the team helped (me) get to where I am.”
Young had her struggles along the way, having dealt with injuries as well as being away from home at REX.
“It’s so different being independent,” she noted. “In the beginning, I wasn’t missing my family and then I went home and then came back and that was when I started to miss my family and feeling sad.”
Young has grown more comfortable at REX and uses the future as motivation, especially after her senior national team stint.
“Even when I went to the senior team, (being) back from the senior team, I know what the level is like there and what commitment they put in every day and knowing that to be at that level, I need to be focused and push every day even harder to get there,” she adds.
She has committed to play at the University of Central Florida and hopes to be a starter in her first year there. Young also has her sights set on playing professionally and with the national team at the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics.
“I never in a million years thought I would be where I am (with soccer),” she says with a laugh.
Like Young, Cooke says she dreams of making Canada’s senior team.
In Canada’s game against Bermuda in Nicaragua, she says her most memorable moment was subbing in with her mom and sister watching in the stands.
“At that moment, I was just blown away. I was just ‘Oh my gosh: I’m going to finally get my chance to go on the field and represent my country and hopefully impact the game positively” Cooke said.
“Seeing that light flash and my Number 13 subbing in. That moment – my first cap – I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
Both Young and Marin described Cooke as super competitive. It comes from her family, according to her. Her mom was a national level skier and her siblings are soccer players too.
“We just have such a competitive environment at home and we’re always pushing each other that it’s really helped me develop into the person I am today,” she said.
Her competitiveness transmits to her personality on the field. “She’s crazy aggressive and will take you out if she needs to,” Young said.
“On the field, I’m like a terminator. I go at it and I’m aggressive. I’m super intense,” Cooke said.
“As soon as I cross that white line, I’m in warrior mode.”
She switched positions from forward to fullback before the Canada Games in 2017, which is when she says she began being scouted for the national team.
She says the 10 to 12-hour days at REX are “all worth it” given her long term ambition.
“The sacrifices are huge but at the end of the day, but I would do them again in a heartbeat because it’s where I want to be and it’s going to help me pursue my goal later on, which is to play for the (national) senior team,” she said.
She says that soccer is a huge part of her identity.
“It’s my whole life,” she stated. “My life revolves around soccer. I eat, sleep, breathe soccer and I absolutely love it. I fell in love with the sport when I was four and I still love it now.”
Cooke will be going to the University of South Florida this fall to pursue a degree in biomedical sciences. She says her primary goal remains to make Canada’s national team.
“It was my number one goal in life and it still is my number one goal in life. It’s been something that I’ve wanted to reach ever since I was nine years old,” she said.
Marin – whose father is Costa Rican and who was born there herself – has represented Costa Rica since age 13.
She first tried out for Costa Rica’s U-17 team at 12. The next year she played for Costa Rica’s U-15 team. Since then she’s played for the country’s U-17 and U-20 squads also.
“When I was really, really young I didn’t fully understand how it was in terms of opportunity and pride. I just kind of went down and I wanted to play, and they offered me a spot on the team and so I played there,” she said.
She says playing with boys’ teams with the Parmar Futuro Academy in Ottawa helped develop her into a better player. A holding midfielder, Marin recalls how she has adapted into Costa Rican soccer and takes pride in representing the nation.
“There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not working for the pride of my country and wanting to build something and to build a name for us, for all of our teammates,” she said.
She spent seven months in Costa Rica as a 14-year-old. She says she immersed herself in the culture and improved her Spanish, which she now speaks fluently.
“I learned so much,” she said. “I built so many new relationships with my teammates and so much about the culture and the people and everything, and that’s what really makes me want to be with Costa Rica.”
She admits the transition was a struggle at the first.
“It feels like my home whenever I go down there,” she says. “I see my family and my teammates, and I get overjoyed with feeling welcome.”
Marin said her situation is “kind of like living a double life”. She goes back and forth between Ottawa and Costa Rica nowadays. “It’s really cool honestly because I get the best of both lives.”
Marin’s journey hasn’t been without hurdles off the pitch. She says she’s had stints of mental health struggles.
“I was depressed for a little while. Basically, what that felt like for me was I didn’t want to get up, I don’t want to train, and I really didn’t want to keep giving that push,” she said.
“It was really hard because it was just like a huge weight on my shoulders and I just felt tired all the time,” she added. “I didn’t have that energy, that motivation that I always had growing up. And it was definitely a really, really hard time for me growing up. I felt like my school and everything was getting really, really difficult.”
She says the time she spent in Costa Rica and later with the country’s U-17 soccer team, who she calls a “big family”, has helped her with her struggles.
“Just being in that environment of like positive vibes and you know, success we had as a team, that was definitely really important for me,” she adds. “It gave me that little faith and that hope that there’s definitely something more here and I have a purpose.”
She will be going to Florida International University in a year’s time to pursue a degree in sports management and, like Cooke and Young, hopes to play professionally for her country’s senior national team.
“It’s something that makes me so happy,” she said. “I don’t even know how to describe it but it’s like whenever I play soccer, my issues in my mind just go away.”
“I’ve gained so many beautiful things and awesome feelings from the game just by loving to play. And because of it, I’ve had different experiences. But definitely the happiness of the game, even today, playing the game is what makes me happy and that’s why I play.”
The CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championships were rescheduled to be played in Bradenton, Florida June 6-12.
Despite the cancellation in Managua, Ottawa’s young soccer stars believed it to be a valuable experience.
“Being able to play at such a high level with them (Canada teammates) and travel around the world with them is so amazing and I think it’s something I’ll always hold onto and be able to remember,” Young said.
In Florida they’ll continue their pursuit of qualifying for Uruguay’s 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. The top three teams from Florida’s tournament will qualify.