Janine Beckie, who led the Red Raiders to a Big 12 championship in 2015, is playing for Canada in the Rio Olympics.
Last summer the Women's World Cup ended spectacularly, with the United States beating reigning champion Japan 5-2 for its first World Cup title since 1999.
Host Canada had a respectable showing, advancing through the first two rounds before losing to England in the quarterfinals.
Janine Beckie watched the action on TV.
It wasn't the competition the former Texas Tech University soccer standout wanted. The dual citizen had been practicing with Canada for the better part of a year. She wanted nothing more than to be on the team, but was cut just before the World Cup.
That disappointment is old news now. In June the three-time All-American, career scoring leader for the Red Raiders and professional soccer player had her name added to Canada's Olympic team roster. She's now practicing in the heat and humidity of Brazil, preparing to represent her family's country on one of the biggest stages in the world.
“It's been kind of a whirlwind year, kind of a 180 from getting cut to now being rostered,” she said. “It's a little bit of a Cinderella story.”
Beckie is the only member of her family born in the United States. Her parents are Canadian, and her three older siblings were all born in Canada. She grew up in Colorado but spent plenty of summers and holidays north of the border, playing soccer in both countries.
She started playing for U.S. national teams as a teenager, starting with the U-18 team and moving to the U-20 team. The competition got stiffer as the 2012 U-20 Women's World Cup approached, and she realized the likelihood of her making the team wasn't good.
At that point one of her coaches called a friend, the coach of the U-20 Canadian team, and told him about this dual citizen who was a dynamic forward. Coach Andrew Olivieri called Beckie and said he'd like to bring her to Canada for a camp. No strings attached, he told her; if she liked it, great, if not, she could head back to the States.
“I went up there and just loved it,” Beckie said. “I loved the girls, I loved the staff, I liked the way they ran the program.”
She played in the U-20 Women's World Cup, having a breakout tournament not only in front of Olivieri but also John Herdman, the senior team coach who was at all the games. After the Women's World Cup he invited her to a senior team camp, where she would take the field against Sweden.
That left Beckie with a difficult choice. Playing international soccer had been a goal for years. However, the rules of international soccer did not allow players to switch countries after getting a cap (making an appearance in a game) with another country. If she played this game with Canada, she could not play for the United States.
Texas Tech soccer coach Tom Stone, who is an advanced scout for the U.S. women's team, talked to his star forward. He thought she could succeed in the United States, but he didn't see the passion for her game there.
“I had to be on Janine's team first,” he said. “I could tell the Canadian coaches saw in her what we saw in her.”
In the back of her mind, Beckie knew what she wanted to do, but she still talked it out. She knew, looking at the perennially top-ranked U.S. Women's National Team, that she likely wouldn't make the U.S. roster for several years, which would shorten her international career. But she wanted some assurance from the Canadian coaches first. After some poking and prodding, she got it.
“John said, ‘We're committed to you for the long run if you're committed to giving us everything,'” Beckie said.
A short while later she suited up for Canada and took the field against Sweden. She continued training with the team between her seasons at Texas Tech, and in the spring of 2015 moved to Vancouver for six months for residency and training, always with the Women's World Cup on the horizon.
Getting ready for the world stage
Beckie's training in Vancouver didn't provide the results for which she'd hoped. She missed a month after spraining her ankle and suffered a concussion the same week she came back. Her level of fitness dropped, she wasn't taking the necessary risks to be her best and Beckie knew she wasn't ready for the tournament.
That didn't make getting cut from the team right before the 2015 Women's World Cup any easier.
“I sat down with John and the staff, and he said, ‘I know how bad you want this, but we feel like you're not ready right now. We have to take a roster that's ready to win a championship,'” she remembered. “It was really hard at first, just because I had sacrificed so much. I pushed getting my degree back so far; I left the team here at Texas Tech.”
That she wasn't going to the Women's World Cup wasn't the only news Herdman gave her, though. The coach told her this wasn't the end of her international soccer career, gave her some things to work on and said he wanted her on the roster for the Pan American Games later that summer. Canada fielded a young team in that tournament, allowing Beckie to step up as a leader. They played senior-level teams and Beckie had a good tournament.
“I think that's kind of where I changed gears a little bit,” she said. “It changed my mentality, and then I came back here for the fall, I had a really fun senior year, we won a championship. It was awesome.”
Stone saw the difference in Beckie when she returned to Lubbock for her final season. Getting cut from the Canadian team may have been the best thing for her soccer career, which up to that point had come fairly easily, he said. She'd always been a starter, she'd always been a leader, she'd always been her coach's go-to player.
“Although it hurt her not to be selected, I think it emboldened her, put a chip on her shoulder that helped her when the next opportunity came around,” he said. “At the absolute top of the sport, she learned the hard way it's a small variance that separates those who make the team and those who don't.”
The two had a long talk before the 2015 season. Stone told Beckie if she wanted to make the Olympic team, she needed to forget about it and go all in for Texas Tech – make her collegiate team as successful as possible, and Canada would take notice.
She did. They did. She went to the post-World Cup Canada Soccer camp, playing with more confidence, determined to be on the Olympic roster. She hit her first mark when Herdman put her on the roster for the Olympic qualifying tournament in Houston. The team qualified, but Beckie left disappointed, having logged just a few minutes of playing time without making much of an impact.
But she kept putting in the time at camps, leading to two goals in the Algarve Cup in March, when Canada beat Brazil for the championship. She scored in a game in the Netherlands and played all 90 minutes in a home game against Brazil earlier this summer, then came the moment when Herdman selected his 18-woman roster. That conversation in his office went much better than the last one.
“Watching her grow was one of the more satisfying experiences that I've ever had as a coach,” Stone said. “You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who worked more on developing her game than Janine Beckie did over the course of her career so far.”
Road to Rio
Beckie finished her collegiate career as the all-time leading scorer for Texas Tech. She was the first Red Raider to win Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, she was a two-time semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy recognizing the top collegiate player, and she led the team to its first Big 12 championship before being drafted eighth by the Houston Dash in the National Women's Soccer League in January.
She made a few fans in her time here.
“The amount of support that I have purely from people in Lubbock has just been unreal,” she said. “It's really cool to see such a Red Raider family here. It's overwhelming to see how much support there is anytime something big happens.”
The support continued in her move to Houston, which is a great place to train for high-level competition in hot and humid cities. She is one of seven Dash starters going to Rio. The NWSL actually shut down in August, since so many players from its clubs are at the Olympics, and Beckie missed five games in July while training with Canada. The clubs just know it's coming and know how to work with international programs by now.
Becoming a professional has been a difficult transition, Beckie said. She's playing in a new city with a new team and new players, all of whom were standouts in their collegiate careers, which means the game changed significantly, too. Of the seven Dash players in Rio, two are World Cup champions and one of those, forward Carli Lloyd, is the international soccer federation's World Player of the Year. The pressure is on all the time. Plus, this is how Beckie pays the bills.
“This is my job now,” she said. “It's what I'm getting paid to do. It's a full-time thing – different than being in school, playing for your school, which has been the best thing in my life.
“But it's super exciting. Just to train in such a high-level environment every day and to play with such high-level players every day has been really cool. And there aren't many people who get to say they play a sport for a living. I'm still kind of basking in that reality.”
The other reality, that she is an Olympian, didn't hit until she was buckling up on a Brazil-bound plane. With Canada's first game on Wednesday (Aug. 3) in São Paulo, she's excited to showcase her team and their potential.
“I'm most looking forward to how good our team's going to be, and I say that with complete confidence,” Beckie said. “I think people are going to be really surprised with what they see from us. “Canada's always been the gritty, strong fighter type soccer team, but John's really come in in the last four years and shifted the team to be a more technical side with more talented soccer players and not just pure athletes.
“It's a really good mix of veterans and new faces, and I think people are going to be really surprised by the quality of soccer that we play.”
She's also excited to don the colors, sing the national anthem and represent her country. Well, one of her countries.
“It's a bit different for me because I grew up in the States, but I visited family my entire life in Canada and always felt like that was really my country,” Beckie said. “At the same time, I have so much American pride as well so it's a weird balance. I play in an American league, I went to school here, I grew up here. But I feel a lot of pride and honor wearing my family's colors, a place where my entire family has lived their entire lives. It's just a place with truly amazing people and a culture that's unmatched.
“It's just been a blessing the past two years to play for them and I hope this is just the start of a long career,” she stopped to laugh, “if my body lets me play for the next 10 years.”