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Where there's fire ...

Kelowna's flames drive soccer team to Edmonton early

By TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun


EDMONTON -- The girls are back in town. They couldn't wait to get here. But this was hardly the way they wanted to do it, running away from a forest fire in Kelowna and leaving behind hosts with no homes.

"To look out the window and see a whole mountainside burn down and people with their whole lives in the back of their vans and know some of them were the same people who had invited us there, our hosts .... and there wasn't anything we could do,'' said Christine Sinclair, her voice breaking a bit as she spoke.

"We offered to sleep on the floor so families who needed hotel rooms could use our beds. We wanted to do something. But there was so little we could do.''

Actually, they did a lot, said team manager Kim Sebrango.

"They took water to the firefighters and put the food coupons donated to us under firefighters' doors in the hotel. Erin McLeod and Kara Lang took kids who had evacuated their houses out for ice cream to take their minds off it.


"To see the flames rolling over the hills and all the people who were hosting us evacuated, the girls were really affected by what was happening.

"Our ball girl's house burned down.

"The players wanted to sleep four to a room and even on the floor. They were such troopers. The army took over our practice field ... the time came for us to evacuate.''

So they came to Edmonton early. But this wasn't the way they wanted to return to breathe the rare air, bring back the warm memories of what happened here last year and begin the final countdown to USA 2003 and the women's World Cup of soccer.

"It was pretty insane,'' said Lang.

"To stand on the balcony at the hotel and see houses being burned and to know they were the homes of some of our hosts ...

"We were there for team building and I guess that's what happened. We really came together because there was a lot to take care of, but we felt so bad for those people.''

The team caught the last flight out of Kelowna Saturday morning before they closed the airport.

"It was kind of sad we had to leave them when we did,'' said Clare Rustad.

They were there for the week to take cruises, play golf and come together as a team prior to heading here and beginning the final push to the women's World Cup with hard training sessions and Sunday's game against Mexico, which will likely decide the final few spots on the team.

"It put into perspective a lot of things,'' said Rustad.

For seven members of the team - Sinclair, Lang, McLeod, Rustad, Sasha Andrews, Brittany Timko and Melanie Booth - the girls who were part of the mystical, magical experience of the wonderful and wildly successful FIFA U-19 Women's World Championships here last year, it was surreal going from real-life drama to back to their field of dreams on a flight from fire.

But when they landed in Edmonton, they couldn't help getting the warm fuzzies.

"It's pretty neat,'' said Rustad. "It's a year to the day, Sunday, when we played the Americans in the final. The memories are still there. They always will be.

''It's like we're on the same timetable going into this game. One of the girls said, 'We played Japan yesterday.' ''


The team practised for the first time here yesterday and couldn't help but go back to the first time they stepped on the Clarke Stadium field and looked at Commonwealth Stadium in the background, never dreaming they'd play in the final in front of crowds of 47,784 and 161,207 for six tournament dates in Commonwealth Stadium.

"I was just talking to Sincy about that,'' said Lang.

"We went to the Eskimo game Saturday night and sat there telling ourselves we played on that field with just as many, maybe even a few more, people in the stands,'' she said as she sat on the bench after a two-hour practice minus U-19 team-mate Candace Chapman, who flew to Toronto to have an injured knee evaluated and veteran stars Charmain Hooper and Sharolta Nonen who played in the WUSA league final Sunday in San Diego and won't arrive until tomorrow.

"Not too many days go by when we don't think of it,'' said Sinclair. "We're all so excited to be back here and to go back into that stadium and play again. The girls who were here and part of that are all talking about those memories and how they're expecting lots of fans again.

"It's just such an excellent place. People around here treat us so wonderful. I can't think of a better place to come to prepare for the World Cup.

"But I'm sure all the time we're here, we'll be thinking of our hosts and all those people in Kelowna and what's happened to them.''

There's just something about these girls.

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