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Canada WNT comes together for ConquerCOVID-19 campaign

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What do Diana Matheson and Ryan Reynolds have in common?

Holland v Canada -World Cup Women Photo by Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images

When Craig Forrest became a part of the ConquerCovid-19 team, he knew that he could help amplify its message. The former goalkeeper for the Canadian men’s national team had an opportunity and a connection to further support the grassroots volunteer organization. Forrest reached out to Canada Women’s National Team stalwart Diana Matheson, who in turn reached out to her teammates. The CanWNT released a video wearing Conquer Covid-19 t-shirts and amplified the campaign on social media, raising over 1.5 million dollars for PPE for frontline medical workers in Canada.

Full disclosure: My brother and my sister-in-law are the couple who started ConquerCovid-19.

Due to this global pandemic, the squad that would have been preparing to go to camp before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is currently spread all over the world. But by organizing over WhatsApp, they put together a giant roster of players to spread the word: Matheson, captain Christine Sinclair, Desiree Scott, Ashley Lawrence, Janine Beckie, Stephanie Labbe, Erin McLeod, Jayde Riviere, Vanessa Gilles, Allysha Chapman, Kailen Sheridan, Quinn, Jenna Hellstrom, and Janine Beckie.

Not everything is seamless; some of the shirts for the video were not delivered, not an unexpected situation during a global pandemic, which is why Christine Sinclair is not wearing hers but instead asks “Where can I get mine?” They team improvised as required and made the most of what they had. Matheson said that the creative process around the video was organized “by the younger players,” the social media aficionados or TikTok experts - not something that the vets have totally figured out.

There was no push from the Canadian Soccer Association or any kind of mandate from a governing body; it was simply a team of considerate women wanting to help. This team has a strong history of supporting various equitable movements so it is no surprise that they would be one of the only teams in Canada, as a unified group, to support ConquerCovid-19, entirely of their own volition. In 2016, they formed a player’s union and goalkeeper Erin McLeod helped lead negotiations for the strongest contracts they have had so far. McLeod was pivotal in helping create policy for supporting LGBTQ athletes before the Sochi Olympics. Before the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the WNT was the first international XI to join CommonGoal and donate one percent of their salaries to the charity-based organization. This is in addition to all the campaigns they support individually, such as Sinclair’s work to raise funds for multiple sclerosis research.

To be part of a team that has a culture of concern and caring is not always the norm in the sports world. What makes this team so committed to helping out? Matheson answered the question in her typical humble manner. “Sports can be quite selfish, so maybe we feel we need to give back in other ways,” she said in a Skype interview.

Matheson explained that she had heard about the movement through social media, and saw it explode when Ryan Reynolds shared it. When Forrest contacted her, Matheson, a Right to Play Ambassador, jumped into action.

“I have followed the team, covered them, for [over] 20 years,” Forrest told me. “It was an easy ask, primarily because of their level of knowledge and willingness to support social needs and better society.” It wouldn’t be surprising that a team that has long dealt with sexism and fought for equal pay would sometimes feel like the “outsider,” pushing them to draw together as a community, united in causes calling for justice and equity, and also wait to give back to the greater community.

When I asked Janine Beckie what motivates this team to include social causes and campaigns, she echoed much of what Matheson had said. “That’s just how this team works,” she said. Beckie described the program as a “culture of selflessness.” That attitude is quietly extraordinary considering sports can often be the opposite of this, encouraging individual accomplishment and celebrating individual stats (like an all-time goalscoring record, one which Sinclair has brushed over multiple times, natch).

Matheson said that when the WNT emerged as Canadian sweethearts after the 2012 London Olympics, the older players realized that their platform was much larger than they initially thought, so why not use that platform to make a difference? “It is a waste of a platform and a voice if we don’t use it,” Beckie said.

Canadian hockey legend Hailey Wickenheiser, who has been a strong supporter and is a public face of the ConquerCovid-19 movement, is a powerful example of how women can inspire - Beckie named her specifically as an inspiration for their team. The attention that Wickenheiser brought to the campaign was a catalyst that helped turn an idea born at kitchen table in Markham, ON into a bigger social movement. When Wickenheiser, a medical student, tweeted that her colleagues were in desperate need of PPE, the ConquerCovid-19 team responded and a connection began. Then Ryan Reynolds joined and it grew exponentially.

Jodi Echakowitz handles public relations and press for the ConquerCovid-19 team. In an email, she told me, “From the time that Hayley joined our ConquerCOVID-19 team, we’ve received significant support from athletes and talent connected to the world of sports, including the Canadian women’s soccer team. The domino effect that I’ve seen from every player’s involvement is immeasurable. By wearing our Conquer COVID-19 t-shirts and using their personal and professional platform to get others to do the same is helping us get PPE to frontline healthcare workers. This is a fantastic example of one small act creating a big impact.”

Matheson was aware of the campaign before Forrest reached out to her, and Beckie also says that she had thought about it, too. But before Beckie could even send a message to get a feel from the team, Matheson had told them about her plan.

Matheson said that the team is a “very cohesive unit.” Matheson also said that any work they do is for future generations of Canadians. She is clear that they would like to pass the torch after the older players are no longer there. Matheson has been part of the national program since 2003. Her experiences playing for Canada have included ups and downs, last places and comebacks, surprise coaching changes, tough contract negotiations, and so much more. But despite the waves, or perhaps because of them, the culture of caring has been embedded.

“You come into the team and there might be ego, or selfishness… [but] there’s no room for that,” Beckie said. “And we quickly figure that out,” she adds, laughing.

The players all know they can make a difference off the pitch. Beckie said that this particular campaign was very close to their hearts. “To be supporting another team, the frontline workers, and help during this crazy time … is something we are happy to do,” she said.

In a world where women’s sport is very much its own beast, it’s a no-brainer why this culture of caring has sprung up within the team. And through their efforts, it could be a culture that sticks around for generations to come.

You can support the CanWNT’s efforts in providing PPE to frontline workers by buying a shirt or hat here.