Canadian Women Rewrote Sports History in the Summer of 2021

Despite lack of funding, development programs, and promotion women get compared to their male counterparts, it was Canada’s women who dominated the headlines.

Canadian women dominated the summer of 2021: Leylah Fernandez, Penny Oleksiak, Christine Sinclair, Marie Philip-Poulin
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Canadian women dominated the summer of 2021: Leylah Fernandez, Penny Oleksiak, Christine Sinclair, Marie Philip-Poulin

It was a truly captivating summer of sports, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship, and the U.S. Open all occurring within the span of two glorious summer months. And, despite all the COVID-related obstacles—not to mention the lack of funding, development programs, and promotion females get compared to their male counterparts—it was Canada’s women who dominated the headlines and won the awards at these events, making it a historic summer for women’s sports in the country.

And it came at the perfect time, too, with Canada witnessing an alarming trend in the decline in sport participation among adolescent girls, with a 22 percent difference in the participation rates between girls age 9 to 11 and those age 15 to 18. The successes of Canadian women this summer should inspire the next generation of female fans and athletes and bring hope that Canadian sporting institutions will see beyond the short-term gains and invest in programs similar to Canada Basketball’s Mad Love campaign to promote female sports across the country. But it should also serve as a reminder that Canada is just scratching the surface in terms of their potential on the female side, with limitless room to grow when it comes to creating homegrown professional leagues to develop Canadian women and showcase them on our television screens, because the talent and viewership is clearly already there. 

Tokyo Summer 2020 Olympics

Bronze medalist Kylie Masse, Sydney Pickrem, Margaret Macneil and Penny Oleksiak of Team Canada pose after the medal ceremony for the Women's 4 x 100m Medley Relay Final on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

The Summer of Canadian Women™ started on July 24th, the second official day of the Olympic Games, when four Canadian women—Kayla Sanchez, Maggie Mac Neil, Rebecca Smith, and Penny Oleksiak—rallied together to win silver in the women’s 4×100-metre swimming freestyle relay, with Oleksiak pulling ahead of the Americans in the final stretch. 

Anyone else getting the first medal feels? Penny Oleksiak anchored Canada's silver medal win in the women's 4x100 m swimming relay #tokyo2020

Read more: 🇨🇦

— CBC Olympics (@CBCOlympics) July 25, 2021

 It was Team Canada’s first medal in Japan, the first of six the women would win in the pool, and even more amazingly, it marked the first of 13 straight medals won by Canadian women to start off the Games, with the men not winning until August 1st. In fact, women won 18 of Canada’s 24 total medals in Tokyo, and five out of their seven golds. 

After winning three medals in Tokyo, Oleksiak became Canada’s most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of seven medals. At just 21 years of age and with only two Olympic Games behind her, she has only just started to take the swimming world by storm. But she wasn’t the only Canadian woman to dominate in the pool: Mac Neil won Canada’s first gold medal of the Games, finishing the women’s 100-metre butterfly in a time of 55.59 seconds, and Kylie Masse won the first of her three medals a couple days later with a silver in the women’s 100-metre backstroke. 

The Canadian women also won medals in diving, judo, softball, weightlifting, rowing, canoeing, cycling and, perhaps most amazingly of them all, the most popular sport in the world, soccer. 

Canada's Women’s National Soccer Team

Players of Team Canada celebrate following their team's victory in the penalty shoot out in the Women's Gold Medal Match between Canada and Sweden on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at International Stadium Yokohama on August 06, 2021 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.

After back-to-back bronze medal finishes in London and Rio, the Canadian women’s soccer team shocked the world en route to their first gold medal in program history in Tokyo.

Despite entering the tournament ranked No. 8 in the world after a 10-game winless drought against top-10 nations—a stretch where they went 0-8-2 and were outscored 20-3—the Canadian’s got better as the Games went along. Led by legendary forward Christine Sinclair and anchored in net by the fearless Stephanie Labbé, Team Canada finished the group stage 1-2-0 before defeating Brazil in penalties in the quarterfinal, setting the stage for a showdown against the American favourites in the semis, who they hadn’t beaten in 20 years. Jessie Fleming scored the lone goal to defeat the Americans, and she scored again in the final against Team Sweden to tie things up 1-1 before penalties, where Julia Grosso scored the golden goal, helping Team Canada escape with a 3-2 win and, more importantly, a gold medal. 

Congrats Team Canada 🇨🇦🥇🏆🥇
Canada wins women's soccer gold at Tokyo Olympics. Well played Ladies🎉🎉🎉

#Tokyo2020 #CanadaSoccer

— (@CoolDesignsCa) August 7, 2021

Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt, and Desiree Scott became three-time Olympic medalists, while Team Canada midfielder Quinn made history by becoming the first openly transgender and non-binary athlete in any sport to win a gold medal. 

A whopping 4.4 million people watched Canada win gold in women’s soccer, making it the most-watched moment of Tokyo 2020 in Canada. And their victory inspired the nation, with increasing calls for the creation of a professional women’s soccer league right here in Canada. 

IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship

Marie-Philip Poulin #29 of Canada celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against United States in the 2021 IIHF Women's World Championship gold medal game played at WinSport Arena on August 31, 2021 in Calgary, Canada. Canada defeated United States 3-2 in overtime.

Late August was when Canadian sports fans turned their attention to the ice rink, with the Canadian women competing in the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship on home soil in Calgary, Alberta. The Canadians had not won the tournament since 2012, and were coming off a disappointing finish in 2019, when they failed to reach the final for the first time in tournament history. 

After going undefeated throughout the entire tournament, Canada met historic rival Team USA in the final, with a chance to end the American’s five-year gold streak and stop them from winning nine of the previous ten world titles. 

Tied 2-2 heading into overtime, it was Canadian hockey legend Marie-Philip Poulin that scored the golden goal at 7:22 of the first three-on-three overtime period, with a wicked wrist shot over the outstretched glove of the American goaltender sending the Canadians into celebration. 


— TSN (@TSN_Sports) September 1, 2021

“Every time we play them, it’s going to come down to a goal, to overtime,” said Amanda Kessel of Team USA. “That’s why it’s the greatest rivalry in sports.” 

Leylah Fernandez at the U.S. Open

Leylah Annie Fernandez of Canada celebrates defeating Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus during her Women’s Singles semifinals match on Day Eleven of the 2021 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 09, 2021 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Not to be outdone by Olympians or the historically dominant Canadian hockey team, 19-year-old, Montrael-born Leylah Fernandez reminded people that Canada is becoming a tennis country, too, as she captured Canadians’ attention in a dominant run to her first major final at the U.S. Open in September. 

Ferndandez entered the tournament ranked 73rd in the world and was participating in just the seventh major tournament of her career, but not once did she look out of place or seem to lack confidence. After straight set wins against Ana Konjuh of Croatia and then Kaia Kanepi of Estonia, Fernandez took on 2020 U.S. Open champion and tennis sensation Naomi Osaka in the third round. After losing the first set, Fernandez rallied back to win the next two in blockbuster fashion, putting on a show for the fans at Flushing Meadows in New York. She then went on to defeat No. 16 ranked Angelique Kerber in the round of 16, No. 5 ranked Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinal, and No. 2 ranked Aryna Sabalenk in the semis, becoming the youngest player to beat two players ranked in the WTA’s top five at the same major since Serena Williams in 1999. 

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Fernandez became the youngest woman to reach the final four at the US Open since 18-year-old Maria Sharapova did it in 2005, and just the second Canadian woman ever to reach the US Open final after Bianca Andreescu won it all in 2019. 

Unfortunately, Fernandez was outclassed by 18-year-old Emma Raducanu of Great Britain in the final (who, by the way, was actually born in Toronto before moving to England at the age of two). While it was a disappointing finish for Fernandez, her dominant run was the perfect capper to a summer of Canadian dominance in the world of women’s sports, with the final reaching 2.4 million unique viewers on ESPN and 1.1 million in Canada, marking the fifth time in seven years that women’s U.S. Open final outdrew the men’s on American TV.

From Fernandez to Oleksiak and the rest of the Olympians to the national hockey and soccer teams, Canadian women collectively captured the country’s attention this summer with their history-making dominance across the sporting world. Only time will tell how big of an impact The Summer of Canadian Women™ will have on women’s sports in Canada moving forward, but hopefully summers like this one turn out to be the rule rather than the exception. And with increased funding and promotion, Canadian women could come to dominate the world of sports for years to come.

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