Jordyn Huitema talks B.C. roots, playing in Paris, growing the game

As we celebrate Canada's birth it's more important than ever to reflect on where we have been and how we can collectively move forward as a nation.

When the COVID-19 threat quickly turned into a global pandemic earlier this year, it took Jordyn Huitema somewhere she hadn’t been in a while: home, to Chilliwack, B.C.

“It’s actually the first time that my whole family was together in the house for the last three or four years, because we’ve all been our separate ways. It was kind of nice to just see my brothers and my family and have all of us under the same roof again,” the Canadian soccer star told Sportsnet on Tuesday.

Growing up in the Fraser Valley, Huitema’s youth soccer career took her away from home early and often. At age 11, she was already heading to nearby Surrey in search of a higher level of competition and to catch the eyes of elite- and national-program scouts. Three years after that, she was a 14-year-old living with a billet family in Vancouver while honing her skills with the Whitecaps’ Girls Elite REX development program.

At 17, the already fast-rising Team Canada star was living in a hotel room in Paris so she could access top-level training ahead of the 2019 World Cup. And it wasn’t long before she decided Paris would be her soccer home, opting to turn pro straight out of high school rather than join an NCAA program. Her four-year contract with Paris Saint-Germain’s women’s team, signed in May 2019, made her the first Canadian women’s player to sign professionally right out of Grade 12.

Then, this past winter, she made the relatively short trip to the U.S. to lead the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship with seven goals, helping Canada to a second-place finish in the process.

So, to say the extended stay at home was a change of pace – not to mention, quite the throwback – would be an understatement.

“It was the longest time, since I was 14, being home,” Huitema, 19, said of the pandemic-induced homestay. “Yeah, it was a little weird. But it was definitely nice.”

Now back with her club in Paris, she spoke with Sportsnet about her soccer roots, what it’s like to represent Canada, and how she’s adjusting to life in the pros – including the “new normal” of sports in the era of COVID-19.

How does it feel to be back in Paris, and back to team training?
This was day two [of training] now that we just finished. Feeling good, really excited to kind of get going with the season and starting things back…. Looking forward to it.

What has the process been like, getting used to this “new normal” of training during a global pandemic?
Everyone’s being pretty precautionary, just making sure in these first few days that everything’s okay. I didn’t get to experience the nose swab until I got here. I’ve done it twice now — it’s definitely as painful as people say.

I think that we’re taking the proper measures to make sure that everything’s okay here. We did have a few cases on our team, as we released, so we’re just working those out, sorting those out, making sure that everyone currently who’s training is okay to be around everyone. We’re kind of having our own little bubble, in a way. We’re having a few trainings every day so there’s no real time to go out and do too much. So, it’s been really nice. I think the program is handling it really well.

How were you able to continue your training and conditioning during lockdown in B.C.?
Obviously, you didn’t want to put yourself out there too much to put yourself at risk. For me, I was trying to keep a really tight-knit bubble.

For training, I had a great coach over the break and he was with me one-on-one. I also did a lot of running sessions with my mom — we really enjoy kind of pushing each other through that. Soccer Canada also ran a few Zoom online strength sessions, so that was really nice to connect back with the National Team again … to be able to work out with a group of people again and kind of push yourself in a different way.

Growing up in Chilliwack, was your sports focus always on soccer?
I have two older brothers, and one of them leaned more towards soccer and the other to hockey. Growing up, all three of us played soccer and hockey, and two of us swam. So, I was a soccer player, a hockey player, and a swimmer.

I loved hockey and soccer. So, until I was 14, I think, I played both at a really high level and I kind of had to come to a decision.

How would you describe Chilliwack’s soccer community?
When I was with Chilliwack FC, they opened so many doors for me, and I’ll always say that and I’ll continue to say that. They always put me in an older age group or with the boys, which was never done before. I definitely got a lot of funny looks from the sideline when I was showing up to a game day and the away team didn’t know that I was on the team. All the parents kind of looking at me like, “Why is she here?” “Why is she in the jersey?” But they definitely accepted me onto that team and treated me like one of the boys in a way.

What was it that ultimately went into your decision to go pro, and play overseas?
I was playing with the Whitecaps REX academy in B.C. I think I was playing there for almost five years with that club. They developed me amazingly and I really appreciate everything they did for me, but it got to a point where it was just not quite there, and I needed just a little bit more. That was when I was 17, and right when I was making the decision of whether I wanted to go to university or whether I wanted to go pro. I was kind of still on the fence with both. I didn’t really know what I wanted. School was such a high factor for me and I really thought that was really important for me, so that’s why it was such a hard decision.

January of 2019 is when I finally made the decision because I said — prior to World Cup — I needed the best training I could get, and I knew that I needed to be here in order to do that. So that’s kind of what made me lean more pro. As soon as I made the decision, I headed out here right away and started training immediately. It was really, really quick. It was like, I was 50-50 and then I was 100-and-0. I just knew that this is what I wanted to do.

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Your decision has ultimately opened the door to professional soccer for other young women to follow.
In Canada, I think it’s kind of a statement where, you go to high school and then you go to college and you play in university. And that was kind of the pathway that everyone knew and wanted to follow. But I kind of started a new pathway and showing people that, no, there’s other things you can do and different ways to go and people have different aspirations and different ambitions. If you don’t go to school, or you want to do it at the same time or do it later, that’s okay, too.

It’s cool. I’ve had a few younger kids reach out to me over Instagram, over DMs, and be like, “How did you do it?” “Do you regret it?” “What do you feel about your decision?” “Can you tell me about your decision to go pro?” So I think that part’s really cool, just knowing that it is helping a lot of kids and they’re actually reaching out, and of course I respond and give as much info as I can.

Reflecting on your first season in Paris, was there a particular learning curve you experienced, both on and off the field?
On the field, it’s very professional here. You show up to training every day and you perform to the best of your abilities. There’s no days off. There’s no days where you can just joke around and have fun and kind of fool off while training. Everyone’s very serious. We have a job to do here, and we all have the same goals and that’s what we’re here to do.

Off the field, it’s more mental. Obviously moving across the sea, away from your family, it’s very difficult, of course. I’d say it’s just that part about learning how to balance your off-the-field life with enjoyment and just finding small moments to call loved ones and put that time aside and kind of prioritize that mental part.

Last season was the first time you were able to fully immerse yourself in your training. How have you seen that translated in your performance?
It’s hard when you’re here all the time to really notice a difference, because obviously you’re just growing day in and day out. But I think the difference comes when I come back to Team Canada camps, when I’m away here for three months and then have a big Canada camp — I think you really notice a difference just in my overall performance. So that’s been pretty cool to see from the beginning — even just the confidence on the field has changed dramatically, and that definitely translates to my performances.

You’ve already built a pretty extensive international career with Team Canada. What do you remember about your senior-squad debut?
I was terrified. It was the Algarve Cup final. [Then-head coach] John Herdman started me. This is my first cap, and you’re playing me in a final, and I’m starting. So I’m terrified. I was 15, and I was like, “This is insane.” I was just super, super nervous at that point. And then obviously as you keep playing and progressing, your nerves kind of diminish and you get to really showcase the type of player you are. But I was definitely a little nervous going into that first game.

Tell me about your first Team Canada goal.
Three or four games after my first cap, I finally scored my first goal. It was in front of Canadian fans, in Toronto, we had a huge fanbase and it was just amazing. The energy was just incredible. I scored my second like two minutes after. So that was just super exciting. I loved that it was at home…. I wouldn’t take it back for anything.

Throughout your earlier development, you’ve been called, ‘The next Christine Sinclair.’ What was that like, and is that a fair comparison in your eyes?
At the beginning, when people were starting to compare us, I was super excited because obviously that was my idol my whole life. So even just to have her name in the same sentence was mind-blowing and super, super exciting for me. But as I’ve built my roots and kind of developed into the player that I see myself being, [my game does] have similarities to her for sure, but we’re so different. And I think that’s what comes out in our play – especially when we play together, you can really see us working off each other and we’re on the same beat with each other, but we just bring so many different things. That’s why we work so well together on the field. I’d definitely say we share characteristics, but I wouldn’t say we’re exactly the same – and I think her and I would both say we don’t want to be identical. I don’t think we want to build robots in Canada. I think we’re building our own players with our own IDs. But yeah, when I was younger I was definitely excited just to see our names in the same sentence.

What kind of growth have you seen within women’s soccer in Canada over the past few years?
The real thing you can see is the fans and just the supporters that come out, and how many more television streams we have.

We’re currently [ranked] top 10 [internationally], but getting top five and maybe even No. 1, we need to get that professional league. Because if we don’t have it, we’re not developing enough and quick enough.

If you’re looking at any other top team or country in the world, they have a professional league…. I think that’s an exciting next step for Canada – and I think it is in the near future.

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