From Canada to Beijing: The journey of one Illini soccer player



By Steve Contorno

The Big Ten is well aware of Emily Zurrer’s prowess. The conference has witnessed over and over again her vicious slide tackle – a physical act only she could make look elegant and graceful. The Illinois junior has been one of the conference’s premiere defenders since her freshman debut in 2005, winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2006 and has been named Big Ten Player of the Week three times in her career.

But coaches and players from around the conference already know all that. Now, it’s time for the world to see it.

Zurrer was named to the senior national team for Team Canada on July 15. The move wasn’t much of a surprise as Zurrer has been a staple on Canada’s youth teams since 2004 and has experience playing with the senior team for several years. Still, Zurrer has never competed on such grand a level and was thrilled at the news.

“What a great honor it is to be able to represent my country at the Olympic games,” said Zurrer in a press release, who’s traveling and was not able to be reached. “I have dreamed of competing in the Olympics ever since I was a young girl, and to have the opportunity to become an Olympic athlete this summer in Beijing really is a dream come true.”

Not only is it the first Olympic appearance for the Canadian women’s soccer team, Zurrer is also the first Illini soccer player to compete in the Games. The distinction is a special one, and one that is important for her and the program that head coach Janet Rayfield is building.

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“It’s an accomplishment and a culmination of a lot of work here and the work she has put in outside of here,” Rayfield said. “She’s going to comeback with an experience that is life changing. And we get to share that with her, and that’s great for our team.”

Canada enters the Olympics ranked ninth in the world. They played friendly matches in July against Brazil, New Zealand and Singapore before their Olympic opener against Argentina on Aug. 6, with Zurrer seeing a combined 146 minutes of playing time. Rayfield wouldn’t be surprised to see Zurrer get plenty of action in Beijing.

“The last time I talked to her she was playing right back, which is different than what she’s played for us,” Rayfield said. “But she’s expecting to be a factor on defense. Spots have opened up because of injury which is an opportunity for her to play and help them out defensively.”

Zurrer is one of the few remaining contributors to the Illinois team that made the round of 16 in the 2006 NCAA tournament. Her experience on both the college and international level will be a key component to a team that lost its top-goal scorer (Ella Masar) and record-breaking goalkeeper (Lindsey Carstens) to graduation.

Even though she will have to lean on her Canadian superstar for the upcoming season, Rayfield knows she has little left to teach an Olympic-caliber player like Zurrer.

“It’s not about teaching Emily anymore,” Rayfield said. “What you do is facilitate that experience in a different environment. We need her experience because it looks like we’ll have a freshman back there with her. A good coach takes the experience and utilizes it to finish the puzzle. She’s a great piece and we have to make sure the puzzle fits around her.”

Rayfield might not get much sleep while her player is on the other side of the world, but it has nothing to do with nerves or fear of injury. Illinois’ coach doesn’t like to worry about such things and doesn’t want her athletes playing not to get hurt. No, her sleepless nights will have more to do with when NBC’s family of networks will be airing Canada’s games.

“Fortunately, some of the games will be televised live. It might mean I won’t be getting much sleep during the preseason. The games are pretty earlier,” she said.

And if Zurrer finds herself pitted against Team USA at some point?

“It’s one of those things where we hope she has a great game, but we hope the U.S. comes out on top,” Rayfield said. “But we’ll cheer for EZ to have a great experience.”