International Women’s Day: Kat Williamson

The impact of a resilient defender

International Women’s Day: Kat Williamson

There’s no one quite like Kat Williamson. It takes a certain type of character for an athlete to endure four knee surgeries and come back better each time. While the former Portland Thorns FC defender retired in 2016, there’s no doubt her impact on the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), former teammates, and fans is irreplaceable.

Williamson’s career was shaped by her resilience.

Over the course of her four-year professional career, Williamson’s toughness, high work rate, and consistency made her one of the most reliable defenders in the league. In her rookie season, she also played a key role on the Thorns FC side that won the 2013 NWSL Championship.

“She’ll light up any room with her positive take on life.” Those are McCall Zerboni’s thoughts on Williamson, her close friend and former teammate, which she gave to sports blog Dynamo Theory. The pair played together for two seasons in the NWSL.

Last April, ahead of the NWSL’s historic fifth season — no professional women’s soccer league beforehand had made it past three — I had the opportunity to interview both Williamson and Zerboni, along with University of Southern California (USC) national champion and standout Morgan Andrews for a story attempting to capture the past, present, and future of the league.

The tough veteran Zerboni served as the present, Andrews represented the promise of youth, and the newly retired Williamson was reminiscent of the league’s not too distant past.

In the interview, Williamson reflected on her career, and I was reminded not only of her unselfishness and raw passion for her sport, but also the exceptional qualities shared by players in the league. In its inaugural 2013 season, it saw non-allocated players make between $6,000 and $30,000 USD; that range increased in 2017 from $15,000 to $41,700.

I was 16 the first time I interviewed Williamson, a time in which I’d define myself as far more passionate than skilled as a writer. Regardless, the year prior, two crucial events had happened in the landscape of women’s soccer in Canada.

The Canadian women’s national soccer team had lost an epic semifinal to the United States at the 2012 London Olympics, for one. This grabbed major headlines, but my attention was also on another, severely underreported event. The Ottawa Fury women had won the now defunct USL W-League Championship over the Pali Blues in a thrilling penalty kick victory, and Williamson had earned MVP honours for her performance in the match. Both events piqued my interest in women’s soccer.

At that point of her career, Williamson had already experienced more than her fair share of adversity, yet she managed to triumph after each setback.

The spring before her freshman season, she suffered a torn ACL in her right knee. She endured the strenuous rehabilitation process and came back to start in every game at centre back, and the following season she was named 2010 Southeastern Conference (SEC) Defensive Player of the Year.

In her senior season, Williamson played in only five games before she suffered another knee injury, this time a meniscus tear in the same knee. Yet she rehabbed again and returned two months later to join the Gators in the NCAA Tournament. In her collegiate career, the two-time All-American won three SEC titles.

Following her fifth knee surgery, Williamson made the decision to hang up her cleats. She still lives in Portland and works at Nike. Her career has had significant impact on me. I can’t imagine wanting to write about sports without having seen her play.

International Women’s Day: Christine Sinclair

An ode to the greatest soccer player in Canadian history

International Women’s Day: Christine Sinclair

Who expected a forward from Burnaby, British Columbia to finish within the top 25 in FIFA Women’s Player of the Year voting an astonishing eight times? Who expected her to sit second all-time in international goals scored with 170? Add a Lou Marsh Award in 2012, a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal the same year, Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016, and an induction to the Order of Canada and you get the incredible – and improbable – career of one Christine Sinclair, the greatest soccer player in the history of this nation.

An athletically and intellectually gifted player, Sinclair has excelled in the women’s game. She possesses both speed and strength, but she can also read the game very well, truly giving her the ability to dominate a match. Sinclair may be blessed with an incredible set of offensive skills but she never shirks from her defensive duties, harassing opponents in midfield. Though the woman affectionately known as “Sincy” is incredibly dangerous from open play, she is also a threat from set-piece situations. This collection of skills are what make Sinclair one of the most dominant and respected players in the women’s game.

Despite being admired for her play by many, it is her incredible leadership ability that sets her apart from other star strikers. Lauded by teammates and coaches alike, Sinclair is described as being humble despite her superstar status within the women’s game. Her greatest fan may very well be former women’s national team head coach – and current men’s head coach – John Herdman, who greatly admires Sinclair’s dedication to her country and her ability to inspire her teammates. Sinclair is a justified captain, exemplified by her ability to lead on and off of the pitch.

With a collection of accolades that would make all but a select group of footballers insane with jealousy, you might expect the 13-time Canadian Women’s Player of the Year to call it quits at the age of 34. After all, she is Sinclair —  what else is there left for her to accomplish? Plenty, if you were to ask her. With Abby Wambach’s 184 international goals record within reach, there is no chance that the Canadian captain will stop now. She stills dreams of winning a World Cup, an Olympic Gold, and of helping Canada reach number one in the FIFA World Rankings. With her historic career, you would be crazy to doubt her.

International Women’s Day: Serena Williams

How Serena Williams inspired me

International Women’s Day: Serena Williams

Growing up in Dubai, there was always a stigma surrounding women in sports. As an avid tennis player, I felt conflicted about pursuing the game because of the society where I had lived. I nearly gave up on tennis until I watched Serena Williams play for the first time. I was struck by her powerful physique and epic moves. Williams is an embodiment of everything girls weren’t allowed to be in my community: strong, confident, and fiercely competitive. In that moment, she became my hero.

Williams has worked for her success, and that level of grit and unbreakable determination continues to pay off for her. It helped her develop her intimidating forearm, and that legendary serve contributed to her victories, leading her to become a Grand Slam champion at the age of 17. Williams also holds the most Grand Slam titles of any active player across every category. In 2015, she won four Grand Slams in a row, an accomplishment so rare that it has been named after her — the “Serena Slam.”

She’s still going strong, surpassing all the limits and expectations placed on her. Despite being 36, roughly a decade older than when other great tennis players of the past retired, she’s still the best at the game. Williams has rewritten the record book for the sport and set new standards in the world of tennis. No other player, male or female, has revolutionized tennis in the way she has.

Without Williams’ influence, I might have experienced a childhood without sports. There were no women around me who played sports, but Williams made me feel normal for pursuing something that no other girls did where I lived. She inspired me to work hard, to always persevere in the face of adversity.

In my eyes, Williams is the greatest athlete of our time, and her impact on my life has been profound. Throughout every challenge she faces, Williams comes back greater than ever. Her sheer resilience and ability to inspire will be part of her legacy as one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

International Women’s Day: Erin McLeod

Inspiring women with her tenacity and courage

International Women’s Day: Erin McLeod

grew up playing soccer. I was four when I first joined a local soccer club, I was nine when I started playing goalkeeper for my house-league team, and I was 12 when I began playing competitively.

Ever since I could remember, I’ve looked up to the Canadian Women’s National Team goalkeeper extraordinaire, Erin McLeod.

McLeod has always been somewhat of an idol of mine. She first began playing for the national team in 2002 when she was only 19 years old. Since then, she’s played in 116 national team games, 112 of which she was the starting keeper. In addition to her athletic career, McLeod is also an artist, singer, and entrepreneur.

As a goalkeeper, McLeod has been under tremendous pressure to perform. Making a single mistake could cost the team a game. This is precisely what happened in the 2012 London Olympic Games, when McLeod was called for a six-second violation — essentially, wasting time when you have the ball. This led to a penalty shot that cost Canada the game — and our shot at an Olympic gold medal.

I can imagine that it’s tough to bounce back from that.

Yet McLeod always does. I was thrilled to learn that, at the veteran age of 35, McLeod came back from her third knee surgery to play for Canada in a friendly match with Norway last month. Who knows? Maybe we’ll have her for another Olympics.

But it’s not just McLeod’s athletic and artistic ability that inspires me. In 2015, she publicly came out as gay. It takes immense bravery to come out when you’re already in the public eye, and I admire her for doing so. I’m certain that she has inspired many young women who are afraid of coming out, fearing possible repercussions.

Whatever McLeod’s future holds — in the net or not — I’m certain that she will continue to inspire young women to overcome obstacles and be ourselves.

Europa League Round of 16 predictions

AC Milan vs. Arsenal draw highlight of fixtures

Europa League Round of 16 predictions

The Europa League (EL) Round of 16 unseeded draw will see heavyweights AC Milan and Arsenal forced to battle for a quarter final spot, three Russian sides represented, and two Red Bull teams. The first legs will be played on March 8, with the second leg on March 15.

My predictions for last season’s Round of 16 fixtures saw six out of eight correct guesses — six out of seven if you consider that my faith in Borussia Mönchengladbach hinged upon Thorgan Hazard not being injured. This year’s competition, though, features tougher and more balanced fixtures, making it difficult to confidently predict the quarter finalists.

SS Lazio vs. Dynamo Kyiv

SS Lazio mathematically secured top spot in Group K after opening with four straight victories, allowing them to field a second-string team in the two last dead rubber games. After a first leg hiccup, Lazio returned to their swashbuckling best at the Stadio Olimpico for the second leg of the Round of 32 against Steaua Bucharest. It was no surprise to see striker Ciro Immobile among the goals in Rome as the mercurial striker bagged a hat-trick en route to a 5–1 victory to bring him to 31 goals this season.

Dynamo Kyiv likewise topped their group, scoring 15 in the process — the third best rate among the 48 teams in the group stages — but they struggled in the Round of 32 against a resolute AEK Athens.

Lazio are playing their most entertaining soccer since the 2014–2015 Serie A season thanks to King Ciro’s incredible goal output — the Italian is currently joint third in the race for top scorer in Europe this season — Luis Alberto’s impressive creative output, and Sergej Milinković-Savić’s complete midfield dominance. Although Dynamo striker Júnior Moraes has netted six in the EL this season, the departures of Dynamo’s first-choice goalkeeper Maksim Koval and starting centre back Domagoj Vida over the winter transfer window has considerably weakened a team that must be at its best to halt the Biancocelesti’s attacking prowess. Lazio to advance.

RB Leipzig vs. FC Zenit Saint Petersburg

First-time European competitors RB Leipzig will have their draw to a tough Zenit team that won five and drew one of their six group stage games. The German outfit shocked the soccer world last season by finishing second in the Bundesliga — just eight years after being founded. This season, Leipzig finished third in a tough Champions League group, pushing the team to this second-tier tournament, where they claimed an impressive victory against Serie A’s current leaders SSC Napoli in the Round of 32.

Zenit Saint Petersburg, who last won the EL in 2008, are the leading scorers in this season’s competition, with 20 goals for and just six goals against. Striker Aleksandr Kokorin and midfielder Emiliano Rigoni have six goals apiece.

Leipzig have conceded in all eight of their European games this season. Zenit’s experience in the EL, coupled with their goal scoring threat, will be just too much for the German team to handle. Zenit through.

Atlético Madrid vs. FC Lokomotiv Moscow

Tournament favourites Atlético Madrid had a disappointing Champions League run before being bumped to the EL. Now the big fish in the small pond, the Spanish side emphasized their class through star forward Antoine Griezmann in the Round of 32 against Copenhagen. Atlético’s defensive record is Europe’s best —they have conceded the fewest goals and made the joint second-fewest defensive errors in Europe’s top five leagues.

Lokomotiv Moscow have conceded just six times over eight EL games this season, and they are also enjoying a surprising top spot in the Russian Premier League side. However, in the friendly fixtures they have played during the Russian winter break, Lokomotiv have looked a careless side, with club website reporting that manager Yuri Semin said, “Our defence lack responsibility… and not only four defenders, but the whole team.” Creative midfielders Jefferson Fárfan and Aleksei Miranchuk must be ready to think outside the box if Lokomotiv are to fell Atlético’s well-structured squad, but even if they do succeed, Atlético’s attacking strength should be too much. Atlético through.

CSKA Moscow vs. Lyon

Polling aggregation site FiveThirtyEight considers this game the closest of all eight fixtures, estimating that Lyon have a 51 per cent chance of progression. The French outfit, aiming to make it to the final held at their home stadium, have a strong attacking trio in Bertrand Traore, Memphis Depay, and Nabil Fekir, who have 10 goals between them. CSKA Mocow’s three forwards have one European goal between them. CSKA looked off the pace against Red Star Belgrade in the Round of 32, and Lyon have greater squad balance. Lyon take this one.

Marseille vs. Athletic Bilbao

Marseille failed to flex their muscles in a fairly easy group, scoring just four goals while conceding four. Athletic Bilbao also flattered to deceive, but in veteran Aritz Aduriz, they have the EL’s top scorer and a player with strong heading, finishing, and strength. Both teams have relied on a 4-2-3-1 in the EL this season, but Marseille have better individual talent, a superior average possession, better passing accuracy, and a stronger defensive record. Marseille to qualify.

Sporting CP vs. FC Viktoria Plzeň

Sporting CP, another Champions League casualty, have scored six goals in their two EL games. The Portuguese side play a high defensive line and are susceptible to defensive lapses, but they also have the second highest average possession of the teams left, with 58 per cent. FC Viktoria Plzeň will try to disrupt this possession-based approach — the Czech team have the third-most overall fouls committed out of the remaining teams — but Sporting have more quality, including midfielder Bruno Fernandes, who bagged three in two EL games, and prolific striker Bas Dost, who has 20 goals in 21 domestic games. Sporting to progress.

Borussia Dortmund vs. FC Red Bull Salzburg

Like Atlético, Borussia Dortmund endured a poor Champions League run, but the German team are now second favourites to lift the trophy. Although Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is gone, Dortmund have found a reliable replacement in Michy Batshuayi. They overcame a tough Atalanta team en route to the Round of 16 and can expect an easier fixture against FC Red Bull Salzburg.

Salzburg, the only unbeaten EL team left, have primarily relied on a 4-3-1-2 formation in the EL this season. If they opt for the same tried and tested, Dortmund will be invited to bombard their defences, and the Austrian team don’t have the suitable personnel to manage Dortmund’s attacks. However, if they go for a 3-5-2 formation instead, Dortmund’s wingers will take advantage of the spaces at the back, meaning that Salzburg will need to control the midfield against better players. In the first leg of the Round of 32, they only managed 40 per cent of possession against Real Sociedad and will thus find it tough. Dortmund to progress.

AC Milan vs. Arsenal

What would have only five years ago been a mouth-watering Champions League-level clash is a decidedly more modest fixture in 2018. AC Milan have done well in the EL and have only conceded four in eight games. The team have improved since Gennaro Gattuso took charge in November, and they are becoming more efficient in front of goal and tighter at the back.

Arsenal would arguably have benefitted from a managerial switch in November, with Arsène Wenger’s fortunes taking a tumble. The Gunners are sinking without trace in the Premier League, and they were dumped out of both the FA Cup and the League Cup. EL success may be the elixir Wenger needs to save his job, but with attackers Alexis Sánchez and Olivier Giroud gone and new star attacker Aubameyang ineligible due to having played for Dortmund in Europe this season, the attacking onus will fall on Alexandre Lacazette — a good player who isn’t getting the goals expected of him.

Milan and Arsenal have performed similarly in the EL this season; Arsenal have 18 goals to Milan’s 17, but they have conceded two more, with six, so the flagship match of the round should be an interesting affair. Milan to progress.

Full steam ahead for A Fellow Ship

In conversation with the local folk-funk band

Full steam ahead for A Fellow Ship

Those who circulate in Toronto’s local music venues may recognize A Fellow Ship, the self-described folk-funk band who have been rocking venues like the Horseshoe Tavern, Silver Dollar Room, The Central, and Mod Club Theatre.

Forming close to four years ago, the band was founded in high school by a group of friends who shared a common love of dancing, singing, and having fun. Their formation began with a jam session, said lead vocalist Forest Van Winkle. “We were hanging out, playing covers, making music, and it just snowballed,” he added.

The band now consists of eight members: guitarist and lead vocalist Joe Dent; lead vocalist Forest Van Winkle; guitarist, mandolinist, and vocalist Jack Stone; pianist Teddy Liptay; bassist Tristan Schultz; drummer Ryan Johnston; trumpet player Austin Jones; and the newest member, saxophonist John Nicholson.

Schultz, Johnston, and Jones are alumni of U of T’s jazz program, and Nicholson is currently completing his master’s degree here.

A Fellow Ship recently opened up for the festival-favourite and critically acclaimed band Magic Giant for the third time.

The group can rest easy knowing that the energetic performance mentality they learned firsthand from Magic Giant was on full display at their show at Mod Club on February 13. They dominated the stage, to the delight of the several hundred people in attendance. The band played new music off their EP The Black Sheep, teased unreleased music, and acknowledged the many friendly faces in the crowd and the support they’ve received.

Relying on a combination of warm string instruments and soul-pleasing brass, the band gave listeners an excellent musical experience and a visual treat of a performance. Seeming extremely comfortable, the band engaged with the crowd, posed for pictures, made jokes, and created a dancing frenzy.

Despite their captivating live set, they are still looking for ways to improve. “We’re still at the point where we’re not making a living off of this,” said Dent. “We hope to be one day, but it’s a long journey. We want to tour more, release more music, and grow a bigger and bigger following, until it is something tangible. For now, we’re all having a blast.”

They’re still hard at work looking for gigs and venues, and they hope to have a follow- up to their first tour in September last year, when they played shows in Ottawa, Montréal, and Halifax.

They also claim to be heading back into the studio soon, and they’re are looking to release a double single sometime this summer that will capture their onstage energy.

“We’re trying to do a lot, everyone is trying to do a side hustle, but everyone is trying to make the most of this,” said Van Winkle.

A Fellow Ship will perform March 15 at the Horseshoe Tavern.

Theatre review: Hart House’s Titus Andronicus

One of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays straddles comedy and tragedy

Theatre review: Hart House’s <em>Titus Andronicus</em>

Hart House made a bold choice for its annual Shakespeare production this year with Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most gratuitously violent plays. It’s neither as beloved as Hamlet or Macbeth, nor as technically sophisticated, but it deals with similar themes of revenge and power. Hart House’s production is able to balance the play’s comedic and dramatic elements without overemphasizing either.

Titus Andronicus also straddles the boundary between comedy and tragedy. Director James Wallis’ vision for the play was to create the sense of a carnival, of funhouse mirrors and the dual world of the grotesque and comedic, a promising vision that played well with the themes and tones of the play. While Wallis’ production occasionally edges close to giving in to the tragedy, on the whole it balances the two modes well, leading to a funny, horrifying, and thought-provoking performance.

The production also shines in its enthusiastic acceptance of the play’s natural horrific, comedic, and tragic dimensions. The grotesque fully plays out on stage, while the comedic horror of some moments, like when Titus’ daughter Lavinia holds a dismembered hand in her mouth, manages to elicit both laughs and squirms from the audience.

At the same time, the trauma of sexual assault, the fear and grief of losing a child, and the heartbreak of a lover’s death are all portrayed with full respect for their tragedy.

The casting of female performers in some of the originally male roles also adds a layer of depth and insight. The show’s first on-stage death becomes the death of a female child, making the later rape of a female character in revenge more powerful for its parallels. Lavinia’s lover is portrayed by a woman, also providing for deeper engagement with the theme of sexuality.

The production also features some electrifying performances. Shalyn McFaul and Tristan Claxton, who play Tamora and Saturninus, perform with particularly great gusto and liveliness and play off each other well, constantly contributing to the comedy of the performance. David Mackett, who plays Titus, comes alive in the second half of the performance, enthusiastically embracing Titus’ descent into silliness.

Titus Andronicus relishes and revels in the violence it portrays, but it also has touching and startling moments. It’s a horror story on the surface with a surprisingly meaningful deconstruction of revenge underneath.

Any production of the show must grapple with these competing strands. Done well, the play can be fascinating; if it succumbs wholly to either the comedic or the tragic, it can be profoundly disappointing.

Hart House’s production manages to handle these dual elements well — both over-the-top and darkly humorous — while also showing the devastating effects of sexual assault, murder, and the tragic consequences of revenge. The result is a fun, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable production — one well worth attending.

Titus Andronicus runs at Hart House Theatre until March 10.

The ROM’s Christian Dior exhibit is a must-see for fashion aficionados

Work from the fashion house’s first decade reveals an effort to celebrate femininity

The ROM’s Christian Dior exhibit is a must-see for  fashion aficionados

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is currently hosting an exhibit celebrating Christian Dior’s 70th anniversary, presented by Holt Renfrew. Featuring pieces from the first decade of Dior’s legacy, the apparel displayed ranges from 1947–1957, reflecting the climate of the aftermath of World War II.

The exhibit, a must-see for fashion aficionados, has a nostalgic Torontonian feel; the 40 garments featured were donated by Toronto socialites.

Dior revised the knee-length skirts and masculine cuts of wartime for a fresh postbellum femininity. He highlighted the female silhouette with willowy waistlines and accented bosoms, full skirts and soft, frilly details. According to Dior, this was “a look of peace” that reflected the postwar feminist feeling by celebrating the female form.

Despite Dior’s modernity, his construction of clothing harkened back to older methods that were beginning to become obsolete in the mid-twentieth century. A believer in handmade work over mass production, he revitalized dying industries and enlivened his clothing with careful craftsmanship and stellar quality.

Dior admitted that his “return to long-forgotten techniques raised a host of difficulties,” but nevertheless insisted on reviving forgotten arts, such as that of boned corsetry, after it had fallen out of use after World War I.

The designer had also commented on the importance of constructing dresses to compliment the female figure. “I wanted my dresses to be constructed like buildings, moulded to the curves of the female form, stylizing its shape.”

His cocktail dresses were heavily corseted, giving the torso a concave quality. The myriad hooks and eyes used to pin the bodice in place ensured that the female form would be seen in its fullness, the only the drawback being that women would require help dressing.

Another art that had all but disappeared after World War I was passementerie, the hand-weaving of braided, lace, and velvet ribbons.

Despite the ease of factory production, Dior was set on resurrecting this artistry, preserving the beauty of ribbonry in carefully designed and crafted detail, a sentiment echoed once again in his insistence on hand-embroidered fabric.

The House of Dior committed to historically favoured methods of dressmaking and amalgamated the creative insight of various top designers and craftspeople.

Dior’s desire for excellent fashion extended beyond only the upper classes, however, offering haute couture at a relatively affordable price by using inexpensive materials like glass and artificial pearls in jewellery, as well as sacrificing material so resources could be funneled into high quality manufacturing.

The pieces intended for working women are just as alluring as the evening gowns. These included two-piece suits with flattering waistlines and long coats, accented with buttons and a belt to frame the female silhouette with both grace and professional poise.

The exhibit is exquisite to behold. The embroidered fabrics, sparkly detailing, masses of tulle, and floor length voluminous skirts on display would make any fashion addict swoon.

The Christian Dior exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum runs until April 8.