Cheryl O'Leary Helping to Build Women's Football in Atlantic Canada

Mark StaffieriContributor IIJune 2, 2013

Image property of the author
Image property of the author

Dedicated, hard-working and spirited, Cheryl O’Leary is emerging as one of the key builders of women’s tackle football in the Atlantic region of Canada. Wearing many different hats, O’Leary has served as a member of the coaching staff for the Capital Area Lady Gladiators while also serving as a Vice President for the Maritime Women’s Football League. This season, she is competing for the Lady Gladiators, respectively.

O’Leary also gives back to the community by assisting on a coaching staff for a Bantam Girls Tackle Football Program in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In addition, she is currently the program coordinator for Girls Flag Football for the Capital Area Minor Football Association (CAMFA).

Like many women in tackle football, the interest in the game emanated from family. With her son competing on the gridiron in his preteens, O’Leary became involved with the sport and has not looked back.

“My son began playing tackle football several years ago when he was in Grade 6, I was instantly hooked. At the beginning I was a parent willing to help out; my first assigned task was peddling t-shirts on the sidelines. The following year I was asked to be a team manager, and I kept that role for five years.” 

“Once my son moved up to play with the FHS Varsity Black Kats I decided that I wanted to move into a coaching role and became a coach with the Jr. Girls Tackle program here in Fredericton.”

After many years of serving in a coaching and administrative capacity, O’Leary wanted to satisfy the need to compete in the game. Like Whitney Issik, a competitor with the Calgary Rage of the WWCFL who also had a coaching background with her son, she began to play in her forties.

“At the same time, and at the age of 41, I also decided to give playing a whirl and I joined the Capital Area Lady Gladiators. I believe that you are never too old to try something new and I have never regretted my decision to become a coach and a player.  I will continue to do both as long as I can.”

“I am passionate about the game of football, and huge proponent of females being physically active and participating in sport at all ages. I like to take an active role in female football here in Fredericton, throughout New Brunswick and in the Maritimes.”

With the Lady Gladiators, O’Leary has served as an offensive line coach. While the opportunity emanated from the inability to play due to illness, the feeling of teamwork and being part of a team have provided great reward.

“I started the 2012 season as a left guard on the offensive line. Unfortunately, early in the season I had some health issues that prevented me from continuing as a player for the rest of the season. I did join the coaching team as an assistant offensive line coach for the remainder of the season.”

“I am very passionate about the game of football, and huge supporter and proponent of females being physically active and participating in sport at all ages. I like to give back and enjoy taking an active role in female football here in Fredericton, throughout NB and in the Maritimes.” 

Part of that active role includes being part of a landmark event. The 2013 season marks the milestone 10th anniversary season of the MWFL. Of note, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League has only existed since 2007. With the WWCFL having entered its third season, it only strengthens the role that the MWFL has for women’s football in Canada.

As part of the MWFL executive, O’Leary is hoping the 10th-anniversary season shall be the launching pad toward 10 more remarkable years. There are already signs of encouragement as Papa John’s Pizza (a sponsor of the NFL) has become the title sponsor for the MWFL’s title game. In addition, Maritime brewery Moosehead is engaging in various promotions with the budding league.

“To be part of the 10th season for Canada’s first women’s tackle football league is definitely something I am very proud of. I am looking forward to each kickoff of the season; and I thoroughly enjoy being part of the planning process for the 10th season as part of the MWFL executive. We will be celebrating all season long!”

While O’Leary has assembled an impressive body of work, she still has many goals to fulfill. Although the Lady Gladiators are a home base of sorts (she is in her third season with the franchise), she is aiming for the opportunity to develop and strengthen her skills. A big part of that development shall reach fruition at the Women’s Tackle Football Championships. O’Leary shall participate on the squad as a mentor coach for the Canadian National Team.

 “I attend coaching development clinics and conferences as often as possible, and I aspire to be a certified football coach and coach facilitator. For the upcoming fall season I will continue to coach in the Bantam Jr. Girls Tackle, and the Girls Flag programs in the Capital Area. I will eventually make the natural transition from playing to coaching with the Lady Gladiators, and will apply to be a coach on the 2017 Women's National Team.” 

“Participating as a mentor coach at an international event will be an amazing opportunity to represent my country with the most incredible group of female players and coaching team in the country. It is also an amazing learning experience that will allow me to further develop my coaching skills to use in the roles that I take on in football.” 

As several MWFL players have qualified for the national team, it only enriches the experience of being involved. Of note, three of her own players from the Lady Gladiators (Alex Black, Shot Chatterton, Robyn Neill) were named to the Canadian team. When asked if it is a point of pride for O’Leary to see Atlantic-based players named, she replied,

“Absolutely! They are an incredible group of women. The MWFL is producing some talented high-performance athletes and I am very proud of each and every one of them. Their dedication to the sport is an inspiration to me.” 

Her role as a mentor coach with the Canadian National Team is one of great pride. As the game of women’s tackle football begins to grow, an important aspect is the need to develop female coaching. Many competitive female sports such as hockey, basketball and soccer still struggle in the area of coaching in various parts of the world. A strong female coaching presence can only complement the growth of women’s football in Canada.

“In January 2012 Football Canada sent out a call for applications for a Female Mentor Coach Program for the Women's Senior Tackle Football program. It was designed to increase the number of female coaches in this program. I applied and was one of five women from across the country selected as a female mentor coach by Football Canada.”

“My journey began when I was invited to participate in a year-long process to select the top senior women tackle football players from across the country. They would represent Canada in the sanctioned 2013 International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Women's World Championship (WWC) being held in Vantaa, Finland (from June 21-July 7, 2013).” 

While O’Leary is eager for the opportunity to travel with the Canadian contingent to Finland for the 2013 Worlds, she has worked tirelessly to prepare. Between visiting multiple talent evaluation camps and engaging in numerous assignments, the final task at hand remains participating in a week-long training camp in Finland to fine tune any inconsistencies in play.  

“So far I have participated in three try-out camps across the country over the past year, and have submitted monthly coaching tasks/projects that have been evaluated by the current coaching team and Football Canada.”

As part of the mentor coach program, she will also be paired up with a member of Canada’s coaching staff. Once in Finland, she will be paired up with Olivier Eddie, the special teams coach for Canada. It is an assignment that will provide a unique perspective on the game for O’Leary. Throughout all levels of football (male and female), an effective special teams unit can make the difference between winning and losing. 

“I am looking forward to being his assistant and being mentored by him. Special teams are game-changers in football. I am confident that we have the speed, strength and agility to have the most effective special teams squad at the tournament."

"I am hoping that further opportunities within the mentor coach program are yet to come, including the possibility of participating in the 2017 team selection and of holding a coaching position at future international competitions.”

In discussing what it will take for Canada to win the gold medal, O’Leary replied, “Teamwork, speed and agility will bring home the gold. Team Canada is so ready for this!”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”