GUADALAJARA, Mexico - After a couple of tumultuous months for Canada's women's soccer team that included a heartbreaking performance at the World Cup and the loss of its coach, Karina LeBlanc said she couldn't have written this script any better.
Canada claimed its first Pan American Games gold medal in women's soccer in dramatic fashion Thursday in a game that took 120 thrilling minutes and a penalty shootout to decide.
Christine Sinclair scored in the 88th minute to tie the score 1-1 as Canada went on to a 4-3 shootout win over Brazil, a welcome boost to a team left reeling after its quick World Cup exit in July and the first tournament win for coach John Herdman.
"This story is perfect," said LeBlanc, Canada's veteran 'keeper who was brilliant in the victory. "We were knocked down after the World Cup, we fell down, and John came in and he said: what do you guys want? We said, we want a gold medal. To go down and to show the resilience our team has. . . . The message moving forward: you know what, you can knock us down, but we'll find a way."
Diana Matheson, Sinclair, Melanie Booth and Sophie Schmidt scored in the shootout for Canada, while veteran LeBlanc stopped shots by Brazil's Grazielle and Debora to cement the victory.
After a game that took 120 minutes and penalty shots to decide, the Canadians danced in a circle at centre field while Queen's "We Are The Champions" played over the stadium's sound system.
"You win tournaments here and there in random countries that, yeah, mean a lot," said Sinclair. "But to stand up there and listen to your national anthem being played, it's unbelievable. It's absolutely unbelievable."
Sinclair said the victory was a present to her mom Sandra, who celebrated her birthday Thursday.
"Happy birthday mom! That's all she wanted," Sinclair said.
Elsewhere on Thursday, Canada won silver in the men's K4 1,000-metre race, while Catherine Roberge of Charlesbourg, Que., won the silver in women's 78-kilogram judo. Meaghan Benfeito of Laval, Que., and Montreal's Roseline Filion took silver in women's 10-metre synchronized platform diving. Jennifer Park of Nanaimo, B.C., won silver in women's bowling, while Montreal's Caroline Lagrange earned bronze.
Canada's men's fencing squad also took bronze in the team epee event, Malindi Elmore of Kelowna, B.C., was third in the women's 1,500 metres in athletics, Toronto's Olivia Grant won bronze in the women's 68-kilogram karate event and Shaun Dhillon of New Westminster, B.C., won bronze in the men's 84-kilogram karate division.
Montreal's George Kobaladze won bronze in the men's 105-kilogram weightlifting competition, Antoine Valois-Fortier, also of Montreal, took bronze in the men's 81-kilogram judo event, while Alexandre Emond of Laval, Que., earned bronze in the men's 90-kilogram judo division.
In the thrilling women's soccer final, Debora scored just four minutes in on a long run for two-time defending Pan Am champion Brazil, sprinting through Canada's backline before firing from long range to beat LeBlanc.
The Canadians appeared destined for silver before Sinclair got her head on a corner kick from Matheson, steering the ball past Brazilian 'keeper Barbara and sending the game into two 15-minute extra-time periods.
"It's just reward for the time they've put in over the last two years," Herdman said. "I think we all knew going into that World Cup, they'd worked hard enough to do well there. I think this is reward for that.
"If someone can believe in them, if the country can believe in them, this team will go far. How resilient were they? Wow. And this is only the beginning."
LeBlanc, who's made a record four World Cup appearances for Canada, did well to keep the score close in regulation with several spectacular saves, including a minute-long stretch that saw her dive right to stop a shot from close in, tip a corner kick over the net and punch the ball out of danger.
Then she came up huge for Canada in the shootout, keeping her cool through the final save that clinched the win.
"Everything just went so slow, it sounds so weird and cliche, but before (Debora) took it, I was calm, everything was in slow motion," LeBlanc said. "Shot. I saw it. I saved it. I got up, everything was just slow. And I saw my teammates running in and that was when I was like, all right, we did this."
Sinclair, who was teary-eyed speaking to the media, said none of the Canadians realized immediately that they'd won.
"We were so focused on who was shooting next, you're not even really paying attention to the score. She saved it,and some of us were like: so we have to shoot? We were so in the zone," Sinclair said.
Herdman didn't realize it either.
"I thought Brazil had one more penalty, so we were all standing there dumbfounded. It was outstanding," the coach said.
The Canadians, bronze medallists at the Pan Ams four years ago in Brazil, went winless at the women's World Cup this past summer in Germany, which led to the resignation of coach Carolina Morace. They'd played just a pair of friendlies with Herdman versus the U.S., before arriving in Mexico, where they fielded a side that includes 11 players from the World Cup squad.
Herdman played all 18 players through the tournament, and gave credit to what he called a complete team effort in the final.
Brazil, with 12 of its World Cup players in Guadalajara — the one notable absence was star Marta — was ousted by the U.S. in the World Cup quarter-finals.
The 45,000-seat Estadio Omnilife, which locals have dubbed "the toilet seat" for its circular, white partial-roof, is normally home to pro team Chiva Guadalajara. The stands were more than half full of mostly Mexican fans for Canada's game — a holdover, no doubt, from the bronze medal game that saw Mexico beat Colombia 1-0 in extra time. The festive crowd banged drums and chanted, and cheered good plays by both teams and booed dirty ones.
The inaugural game at Omnilife saw Manchester United play Guadalajara in 2010, a match that included the ceremonial crossover of Javier Hernandez. The Mexican, recently signed by United, played the first half for Guadalajara then switched sides to his new team for the second half.
The tournament comes less than three months before Canada will host the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver. Brazil has already qualified for London.
Earlier, Richard Dober Jr. of Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Que., Philippe Duschesneau of St-Denis-de-Brompton, Que., Toronto's Steven Jorens and Connor Taras of Waverley, N.S., finished in three minutes 2.653 seconds in the kayak final.
Cuba won gold in 3:01.061, while Brazil (3:02.821) took the bronze.
"It was a great race, probably one of the best K4 races I've ever had," Taras said. "It was great to be on the podium and it was rewarding after a long year of hard work. It sets the mood for the rest of the regatta."
Roberge lost to Kayla Harrison of the U.S. in the gold-medal match of the women's 78-kilogram judo event. Brazil's Mayra Da Silva took bronze.
"I'm very happy I came to Guadalajara," Roberge said. "I would have liked to win the final. I still have some small technical details to work on. It was a good fight."
Benfeito and Filion finished second with 318.66 points. Mexico's Paola Espinosa and Tatiana Ortiz won gold with 326.31, while Cuba's Yaima Mena and Annie Rivera were third with 269.28.
Park fell 2-0 to Elizabeth Johnson of the U.S. in the women's bowling final. Park beat Lagrange 2-1 in the semis.
Canada's men's fencing team consisting of Vancouver's Tigran Bajgoric, Igor Gantsevich of Richmond, B.C., Quebec City's Vincent Pelletier and Montreal's Etienne Lalonde-Turbide beat Chile 45-27 to take bronze in the team epee event. The Venezuelans took on the U.S. for gold later Thursday.
Elmore finished third in the women's 1,500 with a time of 4:27.57. Cuba's Adriana Munoz won in 4:26.09, while Colombia's Rosibel Garcia (4:26.78) took the silver.
In the women's 68-kilogram karate division, Grant lost to eventual silver medallist Xunashi Caballero of Mexico in the semifinal. Guatemala's Maria Castellanos won gold.
Kobaladze won bronze in the men's 105-kilogram weightlifting competition behind Brazil's Fernando Reis and Venezuela's Yoel Morales.
Valois-Fortier defeated Argentina's Emmanuel Lucenti for bronze in the men's 81-kilogram judo event. Brazil's Leandro Guilheiro took gold by downing Puerto Rico's Gadiel Miranda in the final.
Emond defeated Jacob Larsen of the U.S. for bronze in the men's 90- kilogram judo division. Brazil's Tiago Camilo bested Cuba's Asley Gonzalez for gold.
Meanwhile, Canada's men's field hockey team beat Cuba 3-2 in semifinal play.
A victory over Argentina on Saturday would give Canada an automatic berth at next year's Summer Olympics in London.
In men's water polo, Canada overcame a 4-2 halftime deficit to defeat Brazil 8-6 in the semifinals.
The Canadians will face the U.S. in the final on Saturday with the winner also earning a London berth.