Whistler's Rena Nakajima was part of University of Toronto soccer history this season.
Prior to the 2019 campaign, the Varsity Blues had never even qualified for the U Sports women's soccer championship, but after this year's tournament in Victoria on the weekend, the club walked away with its first medal after downing Acadia 1-0 on penalty kicks in the bronze medal game.
"We've actually hosted Canadian nationals, but we've never actually qualified ... on the women's side," Nakajima said. "It was really cool to be a part of the first team on our side to make Varsity Blues history.
"It was definitely new to all of us, so it was definitely cool to get the experience."
In the national tournament, Toronto blanked Cape Breton 3-0 before falling 3-1 in the semifinal to the eventual silver medallists from Calgary.
"It was really cool for us to experience the high level of play from all over the country," Nakajima said. "They were quite good teams right from the start and I really think it challenged our team to step it up as well.
"We definitely showed up to the games, showed that we deserved to be there ... We definitely surprised some teams with the level of skill we brought to the games."
In the third-place contest, playing their third game in four days, Nakajima said the Varsity Blues weren't able to push the pace as well as they usually do, but still managed to come away with the win.
"Because it was our last game of the season, a lot of us were quite tired from having multiple games [so close together]," she said. "The speed of play wasn't as high as we wanted it to be, but we had some really good opportunities to score during regular time. Although we didn't, we managed to finish it off in the penalty shootout."
Nakajima redshirted with the Varsity Blues in 2018, meaning she practiced but didn't play with the team while attending school. Stepping into an active role this year, she started 16 of 19 games she played while chipping in an assist offensively.
"It's really incredible to be a part of such a great group of people. Everyone here is just working so hard to excel in school, excel in sport, and I think it's just been an incredible vibe to be around during my time at U of T," she said.
Over the two seasons she's been with the team, Nakajima said she's made strides both athletically and academically as she works on her mechanical engineering major. She credits a plethora of veterans on the squad with helping to show her the way.
"On the field, I definitely had to learn from a lot of the veterans on the team," she said. "I really get to learn from them in terms of the speed of play, the technique that they show. It's really incredible to gauge where I stand off of them.
"Off the field, in school, time management has been the most key part I've been working on—balancing school, balancing a social life, balancing soccer."
Moving from the club level to university was a bit of an eye-opener for Nakajima, as she had to adapt to a more physical style of play. She said that because, top to bottom, every player on the pitch wants to be there, the intensity is ramped up.
"Everyone at the university level is there because they wanted to continue after high school. Most people play sports in high school, and some people do it because they want to and some people do it because they have to," she said. "In university, the difference is everyone is just so motivated to be there, worked so hard to get to where they are, so the level of play and the desire to get the ball is a lot more intense."
Admittedly, the five-foot-four Nakajima isn't necessarily naturally built for a rough-and-tumble style, but she's made some adjustments in her game to make it work for her.
"Definitely, it's been challenging, especially because I was never the biggest person on the field," she said. "We've been focusing as a team to work on weightlifting in the gym, getting really strong, working on the fitness aspect of it.
"I was trail running all summer, so that way, when I got back into it in August, it wasn't too difficult for me to smooth right into the play."
Nakajima added that she is all around thankful for having grown up in Whistler, and how it led to the opportunity to get an education while playing the sport she loves.
"Even though I'm playing in Toronto now, Whistler ... is where I started to really like soccer, so I feel really grateful for everyone along the way that helped me get to where I am now," she said.