Carol Anne Chénard would never have guessed that taking an officiating course as a teenager would lead her to a storied 15-year career representing Canada as an international soccer referee.
Chénard announced her retirement from international duty earlier this week in a career that took her around the globe, refereeing at football's greatest tournaments, including two FIFA Women's World Cups and two Olympics Games.
Chénard took that first refereeing course because a coach wanted the players to better understand the laws of the game. While it wasn't love at first whistle, it was a combination of hard work, opportunities and support that helped her reach — and remain — at the top of the sport.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is just being able to stay near the top for the last 15 years. They say it's hard to get there and it's even harder to stay there," she said on a virtual call with reporters Thursday. "Now that I look back, I truly believe that."
Of the many highlights in her career, one that stands out in her mind was the Great Britain-Brazil match at the 2012 London Olympics. The game at historic Wembley Stadium drew more than 70,000 fans, which didn't happen that often in women's soccer at that time.
"It was kind of the beginning of really great things to come."
Since her first professional appointment in 2005, Chénard has officiated at a long list of major international tournaments, including 2011 and 2015 FIFA Women's World Cups and the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, where she refereed the Rio gold-medal game.
Chénard was hoping to work Tokyo Olympics
She's been part of crews in the North American men's leagues like the USL, MLS and last year led an all-female crew for a Forge FC versus Cavalry FC match during the inaugural season of the Canadian Premier League.
She was scheduled to work the 2019 World Cup in France, but was forced to withdraw just days before leaving after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She had hoped to be fit and healthy for the Tokyo Olympics this past summer, but then COVID-19 put an end to that.
"You can only control what you can control and I've been so lucky and blessed to have the opportunities I've had. I would've liked to end it on the field, knowing when it's your last game, but not everyone gets that luxury. I'm not the only one, so I'll take this retirement as it is."
As for her health, she says she's feeling great.
"With cancer, it's kind of up and down. I've had some setbacks and some steps forward, so I continue to undergo treatment but I feel great. I have nothing to complain about."
Chénard was just the fourth Canadian referee to serve 15 or more years on the FIFA List of Referees and Assistant Referees.
"Carol Anne Chénard has long been at the pinnacle of international refereeing, breaking barriers over an impressive career that placed her as an inspiration for aspiring referees from coast-to-coast-to-coast," said Steven Reed, president of Canada Soccer. "We are proud of and celebrate Carol Anne's professional achievements and know that she will continue to be a leader for young referees in Canada and abroad."
Supported as 'an official, not as a female referee'
The 43-year-old federal government employee who was born in Summerside, P.E.I., but calls Ottawa home, doesn't plan on straying far from the game, or officiating, for that matter.
She jokes that she's going to the "dark side." Translation? "Instructing and assessing." During the pandemic, she's already started an instructors course, teaching referees at the international level and hopes to be involved in some way with CONCACAF and FIFA in the future. She's also dabbled a little bit in VAR (video assistant referee), which uses replay footage to help correct any errors by the head referee that might influence the results of a game.
Chénard said she's always felt supported as "an official, not as a female referee" and is encouraged by the increase of top-level female officials in Canada and internationally over the years, but especially over the last three.
"That's just a recognition of their ability on the field of play. Like any other referee. They pass the same fitness tests, they're held to the same standards," she said. "I've always said that players and coaches just want the best referee that's out there, that understands the game and that's able to use their soccer understanding to manage the game."
As for what she'll miss the most, perhaps surprisingly, it's the pressure cooker of being a referee.
"Being on the field in some of the biggest sporting moments is really something I'll miss. The training, the courses, the group sessions, the talking about games, doing the games … I really enjoyed the difficult games, being on the field.
"It was a real honour for me."