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Sheppard putting school & soccer first

Tsawwassen standout juggling Ivy League studies with U20 national team program

Attending one of the leading academic schools in the world and pursuing national team aspirations as a top up-and-coming soccer player in Canada.

That's Olivia Sheppard's immense juggling act.

The 19-year-old has enjoyed some precious family time back at her Tsawwassen home this summer before returning to what certainly will be another demanding year at Princeton University.

Sheppard is one of two Canadians on the Tigers' roster and, remarkably, both are South Delta Secondary graduates. She is joined by Alessia Azermadhi who is entering her senior year at the renowned Ivy League school in New Jersey.

Sheppard is looking to build off an impressive freshman season that saw her start in nine games. Much of that time was spent in midfield but she is expected to shift to centre back for the 2017 campaign where she was initially recruited to play. The Tigers are slated to open their pre-season camp this week but Sheppard still wasn't quite sure if she would be heading east.

There was the possibility she would remain in Vancouver for a national team camp as the program continues to build towards the 2018 U20 FIFA World Cup in France.

She was in Canada's starting line-up against Australia as part of a three-country exhibition series in Sydney last month. Another camp is expected to be held sometime in November before Canada heads to Trinidad Tobago in January for World Cup qualifying games.

Sheppard was one of 20 players invited to the Australia trip and is very much in the plans to be on the field for Canada in 2018.

"Anything can happen but I'm working really hard on the field and off of it, in the gym. Hopefully it all pays off," she said.

When Sheppard was in the Whitecap Girls Elite program, she was a late training addition as an underage player to the U20 national team and was eventually named an alternate for the 2016 World Cup. Her further emergence two years later is hardly a surprise but her life has certainly changed dramatically.

She received a lucrative student aid deal to bring her soccer talents to Princeton but there is little in the way of leniency for student athletes attending Ivy League schools.

When Sheppard was invited to national team training camps in February and then again in March, it presented a huge challenge.

"I hear from a lot of my friends who go to some of the state schools. They are able to write all their tests when they come back from national team camps," she explained. "The way it was planned out, those camps happened during my mid-terms and finals. That was a very stressful couple of weeks. Ivy League schools are completely academics first."

Sheppard even had to drop one of her calculus classes in order to attend one camp when her professor did not allow her to write an exam early. She will have to take it again at some point.

"If they are not willing to understand the athletic part of your life then you have to make some extra sacrifices and that's what I did," she continued. "I probably met with my academic/athletic counsellor a dozen times trying to balance everything and he was basically telling me not to go. That it was going to be hard on me."

Sheppard doesn't have to look far to find inspiration.

Current senior national team member Diana Matheson is a Princeton grad who managed to balance her studies with Soccer Canada commitments. The experience in Australia further strengthened the determination to chase her soccer dreams.

Her typical week during the season included early morning weight sessions followed by classes until 4 p.m. It was then was off to the soccer pitch for training before returning to school for three hour evening labs that concluded around 9:30 p.m.

It will be more of the same this fall with two labs on her schedule as Sheppard continues her pre-med course load.

"The schooling is very demanding but then on top of that you are expected to take three or four hours out of your day to be on the field or in the weight room. You definitely learn a lot of time management skills which is helpful for further on in your life but it's definitely very challenging," said Sheppard who is grateful of the support she has received from Tigers head coach Sean Driscoll regarding her national team schedule.

"Having that experience, I can learn from my mistakes from last year and pull a little bit of that stress off of myself."

Ironically, Sheppard's trips back to Vancouver for national team camps didn't mean an opportunity to spend some time at home. The players stayed and trained at the Fortis Sport and Health Centre in Burnaby. The camp itinerary provided little in the way of down time.

"My parents usually came to watch me train then gave me a hug afterwards," Sheppard smiled.

She's hoping for a few more of those brief reunions in the months ahead.