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CFL's first female coach eager to get to work as B.C. Lions defensive assistant

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — As the CFL's first full-time female coach, Tanya Walter knows she's paving the way for future generations. Right now, though, she's focused on making sure the B.C. Lions defence is ready for the season ahead.
B.C. Lions defensive assistant Tanya Walter watches from the sideline and takes notes during the CFL football team's training camp in Kamloops, B.C., on Saturday, May 21, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — As the CFL's first full-time female coach, Tanya Walter knows she's paving the way for future generations.

Right now, though, she's focused on making sure the B.C. Lions defence is ready for the season ahead. 

“My biggest thing is being the best coach that I can be throughout the season," said the defensive assistant. "I'm sure there's gonna be opportunities as well to have an impact on (other women). But the reality, is my focus in season is going to be on doing my job.”

Hired in February, Walter spent months preparing for her new role before finally getting on the field at training camp in Kamloops last week. 

There have already been ample opportunities to learn from her new colleagues, she said, including from former Montreal Alouettes defensive end John Bowman, who joins B.C. as a first-year defensive line coach this season. 

"It's been nice to actually finally get on the field and interact with players and interact with our coaches and actually be doing the football part of it," Walter said. "Obviously, all the office stuff is part of the position and part of being a coach at this level, but it's been a long time coming to actually get out on the field."

The former linebacker is used to being called coach.

Walter, who played for the Edmonton Storm of the Western Women's Canadian Football League, previously coached at Edmonton's St. Francis Xavier High School, with the Canadian Junior Football League's Edmonton Huskies and for the West Edmonton Raiders girls tackle football squad. 

She looked at ease running drills on Monday, her long blond hair pulled into a ponytail, orange and black sneakers echoing the club colours on her track jacket. As the team ran plays, she studied the action from the sidelines, taking notes.

Her attention to detail is one of the attributes Rick Campbell liked during the hiring process. 

“I wasn't necessarily looking for a female, I was just looking for the best person and I think she fits the bill in all the ways she does," said B.C.'s head coach and co-general manager. "She loves the game, which is very important in coaching because it takes a lot of long hours. She's got the right demeanour, the right work ethic, all those things and she's fit in really well. 

"And I think she's going to be a person that as she goes along in her career, they're not going to talk about her being a female which is a high compliment. I think she's just going to be a good football coach. And so far, so good.”

Veteran Lions defensive back T.J. Lee has had a lot of coaches over the course of his football career. Walter is the first one who's female.

Her presence shows progress is being made in the game, he said. 

“She does a good job helping, making sure we get this guy looks and making sure guys are moving around and running around," Lee said. "So it's nice to have her on the squad. It's nice to get to know her, to add some diversity to the sport.”

The defensive group has checked in with their new coach about some of the language they use. The players don't want to hold their tongues, Lee explained, but recognize they need to make sure everyone is comfortable. 

“Our words mean certain different things to her, so, you know, be conscious of that," he said.

What's taken some getting used to for Walter is the attention her new position has received. It's not often a CFL defensive assistant makes headlines across the country.

"I'm well aware that I'm under a bit of a microscope, regardless of whether I want to be or I don't want to be," she said. "But, you know, the positive of that is it means that there's going to be more females and girls and women that see that things like this are an option.”

The CFL is making an effort to make more room for women in football, too. 

Each of the league's nine teams currently has at least one women working in their football operations or business administration departments as part of a four-week development opportunity. Some of the program's participants are on the field as coaches, while others work in strength and conditioning, equipment management, or in front offices.

But when the regular season kicks off, Walter will once again be the only female CFL coach pacing the sidelines full-time — and it's a challenge she's embracing.

“I recognize that it's a big thing and it's a big deal," she said. "I'm well aware of the impact that it has, but I’m definitely looking forward to just doing the job.”


This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press