The natural athleticism of Cloe Lacasse was obvious, right from her earliest days.
Whether you were witnessing her start in the martial arts, or the evolution of the soccer skills that would lead the graduate of Macdonald-Cartier to securing an NCAA Division I scholarship with the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, there was clearly some God-given ability that very few locals could match.
Yet as she continues with a career on the pitch that has now spanned four different countries, Lacasse has evolved and bourgeoned, both personally and athletically. The growth resonates in every word that she shares, as she looks back on her first year with the Portuguese powerhouse of Benfica, and contemplates a sophomore season fraught with uncertainty - and a mix of excitement, on the side.
"I think when an athlete matures, they realize what truly makes them successful," said the long-time member of the Sudbury Canadians soccer club. "Once you figure that out, you continue to build and flourish at your craft. It's what separates the next level athletes, figuring out what got them to that level, and how they can continue to not only maintain their abilities and strengths, but also build on them."
Given all that Lacasse has accomplished, that is no easy assignment.
Leading the Hawkeyes in scoring in each of her four years in the American midwest, the Sudbury native earned first team All Big Ten honours in both 2013 and 2014, laying the groundwork for five ultra successful seasons of professional soccer in Iceland. In 2017, her team (IBV – Ibprottabandalag Vestmannaeyja) captured the league championship.
Having obtained her Icelandic citizenship, but in search of greater soccer development, Lacasse signed a two-year contract with Benfica, leading the entire circuit (Liga BPI) in scoring in her rookie debut. "We had a fantastic season - I grew and improved so much," said the 27 year-old striker.
"There are so many world class players on this team, women from Brazil, Spain, Portugal. When you surround yourself with talented individuals like this, it's challenging in the best of ways." In fact, Lacasse has particularly appreciated the manner in which her game has morphed, bringing together the elements in which she has always excelled and marrying them with a slightly different style of soccer.
"In Portugal, they like to play in very tight spaces," she said. "They move their way forward with small combination plays, one-touches. When you are playing at a professional level, management never wants to change a player's natural strength. I was chosen to play for this club because of certain abilities I have: dribbling at pace, one v one skills, scoring in tight spaces."
"The staff has helped me make adjustments that work best with the way I play, and the way that the team plays. We are striving to find cohesion between all the different styles. There are always a few little changes and growth that a player has to make when changing teams, but it usually sorts itself out in time."
In the case of Lacasse and her teammates, it more than just sorted itself out, as Benfica quickly ascended to the very top of league standings, earning a berth in one of the top events globally in women's soccer.
"I'm excited," she said. "Because we won the league last season, we will be competing in the Champions League. I am proud and looking forward to representing both Benfica and Portugal in this prestigious European competition."
With the five-time defending championship team from Lyon, in France, leading the way, Lacasse and her squad begin their journey in early November, with the draw for the qualifying round of 40 teams set to take place on October 22nd. The championship final is scheduled for May of 2021 in Gothenburg, Sweden.
To this day, Lacasse is fuelled in pretty much every single competition by the same drive that helped lead the ESMC Pantheres to back to back OFSAA banners during her high-school days in northern Ontario. "I am extremely competitive; honestly, sometimes it's unhealthy," she said with a laugh.
"A coach once told me that he loved to win, but hated to lose even more. That really resonated with me, stuck with me for my entire professional career. That mentality helps keep me focused, never showing up to a training session just to be there for the sake of being there. I know that while I have that hunger and determination to win, and be successful on a daily basis, I can perform at a top level."
"And once it starts to fade, this will still help me in life," Lacasse added. "Always remembering to never just go through the motions - whatever you are doing, do it with everything you have."
For as much as the move to Lisbon opened new doors and unveiled a brand new set of adventures, there is little doubt that the northern Ontario soccer sensation will forever maintain a soft spot, in her heart, for her time spent in Iceland. Even as she outlines the benefits of her new home in Europe, Lacasse does so with the knowledge that her first stop as a pro player is never all that far away.
"I am going to be honest," she said. "I have been to many places in Europe, but Iceland is still the most breathtaking place I have ever been. Portugal is very beautiful, and it's a little warmer than Iceland, which has been nice."
"Because they speak Portuguese, which I found similar to French, I was able to pick up the language a lot faster than I did in Iceland. There are beautiful beaches here, and the architecture is old European, which I love," added Lacasse. "There is so much history and charm. The locals are warm and inviting, always wanting to share the knowledge of their culture."
"If anyone is thinking about visiting, I would definitely say to book that flight."