VANCOUVER — Tanya Walter is used to pushing her way into unusual spaces.
The former linebacker broke a whole new barrier Tuesday when she was named defensive assistant for the B.C. Lions, becoming the first full-time female coach in CFL history.
“In my mind, there’s nothing that is off limits if I put in the time and put in the effort," Walter said on a video call. "I’ve never been one to think, ‘maybe that’s not for me’ or ‘maybe that opportunity’s not there.’”
Walter, 30, knows she's making history and that her new job will have a big effect on future generations, but she's staying focused on the responsibilities of her new role.
"Obviously, yes, being the first female is a huge win. But myself, I look at it as the job is the job and I’m here to coach," she said.
“It’s great to be the first and I’m honoured to be the first, but to really measure the success, I think it’s about what happens next.”
Walter began playing football in 2013 with the Edmonton Storm of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League.
But growing up in Forestburg, Alta., she played basketball and was repeatedly told she was too loud and too aggressive on the court, and that she took the game too seriously.
“I didn’t have female role models and I looked up to a lot of male athletes, so really, I was just doing what they did," Walter said. "And it wasn’t until later on when I got into football that I realized there was a space for an athlete of my mindset."
She didn't watch football growing up and didn't know much about the sport when she got on the field.
“It took, honestly, probably two or three years of being a player before I actually fully understood the game," said Walter, who also played for Alberta's provincial squad and the Canadian women's team that won a silver medal at the 2017 IFAF women’s world championship.
Once she felt she had a solid grasp on the X's and O's, Walter turned to coaching.
She started at Edmonton's St. Francis Xavier High School in 2017 and continued through last season. A guest coaching spot with the Canadian Junior Football League's Edmonton Huskies followed, as did an assistant's role with the West Edmonton Raiders girls tackle football squad.
The coaching spots were volunteer gigs, so Walter spent 10 years working full time as a personal trainer. In 2020, she took on a role with a minor football association in Edmonton and later started working for a non-profit organization that helps kids play sports.
When B.C. Lions head coach and co-general manager Rick Campbell spoke with Walter about the defensive assistant job, he liked her passion for the game and her work ethic. Working in football takes someone with experience and the right demeanour, he said.
“You kind of have to have the right frame of mind and I think she has all those things," Campbell said.
“The thing I really like about football is you can’t hide. You’re either contributing to the team or you’re not. I fully anticipate her contributing in a big way.”
Walter said she's spoken with a number of female friends who are already working in professional football, including Katie Sowers (who worked for the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs), Phoebe Schecter (a former coach for the Buffalo Bills) and Lori Locust (assistant defensive line coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Their advice has been helpful, she said, as she prepares to take on this new challenge.
"(They said) 'Yes, in the beginning you’ll have to show you’re there, you know what you’re doing,'" Walter said. "And when it comes down to it, it’s just allowing people to judge you on your abilities. And the gender part doesn’t matter.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2022.