HANOVER, N.J. – New York Red Bulls defender Karl Ouimette has a hero in his life and it isn't a soccer player or a coach or a famous athlete. It is his sister, Julie, who died last September after a battle with cancer that lasted a dozen years.
On the field, Karl doesn't smile much. The rough and rugged central defender who is a regular part of the Canadian national team is all business. Off the field, the quiet and reserved Ouimette has a soft side. Yet don't let his bashful and respectful demeanor fool you into thinking that the waters don't run deep. They do, especially when he talks about Julie.
She was his younger sister, and owned a personality type that was the exact opposite of his. She was artistic, and a dreamer. Diagnosed with leukemia at 8-years-old, twice she battled and overcame the disease before a third diagnosis proved to be the final one. Originally, when she was in elementary school, Julie was given a “five-percent chance of survival.” She underwent rigorous chemotherapy, multiple bone marrow transplants as well as experimental treatments. For a while it seemed to be working.
Twice she beat the disease, twice she fought through. Twice the treatments worked. But last year, the disease got the best of her even though her brother recalls her “fighting her way to the very end. She didn't give up.”
Ouimette is a rising star for Canada and MLS. But talking about his sister, his voice changes a little, it softens. He looks straight ahead for a moment, seated in a gray sofa in a lounge at the Red Bulls training facility. His right hand grips the armrest, his feet move uncomfortably.
Losing her - “was losing a piece of who I am” - he says rather plainly but his eyes tell the story of a big brother who loved his little sister.
She died in the hospital when Karl was away with the Canadian National Team. The captain of the national team, Patrice Bernier, was his roommate for this national team camp as well as a teammate when Karl played with the Montreal Impact last year.
"Karl’s mother couldn’t reach him on his cellphone, as we were with the Canadian National Team, so she called me instead and she told me the reason she was calling," Bernier said. "Knowing the nature of it, I became the one that had to give the phone to Karl. His sister fought so hard throughout her life and this was the final phonecall. Being with the national team was a chance for Karl to recharge and change his ideas so this wasn’t easy."
From there, Karl's world, on-the-field and off, was changed forever.
“She's there, I never forget her. Still there. My routine when I get on the field is to look at the sky,” Karl told Metro. “I was the sporty guy, she was the creative, talented artist. We were completely opposites. She did a lot of drawings for me, a lot of color. She did a great job.
“It's not easy to go through. It kept coming back. It was tough but she was always smiling, always keeping her head up. She was strong.”
This past offseason, the Impact cut Karl, a surprise move since he was a young player in his third year in the league who had a career-high nine starts in 2014. He had an opportunity with another MLS team and some clubs in Scandinavia, but the Red Bulls were the first club to offer him a concrete trial.
The trial in Florida reunited him with Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch, who originally had the same job in Montreal. He knew the player, he knew his personality.
He also knew what Karl had been through the past year. Earlier this year, Marsch calls Ouimette a player “who we really liked, who is a no-nonsense defender and adds a lot to our team.”
“I knew Jesse, he knew me and how I worked, the kind of player I was. For sure, he had a better knowledge of me. But going into the camp, there was no guarantees,” Ouimette said. “It was straight forward, I had to earn my shot.”
It wasn't a sure thing for Karl, who now has six appearances and five starts with the Red Bulls this season and is on pace to eclipse his personal bests set in those categories last year. He's also reintegrated himself well into the Canadian national team and could be set for a prominent role in this summer's Gold Cup.
After a year of struggles on and off the field, it appears that the mild-mannered Karl Ouimette is ready for big things. He got onto this team by fighting as a tryout player and then fought to get into the starting lineup. There's been plenty of intestinal fortitude from him over the past few months.
But that shouldn't be surprising, given how his hero Julie showed him the way, even until the very end.
“Just to see what she went through and she took it with a smile,” Karl said. “Nothing can get you down, you know? If she was going through that trouble and she was staying positive, how can you let anything effect you in life? Keep positive, keep smiling. It's a life message.”