There is a lot more to Olympian Karina LeBlanc than being a world-class goalkeeper – she is also a world-class woman who showed great dignity and sportsmanship during her time at the London Olympics.
Little did the world know but the Maple Ridge native had “retweaked” an ankle injury and selflessly chose to step aside and let coach John Herdman make an informed decision for the team about who to play as goalkeeper.
During the practice before game one against Japan, LeBlanc knew she wasn’t the best choice.
“I was heartbroken. This was the tournament I dreamed of all my life. This is the time. And why now? I literally retweaked it three days before the first game but it was one of those things where I couldn’t feel sorry for myself,” LeBlanc said.
“Our coach said he has always known that Canada has two of the best goalkeepers in the world, and as a coach you’d love that – up until a big tournament like this. He said ‘I don’t have a number one.’”
“It was hard. I cried. But it was what was best for the team.”
“I don’t know if I would have done that years ago. I think years ago I may have tried to hide it and go into the game, but I would have felt much worse if I had cost the team the game,” LeBlanc reflected.
“Our journey had been so tough. For me personally, I tore 75 per cent of the ligaments in my ankle. I couldn’t play in the first game, but I did play in the South African game, and that went well.”
LeBlanc, 32, showed maturity and class in the decision to be sidelined.
“Erin [goalkeeper McLeod] and I get along great, she is one of my best friends on the team. Before every game I wrote her a little note with a quote and told her how proud of her I am. Most people are like, how do you do that? But we were at the point that Erin is not my competitor, she is my teammate. Had the roles been reversed she would have been the exact same. That’s the connection we have. We always gave each other a hug and said ‘love you, enjoy it, it’s for both of us.’ I think she did great, there’s no way we would be here without her, and she says the same thing publicly about me.”
Herdman has connected the team in a way where we want to inspire generations, said LeBlanc. “We want to change women’s soccer in the country and we want to do it together.”
This is exactly the woman whom LeBlanc’s mother Winsome had hoped she had raised.
“I am as proud as any mom can be that Karina has been a source of inspiration to others. I love that I can share that feeling with the rest of the community, and sharing it with Canada is even more overwhelming,” said the overjoyed mom.
“For the 23 years I was teaching in Maple Ridge I would try to get these kids to think about their futures, and how academics will be very important. Karina has absorbed everything we have taught her. My husband and I have always told her that an athlete can get injured but there are many things that cannot – and those are the things you have to perfect – respect, mutual respect, and kindness. And thank God she did that,” said the retired teacher. The LeBlancs travelled to London to support their daughter.
“I bug my mom because she is so loud – 80,000 people, and you know exactly where she is... people know her, she’s as famous as I am,” LeBlanc said with a laugh.
But it wasn’t all fun while in London.
“When we lost to the U.S. and we were in the bus driving back everyone was in tears and we were asking ourselves ‘did that really happen?’ Then we started checking our emails and tweets – that is what got us through this. The support of people, not just our friends and families, but even people we have never met saying that we were inspiring an entire nation. Honestly, it just kept coming.”
Their coach told them that something like 11-million plus people watched the game against the United States.
“We started saying, okay we need to bounce back from this and we can still get a medal, but you feel so cheated, but [the support] just kept coming and that is when we realized that this is something special,” recalled LeBlanc.
“Our goal from the beginning was to medal and to help change women’s soccer in Canada and to start a new legacy, inspire a new generation. When we won the bronze I jumped so high, I actually came down and my chin landed on one of my teammates heads, I couldn’t even move my jaw, but it was so much happiness, I was hugging my teammates, and just crying, and it was the happiest tears I’ve ever cried.”
Even sports heroes have moments of uncertainty.
“When it came to receiving the medal, it was in front of 80,000 plus in Wembley Stadium and they announced my name I was like “what do I do, do I shake the hand, do I the do the two kisses, how will I know? My name was the first name, but when I saw my medal I was AHHH, is this really happening? Is this real life? I remember just standing there waving and you have the flowers in your hand and you don’t know what you look like but you feel like gold.”
There was a hero’s welcoming at the airport on Monday as some of Team Canada returned home, including the women’s soccer team.
“I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe it. Some people took time off work. One little girl was crying when I came up to her. Everyone was just shaking. It was incredible. Some classmates I hadn’t seen in 15 years showed up at the airport. I’m on a high, its hard to explain what it feels like. I just feel so blessed.”
But it hasn’t always been easy. LeBlanc said she has been asked “for years” about when she will move on to something else.
“I don’t think any Olympian has an easy story. Especially after last year at World Cup when we came dead last. And you actually wonder whether it was all worth it. I remember sitting on the field thinking about how much I’ve missed in my life. I have sacrificed so much. I thought about retiring. But if we didn’t go through those moments there is no way that this moment would be here and feel so amazing,” she said.
“In the end, it was a different role, but I got to play, I got to be an Olympian, I wasn’t 100 per cent, and it was worth it for the team. I’m proud of my teammates and I’ve grown and I think we’ve changed a generation and I can walk away proud, and my parents are proud.”
When asked what’s next for her, LeBlanc said she hopes to land a few local opportunities so that she can stick around home for awhile and enjoy the high.
• Autograph signing: On Friday at 5 p.m., Karina LeBlanc will be at West Coast Mazda, 20000 Lougheed Hwy. to meet fans. And then on Monday, LeBlanc will be at Winners in Meadowtown Centre at 6 p.m.