Karina LeBlanc cried when she watched Donovan Bailey surge into the lead and win gold in the 100 metres at the Atlanta Olympics.
She was 16 and she knew, unequivocally, in that television moment she wanted that feeling, too. Wanted it for Canada and for herself.
No doubt, the Canadian women’s soccer team inspired a new generation with their bronze medal run in London this past summer.
And now Maple Ridge’s LeBlanc and three of her veteran teammates, including Burnaby’s Christine Sinclair, are out to make those tingly feelings more tangible.
Before the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup arrives on our doorstep, the foursome have an ambitious plan to go coast-to-coast with a youth camp concept they tested out in Ottawa and Halifax last week to overwhelming success.
They had no idea what the reception would be. More than 800 kids from U10 to U18 turned up for sold-out camps over six days.
Diana Matheson and Rhian Wilkinson are the other players involved.
“The four of us were sitting around talking and said, ‘Let’s make it happen,’ said LeBlanc, a 32-year-old goalkeeper who’ll be part of John Herdman’s 28-player training camp, which opens in Vancouver this week.
“At both clubs it was sold out and we were like, ‘OK, we’re doing something right.’ We have a great format and a bit of a business plan. My agent (Sunny Pathak) was on site and says there’s big sponsors interested.
“It was crazy. I can’t say how powerful it’s been. In Halifax, we honestly couldn’t even sit down to have a meal. It was just so rewarding.”
In planning the format, the group of four thought about what they’d wanted to experience as kids. And what parents would want.
There is hands-on coaching - the four players cover all the major positions - and there are inspirational speeches. But a key part of the concept is for each kid to be able to hold an Olympic medal and get their picture taken, individually, with a women’s soccer Olympian.
LeBlanc grew up idolizing Wayne Gretzky. Sinclair looked up to Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Roberto Alomar.
“It’s good to see that things have changed,” Sinclair said on a Monday conference call for the Lou Marsh Award, and she’s a huge reason why.
“When Karina, Rhian and Dee and I were young and dreamt of being Olympians, people thought we were crazy because there wasn’t women’s soccer. Our team had never done this before. And now, these kids, it’s a reality for them.
“Having mothers come up to us and say that their child, at age six, now wants to play soccer because she believes she can bring home an Olympic medal one day, it’s incredible.”
The camp also included a session for coaches, attended by almost 100 in Halifax. There are no immediate plans for the next trip, but the group will co-ordinate their schedules for the off-season and survey the sponsor interest.
A new women’s professional league starts up in March or April in eight U.S. cities, with Herdman picking 16 Canadians who’ll dot those rosters. The CSA will foot the bill for their salaries.
Others will find jobs in Europe, while college players can supplement their season with time in the W-League, though not in Vancouver.
The Whitecaps announced on Friday that they won’t field a W-League team in 2013.
Sinclair, LeBlanc, Matheson and Wilkinson certainly aren’t the only national team players who’ve run camps since the Olympics. Most of the players have done clinics and appearances in their hometowns, especially with their old youth clubs. But this is the most co-ordinated effort to date, and clearly one with tons of potential.
Sinclair is the big draw, of course, but LeBlanc can light up any room. She had Mayor Gregor Robertson acting goofy at a recent City Hall ceremony for Olympians.
“They put on a great show,” said George Athanasiou, chief executive of Soccer Nova Scotia.
“No words can describe the feeling. I don’t know who enjoyed it more, the parents or the kids, but I don’t think you will see any of the participants dropping out of soccer any time soon.
“It was the best thing we’ve done as an association in the last 10-15 years. When they were talking, every picture we have, the eyes of the kids sitting on the ground were upwards. Nobody was gazing anywhere else.”
-Marc Weber is with The Province
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