Even by her own turbo-charged standards, the last few weeks have been a whirlwind for Canada’s former goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc – after having a sports field named after her in her hometown of Maple Ridge, an appearance at Canada’s 150 Women of Distinction Awards and the launch of her own Foundation. And now the two-time Olympian is gearing up for a trip to Russia, where she expects to line up with Pele and Maradona in a Legends match.
LeBlanc’s shift from sporting star to motivational speaker, media host and humanitarian ambassador for girls is propelling her into a new limelight.
By the time LeBlanc retired from the Canadian national football team in 2015 – with an Olympic bronze medal and five World Cup appearances under her belt – she was her country’s longest serving female football player of all time. Finding herself at a career crossroads, she was determined to use her status to make change for good in the world, inspired in large part by her Olympic journey.
LeBlanc is clear about the transformative power of the Olympic Games on her life and the lives of others. “Having an Olympic dream changed who I was – I went from a shy girl who was bullied to a woman who now is confident enough to understand that my purpose on earth is to help the next generation believe in themselves, and if it wasn’t for the Olympic experience I never would have known that.”
“The Olympics is so much more than sports; it’s dreams coming true but dreams being made too. It’s giving this next generation something to look up to.”
Words of wisdom
Her interest in using sport as a social tool was properly sparked after winning bronze at London 2012: “My team-mates and I made it our goal to get as many kids as possible across the country to touch the medal to make them see it was for them and to start dreaming big.”
And she was also inspired by some timely words of wisdom from her coach John Herdman: “He pulled me aside and said, ‘If you think your purpose on this earth is to kick a soccer ball for Canada, then I've failed you.’”
In 2013, LeBlanc became a UNICEF Ambassador, which she calls “the proudest moment of my life, above winning a medal”.
Her first trip, to Honduras, made a big impact: “There was a soccer camp for young girls who at 13 and 14 were putting down their babies and they didn’t see the value in anything, and five of those girls were wearing the first ever jersey I had worn as a child from Maple Ridge BC. They were mini-mes. That’s when it hit me: this is what I am meant to be doing.”
LeBlanc was not always a confident extrovert herself. Moving to Canada aged eight from the small Caribbean island of Dominica, she was one of only two black girls in her school and she was bullied.
“I was shy. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t connect to much. One of the first days of school a kid put a firecracker in my hand and I thought I was making my first friend, but it went off in my hand and I cried,” she recalls. “But sport changed things for me. I was finally around like-minded people.”
Invited by local coaches to join the track and field club and basketball teams, she found a new sense of purpose: “Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to do, I said, ‘I want to be an Olympian.’ I told everyone my dreams.”
It was a dream that would be realised on the football pitch rather than the running track or basketball court, but getting there wasn’t easy: “I got cut from the regional team and I remember crying and my dad said, ‘Well what are you gonna do about it? Are you gonna make one person determine your future?’. It changed me because then I did 15 minutes more every day, either before or after practice... and the next year I got called into the full national team.”
The Olympics is so much more than sports; it’s dreams coming true but dreams being made too. It’s giving this next generation something to look up to.Karina LeBlanc
Travelling the globe with UNICEF, LeBlanc found that her story and life lessons resonated with young women from all different backgrounds; but increasingly she asked herself what she could do for girls in her own community.
That question gave birth to the Karina LeBlanc Foundation, which aims to empower girls to realise their dreams and “become the women they were put on this earth to be”.
A key part of that will be mentoring, given the “defining” impact it had on LeBlanc’s own life when, at her career crossroads, she took part in the FIFA leadership development programme and the EY Women in Business network programme.
“My mentors said: ‘What you’ve learnt from sport has set you up better for life than you can imagine.’ I realised sport had taught me to be a leader and to have a voice, to be able to talk about leadership and teamwork, about how failure can provide us with some amazing lessons.”
By way of example, LeBlanc points to Canada’s defeat in their 2012 Olympic semi-final against rivals USA. She and her team-mates won the hearts of their nation with the way that they responded so positively to the potentially heart-breaking defeat.
“Even the most embarrassing moments, like when I let a ball through my legs – I made sure that I would never let a moment like that define me,” she adds. “I found that my voice was bigger than just sport.”
Indeed, it is away from the sporting field that LeBlanc says that she has found she can make the greatest impact.
“When you are playing for your country in a sold-out stadium, there’s an adrenaline rush there and you get so much fulfilment in that. But then how do you continue that? When you are able to put your time into helping and impacting other people, that’s a whole different level and that’s so rewarding.”
And she has a simple but powerful piece of advice for others who are looking to find their true vocation, as she has done: “If you can start to envision the person you actually want to be on this earth and if you put 15 minutes towards that every day, you’ll be a closer version of who you want to be.”
As 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of Olympic Day, this year the International Olympic Committee is celebrating through United By, which recognises the people who make sport happen every day for themselves, their families, friends and communities.