Making quality time for young people is a responsibility that veteran national soccer goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc takes seriously.
Still etched in her memory is the hurt she felt when the role model she looked up to shunned her.
“That broke my heart and I felt as if I was worth nothing,” LeBlanc told Share in an interview while in the Greater Toronto Area recently for a three-day training and mentoring session with young players. “A few years later, I ran into Ken Griffey Jr. at an airport and he gave me five seconds of his time. That meant so much. Whenever I am in the presence of young people, the energy is always there no matter how tired I am. I know from experience how important those moments are to them.”
LeBlanc along with team captain Christine Sinclair, who was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame two weeks ago, midfielder Diane Matheson and defender Rhian Wilkinson created Strive 4 Excellence soccer camp to inspire youth soccer players to pursue their dreams.
In addition to taking part in fun soccer drills with the youth, the players shared stories of how they reached the top of their sport, signed autographs and wore the bronze medals they won at last year’s London Olympics for photos with the participants.
“Most professional sportsmen and women faced adversity and were told at some point that they were not good enough,” she told the young people. “I was cut in high school when I tried out for a provincial team and I cried when the coach told me I would never be good enough. That made me work harder. You have to do the same to get to the top of your chosen career.”
Matheson’s goal against France with less than a minute remaining in added time provided Canada with its first medal in a traditional team sport at the Summer Olympics since the 1936 Canadian men’s basketball team captured silver in Berlin.
The daughter of a Jamaican mother and Dominican father, LeBlanc said watching Donovan Bailey win a gold medal for Canada in the 100-metre final at the 1996 Olympics was her inspiration to become an Olympian.
“I still see that passion in him and determination on his face as he bolted towards the finish line,” she said. “At that moment, I got goose bumps and I cried when the national anthem played as he stood at the top of the podium to receive his gold medal. I said then I wanted to be an Olympian.”
Nearly a year after the London Olympics, LeBlanc and Sinclair helped Portland Timbers secure the National Women’s Soccer League crown.
“It has been an exciting and incredible 12 months,” she said. “With the World Cup in Canada just two years away, I still have to continue to work hard and keep pushing myself.”
Though 33 years old and in the twilight of her soccer career, LeBlanc does not plan to hang up her boots in the near future.
“To play in the World Cup, which is the sport’s biggest showcase, in front of family and friends is something I am really looking forward to,” she said. “If I don’t try to be on that team, I will have a lot of regrets.”
Born in Atlanta where her parents moved temporarily for three weeks to avoid Hurricane David, LeBlanc grew up in Dominica before the family relocated to Maple Ridge in British Columbia when she was eight.
Her father Vans was a bank managing director while her mother Winsome taught at a local high school.
“They are my heroes and mentors,” she said. “They went from living comfortably in Dominica to some challenging times here in Canada. They are a huge part of what inspires me.
“Goalkeeping can be lonely and you feel badly when you let in a goal that might ultimately lead to your team’s loss. In those deflating times, they would tell me I am still the best and they still love me. That means so much.”
A University of Nebraska business administration graduate, LeBlanc made her senior team debut in an international friendly against China in Montreal in 1998. One of just eight Canadian players and the only national goalkeeper – male or female – with over 100 caps, LeBlanc has a sterling record of 50 wins, 24 losses and 19 draws in 93 matches in which she kept goal from start to finish. A total of 15 of those losses are against the United States and China.
A UNICEF ambassador who enjoys motivational speaking, LeBlanc has several career options in mind when she retires.
“Whatever career I choose, I will love to be around people,” she said.
In the past, she did some TV commentary and was an assistant coach at Rutgers University and a national Under-15 goalkeeping coach.