Few athletes can boast of the sort of international soccer career Karina LeBlanc enjoyed during her 17 years in a Canada shirt, including five World Cups, two Olympics and of course, that London 2012 bronze medal – and fewer still have managed the transition like she has since hanging up her goalkeeper’s gloves three years ago. A FIFA and CONCACAF Ambassador, public speaker, mentor, budding broadcaster and of late, with her own foundation just up and running and a park in her native Maple Ridge, B.C., named in her honour, LeBlanc remains a highly visible, totally inspirational figure in the game. We caught up with her as she prepared to leave for the World Cup in Russia, to take on the likes of Maradona, Ronaldinho and her one-time idol Peter Schmeichel in a FIFA Legends event around this year’s tournament opener.
Backofthenet: What are you doing at the World Cup?
Karina LeBlanc: I’m a FIFA Legend. No kidding. We play a game on the 12th, with or against Maradona, Puyol, all the real legends. I don’t know which team I’m on yet, but it’s a little mini-tournament and we’ll play against each other for fun. And I’ll be just pinching myself. Last time (at the World Cup draw) Maradona was teasing me and I was talking trash back to him – like, who does that? And then Ronaldo, Ronaldinho – the true legends, that’s my reality. We’ll sit in on the FIFA Congress for the 2026 voting, and then we all get to watch the opening game of the World Cup in Russia.
BOTN: You’ve been to five World Cups as a player, but I guess you’ve never done the World Cup like this.
Karina: Never. There’s no pressure on me, first of all. I’m literally going as a fan of the game and I get to be an Ambassador at the same time. I’ll get to be there and watch and take in all of it. I’ve never been to a World Cup game as a spectator, and get to do it with all the heroes I grew up watching and had on my wall. It’s gonna be kind of cool!
BOTN: It’ll be exactly 20 years next month since you made your international debut for Canada. Can you put into words how long a journey that’s been for you, and also for the women’s side of the game?
Karina: It really makes me feel so grateful for it. There’s moments I remember especially when we were fighting for things. We’d have eight people at a game and we’d be staying at a barracks – you’re fighting to find a place in this world and make a stance in the women’s game not only as a country, but also as a woman. And in the journey you have this picture, you’re actually thinking beyond what you can see, trying to pave the way as a group. In 2015 when I retired I think that was one of the proudest things – you always want to leave the game in a better place than when you came into it, and I think that’s one of the true legacy pieces we talked about in the national team. Now I think what I’m proud of is how it’s continuing to grow, how it’s continuing to take notice and I think the biggest thing now that I’m removed from the game is to see and hear and be able to be part of continuing the change and seeing how the women’s game can truly impact the next generation. I think 20 years now, when I look back, I’m proud of where the game has come to and I’m proud of being a part of helping continue to take the game where it can go. Being named a FIFA Legend – I don’t know about that, but I’m pinching myself, almost feeling that little kid within me again. The innocence of it, the excitement of the World Cup – I haven’t had a chance to do that in so long, because there was always pressure around it. I’ve never even thought of that – 20 years – that’s half my life.
BOTN: Do you remember that first time you put on the shirt?
Karina: It was in Ottawa, I believe, against China. I was really young and I was trying to process what it all meant. I was proud because at a young age I’d already been through some stuff – I’d been cut, I’d been told I wasn’t good enough. So when you finally get there you’re proud, but you’re also standing next to women who have paved the way for you to get there. It’s the honour of that, and the respect of that, and just the opportunity. Who gets to play for your country? That’s one thing that never left me every time I put on the jersey – how privileged I was to put that flag on my heart. That’s what I love about the World Cup. It’s not about the numbers and the TV – you’re putting that flag on your heart and representing your country. I never ever took it for granted.
BOTN: You did it for 17 years.
Karina: It didn’t feel that long. For every failure, it didn’t feel that way, because I learned so much about myself. One of the most beautiful lessons in life that sport teaches you is that failure is okay, but then you get the successes – as a goalkeeper you think of those big saves, those big moments, all the work comes down to that adrenaline rush of that moment when you’re stretching out and tipping the ball and it’s bending around the post and you know that all your work came into that matter of inches. Yes, I did it for 17 years but you know what? I think because the way my life is right now, I haven’t missed it. I miss my teammates, that part of the game, but the actual hard training and that kind of sacrifice, 17-plus years of doing it, I definitely was ready to walk away.
BOTN: A lot of players have trouble after their playing days end. Why do you think you’ve been able to handle that so well?
Karina: I think one of the biggest things was I wanted to align everything with my purpose here on this Earth. That’s why I always say that being a UNICEF Ambassador is one of the proudest moments of my life, because I remember one of my first trips before I retired and it was a defining moment, because life is about feeling that you’re doing something. When you’re doing that in service to others you feel it more than ever. I remember being in Honduras and seeing those kids in the first ever jersey I wore as a kid in Maple Ridge B.C. and so many things hit me that this was the next step for me. I think I aligned my life to feeling that fulfillment in helping others, and it helps me understand that all my difficulties as an athlete – you’re like why? and people go through this in life too – when you can align that your life is not actually about you, it’s about other people and your voice can actually help inspire people, I think that helped me in my transition. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always peachy, it wasn’t always perfect. I had my days where I felt alone and you miss those two hours of sitting around at dinner talking about nothing with your teammates in a foreign country, you miss that taking your body to the extreme. But I think what I’ve been able to fill that hole with is the ability to impact other people to be a better version of themselves.
BOTN: That’s the challenging part right?
The challenge for me is that I’ve been able to do it in multiple areas, not just one, and it’s ever growing and continuing, and I think for me that’s the beauty of it. That helps my transition. Even my speaking now, it’s taken off and got into the corporate world, which if you asked me two years ago … I speak to a lot of huge corporate gigs and it’s because people are saying, come talk a little bit about your sport life, but come talk too about this idea of living and working purposefully – not for the bottom dollar, but where we each as individuals can step into this idea of living for a purpose on this Earth and being who we were meant to me. That makes me feel so alive. And then doing the stuff with the CBC, the RBC Training Ground where we travel across Canada to find Canada’s next Olympic hopeful – even that is fulfilling because it’s these kids being given the opportunity by RBC to pursue their dreams … everything that I’m doing, I guess it all aligns to me using everything I’ve been through on this Earth where every day I wake up and I’m actually living my purpose. It’s such a cliché, but it’s a beautiful challenge and in the last four months I’ve probably had 50 appearance and they’ve all been different. And that’s beautiful. Every day I feel alive, and it’s not the same – In the smallest ways, it’s actually making people people be a better version of themselves, and when I retired I thought there’d be no chance I could impact people this way. You’re in this team environment, but when you remove yourself you have to figure out who you are as an individual and in exploring that and stay true to myself I’ve been able to create so many different opportunities.
BOTN: How has your perspective on the team you used to be a part of changed – they have a new coach (Kenneth Heiner-Moller), a new group of players, John Herdman has gone on to the men’s side of things. How do you see that now from a distance?
Karina: I think it was interesting. Everything came out quicker than John wanted to or even the players. It kind of came up in the way it wasn’t intended to. I remember speaking to John – he’s a builder, and if you ask him he probably had the practice schedule for June 10, 2020. He said there came a time when the team is so ready, and Kenneth is so perfect for them – it’s a changing of the guards but it’s like when you lose your best boss you’re bummed about it, but you’re also getting another incredible boss. I think the program’s in great hands. He knows the group and he’s also led himself so he knows how to lead, and it’s the perfect time to transition because there are a lot of younger faces on the team that they can take this change. I think it’s a positive because I think that what John’s going to be able to do on the men’s side is also different from what most of the coaches were able to do there. He is that planner. People have said he can’t motivate the men like he did the women, but I think after the first camp the response of the men was exactly that – they were like, this man is legit, he understands that you understand who you’re leading first before you decide how to lead. That’s the mark of a great leader. I think both the women’s and the men’s team will be better off from all of this.
BOTN: You’ve always spoke of the huge influence John Herdman had on you.
Karina: Huge. Me even becoming a UNICEF Ambassador came from the words of John. We were in Brazil and he said ‘I’m going to take my coaching hat off … if you think your purpose on this Earth is to kick a soccer ball for Canada then I’ve failed you.’ He brought out things about myself I wasn’t even aware of – you don’t see yourself with the eyes of others. He said I was destined to do so much and that conversation rocked me. I was like, ‘this is my purpose, I’ve been on this team 14 years and I give everything. If anyone’s been in one job for 14 years, it’s like, this is what I do.’ And had he not had that conversation with me I probably wouldn’t have taken a step back to ask myself why am I here on this Earth? If it’s not as a soccer player, then why? That openness led me to being open to different things and that’s when the UNICEF opportunity walked in – it was a changing moment in my life, to be around people asking how to be of service to others. That completely shifted my mind. Even to this day with John it’s like that. He sent me a text the other day because he wasn’t able to be at the opening of the field and he basically said this is only the beginning. That’s the voice of John Herdman in my ear, it keeps still pushing me, keeps challenging me. He’s always said his legacy is not winning that bronze medal – or in his case, back-to-back medals – but it’s what we go on to do. He really does live that.
BOTN: Let’s go back to that Karina LeBlanc Field. What’s going through your head when you see that?
Karina: If you watch the video, I bawled like a baby. It was like ugly crying. You never dream of a moment like that. You dream of winning a medal, and the irony of it was that in that park I’d be there with my brother and dreaming of the crowd going wild and you can hear your name and you make the big save, all those things. Then you fast forward all these years later and the park is actually named Karina LeBlanc Field, and it’s now the field of dreams for this next generation. That’s what I said in my speech – I want you to dream big crazy dreams every time you cross into this park, make it a moment where you don’t listen to people who tell you you can’t do anything, or cut you down. You believe in yourself, and you have fun. That’s one of the biggest thing about sports, that it can change to a business or a job. But that thank-you speech was almost like my wedding day, in that you feel like the most special woman and the luckiest woman – but for sports. I never knew that it’d have that kind of impact on me. That’s what triggered me with this foundation. I want every young girl, especially in my community, to know there’s somebody backing them. I was that young girl who had a couple people backing me other than my family, and was able to do some pretty cool things. I cried like a baby.
(interview edited and condensed for purposes of length)
BOTNBlog supports Karina and her foundation, The Karina LeBlanc Foundation which focuses its resources on adolescent girls from all socio-economic backgrounds to achieve their dreams and to produce future leaders.
Interview with Chris Young (@HighParkCy)