It’s incredible to think about Karina LeBlanc’s career. She debuted with the senior team as an 18-year-old in 1998. Since then, she’s won an Olympic medal, played in over 100 matches for Canada and is now embarking on a fifth World Cup appearance. That last stat puts her up there with the likes of fellow goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon of Italy and American legend Kristine Lilly.
While all of that’s happened on the pitch, she’s also well-known for the work she does away from the field. She’s an ambassador for UNICEF Canada, is a motivational speaker, dabbles in broadcasting, hosts goalkeeper clinics, all while never turning away from time with fans or the media.
The Road to Canada 2015 player interview series begins with Karina LeBlanc, who truly embodies what it means to be a Canadian athlete.
This will be World Cup number five. What keeps you chugging along and motivated?
Obviously, it’s my family and it’s my friends. The biggest thing though is the honour in playing for your country and getting to represent something bigger than yourself. Every day, I think I’m inspired by something different. That means a conversation I’ve had with a little kid or an adult, or just getting to know Canadians on a daily basis. I just find myself re-energized and wanting it more than before to bring success to this country and to this sport I love. I think my inspiration changes daily, but the core of it’s still my family, my faith and my friends and the honour of playing for this country.
Do you ever look back and think “I can’t believe this will be five World Cups”?
To be honest with you, it comes up in the press or if someone is teasing me because I’m obviously one of the oldest members of the team. When you love what you’re doing, time almost seems to fly by and I truly enjoy it. I think I have the greatest job in the world. I’m around the greatest people and every day, it’s about growing and learning. It’s about pushing yourself to the limit. John [Herdman] has come on and he’s put together this completely different way of looking at the game and just getting yourself to that limit. It’s completely different than it was eight years ago. I’m sure it’ll be different eight years from now. I think, as an individual, when you can be in an environment where you feel like you’re growing every day and you’re becoming more of the person that you want to be, it’s just an incredible thing.
On the other side of things, has there ever been a moment where you’ve thought about hanging up your cleats and moving on to the next chapter of your life?
Any time you have an injury you wonder “what does this mean?”, but I think something happens and you’re inspired again. I’m a firm believer that we’re here for a greater purpose. With my struggles, I always pull through in the end. I’m meant to go through these struggles and learn lessons so I have the ability to help someone else if they go through similar things and feel better about themselves. When you play for your country, you become a role model, you become someone who people listen to and it’s what you do with that voice that I think is about growing as an individual, but it’s also for this greater purpose that I’m aligned to help others. It’s about keeping perspective for everything. For me, I think there’s a greater purpose than just me kicking a soccer ball.
Obviously, you take it seriously, knowing you have girls and boys looking up to you.
Absolutely. I remember being that young kid and I had a role model. I remember meeting somebody who didn’t have that time of day for me. I felt like I was nothing. Then I remember meeting someone who had that five seconds for me and it made me feel like I was bigger than anything. Even for me, it’s like I never want to put anyone in that position other than to feel better about themselves. In being a role model, you understand what comes with it and it never gets old. If someone asks for an autograph, most of the time, I’m just “Why do you want my autograph? I’m just a regular person!”. At the end of the day, when you’re representing your country, you’re representing your family, your teammates, but you’re truly representing the beautiful country of Canada. I take a lot of pride in that.
Just moving back to the World Cup for a moment, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the tournament over the years?
Obviously it’s a bigger tournament, which gives more of an opportunity for women in different countries. I just think it’s about how everyone is getting on board with women’s soccer. The game’s grown. I remember being there for games in Canada when it was just our friends and family and very few people knew about us. Now, you go out, and we’re selling out stadiums. You go back to the Olympics where even to this day, people are bringing up that Canada USA match. I think the game’s changed in terms of attention. More people are paying attention and more girls are playing and more boys are playing soccer. It’s the number one played sport in this country and that’s because it’s a sport anyone can pick up. It’s a universal sport. I think the biggest change I’ve seen is how many more people can appreciate and love the sport. For something like this, a World Cup for a soccer player is the biggest thing you can dream of and it’s in our country.
And you mention that attention. How do you view the high expectations when all eyes across Canada will be on the team in June?
There are two things you can do: you can be fearful of it or you can embrace it. I think what John’s done with this team is we’re embracing it. It’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to bring more attention to a beautiful game. It’s an opportunity to bring more attention to hope we can inspire a generation. I think that’s what our goal is. It’s to inspire a nation.
The current makeup of the squad has a mix of veterans like yourself and youngsters who recently came into the program. What do you think about them and what do you see in this new generation of players?
They are teaching us new dance moves! That’s the first thing. I think where Canada’s going is exciting. The game is developing and what’s happening is Canada’s developing with the game. That’s exciting. You have Kadeisha Buchanan coming in and she’s young, but she gets it. Even more importantly, she wants to be better. The mindset of the youth is that every day they want to be better, which is what we have. I think when you can create a culture like that, the sky’s the limit. It’s exciting what the future holds because of the mindset these individuals have. They understand what it means to put that jersey on and represent this country. It’s not taken for granted. It’s an honour for me as a veteran to share that with them.
What’s in your future, Karina? When your playing days are done, what do you see yourself doing professionally? Perhaps broadcasting or coaching? I know you’re involved in a lot of things during your free time.
I think my answer continues to change. You make up your mind on one thing and for me, one thing I’d really like to be is in front of the television. I love it. I think everyone knows it’s a comfort level for me. I just have fun with it. A couple of years ago, I think that would’ve been a no-brainer for me. Now, I’m also a UNICEF ambassador and I recently spoke at a United Nations assembly. That was something that was completely out of my comfort zone, but it’s something where I’m noticing what our voices can do and the difference our voices can make. It’ll probably be the combination of trying to understand the difference I can make in being in broadcasting or something to do with the sport. I don’t think I’ll just leave soccer. I think I’ve had all of these years of experience for something. The opportunities are coming and I’m excited about it. I’m excited to see when I do decide to make that decision of retirement what those opportunities are. I enjoy expressing myself in different ways.