Inspiring words from an Olympian

Karina LeBlanc, who grad from MRSS in 1997, returned to the school on Wednesday to meet and address students.  - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Karina LeBlanc, who grad from MRSS in 1997, returned to the school on Wednesday to meet and address students.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

Walking through the halls of Maple Ridge secondary, Canadian Olympian Karina Leblanc can't help but feel like a kid again.

This is where LeBlanc, who won a bronze medal with the Canadian women's soccer team at the 2012 London Summer Olympics, spent her formative years.

"It's weird how much of it's changed," she says.

The lockers are a different colour now, and there's an entire wing of the school that wasn't there when LeBlanc was a student, but some things remain.

Like the Class of 1997 grad class photo hanging on the wall of the school's main hallway with her picture in it.

Or the dozens of teachers and coaches who helped guide LeBlanc down a path of success.

"I wouldn't have got to where I am without all of their help," she says. "That's why I'm here."

Hundreds of Grade 8 and 9 students crowded into the school's gym to hear LeBlanc tell her story Wednesday afternoon.

"It's pretty special to come back here and speak to my own school," she told the crowd.

For the past 15 years, LeBlanc has lived out of suitcase while chasing her dream of being an elite soccer player. After attending the University of Nebraska on a full-ride scholarship, LeBlanc played pro soccer for teams in Boston, Montreal, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.

Not being able to lay down roots is one of the many sacrifices she's made in pursuit of her dreams

"That's why I love coming back to Maple Ridge," she says. "It's the one place that feels like home."

LeBlanc spent the first eight years of her life on the tiny Caribbean island republic of Dominica. Her family moved to the U.S. before settling in Maple Ridge.

With her thick Caribbean accent and being one of the only black children at Fairview elementary, LeBlanc says she was very shy as a child because she felt so different.

But sports changed that.

"As I started to get better, I gained a lot more confidence and I came out of my shell," she says.

Her dream of playing elite-level soccer wasn't typical of most 12-year-olds at the time, especially considering women's soccer wasn't yet included in the Olympics, and professional women's soccer did not yet exist in North America.

"It was a different dream," she admits.

But soccer wasn't her only love.

Back when she was a student MRSS, LeBlanc was best remembered as the star of the senior girls' basketball team.

"We didn't even have our own soccer team then," she says.

Senior girls' basketball coach Don Herman remembers LeBlanc as a leader on and off the hardwood.

"She was one of the top defensive players in the province," he says. "I have no doubt she could have got a scholarship to play basketball if that's what she wanted."

Back in those days, LeBlanc was in good company, says Herman.

"There was a whole group of kids at the time who were outstanding athletes, and they were all friends," he says.

That group included Chrissy Kogler and Ashley Newport, who both went on to play NCAA soccer; Russell Huggon and Emilio Bottiglieri, who both played pro soccer in Scotland; and Graig Merritt, who played pro baseball at the AA level.

"We all wanted to play at the next level, and we all decided the next step for us was college, so we all pushed each other," says LeBlanc.

A critical step to achieving your goals is to surround yourself with people with similar goals, she adds.

Many of them were in attendance this past January in Vancouver as LeBlanc and Team Canada beat Mexico to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

"I hadn't seen a lot of them in 10 years," LeBlanc says. "There must have been 40 of them there, it was amazing."

Her mother Winsome and father Vans have been there for every World Cup and Olympic game appearance. LeBlanc says the support from her family, including her sister Sharma and brother Kurt, has always been key to her success.

In the LeBlanc household, if the kids wanted to watch a half hour of television, they first had to complete an hour's worth of homework. Sports were encouraged, but not at the expense of academics.

"They never told me I couldn't do anything," she says of her parents. "But they told me nothing would come easy for me."

The secret to LeBlanc's success is no secret: it's hard work.

After LeBlanc was passed over for the U-16 provincial team, she decided to train for an extra 15 minutes every practice. The extra time she put in paid off, and the next year she made the U-18 B.C. team, and a few months later was playing for national team.

Despite playing both soccer and basketball at an elite level, Herman said LeBlanc never once missed a practice or a game.

"She managed to do both," he says. And her grades didn't suffer for it, either.

"She was one of the top one or two students in the school academically," recalls Herman. "I use her as an example quite often. Some kids think you can't do it all, but she's proof you can."

That tenacity has been the common thread throughout LeBlanc's career.

When her doctor told her in 2004 that her knee injury would prevent her from ever playing soccer at the same level again, she went to different doctors until she found one said he could get her back to game shape.

When Team Canada finished last in the 2011 World Cup, she and her teammates didn't lose hope, and managed to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics the following January in Vancouver.

When Team Canada suffered a controversial and heartbreaking loss to the U.S. in the Olympic semifinals, LeBlanc and her teammates regrouped to beat France 1-0 and give Canada its first traditional team sport medal in the Olympics since 1936.

"That's the difference between a dream and a goal," she says. "With a goal, you have a plan, and you make it happen no matter what."

With the demise of the Women's Professional League last year, LeBlanc's club soccer future is uncertain. There is hope the WPL will reform in some manner for this coming season, and if that were to happen LeBlanc says she would love to play in Los Angeles or back home in Vancouver if the Whitecaps were to get a franchise.

For the time being, LeBlanc says she wants to give back and help inspire the next generation of athletes to carry Team Canada's Olympic torch in the future.

"The power of teachers and coaches is so important, they had such an impact on me," she says. "What inspires me today is showing others that anything is possible."

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