Maple Ridge’s Karina LeBlanc still has to pinch herself to remember that the bronze medal around her neck is real.
After 15 years on Canada’s National Women’s Soccer Team, the 32-year-old goal keeper is living out her childhood dream of winning an Olympic medal after a thrilling 1-0 win over France last Thursday. LeBlanc arrived at the Vancouver International Airport Monday to a hero’s welcome and on Tuesday stopped by Maple Ridge’s Bella Vita restaurant as the guest of honour at a Meadow Ridge Rotary club lunch.
Winning the medal exceeded even her greatest expectations, she said.
“You dream about it as a young child but it’s far greater and better than I ever could have imagined.
“I think a lot of it surrounds how we won and what we had to go through to get there,” said LeBlanc, whose voice is still hoarse from celebrating at the closing ceremonies.
To get there, the team had to rebound from a crushing loss to the U.S. in the semi finals. The Americans had two calls from the Norwegian referee that allowed them to tie the match at 3-3. The U.S. then scored in the final 30 seconds to break a nation’s heart.
However, LeBlanc, who was on the sidelines with an ankle injury, and her Canadian teammates, rallied to defeat France 1-0 to take the bronze medal.
The Maple Ridge goalie said the 2012 Canadian Olympic squad felt like destiny was on its side. While initially devastated by the defeat, she said she and her teammates had their spirits lifted by the overwhelming support from across the country.
Inundated with e-mails and tweets of support, the team was brought back into focus only hours after losing, she said.
While outplayed for long stretches of the game, it was Canada’s turn to shine late in the match. A late goal by Diana Matheson in extra time propelled the Canucks to victory.
“To win the game the way we did was incredible. I was in tears.
“I don’t even remember the details, all I remember is the being on the field just crying my eyes out. They are the happiest tears I have ever cried. I was just so proud to be Canadian,” said LeBlanc, who noted that she always dreamed of playing at Old Trafford Stadium, the home of Manchester United.
“It’s a cliche, but you have to go through the extreme low to get to that high.”
Perhaps the only other person as proud as Karina at that moment was her mom Winsome and her father Van. The proud parents were at the Olympics watching the tournament but came home before the bronze medal match. Winsome said she wanted to be home to greet her daughter at the airport, no matter how they fared.
“We were so, so proud of Karina. She has given so much over the past 15 years and to see her achieve her dream was amazing,” said Winsome.
With more than 100 national games played for team Canada, Leblanc said it’s too early to think about the next step in her playing career.
The 2015 World Cup will be played on Canadian soil. LeBlanc admits it’s enticing to compete in front of the home crowd.
“It’s up to my body. I love the sport and I love representing my country. You’d be a fool not to enjoy every moment of that but right now it’s up to my body,” she said.
For now, Leblanc said she’s just going to enjoy the moment. Part of that has been the handshakes, hugs and photo-ops she’s sharing with fellow Canadians. Leblanc said she has to keep asking herself the same question over and over.
“Is this real life?”
As she looks down to readjust the bronze medal around her neck, she grins with an infectious smile, answering her own question. Gracious in victory, Leblanc said she’s so thankful for the support she’s received from her hometown over the last decade-and-a-half.
“To have little girls come up to me and say thank your for inspiring them is overwhelming. I couldn’t have done this without all the encouragement, through the highs and lows, without that kind of support.”