Olympic bronze medalist, CanWNT veteran, and now Thorns FC goalkeeper, Karina LeBlanc is one of the most recognized figures in international women's soccer, both for her performance on the pitch and for her outgoing personality. I managed to grab a few minutes with LeBlanc --a.k.a. "KK"-- after Tuesday's practice at Jeld-Wen Field. Here's our chat, edited somewhat for length:
Stumptown Footy: So you were just named the Soccer Ambassador for UNICEF Canada last week --the first time a woman has ever been chosen for that post. How did that come about?
Karina LeBlanc: I was at an event earlier in the year and they were there and we started talking about what their vision is, and it lined up with what I love to do, which is empower and change kids' ideas of what's possible in life. It's just been an incredible partnership; I went to Honduras with them a couple of months ago and it was so rewarding, one of the most rewarding events of my life. It was one of those things where I thought, ‘Man I would love to be a part of this organization.' And it's happened. It's an absolute honor. I only found out last week that I was the first female chosen, which to me, again, it's just an incredible honor.
You mentioned on your Facebook page something about how you have a life-long dream of giving back...
I have this theory that we're all here for a greater purpose. And not to take away from some of the things that I've accomplished and been blessed to be a part of in my life, but I think soccer had been a stepping stone to something greater. And I think when you're able to play a sport and be a role model it's about taking those opportunities and utilizing them and making it as big as it can be. I see this as one of those opportunities to travel the world and reach out and tell people that anything's possible if you dare to dream big.
It's one of those things where it's hard to explain how powerful a thing like a trip to Honduras can be. Since the Olympics it's been amazing because I do a lot of motivational speaking, and all of a sudden there are people saying things like ‘you saved my life' it takes you aback. Because you're like ‘What? I do that?'
My journey hasn't been easy, and I've had a lot of trials and moments where I've wondered why, but now it's starting to make sense. Because if it were easy for me then I wouldn't be able to reach certain people and say there are so many things you learn through sport.
Are you planning on doing anything similar here in Portland?
In whatever way I can. It's about lining yourself up in the right ways so that you're not abused, because I've been caught up some times in trying to do too much. I have to perform in the field, so the day I decide to hang up the cleats, I'll have more free time to do work like that.
Speaking of performing on the field, how are you feeling about training so far and your play in particular?
One of the main things for me is just to get better every day, and I love this atmosphere and this environment. I love the coaching staff, I love the players, everything here-I love it! And when you're in a good mood, you play well.
For me personally my goal is to play for several more years. I feel like I still have a lot of growth to do. I know they call me the veteran, but it's about being open to improvement every day. And I think the attitude of everyone here is that they want to get better: we want to entertain the fans, we want to entertain the soccer lovers, we want to entertain ourselves, and that's what‘s being created here.
Is there something in particular you yourself have been working on since you've gotten here, or is it more of an overall thing?
Overall. The moment I say I'm too good at one area of my game, that's the day I should stop playing. What's great is to have a new goalkeeper coach [Nate Berry] who has a new set of eyes on me, and he sees things differently and it's about growing from that. It's a working relationship where some of the things he may say I'll agree with, and if I don't I'll ask him why. That's what's great about Nate, is that we from day one we had that relationship where I basically said, ‘Everyday I want to get better, and if I ask questions it's not because I don't believe, it's because I want to get better.'
To be in this type of environment, and when you hear the numbers about the season tickets and the season opener, that motivates you. I think people don't understand how much they impact us as players
Oh yeah, people are freaking out. I mean, they were before the allocated players were named, and then when you all were named, it went into higher freak out mode...
I love it! We were in China, I was with Sincy, and with the time change I think it was like three or four in the morning. I turned my phone off because I wanted to sleep because we had a game that day and woke up and when I saw it [via text message] I was like ‘Yeahhhhh!' and Sincy and I were jumping around, and our teammates were like ‘Ah, whatever you guys.'
It's just the best situation. She's just an incredible player. I've known her for 12 years, played with her for 12 years, and it's just the perfect combination.
You get to have a unique perspective on her that most other people don't get. Is there something about her game that you see that other people miss?
I'll tell you something: When she was 16 she came into full-team camp. I remember it was the first session, a small-sided session, and she took a touch about six yards out and she placed it. And I was like ‘Who is this kid?' Because most people, you're 16 years old, you're six yards out, it's your first national team camp --you're blasting it. And I think that is one of the greatest assets that Christine has is her ability to put the ball where the keeper's not. She has this uncanny knack of ‘Ok that's where you are, this is where I'm putting it.' She doesn't stress in front of the goal. She's just a clutch player.
As a keeper when you face another team with a player like that, is that something you consciously think about during the game?
At our level we know players well enough, you study players and you play against them enough that you know what they're good at and what they're not so good at. As a goalkeeper you want to play to your strengths. You know their tendencies, but as a keeper I don't sit there and worry and make my head busy with what they can and can't do. In a league with sensational players like Alex and Sincy, you're aware of what they can do, and you just trust that with the connection between yourself and your team, you'll be able to keep that clean sheet.
Speaking of, can you talk a little about your backline and how that's all coming together?
I haven't played much with them, so its' about building that relationship. I may be a goof off the field, but on the field I'm a lot more serious, so it's just about them recognizing my voice, my tone. The connection between the two center backs and myself, that has to be tight, that can't get stretched, so right now it's just organizing it. The more organized we are the less problems we'll have when we disconnect, because that's when we open up spaces.
Is that relationship-building coming around?
Oh, yeah. I mean, that's not something that happens overnight--we have to learn each other's strengths and weakness. It'll come together. We have enough leadership and experience that we'll get the job done.