If you ask her mother, Karina LeBlanc has always had something to prove.
On Sunday, the Maple Ridge goaltender proved she was worthy of starting at the Olympics as she back-stopped the Canadian women’s soccer squad to an 8-0 victory over the Singapore national team in a pre-Olympic international match.
It was her first start since breaking her thumb in June, and the 16th international shut-out of her career.
In fact, the 28-year-old former Maple Ridge secondary Rambler has only allowed one goal in her last four international matches, three of them starts.
Like many on the Canadian women’s soccer team, she seems to be peaking at the right time, and hopes are high for this Olympics.
For LeBlanc, her quick reactions, strength and balance have set her apart, and have taken her to the biggest sporting stage in the world.
The Olympics have always sought to unite the world through the universality of sport, and LeBlanc discovered this common bond amongst all cultures at an early age.
When the LeBlanc family moved to Canada from the tiny Caribbean island nation of Dominica in 1988, Karina was the only black child at Fairview elementary.
“The questions were so silly,” recalls her mother Winsome, a school teacher at Laity View elementary. “How do you comb your hair? Why do you talk like that? If you wash yourself long enough, will you become white? The children didn’t mean to be rude or mean, they just didn’t know.”
At eight years old in Grade 5, LeBlanc, who had skipped a grade, was also the youngest child in her class.
That too made her different.
She became shy, and rarely left the house, Winsome recalls. She would shoo Karina and her older sister Sharma out of the house to ride their bikes around the neighbourhood, and it was on one of these rides that Karina came upon a track team practicing at Maple Ridge secondary. Shy Karina just watched, until the coach asked her if she wanted to try the high jump.
Winsome got a call asking if she could bring Karina out to Bear Creek Park in Surrey at 6:30 the next morning for a track meet.
Sure enough, Karina won first place. It was the first of many sports accolades she would win.
With sports, LeBlanc fit in. It gave her a freedom of expression that was universal.
“She just wanted to prove that she was like everybody else,” says her mother. It turned out she was better.
LeBlanc excelled at every sport, even winning B.C.’s Best Defensive Player honours for basketball with the Ramblers in 1997, all the while on the honour roll for her grades.
Not surprisingly, LeBlanc was offered 19 full-ride scholarships to play in the U.S. at NCAA schools, and opted for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. In four years at the school, she played 79 games, allowing only 36 goals and compiling an impressive 67-5-3 record.
Off the pitch she earned a degree in business administration, carrying a 3.7 GPA.
These days, LeBlanc is an assistant coach with the NCAA Division 1 Rutgers University Scarlet Knights girls’ soccer team, and plays for the nearby New Jersey Wildcats. In what little spare time she has, she works as a motivational speaker, sharing her experiences and inspiring others.
However, LeBlanc might never had played in the U.S. were it not for Hurricane David.
The deadly storm struck the tiny island nation of Dominica on Aug. 29, 1979, leaving all but two buildings intact. LeBlanc’s mother, two months pregnant, waited out the Category 5 storm with the rest of the family in a cave-like depression under their neighbour’s porch.
When the winds finally died, their house, and the whole of the island, was ruined. Winsome Leblanc travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, where she stayed with family and where Karina was born six months later. Karina’s father, Vans, a bank manager in Dominica, stayed to coordinate disaster relief.
To this day, Karina carries dual citizenship with the U.S., enabling her live and work and play there.
Winsome and Vans will both be there in the stands in China, doing their best to inspire the Canadian team, ranked ninth in the world, to win gold.
“I’m a big mouth at these games,” says Winsome. “I can’t wait to cheer them on.”
The Canadian women’s soccer team opens Olympic play against Argentina on Aug. 6.