LeBlanc on quest to change girls’ lives
“Whenever you can give a young girl the tools to be empowered and succeed, they are only going to do great things.”
The inspirational words of a former international football player who is seizing the opportunity to achieve a far more fulfilling purpose off the field, than she ever did throughout her illustrious career on it.
Karina LeBlanc was capped by Canada 110 times over an 18-year career in which time she represented her country at five World Cups and two Olympic Games, one of which provided her a crowning moment as the nation clinched a bronze medal at the London 2012.
“I remember watching my first Olympic Games and thinking ‘I want to go there, I want to be part of that one day’,” recalled LeBlanc, who was introduced to football by chance by a school friend, having moved from Caribbean island of Dominica to Canada at the age of 8.
“My mum put me in ballet and your typical girlie things before I was introduced to football at a sleepover at a friend’s house. She was heading off to play in the morning and so I went along and that changed my life.”
However, her passion for the game was not fully realised until she suffered her first major knockback by being rejected for the provincial national under-15 side, a moment that would not only define the rest of her career but also shape her determined personality in the process.
“I didn’t make it which was devastating but it made me realise just how much I loved the game,” the 38-year-old added. “For the next year I did more and more every single day; I was determined no one would take my goal away from me.
“Having to work hard and believe in yourself, you have to get knocked down. Failure is a beautiful thing because you learn so much about yourself.
“Eventually that led to 18 amazing years playing for my country, featuring at five World Cups, two Olympic Games and winning an historic medal for the country.
“At the time it was some of the best years of my life.”
However, it was not until the years after that memorable moment that LeBlanc was guided towards her true calling in life in the wake of a not so subtle challenge by her former national coach.
“John Herdman, the Canadian coach, said to me a year after winning the bronze at London 2012 that if you think your purpose on this earth is to kick a football for Canada, then I’ve failed you,” she added.
“That confused me for a while because I felt like a good ambassador for the sport, but he thought I had a voice for something bigger than the game, and so I started exploring that.
“That led to being named a Unicef ambassador and still to this day I feel that is one of my biggest accomplishments, bigger than anything I achieved on the field.”
As the first female footballer to be named a Unicef Canada ambassador, LeBlanc was thrust into a new position and one that held far more profound responsibility, which she discovered on trip to Honduras in 2013 to visit its Football for Life programme.
“The role gave me experiences to see the real power of the game and the impact it could have in changing young girls’ lives, and for me it ignited something in me that I didn’t know was there,” LeBlanc explained.
“In Honduras, the children didn’t care that I played in World Cups or won an Olympic medal; they were happy that I showed up, had an interest and cared about them.
“It was a real life lesson for me that it’s not about what you’ve done but about how you did it and what you stand for.
“Football is a platform to be able to use to bring people together, no matter who they are or where they are from — and that’s a powerful thing.
“I started to realise that my voice could matter and that I was talking to young girls, connecting with them and helping to try and inspire them.
“When you empower one girl, you can empower a whole community and if you can empower them through sport, they can do anything.”
LeBlanc’s inspirational work off the field, including setting up a foundation in her name, which focuses its resources on adolescent girls from all socioeconomic backgrounds to achieve their dreams and to produce future leaders, was far from complete as she was named head of Concacaf Women’s Football in 2018. Much like in her role with Unicef, she is charged with travelling across the Concacaf region of North, Central American and the Caribbean, sharing her life stories with the ultimate aim of empowering the future generations.
“In my new position with Concacaf I get to travel and hopefully see how football change the lives of young girls,” she added. “People ask me why I took this job and it’s because it’s an opportunity to change lives and show them the opportunities and make them believe they can be somebody.
“I’ve had the opportunity to speak at different platforms all over the world, including the United Nations and had the chance to challenge people to change their life’s purpose and to empower people to be who they’re meant to be and that’s incredible.
“I’m incredibly grateful for the job I have because you get to see the impact that you can have on people, but also the impact people have on you.”
One such journey brought LeBlanc to Bermuda last week, where she appeared as the special guest for the Bermuda Football Associations Women’s Symposium. Under the banner of “Girls and Women’s Empowerment in Football”, the two-day symposium highlighted the importance of girls and women in football and the significant contribution they will play in the future of the game.
“These Symposiums are massively important because it puts like minded people together and helps empower the sport and women,” said LeBlanc, who ranks Bermuda as one of the leaders in the region for their efforts to promote women’s football.
“I love Bermuda for the people but also for what they are doing for women’s football. The reaction I saw at the airport for the under-15 national team after their success in the Concacaf Under-15 Girls’ Championship last August, I was blown away.
“If a country responds to that level for the youth team that way imagine what can happen if we can help them do more.
“At Concacaf we see women’s football as more than just a game, it is about the power of what it can do and for Bermuda is one of the leading countries in this region.
“We are trying to take steps to show how much we care about the women’s game and we are having these discussions about how we grow the game further.
“Some of this region don’t see the power of women’s football just yet and the opportunities that it can give you. We can teach our girls more through sport than she’ll ever learn doing a million other things.
“Some of these girls will go on and represent their country, just imagine that. Doing something you love and representing your country.
“There are two types of people who get to wear their flag on their heart, those who protect the country and those who inspire a country. When you represent your country, you are doing just that.
“For me it is about learning what countries like Bermuda are doing and what at Concacaf can we do to help them grow further.
“The challenges are about understanding what is going on and then getting the opportunity to discuss how to grow women’s football together.”
LeBlanc’s life experiences on and off the field, as well as her passion to inspire, have equipped her with the tools to take that challenge head on as she believes the women’s game is finally in the position to be able to help empower more young girls to fulfill their true potential.
“When I first started playing there was barely anyone in the stands but it has evolved because people are ready now,” she said. “People can see that girls can do whatever boys can do and there has definitely been a social change around the world.
“Women’s football finally appears to be getting the attention it’s always deserved. There was the group of women who played before me who fought, we kept that fight going and now female players are getting that deserved recognition that we can all be proud of.
“The women’s game is now being respected by everyone and so these women are being lifted as the role models that they are and that is incredible.
“Because of that more can be achieved, everybody has a story, everybody has the power to inspire others and everybody has this unique greatness that is meant to be shared with the world.”
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