Goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc brings veteran presence, passion to Thorns FC
Soccer is just a game, but it can also be so much more than that when the final whistle sounds. Portland Thorns FC goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc certainly has gained a tremendous amount of valuable experience strapping on the keepers’ gloves as a 15-year member of the Canada Women’s National Team, and coupled with her clear passion for the sport is the desire to use it as a vehicle to help inspire others.
A bronze medalist with Canada at the London 2012 Olympics, LeBlanc has crafted a lengthy, and notable career through the previous two incarnations of professional women’s soccer in the United States (the WUSA and WPS), as well as making her mark for Canada – being selected to the national team roster for four FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments (1999, 2003, 2007, 2011) and two Olympic Games (2008, 2012).
Through the years, LeBlanc has been a WPS All-Star (2009) and an NCAA All-American and finalist for the Hermann Trophy at the University of Nebraska, as well as a gold medalist at the Pan American Games (2011), stopping two shots in a penalty shootout in the championship match.
“I am excited to finally be on the same side of the field as Karina,” said Thorns FC head coach Cindy Parlow Cone, who played against LeBlanc as a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team for several years. “We have played against each other many times, so I know first-hand how good she is. She is very athletic, great hands, great with her feet, and a tremendous organizer and leader.”
The native of the island of Dominica in the Caribbean – who was actually born in Atlanta, Ga., due to a hurricane hitting the island – has earned 104 caps for Canada and is now embarking on a campaign to help use the sport as a means to inspire others to reach their goals, in addition to preparing for the upcoming National Women’s Soccer League season.
Following the team’s bronze medal success at the Olympics, where the Canada Women’s National Team became the first group since 1936 to medal in a team sport for the country, LeBlanc and several teammates including Thorns FC forward Christine Sinclair set out the goal of trailblazing across Canada to give talks, conduct clinics and raise awareness of the sport as Canada gets ready to host the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“Our goal is to get across the country before the 2015 World Cup and motivate, inspire and remind people why they love soccer. We’ll do some talks and clinics and camps for young kids,” LeBlanc said from Calgary, where she was set to participate in a soccer convention before heading to Edmonton. The trek already had stops in Ottawa and Halifax. “We’re just trying to make it across to as many cities as we can, but it’s tough because we’ll be gone for the whole season (in the NWSL) and the following year we’ll have duties with the National Team, but I think it’s a realistic goal for us to get across the country by 2015.”
That’s not all that’s ahead for LeBlanc. About a month before the start of training camp with Thorns FC, she is set to head to Honduras as an ambassador with UNICEF.
“It’s meant to use sport to motivate and inspire kids which is one of the things that we’re fortunate to be able to do (as professional athletes),” LeBlanc said. “As athletes, we need to realize that it’s bigger than us just kicking a soccer ball on the field. For young girls around the world, they’re not fortunate enough to have the freedom to do that. Sport gives you confidence and allows you to do so many things and I think it’s an opportunity to get out there and play with different young women from around the world and just have fun with them and make them see the excitement that comes from it and the confidence. They’re able to talk about issues that they don’t usually talk about and find common ground in conversation with other women.”
LeBlanc, for one, isn’t someone that will ever take being a professional for granted. Her parents made the choice to leave their stable jobs in the Caribbean and move the family to Canada to provide better opportunities for their children. It’s through recognizing her parents’ sacrifice and her own determination that has helped her succeed.
“I got cut from the first big team that I tried out for in Canada and that devastated me because all my friends made the team,” LeBlanc said. “What I did during the next year was worked 15 minutes more each day whether it was before practice or after practice. The next year I tried out for the team a year older and I made that team and then I got called into the full national team and I was 17 at the time.
“I left my home and I had pictures on my wall of Cindy Parlow, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and then Charmaine Hooper from Canada and here I was a little while later playing against them in Portland,” she added. “Before, I was told I wasn’t good enough to be there and here I was playing against them and having this moment because of those 15 minutes more.”
Undoubtedly someone who brings a lot of knowledge and big-game experience to the Thorns FC roster, LeBlanc was quick to point out that leadership on a team is always earned, but added that her years as a goalkeeper at the international level helps her read the game, which she can then use to guide the less experienced players.
“Everyone already knows that Karina is an outstanding goalkeeper, but what many people may not know, is that she is an amazing person as well,” Cone said. “She will be an outstanding leader for Thorns FC both on and off the field.”
A commanding presence in goal, LeBlanc is also known for her proclivity to pull a few pranks and crack jokes, as evidenced by her “KK Cam” videos on YouTube. Something she started putting together while playing in the WPS, LeBlanc explained that the videos are a good way to see the lighter side of the players.
“I started it in the WPS because everyone would always see the serious side of the athletes. So many of us are just goofy and like to have fun, so I pulled a couple pranks,” LeBlanc said. “It’s just a chance for people to get to see the other side of us. If I can make people laugh and smile, that’s what I’m all about. I think you have to be happy and if watching ‘KK Cam’ makes you laugh once, I’ve done my job.
“You better believe I’ll be having lots of those videos in Portland,” she said.