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A thorn in the side of opponents

Thorns keeper, ex-Olympian Karina LeBlanc has big presence on, off field


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Karina LeBlanc, NWSL goalie of the week, went from a shy girl taking piano and ballet lessons to a gregarious world-class player and motivational speaker who is a Portland Thorns FC star.As a little girl in the Caribbean, Portland Thorns FC goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc did just about everything besides sports. From ballet to piano lessons, LeBlanc usually was confined inside. Looking out the window, though, she could not help wondering about all the possibilities of being an athlete.

“I’d always look outside and be like, ‘I want to be out there,’ ” she says.

How accomplished of a pianist or ballerina the 5-10 LeBlanc could have been will remain a mystery. But she has turned herself into one of the best goalkeepers in the world, with 16 years of experience with the Canadian national team and an Olympic bronze medal from the 2012 London Games.

LeBlanc also has been stellar for the Thorns. In 14 matches, she has made 60 saves, allowed just 12 goals and was named NWSL player of the week after blocking a late penalty kick by Abby Wambach in Sunday’s 1-1 home draw against the Western New York Flash.

“Every game, I just want to continue to grow and become a better goalkeeper and push myself and help my team,” LeBlanc says. “At the end of the day, we want to come out with a championship trophy.”

LeBlanc’s father is from Dominica, an island close to Antigua, and her mother is from Jamaica. She was born in Atlanta in 1980 while her family was temporarily displaced by hurricane damage in Dominica. For the first eight years of her life, her family lived in Dominica and made numerous trips to Jamaica to see her mother’s family.

When she was 8, LeBlanc’s parents moved the family to Maple Ridge, British Columbia.

“A lot of kids in the Caribbean, their parents try to put you in private schools so you can go to universities in Canada or the U.S.,” LeBlanc says. “My parents made a huge sacrifice to get us started early. They had a successful life and decided to move.”

LeBlanc was miserable at first, though. She says she was made fun of, put into English as a Second Language classes,

and wanted to go back to the

Caribbean.

“When I moved to Canada, it was an absolute shock for me,” she says. “I was bullied. I didn’t fit in. I had a thick Dominica accent, and no one ever believes this, but I was so shy I didn’t talk. And when I did talk, my accent was so thick that for the first couple of days they put me in ESL.

“My mom was livid. She was an English professor, and my English was very much on point. My first couple of days at school, I didn’t like it, and I just wanted to go home to the Caribbean.”

The now-gregarious LeBlanc, who speaks without an accent, got over her shyness and began making friends when she finally got to do what she had always longed to do: play sports.

“I played every sport there was,” she says. “I lettered in basketball, field hockey, track, soccer. When you start feeling good about yourself and have people telling you that you’re good at something, you get confidence and you make friends.”

LeBlanc now works frequently as a motivational speaker.

“You can put me in front of a crowd of 15,000 people and I’ll just have fun and laugh,” she says. “The shy kid is not so shy anymore.”

While in high school, LeBlanc tried out for a provincial team and was cut. When the coach told LeBlanc, “You’ll never be good enough,” it lit a fire under her that has never been extinguished.

“That was a defining moment for me,” she says. “I decided no one would ever tell me that I wasn’t good enough.”

The next year, at 18, LeBlanc made her debut with the Canadian national team.

After high school, LeBlanc considered playing both soccer and basketball at Nebraska. Her ultimate goal was to be an Olympian, though, and because she already was on a national team, she decided to focus on soccer.

LeBlanc’s dream of playing in the Olympics was temporarily derailed in 2004. After leading Canada to a berth in the Athens Games, she suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament and missed the 2004 Olympics. She was healthy by 2008, though, and played for Canada in the Beijing Games.

Standing on the pitch before the first match, LeBlanc looked up into the stands, trying to find her parents. When she saw them, she thought of everything they had done to help her achieve that moment, and began to weep.

“I wanted to give my parents a hug,” LeBlanc says. “I was crying. I just wanted to say, ‘Thanks for everything that you did.’ “

That sentiment has never left.

“Every single game I say a little prayer and thank them for making that sacrifice, because I’m living this incredible life,” she says.

She says that she is happy being in Portland, where she has helped keep the Thorns (8-4-3, 27 points heading into Sunday’s road match against the Boston Breakers) in the running for the best record in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“I love being here,” LeBlanc says. “Any time you’re happy as an individual, you’re going to play better soccer. This is such a great organization. And the city of Portland is so unique.

“There are so many different things to do. I don’t think I’ve ever done two of the same thing. There’s a festival each weekend, and it’s just a different vibe. The people are incredible, sweet people. Sometimes I’ll go to dinner and someone I don’t know will just pick up the tab. I don’t think you can get that in any other city. Representing those people when we put the jersey on, it inspires you to be better every day.”

LeBlanc has provided the club with leadership. At 33, she is the oldest member of the Thorns. While she knows how to be a serious leader when the situation calls for it, she also knows how to act goofy, have fun, and put her teammates

at ease.

“There are moments to be serious and moments when you just want people to realize that you’re happy to be doing what you’re doing,” she says. “The biggest thing is balance and sharing the balance with the rest of the girls.

“A lot of people say I act like the youngest player on the team, but that’s because I love what I’m doing.”