Before she was an Olympic hero, Stephanie Labbé went through a lot of ups and downs as a soccer player, but she never stopped pursuing her dreams.
The goalkeeper for Canada’s gold-medal winning soccer team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics shared her story, provided inspiration, and offered pointers to a group of about 70 young players from the Cowichan Valley and beyond in a three-hour camp at the Sherman Road turf last month.
After going through some drills and playing scrimmages with the camp attendees, Labbé took penalty kicks from 10 randomly selected players, allowing only one goal to Josiah Wood. Then she sat all the players down and went through her own journey.
She explained how she played as many sports as she could in her youth, but started to focus on soccer when she was 12.
The first letdown came at 15, when she missed the cut for the U17 national team.
“They told me they didn’t think I as ready, that I wasn’t good enough yet,” Labbé recalled. “I decided in that moment this was something I really wanted and I was going to prove them wrong.”
At 17, she made the U20 team for the 2004 U20 Women’s World Cup as the backup goalie. Her teammates at the time included Cowichan’s own Emily Zurrer. Her only action in that tournament came when she entered Canada’s quarter-final against China suddenly when the starting goalie was given a red card, and surrendered a goal on a penalty kick. She was named backup again at the 2006 U20 Women’s World Cup, then ended up starting the entire tournament after Canada’s original starter was injured.
Her first tournament with the senior national team was the 2008 Olympics as an alternate. In 2012, after five years with the national team, she felt her confidence slipping and decided to take a break and just play professionally in Sweden, making the difficult choice to step away from national team.
“I wanted to find that joy and love of the game again,” she said.
Not being part of the 2012 Olympic team in London was, “challenging,” she admitted, but was the right decision at the time.
“All that matters is that I believe in myself,” she said.
Labbé returned to the national program and earned the starting job for Rio de Janeiro 2016, backstopping Canada to a bronze medal, then played at the 2019 World Cup.
As the 2020 Olympics approached, Canada got a new coach who favoured a different goalie, then saw the Games delayed a year because of the COVID pandemic.
“I kept telling myself, ‘When the team needs me, I’ll be there,” Labbé said.
Two days before Tokyo, coach Bev Priestman told Labbé she would be the starter. Then she suffered a rib injury in Canada’s first game.
“All I could think was I’ve done all of this and my Olympics is over,” she recalled.
Labbé shook off the injury long enough to stay in and stop a penalty shot, but missed the next game. She returned for Canada’s third pool game, then posted a clean sheet as Canada beat Brazil on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Canada met the U.S. in the semis. Canada had never won a semifinal at a major tournament before, and 21 of the 22 players on the roster had never beaten the U.S., but the players chose not to focus on that.
“We decided to focus on us and what makes us unique and good and what makes us one of the best teams in the world,” she remembered.
After beating the U.S. 1-0, Canada went on to beat Sweden on penalties in the gold-medal match.
Labbé summed up her talk with two points.
One: nothing is going to be easy.
“The only thing that mattered throughout my career is that I believed in myself,” she emphasized.
Two: no dream is impossible
“Whatever you want to accomplish, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it,” she said.