Though the weather has grown cooler and the days have shortened, six weeks after the closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games, memories of the XXX Olympiad are still fresh in many Canadians’ minds.
And Karina LeBlanc wants to keep it that way.
With her sights already set on the next FIFA Women’s World Cup, to be held in Canada in 2015, the goalkeeper of the national women’s soccer team hopes that the profile of her sport will continue to rise over the next three years.
“We really want people to just keep falling in love with us,” she said, while music blared around Maple Leaf Square after Toronto’s Olympic Heroes Parade on Friday morning. “[We want them to] not forget about us.”
Crediting Canadian fans for helping her team earn the bronze medal at the London Games, LeBlanc seems certain that this encouragement will spill over into the World Cup tournament.
“The support is what got us the bronze medal [in London] and this time, the support is going to get us a gold medal at home,” the 32-year-old said with a smile. “You can’t ask for anything better than that.”
Since being back on Canadian soil, the women’s national team has been overwhelmed with attention, including being met at the airport by throngs of fans upon their arrival, and even being honoured at BMO Field prior to the men’s national team’s match against Panama two weeks ago.
But all of the attention doesn’t seem to be bothering LeBlanc.
“Every time someone comes up to us and says ‘you must be tired of this,’ we’re like, ‘no! Thank you for making us feel like the sport that we love, the sport we play for fun, has inspired you,’ ” she said.
For the goalkeeper, the sheer number of people at Friday’s Olympic Heroes Parade proved to her just how loved the Canadian Olympic team really is.
Young girls on field trips from schools across the city huddled together near the fences that separated them from the athletes, hoping to catch a closer look at their favourite Olympians, and shouting the names of players on the women’s national soccer team as they walked by.
“[The parade] is incredible,” LeBlanc said as she looked toward the screaming crowd. “We thought, ‘Okay … there’s going to be a good amount of people,’ but this is crazy. You see little girls crying and screaming and you can’t help but cry.”
Midfielder Kaylyn Kyle shares her teammate’s sentiment.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said, over the noise. “I had no idea that we were going to get this kind of fan support.”
In the aftermath of the Olympic Games, both women have gained a better understanding of their new position as national role models.
“I don’t think we really realized how much of an effect we had on young girls’ lives while we were overseas,” said Kyle. “We didn’t see the media, we didn’t see any of this. Coming back into Canada seeing these girls wearing our jerseys, it’s amazing.
“I’m 23 years old and people say ‘you inspire me,’ I’m like ‘what?’ It’s crazy to me but … it’s the best feeling in the world. I’m so proud to be Canadian.”
LeBlanc admits that her post-Olympic experiences are beyond anything she’d ever imagined for herself.
“When I was younger, I would think about that moment stepping on the podium and that was incredible, but you never dream of what it’s like after,” the bronze medallist said.
“I never dreamed that people would be like this towards us. It makes it so much more special.”
Though the Canadian women left London with the third place prize, for LeBlanc, it certainly feels like first.
“This is a bronze, yes, but it’s really a gold,” she said as she clutched her Olympic medal in her hands. “People who supported us have said ‘you guys deserve gold,’ and the way they have treated us, we can’t help but feel like we brought home gold for Canada.
“I have goose bumps just talking about it.”
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