Husker Legend LeBlanc Ready for World Cup
By Jeff Griesch
Nebraska Athletic Communications
Only a select few athletes actually ever achieve the status "legend."
Former Nebraska All-American Karina LeBlanc is one of them - officially. Arguably the greatest goalkeeper in Husker history, LeBlanc spent 18 years on the Canadian National Team after being named a finalist for the 2000 Hermann Trophy, which was presented to the NCAA's top women's soccer player. She competed in five World Cups for Canada and a pair of Olympic Games, including a bronze-medal winning performance in London in 2012.
Somehow, the shy, unassuming girl from Dominica who grew up "just wanting to be good" in a sport that she was introduced to when she arrived in Canada to complete her childhood, not only grew into a legendary goalkeeper, but was officially granted "legend" status by FIFA (Federation International Football Association) - the world governing body for the sport.
Her position as a FIFA Legend earned her superhero status heading into the Women's World Cup in France this summer. She is one of 23 FIFA Legends labeled with an alter ego - Karina "LeBlur" - who is "blessed with superhuman reflexes allowing her to react with incredible speed to all that goes on around her. As a Legends Squad member, LeBlur makes sure the team misses nothing as they strive towards growing the planet's love affair with the women's game."
While the soccer world continues to view LeBlanc's accomplishments as superhuman, she maintains a decidedly different perspective.
"I have never thought of myself as a comic book character or a superhero. I just wanted to make the most of whatever skills I had. I just wanted to be the best college athlete I could be and then the World Cup showed up. I never aspired to be a FIFA Legend, not at all. I still don't see myself as being that special. I am just a little girl living my dream. The sport of soccer has allowed me to become a woman who can go out and keep surprising myself."
LeBlanc's vibrant personality has been on full display for decades, dating back to her earliest days as a Nebraska soccer player. A daring goalkeeper who had no problem playing with the ball at her feet near midfield, LeBlanc recorded two assists as a senior for the Huskers in 2000. She finished with a 60-6-3 career record while producing a career goals-against average of 0.54. As a senior, her 0.40 goals-against average ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Nebraska Coach John Walker said his first look at LeBlanc was accidental, but the lasting impression she left on him and Husker soccer was undeniable.
"I stumbled upon Karina as a player by accident," Walker said. "I actually went to watch Sharolta Nonen (three-time Husker All-American and two-time Canadian World Cup team member) play in a club game on a rainy day in the Vancouver area back in 1995. Karina's team was well beaten on the day and she let in several goals. However, she made a number of remarkable saves and she played with an enthusiasm and energy from the opening whistle until the end, regardless of the score. I knew on that first day that she had a lot of potential and could be a special player."
She was also a ferocious communicator who kept nearly impenetrable Nebraska defenses in order against the NCAA's best teams. The 1999 Huskers outscored the opposition 108-14 on their way to a 22-1-2 record, including a 10-0 Big 12 mark while sweeping the conference regular-season and tournament titles. As a senior in 2000, LeBlanc's Huskers again swept the Big 12 titles and finished with a 22-2 record while recording 16 shutouts and surrendering just 10 goals the entire season.
"She was such a key player on so many conference championship teams here at Nebraska," Walker said. "She improved greatly during her time and not just in soccer-related areas but also in areas of leadership and understanding how to use her energy and enthusiasm to positively influence her teammates. By the time she left Nebraska, she was established on the Canadian National Team, and it was evident that she was going to have a long and distinguished national team and professional career."
For LeBlanc, Nebraska became her proving ground as a player, a person and a leader.
"Nebraska taught me that my voice mattered and to surround myself with like-minded people," LeBlanc said. "I learned to stay authentic to who I am. Now I can share my views on women's football and use my voice for a reason. I want to try to have a positive impact on everyone."
In 1999, she was part of the best Husker team in history. The Huskers advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals to play a four-overtime thriller against Notre Dame at the Abbott Sports Complex in Lincoln. The Huskers fell in penalty kicks in a game that officially ended as a 1-1 tie - at the time, the longest game in NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament history, in front of a crowd of 3,702 fans at a stadium that listed an official capacity of 2,500.
"It is still one of the most vivid memories I have - the game against Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament," LeBlanc said. "The fans and the excitement of being in that moment. It was the culmination of our journey together going through that whole season. I remember the looks in everyone's eyes. The journey is the exciting part, understanding all of these people are there to help support you. You get the chance to play in the best facilities and be successful while you are playing alongside girls who are your best friends. They have similar goals and you are all driven to accomplish something bigger than themselves."
As a player, LeBlanc graduated to much bigger stages, culminating with her fifth Women's World Cup while playing in Canada in 2015.
"The stadiums were bigger, the crowds were bigger, the stage was bigger, but the feelings were the same," LeBlanc said. "It was looking side-to-side and seeing your best friends, like-minded women driven by something bigger than themselves. Playing for your country on your home soil. As a soccer player, I got to wave goodbye to my home fans in my home country. It was a perfect way to end it. Honestly, I don't miss playing at all, but I love being a part of the game and hopefully I can share my love to help grow the game for young girls in so many countries around the world."
LeBlanc's heroic desire to grow women's soccer combines her own story with all of her passions. She will be given a new voice off the field during the 2019 Women's World Cup as a studio host for FOX Sports in its start-to-finish coverage of the games from France. Her work with FOX, combined with her position as the first Head of Women's Football for CONCACAF (The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football), make LeBlanc one of the most influential women in the soccer world right now.
"She has always had an infectious personality and an inquisitive mind and now has the confidence to speak her mind," Walker said. "I think this comes out in her work as a broadcaster and also in her leadership role for CONCACAF. She still has the same energy and enthusiasm today as when I first saw her play in the rain back in 1995. She also has wisdom and a platform from which to influence a lot of people, and she is doing that in a very positive fashion."
For LeBlanc, her potential impact on thousands of lives of future soccer players is the prize.
"The ability to impact young girls' lives and change them for the better is the most amazing thing about my role at CONCACAF," LeBlanc said. "We are giving young girls voices. They learn discipline, learn to stay on their goals and they learn to deal with failure. Life is not all happy and smiles, but I am not afraid to deal with being uncomfortable. Most people don't want to change, but I want everyone to hop on the train and unite as one CONCACAF.
"I think the amazing thing in my role with FOX is that in a lot of ways, it is offering me the same opportunity as CONCACAF and the same kind of opportunities I have always had as a member of a teams. The whole organization at FOX gets what the game can do and how powerful the game can be. They want to put on the best show and make the games the most appealing and most interesting to help grow women's football around the world."
The 2019 Women's World Cup team for FOX, including Karina LeBlanc (front row, far left).
With her ties to Canada and CONCACAF, LeBlanc is not ashamed to admit that she will be rooting for both her home country of Canada, and Jamaica - the first Women's World Cup-qualifying team from the Caribbean.
"It is so exciting for me, being from Dominica and now heading women's football in CONCACAF, to have Jamaica in the World Cup. They will give young girls across the Caribbean inspiration and encourage them to see themselves as soccer players. It is going to be a truly powerful experience for women's football. By the end of this World Cup, people around the world will have a whole new respect for the women's game."