Stephanie Labbe will be Canada’s last line of defence at the Women’s World Cup in France, joining a select few.
Just five women have started in goal for the team since the Canadians made their tournament debut in Sweden in 1995.
The last three World Cups were in the capable hands of Erin McLeod and Karina LeBlanc. Carla Chin, Nicci Wright and Taryn Swiatek were the mainstays in Canada’s first three trips to the tournament.
LeBlanc retired after the 2015 World Cup — her fifth — and the 36-year-old McLeod has been denied a fourth World Cup because of injury. Together, they made 228 appearances with 92 clean sheets.
After two World Cups as a backup, Labbe is now Canada’s undisputed No. 1 — a seasoned veteran with 61 caps and 29 shutouts to her credit.
“I feel super-confident,” said the 32-year-old from Stony Plain, Alta.
Labbe and the fifth-ranked Canadians open Group E play on Monday against No. 46 Cameroon in Montpellier before facing No. 19 New Zealand on June 15 in Grenoble and the eighth-ranked Netherlands on June 20 in Reims.
Labbe enters the tournament in fine form. She has posted five straight shutouts in 2019 and has not conceded a goal in 451 minutes, a stretch that dates back to the 2-0 loss to the U.S. in the CONCACAF Women’s Championship final last October.
Labbe has waited a long time for this. She says she’s ready, but not getting ahead of herself.
“I’ve done a lot of work on the mental side of the game, not only in soccer but the mental side of life,” she said. “I think a big thing that has been kind of my anchor is just being present and in the moment and not looking too far forward.
“I think that’s really got me to a place where I really trust what I have … I trust and believe in the work I’ve put in every day in the gym and on the training ground. And when I step out on the field, I’m able to just completely be me and be free.”
“I’m not looking at this as a big moment. It’s just a moment,” she added.
Labbe in no stranger to candid talk about mental health, having already detailed dark times in 2012 and after the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I was in two different environments that were not conducive to my mental health,” she said. “And it’s not necessarily the people or where I am, it’s just a lot of a factors coming together that I feel like I get suffocated and I can’t escape it, in a sense.”
In 2012, while she felt fine with her club side, time with the national team took its toll.
“At the time I would just feel claustrophobic. I felt like I couldn’t relieve any emotions. I felt everything was kind of coming down on me and weighing down on me. I wasn’t able to let that weight off in that environment.”
So she stepped away, missing the 2012 Olympics where Canada won bronze.
After winning bronze at the 2016 Rio Games, she started having the same feelings with her Washington Spirit club side.
“It was a mixture of a lot of things and it just happened to be when I was in that environment it really crashed and hit hard.”
In September 2017, the Spirit announced Labbe was taking a medical leave for the remainder of the NWSL season.
Like NBA stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love, she has spoken out about mental health.
“For me, it was a big weight off my shoulders when I finally spoke out about it. Even my family didn’t really know the depths of what I was going through. And I think the people closest to you, often those are the hardest ones to share it with.”
“But the more and more I’ve talked about it, the more I see that my journey and my story has connected to people in all walks of life in different ways. I think that’s what has really hit home with me — how many people out there are experiencing it on different levels. And if I can help just one person with my story, that’s all I can hope for.”
Labbe made headlines again in 2018 when she tried out for the men’s Calgary Foothills team. The club was supportive but the league eventually nixed the bid. Labbe said she has not closed the book, hoping she can help another woman down the line break the barrier.
Labbe went on to play for Linkopings in Sweden before joining the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage for the 2019 season.
Labbe’s partner is Georgia Simmerling, a three-sport Olympian (alpine and skicross skier and track cyclist). They share a home in Calgary with Simmerling — now recovered from a horrific skiing injury and focusing on cycling — visiting and training in North Carolina whenever possible.
“It’s tough but we both love what we do and we support each other 100 per cent in what the other is doing,” Labbe said. “We’re each other’s fan-girls when we can and cheer each other on. We also know we can’t do sport forever. There will be an end to the distance so we’re really trying to enjoy it and get the most out of it while we can.”
If Labbe gets homesick, she just has to look at her right arm — adorned with a tattooed tribute to her native Alberta.
The ink depicts the Rocky Mountains — “My happy place” — and spruce trees. A compass pointing north shows she is from northern Alberta. A wild rose, Alberta’s provincial flower, is coiled around an anchor that reminds her to be grounded and know where you’re from. Below a quote, “Be You Bravely,” provides words to live by.
The word “Free” is inked on her wrist. “That’s kind of the reminder that when I’m at my best, I’m free and I’m not thinking, I’m just able to be me and I’m just free.”
She added the Olympic rings on her other arm after Brazil.
Labbe spent six years playing in Sweden, divided evenly between Pitea and KIF Orebro, before joining the Spirit.
The road to Sweden started at the University of Connecticut, where she earned 22 shutouts and made 325 saves while earning a degree in early childhood development and education. After her last NCAA game, she was approached by an agent about playing overseas.
Labbe, who is certified as a personal trainer, is joined in France by fellow goalkeepers Sabrina D’Angelo of Welland, Ont., and Kailen Sheridan of Whitby, Ont. D’Angelo has six caps while Sheridan has seven.
Canada coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller says any one of the three could start for many international teams.