Thursday 23 December 2021, 11:00

Labbe: I hit a new level at the Olympics

  • Stephanie Labbe shortlisted for The Best FIFA Women’s Goalkeeper award

  • She was a standout at the Olympics despite struggling with her mental health

  • Labbe tells about those challenges, the move to Paris and her Tokyo experiences

For Stephanie Labbe, 2021 was the year in which everything seemed to come together. Her nomination for The Best FIFA Women’s Goalkeeper was nothing short of inevitable, and reflected unprecedented achievements and the setting, at 35, of new, sky-high standards.

Labbe’s Olympic heroics were all the more satisfying to watch knowing that the Canada No1, in her professional life and with her mental health, had been through some tough times. As outsiders, watching her go from clutching a gold medal, to slipping on an engagement ring, to sealing the biggest move of her career – all within a few seemingly blissful weeks – we thought we were watching a fairy tale unfold.

But behind those beaming smiles, magic moments and career-defining achievements lay a less idyllic reality. That was laid bare by Labbe herself in September, when she wrote of having endured “high levels of anxiety and multiple panic attacks” during Canada’s run to Olympic gold. In a courageous and remarkably candid account on FIFPro’s website, the Paris Saint-Germain keeper described spending the 48 hours after the gold medal match “basically lying in a dark room”, and feeling “completely dissociated” from her remarkable achievements.

Fortunately, and with some time having passed since those sad revelations, she now has a spring in her step and a new perspective on her Olympic experiences. Labbe has settled well into life in the French capital and, as she told, is now able to reflect with real pride on a year to remember.

Stephanie Labbe #1 of Team Canada saves the Team Brazil fifth penalty taken by Rafaelle #4 to win in the penalty shoot out during the Women's Quarter Final.

How do you look back on the Olympics now? Watching from the stands in Japan, it seemed like you were having the time of your life. But your FIFPro article made clear how tough you were finding it off the pitch. I’ve definitely been able to emotionally detach from the challenge I went through on the mental side since that was published. Now, I can look back and enjoy what we achieved for the incredible accomplishment it was. It was such an amazing tournament. I know personally that I was so prepared for it, mentally and physically. I was just so confident in what I could bring to the table. So, yeah, there were tough moments but, with a bit of distance, I can now say that I only have positive memories of moments and experiences that I’m going to cherish for a lifetime.

I think a lot of people, looking at you becoming Canada’s hero, picking up your gold medal and then seeing on Instagram that you’d got engaged soon after, would have thought you were living a pretty perfect existence. Is that a lesson to us all about how hidden mental health issues can be? Yeah, I think there are two sides to it. Number one is recognising that athletes are humans too. As a soccer player, the outside world sees a 90-minute window of my day or my week. But we have the rest of that day, the rest of that week, when we’re just human beings with the same challenges and adversities everyone else has. And yeah, it’s important to know you can’t always judge a book by its cover. So many people are going through battles that we don’t know about and the more that we can continue the conversation around mental health, and make people feel safe to speak up about their own challenges without judgement, the better it’s going to be for healing. It’s tough as an athlete, and in many other jobs, to speak up because you don’t want to be perceived as weak, or somehow lacking in mental strength. But it’s important to recognise that it doesn’t make people weak; it makes them strong if they’re able to talk about it and admit what they’re going through.

The struggles you were having off the field certainly didn’t adversely affect your performances on it. Did that tournament, and this year, set a new standard for you? I don’t think there’s any doubt I hit a new level during the Olympics. That wasn’t luck. It was the product of a lot of hard work through the pandemic. I’d come out of the 2019 World Cup a bit disappointed that I hadn’t been able to really step up when the team needed me, and I had a really clear vision of the kind of keeper I wanted to be going into the Olympics. I did a lot of hard work mentally and physically to get myself to be the absolute best level I could reach and, stepping into that tournament, I was so confident in what I could bring. I think that showed. I feel I’ve been very consistent in my play for the past five years and I was just really proud that, on a stage like that, the world was finally able to see what I can bring to the table.

I’m sure, on the back of how you played, you would have been pretty disappointed not to be in the running for The Best awards. But how did it feel to learn you’d been nominated? It is humbling being nominated for awards like this, and it feels good when you’ve put in so much hard work to be recognised for that effort. I was just so happy to show up and be the goalkeeper my team needed at the Olympics, and it’s nice that’s been recognised. But it’s only right to say too that, as a goalkeeper, there are players in front of me who make my job a whole lot easier sometimes. There’s no-one in front of you at penalty shootouts though, and you did pretty well in two big ones in Japan… That is true! (laughs) I’ll take the credit for how I did in those!

Stephanie Labbe of Canada saves a penalty from Anna Anvegard of Sweden during the women s football final between Sweden and Canada at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

It’s a strong group of nominees and reflects what’s been said about the continually rising standard of goalkeeping in women’s football. Are you proud to have been a part of that collective raising of the bar? Incredibly proud. Looking around, especially at Olympics and World Cups, you really do see the quality of goalkeeping going up and up. And I’m also seeing so many keepers who’re not even starters for their countries yet really shining at club level. It’s amazing to see, and I know of so many incredible, world-class keepers who’re not even nominated for this award. A lot of that is down to increased investment and availability of top-class goalkeeper coaching, which really is vital.

And how are you enjoying life in Paris? It’s been great so far. I feel really lucky to have fiancée and my dog here, so it’s been a nice balance of life away from the soccer field too – the first time in my career that I’ve really had that. Paris is obviously such a beautiful city too, so it’s been really fun to explore. And that’s before even talking about being part of a top-class club like PSG.

You’ve played for some big clubs elsewhere but this is your first time playing for a superpower that, in both men’s and women’s football, is known around the world. Has it been a step up in terms of what you’ve experienced before? You have these visions of what these super-clubs will be like, and some things really have been superb. There are other things, though, that women’s football in general needs to be better at across the globe. It’s unfortunate, for example, that that we don’t play in the city more often because I think we could get a lot more support if that was the case. That’s a problem with women’s football in general; pretty much every team I’ve seen that plays out in the suburbs struggles for fans. And if you’re tied to a men’s team, the more you can play in the same facility – or play very close – the more you can draw that club’s fans to come along and support both teams.

It has been a great period of success for Canada, you personally and for women’s football in general. But is that the frustration for you - that although things are growing and improving, the progress simply isn’t fast enough? For sure. Anything that isn’t immediate action just isn’t fast enough. In Canada, we needed a league ten years ago. We’ve been saying it all along and our team has continued to achieve success on the international stage. The one box we still need to tick is to get a better result in a World Cup; I think that will really solidify us as a major power. But we’ve shown up consistently at Olympic games for the past three cycles and the fact we’re able to get those results, and improve as a team, without the foundation of having our own domestic league is a real testament to the skill and mentality of the players we have.