That was the message Olympic soccer gold medalist Stephanie Labbé had for the hundreds of aspiring athletes, dignitaries, coaches, fans, friends and family who gathered at the TransAlta Tri Leisure Centre in Spruce Grove on Monday. Parkland County, Stony Plain and Spruce Grove all lay claim to Labbé, and she was given a hero’s welcome, including a minute-long standing ovation.
“I’m sure it was quite odd playing in an empty stadium in Tokyo, but I can assure you that you had a huge audience in Spruce Grove and the Tri community, and we were anything but quiet,” said Spruce Grove Mayor Stuart Houston.
Labbé then took the stage and told the audience: “Dream the impossible, make your dreams as big as they possibly can be, so you can make them possible if you put your mind to it and believe in yourself.”
Labbé allowed just one goal in open play in the quarter-final, semifinal and gold-medal game combined at the Tokyo Games. Canada won both its quarter-final against Brazil and the gold-medal game over Sweden in penalty shootouts — placing Labbé front and centre. She’s become a folk hero across the country, and Canadians won’t forget that, she, well, smiled at opponents during the shootouts.
“The smile is me telling myself to relax,” she said.
After this short trip home, she’s heading to Sweden to pack up her things, collect her dog and prep for her move to France, where word is she’s just signed with arguably the biggest women’s professional team in the world, Paris Saint-Germain. PSG’s men’s side spent big in the off-season, too, bringing in some obscure Argentine by the name of Lionel Messi. You may have heard of him.
“It’s big exciting step,” Labbé said.
As for Messi, she joked: “We’re already texting and setting up a coffee date.”
If she hadn’t been making the move to PSG, going back to Sweden would have been tough. Labbé had been playing with FC Rosengård, a team captained by Swedish star Caroline Seger. She is also captain of the Swedish team. Seger had a chance to win the gold-medal game for Sweden, but missed her penalty attempt, allowing the shootout to go into an extra round.
So, you might sense that, well, some awkward moments might have been ahead.
“Caroline Seger is the captain of my pro team in Sweden, so I know her pretty well,” said Labbé. “I know the impact she’s had on women’s football around the world. She’s an incredible player who’s been around for a long, long time. I know that it was also a big moment for her, to finally bring home a gold medal for Sweden. So, I was doing everything I could. She avoided eye contact with me the whole time. I was really trying, I was giving her the dagger eyes, but she never let me get in there. I had no idea where she was going to go, because she’s a player who switches it up a lot. She’s so experienced, she’s so calm in those situations. There’s a photo of me and I‘m diving and you can see I’m looking up, and you can see me smiling because I can see the ball is going over.
“I haven’t heard from them since.”
Labbé spoke about how special it was to spend time in Tokyo with her fiancée, fellow Olympian Georgia Simmerling, a multi-sport athlete who has represented Canada both on a bicycle and skis. She won bronze with Team Canada in the cycling team pursuit in Tokyo.
“It’s amazing to be able to confide in somebody and have somebody who is not only there with you in Tokyo, but completely understands you and everything you’re going through, in terms of the struggles, in terms of recovering between games, the mental stress of it all. It’s amazing to have somebody who completely understands and can be that shoulder to cry on or to understand the words I am saying. Being able to follow her journey was a great distraction. I could take away the stress of my sport and be able to be a fan and support somebody else. It was really special.”