Although it may have been difficult watching Canada bow out of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup (U-20 WWC) this year in the quarter-finals or lose in the finals of 2002, any tinge of disappointment will eventually wear off. We can reminisce about clutch goals, incredible comebacks, a new batch of standout players and much more.
We’ll also come to realize that the U-20s are a stepping stone towards something even greater to be achieved by former players in the years to come.
RedNation caught up with Sura Yekka and Clare Rustad in part 1 of this feature and Erin McLeod in part 2 to discuss their soccer journeys, mentors and aspirations.
Since she was 5-years-old, Erin McLeod knew that she wanted to be an Olympian.
As she reminisced in her speech at TD Bank's Employee Pride Reception in Halifax, NS and exclusively shared with RedNation, McLeod was huddled around the television with her family in their Calgary home. She watched Canadian figure skater Elizabeth Manley put on a performance of a lifetime, basking in the jubilation of doing her country proud at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.
“In that moment, the entire country stood still with her and that’s when I knew – that’s when I knew.”
Reaching the top of her game motivated McLeod’s performances through the years. From the moment she became recognized by Canada as the U-19 Women's World Championship goalkeeper with a maple leaf mohawk of red and white who led her team to the final, to playing in three Women’s World Cups and two Olympic Games, culminating in a 2012 Olympic bronze medal, and countless other accolades in between, there were times when the mental demands of the sport were beginning to outpace the physical.
“It’s been an uphill battle until about two years ago when my coach helped me to realize there was one thing consistently getting in my way: me,” said McLeod. “I made the mistake of equating [being] the best with perfection."
At the time, McLeod felt that the 2007 Women’s World Cup was one of her best performances, but being told that she was “one of the best” was unsettling. She “wanted to be the best, not one of the best.” She was hypercritical of her every move and couldn’t accept encouraging words for what they were. Everything was skewed negatively.
“In Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, he summed up my mentality towards the game perfectly, ‘Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.’ I was so overly focused on the mistakes I was making that that’s what I became – a goalkeeper who was never good enough.”
Her confidence was beginning to dwindle and it took another hit from disparaging comments about her sexuality made by people within her soccer environment.
“Not only was I my own worst enemy – I now felt alone,” she admitted. “It’s not a surprise to me now that when I tore my ACL at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I was completely relieved. It was a quick way out – and it took me years to get back.”
Then, Canada’s last place finish at the 2011 Women’s World Cup was ever more devastating.
“As a full-time athlete, my whole world was my sport. At social gatherings people would ask my sister and friends about school, who they were seeing, their interests – and all they asked me was, ‘Erin, how’s soccer?’"
“I got used to not talking about anything but soccer, until I realized I wasn’t sure who I was without it.”
Following the disappointing tournament, John Herdman was hired as the head coach of the CanWNT. Not only was he rebuilding the team, he was also addressing the needs of the person and the athlete.
“It was evident that he cared about who we were as people and as players,” McLeod said of Herdman. “He was actually the first coach I’ve ever had who used inclusive language when addressing the group like, ‘If your girlfriends or boyfriends are coming to the game.’”
“He was the first person who made me realize that feeling comfortable with who you are in any environment was vital to your success. Imagine a workplace where you didn’t have to worry about everyone’s opinion of you and you just got to work – how much more growth there would be?"
“It made me realize that for years I had separated myself from my teammates out of fear of their opinions of me. And, I missed the whole point of playing a team sport – playing for something bigger than yourself.”
Herdman also had the team using honesty as a tool for reassessing themselves and their roles. McLeod confessed, “I admitted to Karina [LeBlanc], John and a few other leaders on the team that when I wasn’t [starting], I didn’t feel like a part of the team. I felt like the coach was making a mistake and I hoped whoever was playing would mess up, so I got the chance to play."
“I’m sure it was hard for them to hear, but saying it out loud made me realize I’d become someone I wasn’t proud of. I took Karina aside and promised her I would commit to making her the best I could for the Olympics and whoever played, played, because it was best for the team."
“I started embracing error – if I wasn’t making mistakes in training or games, I wasn’t going out of my comfort zone enough. I started embracing feedback and people’s help. It made me want to help others around me in return.”
The team as a whole made a similar commitment to one another. A few months later, the CanWNT went on to win Olympic bronze, the country’s first medal in a traditional team sport since 1936.
McLeod soon learned that her renewed confidence in herself and position as a high level athlete could be a platform for raising awareness of homophobia in sports.
“At the time, I wasn’t ready and wasn’t sure it was necessary in Canada to come out publicly."
“Then the Sochi Olympics happened.”
The world was reacting to rising discrimination and violence against the LGBT community and allies in Russia proceeding the nation’s anti-gay laws passed in June 2013. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was urged to take a stronger stance in protecting athletes and spectators; and, along with sponsors, urged to hold host cities and, by extension, the countries in which they belong, to higher human rights standards.
Around that time, McLeod and her brother-in-law had a conversation about Ed Clark, CEO of TD Bank, who was a pioneer in offering same-sex benefits to employees in 1994. This reaffirmed to her that everyone, whether individuals or corporations, could all have a role in supporting LGBT rights.
“I sent an email to my family and told them it was time – that I loved them and knowing that I had their support in all areas of my life made me a better person and a better athlete – and not everyone is as lucky as I am."
“[Then,] I came out to the world in an interview on CBC Radio talking about the importance of being who you are on and off the field. That athletes, to be at their best, should feel free of all limitations. If they ever, at any point, feel it isn’t safe to be that way, I believe they will underperform."
“I walked out of that interview feeling like I could take over the world. In that moment I felt liberated.”
She’s cherishing the incredibly moving responses she’s received. “I’ve been approached a few times by people of the LGBT community who thank me for giving them the chance to live their lives the way they want to."
“In my entire career, there has never been a bigger compliment or something I am more proud of.”
Since then, McLeod was one of many lobbying the IOC to specifically recognize sexual orientation in Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter as prohibited grounds of discrimination. She’s also serving on the Canadian Olympic Athletes’ Commission as the LGBT representative and collaborated with athletes and coaches across Canada to help produce a document by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport (CAAWS) on eradicating homophobia in sports.
“I choose to live a life of passion – not of fear, and I firmly believe everyone has that right, no matter who you are, no matter who you love.”