Stephanie Labbe is smiling.
Amidst the sweltering Tokyo heat, two hours of play could not separate Sweden and Canada – now, a lifetime of training and dreams hinges on 10 spot-kicks.
It’s about as pressurized as it gets for a footballer and yet, 12 yards away, Canadian goalkeeper Labbe is smiling.
Two days later, Olympic gold medalist and penalty shootout hero Labbe isn’t smiling.
She lies in a dark room. She has spent most of the previous 48 hours there.
Overstimulated and feeling “completely dissociated” from her victory, she cannot process any of the thousands of congratulatory messages and media enquiries blowing up her phone in the wake of Canada’s historic triumph – the country’s first ever Olympic gold in the women’s soccer event.
To understand her numbness following the achievement of a lifelong dream, Labbe takes us back to the first game of the tournament against hosts Japan.
During the first-half, Labbe sustained a painful rib injury. Prophetically, she proceeded to save a penalty before – unable to continue – she was substituted.
Unbeknownst to Labbe, the injury would dredge and then stir up a whirlpool of anxieties and mental baggage that had built up across the preceding 18 months – the insecurity of her position on the national team, the postponing of the Olympics, a new national team coach, and the inability to train as a team for a long period.
“I don’t think I realized at the time how much I was holding onto, how much the challenges of the past year and a half had affected me and were still underlying there in my system – getting to the Olympics wasn’t just a magical cure for all of this.” Labbe told CNN.
“That takes a toll over time and sometimes we don’t always see or feel what that toll is until something comes in and kind of shakes it up a bit.
“That’s what that injury did … it was like the water was almost getting to the brim. I felt good and confident but just that one extra thing is what spilt it over.”
Despite the ongoing pain of her injury and a number of trips to the hospital, Labbe and her team agreed she was physically fit to continue. She missed the following match against Chile but returned to the line-up for the final group fixture against Great Britain.
However, unseen wounds were making it a war on two fronts.
“My adrenaline was so heightened, and my neuromuscular system was so finely tuned that I struggled to come down between games, which resulted in high levels of anxiety and multiple panic attacks,” said Labbe.
“I knew it had nothing to do with performance anxiety, I was fully confident and nerves were not an issue on matchday. It was the second that whistle blew, that moment where I had to come down and relax a bit before the next game.”
Labbe was so overstimulated that she did not train between the quarterfinal and the finals – a fact made all the more astonishing by the back-to-back clean sheets she kept against Brazil and tournament favorites the United States en route to the final.
For Labbe the pitch is her “happy zone”, a “release.”
Years of meticulous training, work with a sports psychologist, meditation and other mindfulness exercises have helped to forge an athlete with laser focus on matchday – present and supremely confident.
National Minister of Defence
So as penalties in the gold medal match loomed, Labbe looked like the most relaxed goalkeeper in the history of penal