‘To do it with some of the most amazing people in the world is a special thing’: Reliving Canada’s run to Olympic gold one year later

On August 6, 2021, Canadian soccer reached a new height. Despite years of coming close to winning the Women’s Football tournaments at the Summer Olympics — with back-to-back bronze medals to show for it — a first gold medal had eluded them to that point. But for the first time ever, on a sweltering night in Yokohama, Japan, Canada finally reached the top of the pile.

All of the talk entering Tokyo 2020 was about “changing the colour of the medal.” It was impossible to escape that mantra, which was repeated at every press conference and every interview for months entering the competition. New head coach Bev Priestman, in her first year as a senior national team boss after being an assistant in Canada and then England, was working hard to get the team ready to do just that after taking over from Kenneth Heiner-Møller in October 2020.

The Olympics had been delayed by 12 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave Canada time to both replace Heiner-Møller and get back onto the pitch at the SheBelieves Cup in February 2021 — which they hadn’t done for almost a year after the world came to a halt in March 2020.

“We came off not great results at the World Cup, so I think all of us had a fire inside of us to want to change that for the Olympics,” since-retired Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé told “That’s always such a quick turnaround between the World Cup and Olympics, so I think going into Olympic qualifying we were excited and motivated, we had some good results there and played very well, and then we went into the tournament in France (the 2020 Tournoi de France), which is kind of when the pandemic started to take a turn.

“I came out of that tournament in France and I had lost a little bit of confidence — I came out of the qualifying, I’d won the Golden Glove, I felt really good and then in that tournament I played one of the games and to be honest, I wasn’t super confident in my performance in that game. So then to have the the pandemic hit, and the delay, and a coach change. [It was] like eight months from when Kenneth decided to leave to when they hired the new coach, that was a lot of time for me to be thinking about that one game.”

The waiting game to get back into a national team camp, combined with the other struggles both mentally and physically that entailed during the pandemic, were another addition to a tough tome in the world.

“All I wanted to do was get back on the pitch and get another game under my belt where I felt good,” said Labbé. “The personal journey was really challenging. As a team, we went 12 months without seeing each other, so that was super challenging with not having a coach, to having a new coach, and not having time with her.

“Then everybody’s personal family struggles, the struggles that everybody worldwide had with a pandemic, there was so much emotion, stress, anxiety, and fear around a lot of things and everyone just trying to find their way. All we wanted to do was get back on the pitch. But that being out of our control, I think was was the biggest challenge.

Priestman made an immediate impact when she was named head coach, despite not actually being able to physically meet with the players. Having worked with a lot of players during her time as an assistant coach and also leading the youth national teams, Priestman was a familiar face.

“I think that gave us a little bit of comfort, but at the same time, she definitely came in and shook things up,” Labbé recalled. “She shook up the lineup a bit, challenged some players in different ways — I know I was challenged in many ways. She kind of came in with the familiarity, but that didn’t necessarily keep it super consistent, which I think forced a lot of us to get out of our comfort zones and reassess a lot of things, not be comfortable with how things used to be, but know that if we wanted a different result, things had to be different.”

Part of that was the team’s mentality.

In Rio de Janeiro, Labbé explained, the team wanted to win the gold medal after a bronze in London four years earlier, but they were lacking the confidence and expectation amongst themselves that they were going to go out there and do it.

John Herdman, who has since become the boss of the Canadian men’s national team, led them back to the podium, but they again came away with bronze.

“We all knew that we had the potential,” Labbé said. “I think going into Rio, deep down belief maybe wasn’t there. Going into Tokyo it was still the dream and something we wanted, but there was a much deeper belief and a more true belief from the whole group that we actually could do it and make it happen.

“Bev put it into words and helped us go along that vision, but that was definitely something that was already within the team in terms of something we wanted to achieve.”

When the Olympics finally came around there were high expectations for Canada. Back-to-back podiums, and this growing pressure to finally get over the final hurdle and take gold were building. The great Christine Sinclair was still lacking a first major international title, and at the age of 38 when the tournament began, opportunities seemed to be running out.

Clare Rustad, a Canadian national team player-turned doctor and colour commentator, said to that given Canada’s performances in London and Rio, her expectations were high.

“I covered the 2016 Olympic Games with CBC as well, and that was a very well deserved bronze medal,” she said. “The thing that’s really come together for them overall, certainly over the last four or five years, maybe not even that long, was their back four and their defensive shape.

“I think that going into the tournament, that was the thing that I thought would make them successful.”

Without the presence of family and friends in the stands due to the pandemic — travel restrictions and the decision not to allow anyone who wasn’t an athlete, coach or staff member into the “Olympic bubble” kept everyone back in Canada — feeling that Olympic spirit was a challenge.

“There was a lot of isolation, a lot of being kept from the general public, a lack of signage, a lack of full Olympic experience and Olympic feeling,” Labbé said. “At times, it really just felt like we were in another tournament, so I think we really did well as a team to bring that excitement and make sure that we all felt the magnitude of this tournament. I think, especially for players who had never been to an Olympics, you have these expectations, and not seeing those Olympic rings everywhere you go, I think was a big difference for it.

“We weren’t in the village until the very end, but even the ability to go cheer on other athletes when you have the time, none of that was there. I think that isolation and loneliness came into play. Thankfully, we’re a very close team, and we’re all best friends with each other.”

Christine Sinclair and Jessie Fleming in training ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo (Photo: Canada Soccer)
Christine Sinclair and Jessie Fleming in training ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo (Photo: Canada Soccer)

Working the overnight shift

Rustad, an Olympian herself at Beijing 2008 with Canada, formed a commentary duo throughout the Olympics with longtime Canadian sports media personality Nigel Reed, calling the games on CBC.

With the time difference between Japan and Toronto, where CBC’s Olympic broadcast studios are located, kickoff times were often between three and six o’clock in the morning Eastern Time, but with her experience working overnight shifts in an emergency unit at a hospital, late nights aren’t totally foreign to her.

Working alongside Reed wasn’t new to her either, and it was actually him who got her into broadcasting in the first place a decade earlier.

“He was doing the Fan 590 way back in the day when I was in my first year of med school or something like that, and I played briefly with a club in Toronto, and he had me on the on his Fan 590 show,” Rustad recalled. “He sat down with me after one of his radio shows and said that he might get asked the question if there’s a woman out there who wants to be involved with the 2011 World Cup and I was like ‘I’ll do it, sure’. “I had no way of knowing if I’d be good at it, if I’d even like it, but I just wanted to try and so he was the guy who got my foot in the door.

“Working with Nigel is great. People were like ‘oh, he was making fun of you (Reed after referred to Rustad as “the doctor”),’ and I was like, no, no, he wasn’t, that’s just that’s just how Nigel and I roll, it’s okay, that’s just how we communicate. Being in the commentary booth was great, but it was odd because of COVID stuff. There was a plexiglass divider between the two of us, we had separate entrances into our booth, which was odd. I really like working with Nigel because we’ve done this so many times together that we can really play off each other really well, and he seems to know when I have something to say. It’s genuinely one of my favorite things to do, there’s something really special about the Olympic Games.”

Reed returned the compliments for his co-commentator.

“I’ve enjoyed her company for for many years in the booth,” he said. “She has no problem being critical of the team. She doesn’t choose sides, she tells it like it is, and I always believe that whoever my analyst is, is always a former player. They know better than anybody what it’s like in the moment, trying to concentrate for 90 minutes and win those individual battles. I love working with Claire, she’s a great person, she’s very opinionated, and I love that about her.”

There can sometimes be a tendency for former players, or people closely associated with a team, to be biased — whether intentionally or unintentionally. As Reed says, however, Rustad had no problem being critical when she felt the team deserved it.

She also told that since some fans watching Olympic soccer may not always be the regular diehard fans that would tune into any or every Canadian national team game, it can also be an opportunity to educate the audience.

“I will sometimes get feedback about any negative comments I make, but I think they should be treated like professionals, they are professionals and at the same time, I’m a professional in my role as an analyst,” Rustad explained. “I think it’s really important to identify the times where there’s things that need to be worked on, or things that are really not working, and part of that is to engage the audience so that they actually know a little bit.

“I’m not afraid to do that, and I think part of it is I’m pretty far removed, I stopped playing when I was 25, so there’s only a couple of players in that team who I’ve played with, and I think that space helps.”

Let the Games begin… but not so fast

The tournament finally came around on July 21, against the host nation Japan.

Christine Sinclair got Canada off to an early lead, just six minutes into the match, a lead that Canada would hold until Mana Iwabuchi tied things up with a few minutes left in the 90. It was a disappointing result for Canada considering their lead for nearly 80 minutes, but they had other problems to worry about.

A few minutes after halftime, Stephanie Labbé fouled a Japanese attacker in the box, and spent several minutes on the ground, in a lot of pain. Unaware at the time that she had conceded a penalty at all after the collision, Labbé was receiving medical treatment while play was halted and the referee went to check with the VAR.

“Going into that moment, to be honest, all I felt was pain,” recalled the Canadian goalkeeper. “I actually had no idea that it was a penalty shot, my first reaction was just ‘oh, they always protect the keeper, for sure I’ll get this call’, so I was just focusing on trying to breathe through the pain and figure out if I was going to be able to play.

“To be honest, at first I told the doctors on the field that there’s no way I could play — I could barely move my arm and my chest felt so tight and painful, and so they were like signaling to make the sub, but then at almost the same moment that I told them there’s no way I can play, I saw the ref come back from checking the video and and point to the spot and I just had this rush of adrenaline at that moment. I remember this rush of adrenaline and just this thought of ‘I’ve caused the PK, I have to stay in and ratify it’, so I told the doctor ‘just kidding, I’m fine, I can stay in’ and he was like ‘no way, you have to come out’. I was like ‘no, let me do some push ups, I’ll prove it, I’m fine. I’m fine’. The adrenaline carried me through, I was able to make that save, but then five minutes later that adrenaline left my body and I had to make the call, because I had to put the team first — and at this moment, if I were to have to dive to the side, there’s no way I could move my arm to make a save.

“That was a challenge because I had gone through a lot of mental challenges leading into the Olympics in terms of being told the starting spot wasn’t guaranteed, and up until three days before our first game I didn’t think that I was going to be playing. I had such a relief going into that game that I had finally earned that, or that I had earned that starting and proved myself, to then have an injury where at the time all I felt was pain and I thought ‘maybe this is it, maybe I won’t be able to play the rest of the tournament’. There was a lot of a lot of that going through my mind.”

Labbé was in and out of the hospital for a few days, getting tests and reassessments, and had to factor in her long term health as well when considering what the best plan forward was. The effects of that injury would last for a couple of months after the tournament ended, but she would only end up missing one group stage game, before playing the rest of the tournament injured.

“When I got the clearance from the professionals, that I could push through the pain, and I wouldn’t make it worse, and I wouldn’t put myself at risk… It was a no brainer for me to try,” Labbé said.

She sat out Canada’s second group match, a 2-1 victory over Chile thanks to a brace from Janine Beckie, before managing to return to the net against Great Britain for the final group match.

A goal from Adriana Leon, and an own goal by Nichelle Prince at the other end of the pitch, saw the two sides draw 1-1, and Canada were off to the quarterfinals as the second-place team in Group E.

Canada celebrate Christine Sinclair's goal against Japan at Tokyo 2020 (Photo: Canada Soccer by Daniela Porcelli)
Canada celebrate Christine Sinclair’s goal against Japan at Tokyo 2020 (Photo: Canada Soccer by Daniela Porcelli)

Shootout drama, and a sign of what was to come

Up next was a match against Brazil, who they had played twice in the leadup to the Olympics. Brazil beat them 2-0 at the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando in February, before they drew 0-0 in a friendly match in Cartagena, Spain in June.

This match would also end 0-0, and require penalties to decide who would be advancing to the semis. Christine Sinclair missed Canada’s first shot, before the next six shots were scored. Labbé would stop Andressa’s penalty, allowing Canada to take the lead with their fifth shot, and that’s what they did — with Vanessa Gilles making it 4-3.

Rafaelle Souza stepped up for Brazil, needing to score to send the shootout to sudden death, but Labbé made another big stop, and Canada was heading back to the medal rounds.

“That’s one of the most memorable games I think of my career,” Labbé recalled. “Looking back on that, as a goalkeeper, that was a game where I really had to come up big, make a lot of saves. It felt like a rugby match where I was just getting tackled, and landed on, and all of that combined with the pain that I was already in with my injury. It just felt like a game where nothing was gonna get by me, I just felt so confident, and so in control of that game.

“As a goalkeeper, anytime you can come up big and make saves to keep your team in the game, you’re doing your job. That’s something where I really felt like in the 2019 World Cup I wasn’t able to do, I felt like I didn’t have that moment where I was needed by the team and I was able to step up to keep us in a game. I wanted to be that goalkeeper in this Olympics where when the time came and the team needed me, I would be ready and I would be there.”

Canada practiced taking penalties in every single training session before and during the Olympics. Every player took them, every goalkeeper had a chance in goal, and everyone got as much experience as they could in such situations. That would prove to be beneficial.

Labbé said she studied penalties, and how the next opponents’ players took them, doing anything she could to get an advantage. Part of that preparation included studying the men’s European Championship from earlier that summer, where there were a number of shootouts and penalties to analyze.

“I think for me, at the end of the day when I’m in a penalty shootout, I don’t feel the pressure, I don’t feel that stress that I have to make saves. I know that in five shooters, if I make one save, I’m giving my team a chance. If I make two saves, we should win. So I think for me, that’s all that’s on my mind, if I let one in, it’s just like ‘that’s okay, I’m going to make the next one’.”

Canada celebrate their shootout win over Brazil at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (Canada Soccer by Daniela Porcelli)
Canada celebrate their shootout win over Brazil at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (Canada Soccer by Daniela Porcelli)

After beating Brazil, Canada were into the semifinals, and a meeting with the United States. It was same stage they had fallen at in controversial fashion in 2012 to the Americans, and they would again lose in the semifinals at Rio 2016. It was a hurdle they hadn’t yet cleared at the Olympic Games, and that it was against their biggest rivals and tournament favourites only added to the occcasion.

“There’s obviously a history between [the two countries], and there’s also a history of Canada losing semi finals at major tournaments,” recalled Labbé. “We knew coming in, as soon as we set the goal of changing the colour of the medal, we knew in order to make that happen, it was all about the semifinal. Obviously, you have to get there first, but that was the barrier, and to be honest, going in, it didn’t matter who we were playing in the semi, we knew that that was going to be a challenge and we knew that that was a big barrier for us to get over.

“Playing the US in that game, I think made it all the sweeter and all the better. It’s obviously a rival and something that we talk about a lot, but it has been a very lopsided rival, it has gone one way. There’s only one player on our team that had beaten the United States, so I think going into that game, for the first time in as long as I can remember, we actually just didn’t even really talk about the US that much. Instead of putting them on a pedestal and talking about them as these superhumans, we actually just focused on ourselves a lot more and focused on the things that we needed to do to win that semi, regardless of who was on the other side of the pitch.”

Canada would win that match, their first victory over the United States in two decades, in a dramatic fashion. Jessie Fleming, as she did all tournament long, would step up with 15 minutes left and convert a penalty, before wheeling away to celebrate with the now-famous knee slide toward the Canadian bench.

Labbé says that their victory over the back-to-back World Cup winners gave them a lot of confidence going into the final a few days later, but that they still couldn’t get too excited — the biggest match of everyone’s career was just a few days away.

“It’s almost like we didn’t celebrate that win that much,” Labbé recalled. “We knew we still had another task at hand. Six months before the Olympics, we were focusing on ‘we have to win the semi, we have to win the semi’. We talked about ‘well, does that mean that silver’s an option for us?’ and every single one of us said no. We’re winning the semi, but then we’re winning the gold.

“We weren’t just going to settle for that, we weren’t going to celebrate winning that semi because that wasn’t the end of the tournament for us, and so it was right back to work right back what the next task is.”

The final hurdle to clear

Then came the final.

It was a scrappy match. Stina Blackstenius, one of Sweden’s premier attackers, gave her side the lead 34 minutes in — an advantage that they would hold for over half an hour. In the 67th minute, Jessie Fleming was sent to the penalty spot once again, and again came up big for Canada, tying the match at 1-1.

Extra time would be needed to decide a winner, but after two more periods of 15 minutes went by without another goal, Canada were going to another penalty shootout — this time with the Olympic gold medal on the line.

Labbé knew that she was going to play a big role in the shootout as she did against Brazil. She had another opportunity for a defining moment, where she got to be the goalkeeper and leader that her country needed.

“There’s so much mental physical fatigue at that point,” she said. “I knew as the goalkeeper that I was the one that was probably the least fatigued, so anything I could do to bring confidence to the players, to breed confidence in myself, to give that relaxed vibe to everybody — I was trying to do in terms of body language. Whether it’s my leadership, my vocals, anything that I could do to keep encouraging people to believe in ourselves.

“At the same time, I had the confidence from the Brazil shootout, that number one that I could be the goalkeeper that we need to be. I knew that I had at least a save or two in me, I knew that I would be able to bring that out. I had the confidence in our players, I knew that when the moments came, our players were going to step up and make those shots.”

The shootout was nervy. Kosovare Asllani struck the post with the opening shot for Sweden, but Fleming stepped up and did what she had been doing all tournament — scoring from the spot. Advantage Canada.

Nathalie Björn then scored for Sweden, and Olivia Schough scored Sweden’s third penalty — they had the upper hand after three shots, but Labbé was able to stop Anna Anvegard on Sweden’s fourth. After Fleming scored the first Canadian penalty, however, three Canadian shooters failed to convert. Hedvig Lindahl stopped Ashley Lawrence and Adriana Leon, and Vanessa Gilles hit the crossbar.

Sweden’s captain, the experienced Caroline Seger stepped up with a chance to win gold for her country, but fired her shot over the bar, sending Deanne Rose to the spot, needing to score to keep the shootout going, and she smashed her shot into the top corner to send it to sudden death.

Up stepped Jonna Andersson, and she too was stopped by Labbé, who had been smiling and dancing on the goal line to try and put her opponent off. The smile on Labbé’s face in such a moment of extreme pressure is one of the lasting images of Tokyo 2020.

“Honestly, it was super natural and super in the moment, it was never something I thought about,” said Labbé. “I think it’s an amazing memory that’s come out of it because I look back and I truly can honestly say I was just so happy, I was so in the moment. I had the confidence in myself, that’s what that was, that was me just standing there smiling, knowing that I was going to make a difference, knowing that I was the goalkeeper that could win this shootout, knowing that I could be there for my team.”

That save would be Labbé’s last action at Tokyo 2020.

Stephanie Labbé makes a save in the Olympic gold medal-deciding penalty shootout (Photo: Canada Soccer by Mexsport)
Stephanie Labbé makes a save in the Olympic gold medal-deciding penalty shootout (Photo: Canada Soccer by Mexsport)

Grosso wins the gold

“Julia Grosso from Vancouver…,” Nigel Reed said to the audience at home as the young midfielder stepped up to take Canada’s sixth shot.

“…to win it for CANADAAAAA!,” he screamed into the microphone as Grosso’s shot struck the diving Lindahl before hitting the back of the net. “Canada came, Canada conquered! Canada gold at Tokyo 2020!”

It’s a goal call that has since been heard millions of times online — a moment of pure ecstasy for the Canadians, and viewed as one of the most cherished Olympic moments this country has ever seen.

“It was a great privilege and a great honour to have the opportunity to call that game,” Reed said. “All I was trying to do when it got to the penalty shootout was make sure I had my math right. It was as simple as that. It sounds simple, it’s best of five penalties, and then it’s sudden death, and so on and so forth. But when you’re in the moment, and it’s live, you’re thinking to yourself, or at least I’m thinking to myself, make sure you get the count right here, because when it comes to the potential winning penalty, you better make sure it’s the right one.

“Sweden had a chance to win. I remember seeing the close up of Seger before she took the penalty, and you’re thinking ‘well, she’s got all the experience in the world, she’s been here before she’s probably going to score’. I think she blazed it over the bar, and then you’re thinking ‘hang on a second, where are we now in the penalty shootout’.

“So for me in the moment, I’m just trying to make sure I’m up with the count, so that if and when that moment comes for Canada, that they have a chance to win the shootout, that I know where I am. Internally I’m doing mental gymnastics again. Is this the one?”

Such a moment, and such a goal call can’t be scripted — that’s the magic of sports — but he remembers being prepared no matter the outcome. Despite Grosso’s shot “not being the greatest penalty” according to Reed, “it ended up in the back of the net.”

“I remember being in my hotel the night before the game. I was trying to think of two scenarios, because we knew they were going to win a gold medal or a silver medal. It was either going to be euphoria, or it was going to be close but no cigar. So I tried to come up with a just a couple of phrases that would fit the moment and make sure I had them in my back pocket.

“But other than that, it’s very much a feel thing. You just don’t know how it’s going to end, and that shootout could have gone either way — it could have ended 15 seconds before, but it didn’t, because Canada got a last chance and then Grosso knocks into the back of the net. As long as you’ve done your prep for the game, which I always pride myself on, then you just tell the story as it as it unfolds, and work with Clare, or whoever is alongside you and try and make it as conversational as possible.

“You ride the the high moments, and try and feel your way through the game. That’s that’s kind of the way I work.”

He says that match is right up at the top of the highlights from his renowned broadcasting career, as chances to call Olympic gold medal games on national television are few and far between.

“If people enjoyed my work, then it’s very pleasing to know that I did my homework, and I did the job that they paid me to do. It was a great high for me,” he added.

Canada celebrate their Olympic gold medal after Julia Grosso scored the winning penalty (Photo: Canada Soccer by Mexsport)
Canada celebrate their Olympic gold medal after Julia Grosso scored the winning penalty (Photo: Canada Soccer by Mexsport)

“It was like elation. It was surprise, it was relief, it was happiness, joy,” listed Labbé. “There was so many different emotions coming out at once. In the moment, obviously, it’s like ‘holy shit, we did it’ but then the more you’re celebrating, the more it’s sinking in. You realize how much of an impact this is going to make and how much has gone into this.

“You start to think about the bigger picture, everything you’ve sacrificed to get to this moment. Winning an Olympics is an incredible achievement, and I think to do it together with some of the most amazing people in the world is a special thing.

A combination of old and new

Multiple generations of Canadian players had come together to earn Canada’s biggest victory in the sport — a combination of fresh blood and longtime veterans, melded together to deliver the ultimate result on the world stage.

It was a trio of youngsters — Deanne Rose, Julia Grosso and Jessie Fleming — that scored for Canada in the shootout, but it was Labbé who did her job between the sticks. Watching on from the sidelines were the likes of Desiree Scott, Sophie Schmidt and, of course, the greatest Canadian footballer of all time, Christine Sinclair.

“Those are the players that ultimately put this team in a position to win, those are the players that inspired the young girls on this team to want to play for Canada, so this gold is just as much theirs as it is ours,” said Labbé. “You have to have those legacy players that build the foundation of the team, that inspire the next generation, and then you have the players that are still in the program, the older players who have learned from that and have been there through the struggles and they bring that fighting mentality to the team.

“Then you have this mix of these young players that come in, that are so inspired by that older generation that laid the foundation, so they bring that inspiration — but then they bring this new skill level to the team and these new techniques and tactics that as older players we maybe don’t have because they’ve developed under a whole new way of training. Those are the players that at the end came out and ultimately won that game for us.”

For Rustad, watching several thousand kilometres away, it was a proud moment. A moment where she says she didn’t know what to say, which is unusual for her when watching soccer, let alone doing commentary.

“That was something really special,” she explained. “I’m not often at a loss for words about soccer, but I wasn’t sure what to say after that happened. I’m also not an emotional person, and I got a bit emotional. It was one of those things where it’s like, ‘man, did every player in that team deserve that?’, you know what I mean?”

“None other than Christine Sinclair for the amount that she’s put into this program, the amount that she’s done for women’s soccer globally. To see her finally get a gold medal, it felt like a relief — finally.”

Rustad played for Canada from 2000 to 2008, and played with a handful of players on the current squad.

“It made me feel very proud, and it’s a great moment just as a Canadian to see that happen. It was incredible to see the amount of support that team had during that tournament, and particularly in that gold medal match — it was really nice to see the country rally around them and there really wasn’t a group of players more deserving of it.

“I still struggle to articulate it a little bit. It really felt like a pivotal moment, a moment where this team has been successful at the Olympic Games for a while now, but this is a gold medal. You need to start taking women’s soccer seriously, and you need to start taking this team seriously.”

The legacy left behind by John Herdman, who led Canada to consecutive bronze medals in both London and Rio, can’t be ignored. Herdman, who has since also helped the men’s national team reach new heights, has completely transformed Canadian soccer.

“He really put a significant amount of work in to bring the right people into the squad, and to really just assess anybody who’s eligible and bring them in and put the right people on the pitch,” said Rustad. “He’s also a very highly motivational coach as well. I think he came in at the right time, when that team really needed it after the 2011 World Cup, which was an unmitigated disaster. He was the right person to come in and change the tone of the program.”

Women’s soccer in general has taken leaps and bounds in recent years, and countries around the world are pushing each other to be better with improving infrastructure and strong efforts to ensure it continues to grow.

“It’s not just the program that changed, it’s really just women’s soccer that’s changed,” Rustad added. “It’s the level of professionalism, not just at the international level, but the club level of professionalism. I was talking to one of the one of my colleagues at work the other day and I said if I was 19, right now, I’d try to go play in Europe, I wouldn’t have gone to university right away, I would have done it online, and probably gone to play professionally in Europe.

“At that time, when I was in high school, your only route to playing good soccer after high school is to go to the NCAA. That’s really changed now, and that level of professionalism outside of the international camps, friendlies and tournaments is the key because you can really develop players from the ground up, and that’s starting to spill over into youth clubs, particularly in Europe.

“I think the fight now is to try to get that to take hold in Canada.”

Canada open the Celebration Tour at Ottawa's TD Place (Photo: Canada Soccer by Martin Bazyl)
Canada open the Celebration Tour at Ottawa’s TD Place (Photo: Canada Soccer by Martin Bazyl)

The Celebration Tour, and the start of the next chapter

What followed was the Celebration Tour — an opportunity for fans in cities across the country to celebrate the achievements by watching their team play in a handful of friendly matches.

It began in the nation’s capital, with a 5-1 win over New Zealand at TD Place. Sinclair scored in that match, as did Fleming, as the celebrations kicked off in style — followed by a 1-0 win over the same opponent at Montreal’s Stade Saputo a few days later.

“I think that was a really special moment for us,” said Labbé. “Winning the gold in an empty stadium, and then coming home to Canada to empty airports, and not really having the most exciting welcome home — I think that was a challenge. The more that we got to come home for those celebratory games the more we got to feel the energy of this country around it, it showed us really how much of an impact we made and how many people we’ve inspired in this country.

“I wish that the pandemic wasn’t still going on during those and we had the ability to outreach more to communities and do more outside of those games. We were only able to come back and celebrate with those couple thousand that were in the stadiums with us, and I know all of us would have really loved to get more into the communities and do more with the public. Ultimately, those are the people that we know are watching us from back home, and those are the people that have supported us and invested in us over the years.”

In April 2022 they played two more Celebration Tour games, against Nigeria in British Columbia — at Vancouver’s BC Place and Langford’s Starlight Stadium, home of Canadian Premier League side Pacific FC. There was even more to celebrate than the gold medals, as Sinclair was never honoured in her home province after becoming the record goalscorer in international soccer.

It was also a chance to say farewell to Labbé, who a few months after the Olympics had decided it was time to hang up the gloves and end her professional playing career on her own terms. She told that she got to a point in November or December where she “didn’t have the energy and the motivation and the drive to get up every single day and push myself to those limits.”

After an accomplished career, where she proved herself again and again and again, she believed it was time to move onto the next chapter.

On April 8 she took the pitch for one last time at BC Place as the starting goalkeeper in a friendly against Nigeria, and moments after the second half began, left the pitch to a standing ovation, replaced by Kailen Sheridan. It was the farewell for one of Canada’s most distinguished footballers, and she soaked up every minute of it — also honoured before the match with her family.

“Not many players get that opportunity to go out like that, so I feel really grateful for that,” she said. “I knew that I had given everything to this team, I had left everything on the pitch, I had given everything physically, mentally, to this country.

“To be able to go out and in such a special way with friends and family around and to be still celebrating this amazing achievement that we did as a team — I really honestly couldn’t have asked for a better way, and it was one of the most special days.”

 Kailen Sheridan replaces Stephanie Labbé in a Celebration Tour match at BC Place (Photo: Canada Soccer by Bob Frid)

Kailen Sheridan replaces Stephanie Labbé in a Celebration Tour match at BC Place (Photo: Canada Soccer by Bob Frid)

Next, she says, it’s important that Canada continue to build momentum both on and off the pitch. One year on, Canada have qualified for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and are one step away from qualifying for the Olympics in Paris in 2024.

“The future for this program is is endless, they they can go on and achieve whatever they want to achieve,” Labbé said. “They have the players they have the staff, they have the drive, the technique, the talent, everything is there. I think the the challenge right now is building depth and building a solid like base of players and core group of players that will continue to drive on that legacy for years to come.”

Canada take a team photo with their gold medal at Tokyo 2020 (Photo: Canada Soccer by Daniela Porcelli)
Canada take a team photo with their gold medal at Tokyo 2020 (Photo: Canada Soccer by Daniela Porcelli)