By Jack Bantock, CNN
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 penalty shoot-outs.
“For me, I really was enjoying the moment,” Labbe said.
“I remember as soon as the whistle went, I knew that the players on my team were going to feel a little bit of that stress and pressure, knowing that they were going to be stepping up to take shots.
“So as an older, more experienced player on the team, as a leader on the team, I wanted to do whatever I could to give them confidence and calmness to try to take that pressure off of them.
“I know how much body language can have an affect on people so I remember walking into that huddle and I was like, ‘Steph, smile, look relaxed, look super confident so that if anyone is a bit nervous and they look up and they see you, they’re gonna see you being confident and you showing this relaxed, composed version of yourself.'”
Part of the smiling demeanor, Labbe admits, was also to project pressure onto the Swedish takers. And yet, beyond a functional purpose to both ease and amplify anxiety, her grin also came from a genuine place of joy.
“I remember telling myself, ‘Steph you’re in a shootout to win a gold medal, at worst case you have an Olympic silver medal, you’ve already achieved so much and now is the time just to enjoy this,’ Labbe said.
“You’re not going to get this moment back, you’re not going to get this opportunity again. It might be the same but it might look a bit different, feel a little bit different, so just enjoy it.’
“I remember taking that time to be completely present, because what an amazing moment that was for me personally, for our team. We had made history already just going into that shootout so there was this sense of calmness because I was just enjoying it and happy to be there.”
The smiling worked. Labbe saved two penalties, Sweden failing to hit the target with two more, as Canada triumphed 3-2 in the shootout to spark euphoric scenes on the pitch of the International Stadium Yokohama.
Labbe’s Wikipedia biography was swiftly edited — changing her position from goalkeeper to National Minister of Defence — leading Canada’s actual Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, to recognize Labbe’s heroics.
“From one MND to another, thank you for defending the flag and for helping bring home this long awaited gold to Canada!” Sajjan tweeted.
Yet, like the thousands of similar messages of congratulations, it would be a little while before they truly sunk in for Labbe.
“In the first 48 hours when we were still in Tokyo, that was a challenge for me because I still wasn’t able to come down,” Labbe explained.
“Mental illness is just like any other injury — you just don’t see it but it’s the same in the sense that things don’t just heal overnight, or with the snap of a finger.
“Just because the game was over and we won doesn’t mean that all of this anxiety and internal turmoil that I was going through just goes right away.
“I was waiting for that kind of release and it didn’t come so that’s why I was just so overstimulated and I needed to be in a dark room to let my mind relax, to let my body come down a bit from the high.
“It’s definitely a day-by-day thing and even now, I look at the medal and I’m like, ‘is this really mine? Did we actually win a gold medal?’ I don’t know if it fully sunk in and I don’t know when it actually will fully sink in.”
Labbe’s healing process began upon her return to Canada. Days camping away with her partner and Canadian cycling Olympian, Georgia Simmerling, allowed her to “decompress” and continue what would ultimately become the summer of a lifetime.
As fall beckoned, Labbe was an Olympic gold medalist, a fiancé, and preparing for a move to a new country — having signed with one of the world’s biggest clubs, Paris Saint-Germain.
“I took a few days with my partner to go away camping, unplug for a bit and decompress,” Labbe said.
“That was super helpful. I think not having to talk about it a lot, being able to just go through my self-healing process and then when I finally reconnected with my friends and family that’s when it started to really hit.
“Since then, day-by-day, talking to different people, talking about my experience and just seeing the impact that we’ve had on our country is really amazing. I feel so honored and proud to have been a part of that and to have done it with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.”
Simmerling, who in September retired from cycling and started her own sports marketing and agency business for female athletes, has long been a central cog of Labbe’s support system.
“I think she is a great opposition to me in the sense that Georgia is pretty black and white and sees things in one way that’s very different to me,” Labbe said.
“I think that helps me heal because for me I definitely get tunnel vision in certain senses when I’m going through hard times, I really start to narrow in and it’s really tough to get out of that spiral — she gives a good opposition to that and challenges me in different ways.
“She’s gone through her own challenges and I think the more open and vulnerable I’ve been with her the more she’s been able to be that with me.”
‘We’re just humans’
Speaking from the couple’s new apartment in Paris, Labbe reflects on the journey she’s been on and the lessons she has learnt — her words made all the more poignant ahead of World Mental Health Day on Sunday.
“It’s human nature — we want to be chosen, we want to be picked and when there’s this thing that isn’t choosing you, that can affect your self-confidence and your self-worth,” Labbe said.
“So I think the biggest thing that I’ve learnt in my career is not allowing external factors to determine my self-worth — external factors being what coaches think of me, the amount of playing time I get — not allowing those things that actually are out of my control affect how I feel about myself.
“I’ve done a lot of work on that so that no matter where I am in a team, whatever role I’m playing, it doesn’t affect how I think about myself.”
Whilst she believes the access to, and quality of, mental health resources for athletes has improved over the last decade, Labbe still feels more needs to be done.
“I think there’s a myth that athletes need mental health resources directly related to performance,” she said.
“The stigma around us only being athletes needs to change. We’re just humans and the job that we do just happens to be broadcast and in the public knowledge.
“We still go through real life challenges — being able to turn it on and off to perform on the field, whatever sport you do, can be a challenge. Just because competition is over doesn’t mean these challenges go away.
“At the end of the day, we all want the same thing and I think it’s important to share our stories and share our journeys so we can help other people not feel so alone, feel more comfortable to be vulnerable, and to come out and talk about their experiences.”
On Wednesday, Labbe was in Iceland as PSG kicked off it’s UEFA Champions League campaign with a 2-0 win over Breidablik. In the league, PSG has begun the season with a flawless record — played four, won four, conceded none.
Labbe has already set her sights on adding the French cup to what would be a historic treble — anyone who watched her in Tokyo would not bet against her doing so.
And she’ll likely do it with a smile.
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