Olympian Karina LeBlanc visits Newfoundland to honour Makayla Puddicombe

Olympian Karina LeBlanc, who developed a friendship with a 15-year-old cancer patient from Conception Bay South, visited Newfoundland last week to remember Makayla Puddicombe.

'She added to my life,' soccer star tells Puddicombe's classmates

Karina LeBlanc hosted a soccer clinic in CBS for local kids in memory of Makayla Puddicombe. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Makayla Puddicombe touched a lot of people in her too short life.

One of those people is Olympic bronze medallist Karina LeBlanc, a former member of Canada's national soccer team.

"I met her for one day and she changed my life forever," LeBlanc said during a talk Thursday at Puddicombe's school, Queen Elizabeth Regional High in Conception Bay South.

Puddicombe and LeBlanc met in 2013 at a soccer camp (Michelle Puddicombe)

Puddicombe, 15, lost her battle with cancer in February. An avid soccer player and goalkeeper for the provincial team, she met LeBlanc in 2013 at the Strive 4 Excellence Soccer Camp.

The camp was created by LeBlanc and her teammates — midfielder Diane Matheson, defender Rhian Wilkinson and Team Canada captain Christine Sinclair — to inspire young soccer players.

Though their meeting was short, Puddicombe had a profound effect on the Olympian.

"Makayla just had a spirit about her," LeBlanc said. "We did a camp and there was probably about 100 kids…but it was just something about her, there was a shy braveness."

Keeping in touch

Makayla Puddicombe (Michelle Puddicombe)

Puddicombe and LeBlanc developed a friendship and kept in touch after the soccer camp. When Puddicombe was diagnosed with a brain tumour, her mother wrote to LeBlanc to let her know and ask if she could send along some words of encouragement. 

LeBlanc wrote "Makayla" on her goalie glove and played the next game in her honour. She then sent Puddicombe the glove and a card.

"It was super cute. When she got the package she tweeted out that she was speechless, so it was pretty special," LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc hosted a soccer clinic in CBS with proceeds going to a local family whose 3-year-old boy was diagnosed with cancer in December. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

LeBlanc said learning of Puddicombe's death "rocked her world."

To honour her late friend, LeBlanc came to Newfoundland to speak at Puddicombe's school, visit the Janeway — where Puddicombe spent much of her time — and hold a soccer clinic for local kids.

"It's actually an amazing day," said Michelle Puddciombe, Makayla's mother.

"It means a lot to my daughter, who thought the world of Karina, and just to have her here and do everything for [Makayla], it's amazing…[Makayla] would have been absolutely amazed [by Karina's day in Newfoundland]. She was amazed when Karina followed her on Twitter, let alone come here for a visit." 

When she arrived at the school with Puddicombe's family, including Makayla's twin sister Mackenzie, LeBlanc was met with open arms and hugs from both staff and students.

LeBlanc visited children at the Janeway in memory of Puddicombe who spent much of her time there. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

"It's an exciting and uplifting day," LeBlanc said while posing for a photo with the school's student body president.

'Dream big'

At her speech to about 600 students, LeBlanc challenged listeners to be their best selves and to pursue their dreams.

"Dream big," she said. "Have something you want to do. Have someone you want to be. Don't just go through life walking through."

After her talk LeBlanc met with students, took pictures with them and allowed them to see and hold her Olympic medal.

She also posed for a yearbook picture with the school's girls soccer team.

At the Janeway, young patients lit up when they saw the athlete and her bronze medal. 

"That's where Makayla spent a lot of her time in the end, so I wanted to give back to the kids there," said Puddicombe.
LeBlanc visiting children at the Janeway. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

"As athletes you know that part of your job is being a role model, and we go out and we know that that's part of who we are," LeBlanc said.

"We go through life every single day and we interact with people. And there's power in the moments that we interact with people. And are you going to be somebody who adds to somebody's life, or sucks and takes away energy? I think Makayla, in that one day that I met her, she added to my life. And I did not know the impact until later and unfortunately, you know, I never got to meet her again."

Next step

​LeBlanc was the goalkeeper for Team Canada at the 2012 Olympics. She is the longest serving player in Canadian soccer history and has played in three Pan American Games, four Fifa World Cups and competed at two Olympics.

LeBlanc retired in 2015 after her fourth World Cup. This year she will attend the Olympics as a media representative, helping to tell the athletes' stories.

"I think, for me, [I walked] away from soccer feeling fulfilled in what I had done as an athlete and now I want to give back to the sport in a different way," she said.

"So, it'll be mixed emotions. I'll be excited; I'm sure there will be a part of me that wishes I was out there, but I think that that chapter has ended for me, and days like today make me understand that I'm doing the right thing."