Erin McLeod: playing for country and family
There are two guarantees in Beijing for Erin McLeod. First, the Canadian goalie will work harder than anyone else. Second, win or lose, she will cry, perhaps before the first game has even begun.
"I’m a pretty emotional person," McLeod said. "I cry all the time."
It was 2002, at the women’s under-19 world soccer championships, and McLeod was on the field waiting for the national anthem to start. Her dad, Doug, had flown in for the Edmonton game from Indonesia. When the national anthem began, McLeod spotted him in the crowd and burst into tears.
"When I saw him I just started crying," she said. "The game hadn’t even started yet."
Now 25, the Calgary, Alta., resident is the starting keeper for Canada’s national squad. The team is making history as the first Canadian contingent to compete in the Games.
"Going to the Olympics is something I’ve dreamt about since I was five, so it’s pretty overwhelming," McLeod said. "Being able to play for our country might be the coolest thing in the world. It’s such an honour."
Played 50 games for Canada
The five-foot-seven, 160-pound athlete, born in St. Albert, Alta., has devoted much of her life to the sport. Going into Beijing, she’s played nearly 50 games with Canada’s senior national team. Highlights include second place finishes at the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the 2006 Peace Queen Cup, the 2006 CONCACAF Gold Cup, and the 2008 CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualification tournament – where the team earned a berth into the Beijing Games.
McLeod has also donned jerseys for Penn State University and the W-League’s Vancouver Whitecaps. She helped the latter team to two championship victories in 2004 and 2006, and with Penn State she was a 2005 semifinalist for the prestigious M.A.C. Hermann Trophy. That season, she was the only keeper to shut out the number one team in the league for an entire season. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America twice awarded her All-America honours.
For a woman declared a "world class keeper" in newspaper headlines, one might find it strange that she once roamed the field as halfback and forward. It wasn’t until she was 12 that she replaced her team’s injured goalie, and grew to love the position.
"I love it. It’s tactical, it’s technical, and it’s a challenge," she said. "It’s cool because you never stop learning. I just love showing up at my job and learning new things everyday."
But even with such talent, becoming Canada’s number one keeper for the Olympic Games hasn’t been easy. Moving from under-19 to the senior level in 2002 was a difficult transition.
"That’s when I realized the difference between youth and senior is huge," she said.
At the 2003 world cup tournament, she took a back seat to more experienced players.
"My confidence was crushed," she said, but refused to settle for the sidelines. "I thought, I want to do everything in my power to not be in this spot again," she said.
Shortly after the world cup tournament, she moved to Vancouver and lived with another goalie.
"I remember working out like it was our lives. I just tried to get in as much practice as I could," she said.
Her efforts weren’t unnoticed. It took time, but eventually, her name moved to the starting line-up for the Canadian team.
"I’ve never seen anyone work so hard," said Canadian captain Christine Sinclair. "I think I could flat out say she’s the best goalie in the world."
McLeod’s father said, "At practice, she’s the first one there, she always wants to do one more thing. It doesn’t matter how cold or rainy it is outside, she’s always out on the field."
But being so devoted has come with a price. When McLeod was beginning high school, she moved to Indonesia with her family. The girls’ league in Indonesia wasn’t very competitive, so, to focus on soccer, she returned to Canada at the end of grade 10, and lived with her grandmother in Calgary.
"I learned at a young age to appreciate family, because I didn’t get to see them very often," she said, adding her experience in Indonesia and abroad with her team has also made her appreciate Canada even more.
One of her sisters, Megan, 28, said that no matter how far away McLeod has been, she’s always made an effort to stay close with her family. "She’s my best friend… Even though she’s my younger sister, I’ve always looked up to her because of everything she’s accomplished," she said.
On McLeod’s emotional side, her other sister, Cara, 21, recounted when they went to see the movie "Stepmom" in Indonesia – and were "absolutely bawling."
"At the same time, she laughs a lot and will make you feel like you’re the funniest person ever. She’s a big goof," she said.
"With her, everyone and everything mean so much," Megan added. "She definitely wears her heart on her sleeve."
And she does, sort of. On McLeod’s forearm is a tattoo in the shape of a "V" – the Roman numeral for five – the number of people in her immediate family. They mean so much, that despite a busy soccer schedule, she still finds a way to keep them a priority.
For instance, at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico, she spent her evenings at the hotel practicing how to walk in high heel shoes for Megan’s wedding.
The effort goes both ways. At the recent Olympic warm-up game against Brazil in Toronto, Megan drove from Kingston with a contingent of family and friends to cheer her on.
Though her sisters won’t be in China, Doug and McLeod’s mom, Cheryl, both of Victoria, are making the trip. In addition to her parents, McLeod will have two essential items in tow. The first, a framed picture of her family, carefully protected in a Ziplock bag. The second, a picture of a Mohammed Ali poster that reads, "Impossible is nothing."
"The attitude inspires me," she said. "This is going to be the biggest challenge we’ve ever had, but I really believe we can do it."