Stephanie Labbe laughs.
In the middle of the crowd Tokyo heat, two hours of play could not separate Sweden and Canada-now, a lifetime of training and dreams depends on 10 spot-kicks.
It is about as much pressure as it gets for a football player and yet, 12 meters away, the Canadian goalkeeper Labbe smiles.
Two days later, Olympic gold medalist and penalty hero Labbe does not smile.
She is in a dark room. She has spent most of the previous 48 hours there.
Overstimulated and feeling “completely dissociated” from her victory, she can not process any of the thousands of congratulatory messages and media inquiries that blow her phone in the wake of Canada’s historic triumph – the country’s first Olympic gold ever at the women’s soccer event.
To understand her numbness after achieving a lifelong dream, Labbe takes us back to the tournament’s first match against hosts Japan.
During the first half of the year, Labbe suffered a painful rib injury. Prophetically, she continued to save a sentence before she – impossible to continue – was replaced.
Without being aware of Labbe, the injury would be dredged and then arouse a vortex of anxiety and mental baggage that had built up over the previous 18 months – the uncertainty in her position on the national team, the postponement of the Olympics, a new national team coach, and the inability to train as a team for a long period.
“I do not think I realized then how much I was doing, how much the challenges of the last year and a half had affected me and was still behind it in my system – coming to the Olympics was not just a magic cure for all this.” Labbe told CNN.
“It takes a toll over time and sometimes we do not see or always feel what it is until something comes in and shakes a little.
“That was what that damage did … it was like the water was almost about to end up. I felt good and confident but only one extra thing is what spilled over it.”
Despite the ongoing pain of her injury and a number of trips to the hospital, Labbe and her team agreed that she was in physical shape to continue. She missed the following match against Chile but returned to the squad for the last group game against Great Britain.
But unseen wounds made it a war on two fronts.
“My adrenaline was so high and my neuromuscular system was so fine-tuned that I struggled to get down between games, which resulted in high anxiety levels and several panic attacks,” says Labbe.
“I knew it had nothing to do with performance anxiety, I was completely confident and nerves were not a problem on match day. It was the second the whistle blew, the moment I had to come down and relax a bit before the next match. . “
Labbe was so overstimulated that she did not train between the quarterfinals and the final — a fact that was made even more astonishing by the back-to-back clean sheets she held against Brazil and tournament favorites USA on its way to the final.
For Labbe, the plan is her “happy zone”, a “release”.
Years of careful training, working with a sports psychologist, meditation and other mindfulness exercises have helped to create an athlete with a laser focus on match day – present and extremely confident.
NATIONAL DEFENSE MINISTER
So when penalties in the gold medal match appeared, Labbe looked like the most relaxed goalkeeper in the history of penalties.
“For me, I really enjoyed the moment,” Labbe said.
“I remember that as soon as the whistle blew, I knew that the players in my team would feel a little bit of that stress and pressure, and I knew they would take steps to take shots.
“As an older, more experienced player on the team, as a leader in the team, I wanted to do what I could to give them confidence and calm to try to remove that pressure.
“I know how much body language can affect people so I remember going into that crowd and I thought, ‘Steph, smile, look relaxed, look super confident so that if someone is a little nervous and they look up and the ones we see, they will see you safe and you will show this relaxed, composite version of yourself.
Part of the smiling performance, Labbe admits, was also to project pressure on the Swedish takers. And yet, in addition to a functional purpose to both relieve and intensify anxiety, her grin also came from a genuine place of joy.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Steph you’re in a shootout to win a gold medal, in the worst case you have an Olympic silver medal, you have already achieved so much and now you just have to enjoy it,’ ‘sa Labbe.
“You will not get this moment back, you will not get this opportunity again. It may be the same but it may look a little different, feel a little different, so just enjoy.”
“I remember taking that time to be completely present, what a fantastic moment it was for me personally, for our team. We had already made history when we went into this match so it was a feeling of calm because I just enjoyed it and happy to be there. “
The smile worked. Labbe saved two penalties, Sweden failed to hit the goal with two more, when Canada won 3-2 in the match to trigger euphoric scenes on the field at International Stadium Yokohama.
Labbe’s Wikipedia biography was quickly edited – changed position from goalkeeper to national defense minister – led Canada’s actual defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, to recognizes Labbe’s heroism.
“From one MND to another, thank you for defending the flag and for helping bring home this long-awaited gold to Canada!” Sajjan tweeted.
But just like thousands of similar congratulations, it would be a while before they really sank in for Labbe.
“During the first 48 hours when we were still in Tokyo, it was a challenge for me because I still could not get down,” Labbe explained.
“Mental illness is just like any other injury – you just do not see it but it is the same in the sense that things do not just heal overnight or with one finger.
“Just because the match was over and we won does not mean that all this anxiety and inner turmoil that I went through just goes away.
“I was waiting for that kind of release and it did not come so that was why I was so overstimulated and I needed to be in a dark room to let my mind relax, to let my body come down a little from the heights.
“It’s definitely a day-by-day thing and even now, I’m looking at the medal and I’m, ‘is this really mine? Did we really win a gold medal? “I do not know if it has sunk in completely and I do not know when it will actually sink in completely.”
Labbe’s healing process began when she returned to Canada. Days I went away with her partner and the Canadian Cycling Olympian Georgia Simmerling allowed her to “decompress” and continue what would eventually be the summer life.
As autumn unfolded, Labbe was an Olympic gold medalist, a fiancé, preparing for a move to a new country — after signing with one of the world’s biggest clubs, Paris Saint-Germain.
“I took a few days with my partner to go and knock out the campsite, relax a bit and decompress,” said Labbe.
“It was super helpful. I think I did not have to talk so much about it, to just be able to go through my self-healing process and then when I finally resumed contact with my friends and family, then it really started to hit.
“Since then, day by day, talking to different people, talking about my experience and just seeing the impact we’ve had on our country is really amazing. I feel so honored and proud to have been a part of it and to have done it with some of the most incredible people I have ever met. “
Simmerling, who retired from cycling in September and started his own sports marketing and agency business for women athletes, has long been a central cog in Labbe’s support system.
“I think she’s a big opposition to me in the sense that Georgia is pretty black and white and sees things in a way that is very different for me,” Labbe said.
“I think it helps me to heal because for me I definitely get tunnel vision in some senses when I go through difficult times, I really start to shrink and it’s really hard to get out of that spiral – she gives a good resistance to it and challenges me in different ways.
“She has gone through her own challenges and I think the more open and vulnerable I have been with her the more she has been able to be with me.”
‘WE ARE JUST HUMANS’
Speaking from the couple’s new apartment in Paris, Labbe reflects on the journey she has been on and the lessons she has learned – her words became even more poignant ahead of World Mental Health Day on Sunday.
“It’s human nature – we want to be selected, we want to be picked and when there are people here who do not choose you, who can affect your self – confidence and self – esteem,” said Labbe.
“So I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in my career is not letting external factors determine my self-worth – external factors are what coaches think of me, how much playing time I get – not allowing these things that are actually out of my control affects how I feel about myself.
“I’ve done a lot of work with it so that no matter where I am in a team, no matter what role I play, it does not affect how I think about myself.”
Although she believes that the availability and quality of mental health resources for athletes has improved over the past decade, Labbe still feels the need to do so.
“I think there is a myth that athletes need mental health resources that are directly related to performance,” she said.
“The stigma that we are only athletes needs to change. We are just people and the work we do just happens to be broadcast and in the public knowledge.
“We’re still going through real-life challenges – being able to turn on and off to perform on the pitch, no matter what sport you do, can be a challenge. Just because the competition is over does not mean those challenges disappear.
“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 travels so that we can help other people not feel so lonely, feel more comfortable being vulnerable and getting out. and talk about their experiences. “
On Wednesday, Labbe was in Iceland when PSG started the UEFA Champions League campaign with a 2-0 victory against Breidablik. In the league, PSG has started the season with a flawless record – played four, won four, released none.
Labbe has already set her sights on adding the French Cup to a historic treble – everyone who watched her in Tokyo would not mind her doing so.
And she’s likely to do so with a smile.