Canada Won Soccer Gold, But Its Heroic Goalkeeper Fought Anxiety and Panic Attacks on the Way
From the outside, the Canadian women’s soccer team had a fairy tale run to its first Olympic gold in Tokyo this year. The team, including stars like Christine Sinclair, Janine Beckie, and Stephanie Labbé, defeated a powerhouse US team to advance to the final against Sweden, which Canada won in a stunning penalty shootout. No one was more a hero than goalkeeper Labbé, who played through injury and saved two of Sweden’s penalties en route to gold.
But after the adrenaline rush of that final, Labbé found herself unable to celebrate wholeheartedly. Instead, she wrote today in an essay for FIFPro.com, she spent the next 48 hours “lying in a dark room,” unable to come down from the “heightened state of awareness” she’d tapped into during the game. It was the latest in a series of mental health hurdles that plagued the goalkeeper on her way to a historic gold, and which she opened up about today.
Labbé said she’d experienced mental health difficulties long before Tokyo. She took a break from international soccer in 2012, needing to find her sense confidence and self-worth away from the spotlight of the national team. She returned play for Canada and won Olympic bronze in 2016, but despite feeling pride in the accomplishment, Labbé once again found herself questioning her own value. “I started to feel that this piece of metal was worth more than I was as a person,” Labbé wrote, identifying this as the beginning of a “spiral” for her mental health.
Fast forward to Tokyo, and Labbé suffered a rib joint injury in her first game of the Olympic tournament. She was cleared to play, but dealt with intense pain and said that the injury triggered “an underlying vulnerability in my mental state.” As the tournament progressed, Labbé struggled to come down from the adrenaline of high-pressure games, experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. It got to the point, Labbé wrote, where she couldn’t train between the quarterfinals and the final because of the overstimulation. It came to a head after the final, when she was unable to relax and celebrate with her team after a historic win. “I felt completely dissociated from my achievement,” she said.
The anxiety that spiked during the Olympics, Labbé later realised, had been quietly building up all through the last year, triggered by the pandemic and uncertainty around her position on the team. “Getting to the Olympics wasn’t just a magical cure for all of this,” she wrote. Now that she’s had a break and a month to process Tokyo, Labbé said she can finally view her medal as the source of pride that it is – and has come to fully appreciate the importance of mental health for athletes. “Once the trophy has been lifted . . . there’s the potential for a player to feel their lowest,” she wrote. “It is at this point when we need the support the most, when we’re simply human beings.”