Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, who will be right in the firing line for Canada at the women's World Cup in France, knows all about the fight for equality in a male-dominated sport. The 32 year-old is the player who wanted to take on the men at their own game, literally. After bringing home a bronze medal for Canada in the 2016 Olympics, Labbe sought to rekindle a dying passion for football by training with a professional Canadian men's team. She joined the Calgary Foothills, a minor league club that serves as a feeder outfit for Major League Soccer in the United States, in a bid to keep sharp and show her credentials.
"As a goalkeeper I think it's really good because you're facing fast shots, hard shots, the speed of the game is really quick," says Labbe, who grew up playing on men's hockey and football teams, training with the men. Labbe's performances were such that she ended up in the team for a 4-0 win in a preseason game, but the overseeing Canadian Professional Development League barred her from featuring in any future matches, insisting on a "gender-specific league." "It was difficult to be told that you can't play because of something that's completely out of your control," Labbe says. "It's not something that I can go home and work on or change. My gender is my gender."
Despite her frustrations, Labbe hopes her efforts inspire other women "not to limit themselves because of rules and because of gender." "If you can put yourself in an environment where you're going to be pushed and you can show that you can overcome challenges with skill and pace...that's really important for development. "I think it's really important we celebrate those women."
She now turns out for the North Carolina Courage in the American National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), where she is put through her paces in training sessions by a male goalkeeping coach, Nathan Thackery. "Hold, drive, balance, good!" Thackery barks as he puts Labbe through her paces on the training ground, peppering her with shots. "It's always kind of pushing me, keeping me on the edge of my limits," she says of the sessions.
Among her club teammates, Labbe, set to start for Canada when they kick off their World Cup campaign against Cameroon in Montpellier today, is known for her humility. "She has a ton of accolades, but she's more of a silent leader," says Courage defender Merritt Mathias. As for Labbe's quest for gender parity, Mathias says "it's because of people like her and her success that we'll keep driving this fight forward to get equality, if not for us then for the younger generation."
In the U.S., the current generation of female soccer players has taken their battle to the courtroom. In March, the women's national team filed a discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), suing for equal pay and working conditions to their less successful male counterparts. The complaint points out that for their 2015 World Cup victory, the women were paid less than one third of what the men earned for losing in the round of 16 a year earlier. "What they're doing is super important for the rest of us around the world to kind of pave the way for us and to give us an opportunity to then follow into their footsteps," says Labbe, who envisions pursuing something similar in her home Canada.
This will be her third World Cup, and she is hoping to go further than in 2015, when Canada lost in the quarterfinals as hosts. "We want to bring home that trophy. We're also realistic in that we realize there are five or six other teams that are going in and saying the same thing."