Former goalkeeper Labbé to be honorary coach for Special Olympics Canada's 2023 team

Amy Nelson and Kristy Alford say they're most excited about making new friends when they represent Canada at the Special Olympics World Games next year in Berlin.

One of those new pals will be Stephanie Labbé, who won an Olympic gold medal as goalkeeper for Canada's national women's soccer team.

Labbé, who is now the general manager for the Vancouver Whitecaps women's team, was named an honorary coach for Special Olympics Canada on Thursday and will help mentor and prepare athletes from nine different sports for the games. Because Alford and Nelson are members of Canada's first-ever all-female soccer team to compete at a Special Olympics World Games, they're both looking forward to meeting Labbé.

"I think that's pretty amazing, to meet her and especially since she's won with Team Canada as well," said Nelson, a forward from British Columbia who hopes to learn from Labbé. "Some of my goals are to at least try and get one goal in soccer. Do a lot of passing, be more aggressive."

Like Nelson, Alford is eager to be coached by Labbé.

The Ontario-based striker competed at the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Dubai in athletics and she feels that getting to compete as part of a team will be a fun new experience.

"I was just competing by myself so now to be on the team instead is pretty exciting," said Nelson, who added she enjoyed meeting all of her teammates over Zoom earlier this month. "I'm excited to try and win gold and be with everyone."

Labbé said she got involved with Special Olympics Canada because she has a cousin who had an intellectual disability. She applauded Alford and Nelson's mindset of putting the friendships and the experience of meeting new people ahead of winning.

"That's exactly why I got into sport," said Labbé. "That's how I first started playing all different sports, was the social aspect. I wanted to be around my friends, I wanted to meet new people.

"I enjoyed that support and camaraderie that you get from being on a team, so I completely understand and I agree with them."

Amanda Trenchard, the team's head coach, said "it's just amazing" to see women and girls get an elevated platform at the Special Olympics World Games.

"I've been coaching for some time and I had created a women's team right here in Alberta," she said. "I'd always been 'oh, I just wish the girls had a platform to perform on.'

"So when this came along, I just was like, 'finally, this is great,' because this is what the girls really need to showcase what they can do."

In addition to the soccer team, Canada will also be sending an all-female basketball team to the Special Olympics World Games for the first time. Labbé is eager to share her experiences as a two-time Olympic medallist who earned 86 caps with Canada's senior team over her career.

"I think what's really exciting is for me to be able to come with the experience that I have of playing soccer on the international stage and bringing that to share my experiences and my joy with these athletes," said Labbé. "I'm really, really excited to cheer them on, to to be their greatest support in Berlin and to help them succeed in whatever way that looks like."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2022.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press