04/06/2016 04:30 EDT | Updated 04/07/2017 05:12 EDT

Sports Give Hope To The World's Most Vulnerable


Soccer star and UNICEF Canada Ambassador Karina LeBlanc speaks out on the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace

I'm going to tell you the single most important thing I've learned as an Olympic medalist, and it's not what you may think.

It's not that success trains and failure complains.

It's not that teamwork makes the dream work.

And it's not that you can achieve anything you believe.

Those are certainly important lessons, but I knew all of those things before I won an Olympic medal. That's why our team won it.

No, the most important thing I learned came outside of the soccer stadium, when I began to see the power of soccer off the field.

I realized that it wasn't only me, that soccer was in fact a refuge for millions of the most vulnerable children around the world.

As a UNICEF Canada ambassador, I have had the privilege of travelling to countries where sport is often the only tool children have to escape conflict, war or poverty -- if even only for a few hours at a time.

Places like Honduras, where I played soccer on a gravel field with some 200 young girls who seemed to forget at the time that they were living in the second most dangerous city in the world. Places like my father's home country of Dominica, where the soccer clinics I led were giving children the confidence they needed to break away from the issues of their county.

And that is what I have learned, that no matter where I travel in the world, soccer is more than just a beautiful game. It's also a beautiful language that we all speak: a language of peace, of tolerance, of inspiration.

It's a language that promotes teamwork, fairness, discipline, respect, and hard work. It's a language that opens doors to communication and trust.

I have seen soccer bring together people who otherwise would never have come together. I have seen soccer give hope to children who otherwise had no hope.

It gave me hope.

As a young girl growing up, I was shy. I lived on a small island. I lacked confidence in myself. I could have gone down a very different path. But when I found soccer, my life changed forever. For the first time, I had dreams, I had goals, and I had the confidence to know I could achieve them.

When I became a UNICEF Canada ambassador three years ago, I realized that it wasn't only me, that soccer was in fact a refuge for millions of the most vulnerable children around the world.

Today, I am humbled that I get to play a role in mentoring and inspiring children to achieve their dreams, to play well together, and to respect each other and the world around them. And, I am honoured to do so on behalf of Canada, a country that has long been a leader in promoting peaceful relations among nations.

I retired from international soccer after the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015, but my journey to help improve the lives of girls and boys around the world is just beginning.

As athletes, as with UNICEF, we cannot stop conflicts. But we can do our best to build peaceful societies, provide hope in hopeless situations, and start rebuilding peace once the fighting stops.

On the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, April 6, I encourage you to go get a soccer ball, pick up a baseball bat or grab a Frisbee and play a few rounds with a child. You never know how much you could be changing their lives -- and changing the world -- forever.

Karina LeBlanc is the longest-serving player in Canadian soccer history, representing Canada for more than 15 years, including at two Olympic Games, three Pan American Games and five FIFA Women's World Cups, and helped lead Canada to a historic bronze medal win in the London 2012 Olympic Games. She became a UNICEF Canada Ambassador in 2013 and now works to improve the lives of children around the world.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


Team Canada Women's Soccer Players