When I was 14 years old, I had the craziest car ride of my life. I had just arrived at a place that I knew nothing about. To my left, I saw buildings that looked like those in Gotham City. To my right, I saw people living in cardboard boxes. I saw burning garbage. I saw an open sewer system that ran along the road. Just next to it, people were bathing in the same dirty water.
This was going to be my home for the next few years.
Welcome to Jakarta.
Moving with my family to Indonesia was a shock for a young girl from Canada. I had read about developing countries, but I did not understand what they were actually like to live in. My most exotic journey to that point had been to France. So when my two sisters and I moved with our parents to Jakarta after my dad, an engineer in the oil business, got a job there, I had no idea what to expect.
The car ride from the airport to our new home was just the beginning. We weren’t well-off by any means, but when you go from Calgary to Jakarta you realize that things are relative. Our house was protected by gates. We had a cook, a driver, a maid, a gardener. Each of these people was making about a hundred bucks a month.
That was good money in Jakarta.
I soon enrolled at an international school. On the bus to school my first week we passed an alley where there was a Catholic school on the one side and a Islamic school on the other. As we drove past, people from both schools were throwing rocks at each other. Rocks. I remember just staring out the window, my head filling up with questions.
Where am I?
What am I doing here?
Is this what the world really looks like?
To my mind, the answer to that last question was supposed to be no. As far as I had been concerned, the world consisted of watching cartoons and playing sports in St. Albert, Alberta, my hometown. Mention the word pain, and I would think about losing a game with my first soccer team, the Pink Panthers. Mention the word problems, and I would moan about not being able to watch the Edmonton Oilers and Wayne Gretzky on TV.
Courtesy of Erin McLeod
Mention the word dreams, and I would tell you a story about figure skating.
When I was five years old, our family moved from St. Albert to Calgary, just in time for the 1988 Winter Olympics. One day we watched Elizabeth Manley, the Canadian figure skater, win a silver medal. I’m still not sure why, but at that moment I just said, “I’m gonna go to the Olympics.”
I had no idea how. But I did know that I had to find a sport that could carry me there.
As a proud Canadian, I tried hockey. I was playing at an ice rink in Calgary where all the other players were men, and they’d ask me what my favorite team was.
I’d say, “Edmonton Oilers.”
They’d say, “No. This is Calgary. You can’t be the Oilers here.”
I’d say, “Well, can I at least be Wayne Gretzky?”
And so they ended up calling me “Wayne.” Unfortunately, I didn’t play like Wayne. I was so bad that I would just hold my stick still so that other players could use it to deflect the puck into the goal.
I also tried taekwondo. Not my thing. T-ball, ditto. As for ballet, the less said about it, the better. I did Highland dancing, where you dance in a kilt along to music from a bagpipe. My family has Scottish heritage, so my parents wanted me to try it out. Once again, epic fail.
Eventually I found my two big loves: basketball and soccer. But I had another problem: I was overweight.
So one day in fifth grade, I just decided that I was gonna go on a diet and play soccer. Yeah. This was how I was gonna go to the Olympics.
I told my classmates about my dream. They just looked at me and said, “Yeah … sure.”I began kicking a ball against a fence every night. I ran like mad. I lost 30 pounds. I was 12 years old.
They had actually been picking on me because of my weight. And obviously, if I wanted to make it to the Olympics, I knew I had to make a change. So I began kicking a ball against a fence every night. I ran like mad. I lost 30 pounds. I was 12 years old. A year later, I was playing soccer when a good friend of mine, a goalkeeper, got injured.
Somebody called out, “So … who wants to go in goal?”
Then I said, “I’ll do it.” The goalie was my friend after all.
And I just loved it. I remember making my first save and hearing some of the parents on the sidelines applauding gently.
“Well done, Erin. Well done.”
Then I made another save. The parents got louder.
“Great save, Erin! Keep going!”
Courtesy of Erin McLeod
When I followed that up with a string of stops, they just went wild.
“YEEEEEAH!! THAT’S IT ERIN, THAT’S IT!!”
I was like, Huh … I could get used to this.
I had not only found my sport; I had also found my position. My road to the Olympics was all mapped out.
But then came Jakarta.
Jakarta changed the way I saw the world, though I didn’t understand that until much later. I was so young, I had a hard time wrapping my head around it all. The things I experienced there were just otherworldly for me.
In the most extreme case, the people of Indonesia actually tried — and managed — to overthrow the government. It was 1998, and the whole city was in revolt, rioting and demonstrating. This one night we were watching the local news, and they were saying, “Everything is fine.” Then we switched to the BBC, and they were basically telling us, “GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE!” So we snuck out at 2 a.m, and drove to a small airport because the main one had been shut down. On our way there we saw a long line of tanks rolling toward the city.
I was so, so scared.
In the end, the evacuation was only temporary. When my family and I returned to Jakarta, I was still focused on soccer. I was able to play with the boys in my first year, which was great, but in the second, I was too old for that. So I had to play with girls. The level was … low. I played as a midfielder, that’s how bad it was. So I realized pretty soon that I wasn’t going to be able to achieve my dream in Jakarta.
For the second time, I really needed to get out of there.
Finally, after two years in Indonesia, I went to live with my grandmother in Calgary. When I was 18 years old, I got a scholarship to play soccer at SMU. By that time I had realized that there was more to female sport than the Olympics. Professional women’s soccer existed. The Canadian women’s national team existed.
So I adjusted my goals. I was like, Right, I want to be the No. 1 for Canada. I want to go to the World Cup.
Playing for Canada is the best thing I’ve done. It was amazing to fulfill my dream at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The bronze at the 2012 Olympics in London was special too. But nothing beats the 2015 World Cup at home. To play in front of 50,000 Canadians in Edmonton … I have never felt so alive. I could not believe the support we got. People were cheering us on in the street, wishing us luck, buying us coffee. In Vancouver, I saw this huge poster of me making a save, and I got a feeling that is still hard to describe.
It was just so cool that soccer … mattered.
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP
There have been tough moments too, like the ACL injuries, and the big games I have missed out on. But I have focused a lot on mindfulness over these last couple of years. A big part of mindfulness is gratitude. It’s a state of mind that allows you to be more focused and efficient. That’s why I think that the most successful people are also the most humble.
And Wayne Gretzky isn’t the only example of that.
I still have moments when my mind goes back to Jakarta. It really opened my eyes to the prejudices of the world. I didn’t have too much contact with the locals there, but when I did it made me realize that, “Hey, we’re all the same. We’re all people living together on this planet. Some of us have just been luckier than others, through no merit of our own.”We’re all people living together on this planet. Some of us have just been luckier than others, through no merit of our own.
Jakarta also showed me how much was going on in the world that I had no idea about. I had a similar experience years later, when I went with Right to Play to visit Liberia. We were sitting in a community centre near a big slum, listening to the locals, when this 13-year-old girl stepped up. She told us that she was providing for her eight brothers and sisters because her parents had died of AIDS a few years before.
I mean … what are you supposed to say to something like that?
And this girl, she was so confident. She was acting like an adult. I began thinking about what I had done when I was 13 years old.
Hockey. Cartoons. Gretzky….
One of the people from the slum, which was home to thousands of people, had already told us that they hoped to get a toilet with running water. But the 13-year-old girl had only one request. I had assumed she was going to have a long list because of all the people she was taking care of.
But she only asked for one thing: a toothbrush. One single toothbrush for her and her family.
What I want to say with these stories is that the world is unjust and unequal — more so than most of us realize. So when I heard about Common Goal — the social impact movement in global football where members pledge 1% of their wages to football charities — I just thought, Of course. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of this?
It makes sense on so many levels. The previous coach of the Canadian women’s team, John Herdman, used to talk about leaving a Canadian legacy. And that is something that Kenneth Heiner-Møller has carried on. In March, our players’ union struck a deal with Canada Soccer that gave us the best financial terms we’d ever had. So it was like, Wouldn’t it be great if one of the first things we did, as Canadians, was to donate some of the money to the greater good?Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of this?
I talked to some of my teammates about it. They said yes right away. Then someone told me, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a whole team?”
That really fired me up. I was like, “Yes! That’s gonna be us.”
And so now, I am extremely proud to say that 15 of the girls on our team have signed up for Common Goal.
At the World Cup this summer, Canada will have the first Common Goal XI.
It wasn’t even a hard sell. We wanted to make history. We wanted to give something back.
I won’t be in France this summer because I’m injured, and that crushes my heart. But I am so proud of those who are going. This is such a special group of human beings. They are not just good players, but also good people.
And in the end, that is what our Canadian legacy will be all about.