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Keeper Erin McLeod comes out, leads team and fans as Canadian role model

Canada’s goalkeeper Erin McLeod dives to make a save during CONCACAF Olympic qualifying against the United States in Vancouver, B.C., on Jan. 29, 2012. When John Herdman was hired as coach of the national team, he created an atmosphere of togetherness and inclusiveness, and the veteran keeper began to flourish as a team leader.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The same phrase tumbles easily from Erin McLeod several times during a long wide-ranging phone interview from Los Angeles, where chatty teammates in the background sometimes drown her out or make her laugh. She apologizes for repeating the words, but she says it sums up how she feels these days.

"I'm finally at a part of my life," McLeod says, "where I'm really proud of who I am."

The 32-year-old goalkeeper from St. Albert, Alta., is about to play in her third Women's World Cup. She made her debut with Canada's national team when she was 19 and has earned 104 caps since. She was a sympathetic character in the team's loss to the United States at the 2012 London Olympics, and one of the most recognizable members of that bronze-medal squad. It has been only in recent years, though, that she has truly taken the leap to be exactly who she is – an athlete, an artist, an activist and someone who will speak publicly about being gay.

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"I had many conversations with my family over the years, but the question for me was always, 'Is coming out publicly going to actually make a difference, or is it just going to be a popularity stunt?'" McLeod says, noting that, as a young girl, she had struggled with her body image, confidence and sexual orientation. "If I was going to come out publicly, then I wanted to actually make an impact and help make it easier for other people."

McLeod had been part of the team that finished dead last at the 2011 World Cup, and she considered quitting. But when John Herdman was hired as the coach, he created an atmosphere of togetherness and inclusiveness, and the veteran keeper began to flourish as a team leader. She related with the team's new philosophy of creating excellence in four pillars – the technical and tactical, the physical, the mental, and the social and emotional.

Leading into the Olympics, she and Canadian goalkeepers coach Simon Eaddy spoke about removing the limitations she was putting on herself as an athlete and a person, and being brave enough to be extraordinary.

"She began to realize how to take pressure off herself," Eaddy said during the team's preparations this week in Toronto for the Women's World Cup. "It's allowed her to be more expressive and be who she really is, which is what our team gravitates toward in leadership. We appreciate genuine people."

Then McLeod was incited into action as she watched from afar when controversy swirled around the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Russia's "gay propaganda" laws. She related to the winter athletes competing, as the notion that displaying LGBT symbols or showing affection in public toward a same-sex partner could be considered illegal.

"I e-mailed my family and said I was going to come out publicly, because I couldn't imagine not being able to hold my partner after winning an Olympic medal; I wouldn't be anywhere without her support and love," McLeod says. "So I wrote Mark Tewksbury, who I had known as chef de mission for the Olympics in 2012, and said, 'Whatever I can do to help the situation in Canada, I will do it. I know we don't have a lot of out athletes.'"

He arranged a CBC interview for her in which she spoke candidly. She was also a panelist in an online chat debating how athletes in Sochi should react to the human-rights violations. She joined a group of athletes who lobbied the International Olympic Committee to change the language in the Olympic Charter and host-city contracts to include non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. She began serving as the LGBT representative on the Canadian Athletes' Commission and helped to devise a resource guide on how to eradicate homophobia in sport, a document in which she shared: "This is the best I have ever played and I think it's a direct reflection of being proud of who I am, on and off the field."

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She quickly saw the impact.

"I started getting a lot of e-mails, especially from kids who have come out – one from a 13-year-old girl who said, 'Because of you, I was finally able to tell my mom and dad, and I had a role model,'" McLeod says. "I knew I had done the right thing. Ever since then, I've been as vocal as I can be without rubbing it in anyone's face. I want to be proud of who I am."

McLeod is in a relationship with Ella Masar, a former U.S. national team player and a teammate on her pro team in the National Women's Soccer League, the Houston Dash. Masar recently came out in an article she penned for the soccer publication Pitchside Report.

The two charismatic players co-host a regular lighthearted video segment on the Dash website called The Erin and Ella Show. Both often share tweets about their life together. One from McLeod reads: "When faced with discrimination sometimes I feel like screaming and fighting. … But then I remember – how happy and blessed I am to love her."

McLeod has also recently made bold moves in other areas of her life. A talented sketch artist since childhood, she produced enough original paint and pencil pieces in just six months to earn her first solo art show entitled Limitless at the Jane Roos Gallery in Toronto.

"I told Erin, 'Don't just give me a few pieces, let's do a solo show for you, because you're an Olympic medalist and a very talented artist, and you can demand that now,'" Roos said. "Her pieces were stunning and sold very well. Everything was coming into focus for Erin – she was building her confidence and realizing a lot about herself, and it really came out in her art."

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McLeod also went into business with Vancouver fashion designers Adelle Renaud and Beccy Anderson in a venture called Peau de Loup. The label specializes in contemporary button-downs for women that celebrate the tomboy style, while also giving some proceeds to improve the lives of females in Bangladesh. They also produced clothing timed to the Women's World Cup, headlined by a Canada scarf for fans.

"I finally got to a point in my life after the Olympics that I realized the only thing ever really getting in my way was me, so I stopped telling myself I couldn't do things," McLeod says. "As I've gotten older, I realize how important it is in everything I do to just be real."

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About the Author
Sports reporter

Based in Toronto, Rachel Brady writes on a number of sports for The Globe and Mail, including football, tennis and women's hockey. More

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