Erin McLeod grew up amidst hockey fever in 1983 in Edmonton, Canada. Local team the Edmonton Oilers would go on to the win the Stanley Cup six times by the close of the decade, largely thanks to the legendary Wayne Gretzky.
At the age of five, McLeod and her two sisters, Megan and Cara, moved with the family to Calgary, where the Winter Olympics were being held that year. It would provide the springboard for Erin, the middle-child, to channel her energy into the dream of becoming an Olympic athlete, whatever the discipline.
“I was obsessed with hockey,” admits McLeod. “It was a big time for Edmonton, my Grandma was a huge fan and still is to this day – she’s 97.
“Sport kind of hit me when the 1988 Calgary Olympics came around. My whole family was watching in the living room when Elizabeth Manley, a figure skater, performed and she had the skate of her lifetime, everyone was balling their eyes out. It was at that point I remember thinking I wanted to go the Olympics.”
McLeod would go to the Olympics on three separate occasions, but there were bumps in the road. They started before McLeod had even got through her teenage years. Her parents signed her up for dance classes, taekwondo and a range of other sports, but it was soccer that grabbed her the most.
“My dad was my coach and that was nice for me,” she recalls. “I was a midfielder, but my buddy got injured one game and she was the goalie. If you ever talk to anyone who plays outfield, when the coach asks who wants to go in goal then you say no. But she was my friend so I wanted to help her out, then I never left!”
McLeod’s dad, Doug, was an oil engineer, a job that required him to move around the world on a regular basis.
It would take McLeod, still just 14 at the time, to Jakarta in Indonesia, along with the rest of her family. It was a world away from the national parks of Western Canada and threw McLeod straight into a world of poverty and the riots that were ongoing in the country at the time.
“When you’re young you just go with things a little bit more,” she says. “I don’t think I recognised the significance of what I’d seen there or learned until I was much older.
“It was considered a third-world country, a street would have beautiful houses and people would have cooks or gardeners, then someone on the same street living in a cardboard box, literally. As a young girl I didn’t understand it. It was an 85% Muslim country and during the riots the Christian part of the city was torched. Maybe at the time I was a little bit clueless but it opened my mind.
Life got so dangerous in Indonesia that McLeod and her family were forced to leave in 1998, they would eventually return, but for McLeod it was far from a permanent thing.
The teenager was also beset by an eating disorder and affected by body image issues. One year later McLeod, now 16, took the decision to move back to Calgary, leaving her family behind and moving in with her grandmother in order to pursue her dream of becoming a soccer player.
“When I first went to Indonesia I was on an international team and that really helped my education. Where I grew up, if you got good grades you were a loser and here if you got bad grades you were a loser.
“Once I got too old to play with the boys, I started playing with the girls but soccer wasn’t really their thing. The drop off was huge, my goal was to go to the Olympics and I knew I had to change environments for that to happen. I believe everything happens for a reason, I’d lost my grandfather to a heart attack and when I moved back with my grandmother it was made us so much closer – still to this day I call her roomie.”
McLeod was soon on the right path, attending Southern Methodist University before moving on to Penn State to enjoy a successful spell playing for the Nittany Lions.
Things were going well, at just 21 and whilst still a student, McLeod went to the 2003 Women’s World Cup, where Canada would eventually finish fourth after defeat in the semi-finals.
But McLeod wasn’t entirely happy, the goalkeeper soon became her own worst critic, despite what seemed like a fast rise to the top level of international football.
“The more successful I became, the harder I got on myself,” she says. “When I was young, if I made a mistake I was pretty self-critical. In 2003, I was a sub goalkeeper and nobody expected anything of us – we finished fourth.
“I remember feeling so pissed off that tournament, Karina LeBlanc started and then our coach Even Pellerud put in Taryn Swiatek. To be fair, she played a marvellous tournament, but I was young and naïve and I wondered why I wasn’t the next choice, I didn’t understand it.”
It provided McLeod will all the motivation to try and become the best goalkeeper in the world, no matter the cost.
“I was so determined from that point on to outwork my competition. I wanted to be better at their strengths and better at their weaknesses. I had so many confidence issues because I compared myself to other keepers so much, I couldn’t figure out what keeper I wanted to be. I remember a conversation with my coach and I said I wanted to be like Hope Solo, when I should have just been Erin McLeod.
“My keeper coach told me I was one of the best in the world. Most people would be like ‘Hey, thank you for the compliment’, but I was insulted that I wasn’t THE best. I couldn’t quantify it at all, when I made a mistake I thought ‘the best wouldn’t make a mistake’, I got so confused and disappointed, I guess I was kind of stuck in a hamster wheel.”
Life would soon get even more complicated for McLeod. A successful spell with Vancouver Whitecaps followed the World Cup, but concerns about her sexuality, a disappointing 2007 tournament and the first of three ACL injuries would soon arrive on the scene almost at once.
The 2007 Women’s World Cup would see Canada fail to get out of their group, whilst the Olympics a year later gave McLeod her first taste of what she’d always dreamed of, but it turned out to be a bittersweet occasion.
“The sexuality thing actually came a lot sooner, quite quickly after the 2003 tournament,” McLeod recalls. “I wasn’t really figuring it all out, the hardest part about coming out is how it effects those closest to you. My parents wanted to protect me and initially it was hard, but as soon as I knew I had their love and support it wasn’t an issue anymore. I had a conversation with my mother about how much I wanted to be out but she was so worried about me getting hurt, and I could totally understand that.”
But matters on the pitch would soon take centre stage, with McLeod in goal for Canada in a quarter-final against rivals USA, she injured her right knee as the USA went 1-0 up with less than 20 minutes played.
Canada would eventually go out losing 2-1, and McLeod was replaced by Karina LeBlanc in the 19th minute. It was an injury that would see another drop in confidence, but McLeod now looks back and admits the injury came as a “blessing”.
“I was no longer enjoying the game at all,” she says candidly. “Before the game I wanted to get hurt, I wanted some excuse to get away for a bit. Maybe after my third ACL I should have probably wished for something else,” she laughs.
“But it allowed me to get back to what mattered, why I was playing the game and those moments have been a reminder of what matters. Even now, I watch training videos every day, the line of obsession and healthy learning can be blurry. In 2008 I was like ‘Why am I doing this?’ It had to become more about the love of the game rather than being critical of myself.”
McLeod set off on what she describes as a “very personal journey” to teach herself how to deal with mistakes.
But certain issues wouldn’t go away, McLeod still had issues surrounding her sexuality and is honest about the problems that persisted, and still do, within the game, even from her own team mates.
“How do I put this? A culture exists in women’s soccer where there are assumptions about sexuality. It was difficult for some of my straight team mates who were like ‘Oh no’, because I was close to some of them.
“I wasn’t really part of the ‘Straight Club’”, she laughs. “I think it was more about them not wanting other people to think they were gay, I don’t think it bothered them that I was, but I remember things they said about guys at bars thinking they might be gay and that was just bizarre to me. But there are assumptions that on a women’s soccer team you’re gay, it’s the same in a lot of women’s sport.
“I’ve been very lucky in the last couple of teams I’ve played where it just doesn’t matter. You’re professional, you show up, you go home and do what you want – I feel very lucky to be a part of that.”
After three years without club football after leaving the Whitecaps, McLeod would join Washington Freedom in 2009 in the now defunct Women’s Professional Soccer League.
On July 24th 2010, McLeod injured the same ACL in the 84th minute of a match against FC Gold Pride, ending her season before leaving the club after they relocated to Florida.
A move to Sweden followed, but 2011 would end in relegation and a move back to North America. 2011 though also presented McLeod with her third crack at a Women’s World Cup, this time with Canada under the guidance of Italian legend Carolina Morace.
It turned out to be a disaster, Canada went out without so much as a point and Morace would take the brunt of the blame from her players.
“I know I didn’t have the best performance in that tournament, none of us did,” McLeod says honestly. “I loved my goalkeeper coach, it was a completely Italian staff and we were training a bus ride away from Rome [the tournament itself was in Germany].
“I was so frustrated after that tournament because I gave it everything that I had, we worked our asses off.”
McLeod describes the tournament as “devastating”, but it opened up a new path for her and her team mates. Morace was out and replaced by New Zealand’s English head coach John Herdman.
“John came on board, talk about flipping a programme around,” she says. “We were 16th out of 16 in 2011, it couldn’t have been any worse, then a year later we win bronze in London at the Olympics, which is crazy when you think about it.
“In 2011 we found it really easy to blame Carolina because she called all the shots and gave us no responsibility. John came in and gave us that, he gave us respect and admitted some of us had more experience than him. He did all the right things, he let us take control. When things went wrong we couldn’t blame John, we had to blame ourselves.”
McLeod also admits that Herdman has had a hugely positive effect on not just on women’s soccer in Canada, but on McLeod herself.
“100%. I’ve been lucky to have John as a coach, he believed in the connection within the group and there has to be trust for that to happen. I’d been team mates with people for 10 years and I didn’t know their families, I didn’t know if they were dating, we got to know each other a lot more.”
Within less than a year of taking over, Herdman led his team into the 2012 Olympics in London. It would possibly provide McLeod with the toughest on-field moment of her career, but end with what she’d dreamed of since watching Elizabeth Manley do the same in 1988 – a medal.
In the semi-final match against the USA at Old Trafford, a repeat of their 2008 encounter when McLeod first injured her ACL, the game would become one of the most memorable and remembered matches in women’s football history.
Canada led three times during normal time thanks to a hat-trick from Christine Sinclair. With ten minutes to go, McLeod and her team mates were 3-2 up when she was penalised for holding onto the ball too long by Norwegian referee Christine Pedersen.
An indirect free-kick was awarded, and when Marie-Eve Nault was adjudged to handball the resulting attempt, McLeod faced Megan Rapinoe in order to keep the score at 3-2. Rapinoe scored, sending the game into extra-time.
Heartbreakingly for Canada, Alex Morgan headed home in the 123rd minute of the game to send the US into the final of the Olympics.
“People always ask me how I managed to get over that,” recalls McLeod. “But in the moment, we were so focused. Don’t get me wrong, I felt like I’d let the team down, but all I was thinking about was the next play. I remember after that handball asking myself if the game was fixed. I was joking with myself but it was just crazy and it was gone in a flash.
“I was pissed with myself, but my team mates were great. I think Sincy got in trouble for some comments in the press but everyone had my back.”
Less than three days later, Canada had an opportunity to right the wrongs against France in Coventry. Whilst robbed of an opportunity to walk out against Japan at Wembley later that night, Canada were only focused on a bronze medal.
“The way I played against France is the best game I’ve ever had,” says McLeod. “In a way, it was my way of responding and I was proud I didn’t let that USA game define me. Those are the moments, when the whistle went against France I fell to my knees and remember thinking all the BS I’d been through had been worth it and that I’d do it all again, that feeling was enough.
“After that US game, Sinclair said ‘I don’t know about you guys but I’m not going home without an effing medal’. We just made this pact that we wouldn’t leave without one and that’s what we did. I remember Desiree [Scott] clearing one off the line and Kaylyn [Kyle] throwing herself around, we couldn’t have left anything more out there.”
McLeod adds, “Sonia Bompastor [France international at the time] came up to me a few days later and said ‘We don’t have what you had, you’d do everything for each other’. People call me soppy, although I prefer emotional, but I’m all heart, it was such a victory because we did it together.”
It was the prompt for much better things for McLeod, spells with Chicago Red Stars and Houston Dash in the new National Women’s Soccer League followed, and she was a continued regular under Herdman during the build up to Canada hosting the Women’s World Cup in 2015.
12 months before the tournament, McLeod decided it was time to go public about her sexuality off the back of controversy surrounding the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the country’s gay propaganda laws.
“I had the discussion with my mum, I’d been thinking about it a long time. I didn’t want people thinking it was a celebrity stunt to get attention, that’s what I was most afraid of. I told my mum I that I was doing it because I didn’t want people to have to come out anymore.
“Mark Tewksbury, a Canadian swimmer, came out in the 1990s and when the Sochi thing happened he was the only one to talk about it, because he was the only one openly out. From the 1990s, I was like ‘are you kidding me?!’ It had to change.”
And it did. McLeod came out publicly during an interview on CBC less than a year before representing her country in her home Women’s World Cup and confirming she was in a relationship with Houston team mate, and USA international, Ella Masar.
“After Sochi I was so pissed, I couldn’t imagine not having my best friend there when I won an Olympic medal, the person who has been there through everything. I was angry.
“My favourite story looking back is how different things are generationally. My nephew came over and couldn’t understand it all. He was like, ‘But Ella’s American’, he wasn’t even phased by the fact it was two women!”
The couple kept it quiet, but they would marry in Vancouver the day after the Women’s World Cup ended in the same city.
It wasn’t the fairy tale ending McLeod may have hoped for on the field, with Canada bowing out 10 days earlier at the hands of Mark Sampson’s England.
“Directly after the tournament we were all devastated,” McLeod remembers. “We felt we could go all the way and that was upsetting. We were always a little bit nervous, we were a bit in quicksand. I was nervous, it was hard for me to sleep.
“It was challenging to play at home and to host and I’m not trying to bash any of the teams, but until the final it felt like there was no stand-out country. Maybe the tournament was a bit too soon for us, I don’t know, but we didn’t reach our peak.”
The disappointment though didn’t get in the way of McLeod and Masar’s happiness, the couple both joined European giants FC Rosengard in Sweden after the tournament, where they both remain to this day, residing in Malmo with their chihuahuas Max and Sven.
Unfortunately for McLeod, now into her thirties, there was one final blow waiting around the corner. During a friendly tournament in December 2015, the keeper went up for a cross with Brazil legend Marta, and knew instantly when she landed what had happened.
“It was such a familiar feeling,” she says. “But I had some rehab and got healthy again, although I had a lot of tape on my leg. We played Costa Rica in February and it was a game which would send us to the Olympics.
“I took off for a cross and when I landed I knew that whatever I had left was gone. I played on, we qualified and the next day my knee was blue. I had rehab again back with Rosengard, I played 10 minutes of a Champions League game and I was so happy because playing in the Champions League was a big dream of mine. My surgeon got me back in a year, if it had been any longer it might have been the end of my career, so I guess I was kind of lucky!”
Looking back almost twenty years to her time in Indonesia and the issues she struggled with there, McLeod admits there’s a lot of “pressure” on girls, especially in football.
“There is a lot of pressure, definitely,” she says. “In Sweden, people can be pretty harsh towards people who are a little bit overweight. There’s a lot of importance around nutrition and every team that I’m on there’s girls that borderline have a disorder. I remember the national team under Carolina there was a lot of emphasis on nutrition, making sure you were a certain weight, they’d check your rooms for snacks.
“Social media is an interesting thing, it’s much more open now and I think that’s wonderful. But it’s become a problem in a sense too, a lot of it’s not real and people are posting about their perfect lives and looking a certain way. Girls and women are sexualised a lot.”
McLeod is now targeting one final go at the Women’s World Cup in France in 2019, before the Olympics come around once again in Tokyo a year later.
But with an urge to return home and spend more with family, the future now holds very different plans for both McLeod and Masar.
Both are set to leave Sweden in the very near future, and whilst Masar knows the destination of her next move within Europe, McLeod is heading back home to concentrate on getting back in the national team.
“I will not stay in Europe and have decided to go home,” says the 34-year-old. “I have been asked about coming in with Canada at the end of November so my goal right now is that camp.
“I hope to play in the NWSL next year as the schedule is more conducive for competing with the national team. I am grateful for my time here at FC Rosengard, like at any club I’ve been at, the players and my relationships with them will be something I always cherish.”
Regarding her wife, McLeod added, “Ella is playing out of her mind right now and I do believe she will continue to do so. I am extremely proud of her, as you can imagine, for the opportunity that lies ahead. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.”
No matter what lies ahead for McLeod, who now awaits the possibility of being allocated to an NWSL club for the 2018 season, the goalkeeper has a range of other things to occupy her during the upcoming months.
“I design a lot of tattoos, I do a lot of art work and I’m really passionate about those things. I’m doing some online business courses too on top of my advertising degree. I was out for over a year so I’m looking forward to what comes next, I believe I’m still yet to peak…”