Injuries were the only thing that could slow down Annie LeBlanc.
“I retired from the sport due to a major and irreparable back injury that never allowed me to fully come back and train at the same level,” said LeBlanc. “I could not keep going for another year or more due to COVID. I kept pushing myself to train and compete through 2020 due to my Olympic goal. So overall, it was for medical reasons why I made the decision to step away.”
The versatile 800-metre specialist followed in the fast footsteps of her mother, Chantal Desrosiers, who qualified for the 1980 Olympics before they were boycotted by North American countries.
After three national titles as a junior, LeBlanc went on to be a four-time NCAA All-American at the University of Oregon. She represented Canada at the 2017 World Championships and finished second at the Olympic Trials almost five years ago.
As she transitions from the life of a high performance athlete, LeBlanc is still determined and ambitious about her goals for life after the track.
Tell us about your career, retirement and the people who have helped you pursue your goals on the track.
I made over 12 national teams, I medalled at the international level, and the Olympics were the only competition on my list that I hadn’t checked off. What was making me persevere was my desire to compete at the Olympics, and knowing that I had the potential, will and the desire to do it. When my body gave out, I guess it ultimately made the decision for me.
Ever since I was little, my goal – even before I knew about the Olympics – was to become a doctor. As I was getting older and persevering in my athletics career, I started to feel as if my window to get into medical school was getting narrower. I felt like the Coronavirus and my back were a sign that I had to retire and to chase my other dream, which was to try to enter medical school. This past fall while I was debating what to do about running, I applied for medical school and I’m waiting to hear back from them. Now I’m chasing the first dream that I ever had. I don’t see it as I’m making it hard for myself. I just see it as chasing something I’m passionate about. I did pre-med in Quebec before I went to college. I’m working in a hospital right now and I love the environment, energy and the motivation.
I truly need to thank my family, because they’ve been through it all with me – through the lows and the highs. My mom qualified for the Olympics in 1980, so she’s always been an inspiration to me. She never pushed me into the sport, and I think she did it right. She was there when I fell. She was there when I stood on the podium. She was never the type of mom who would force their child to go to practice. She just told me when I was little: “If you commit, you commit. You don’t go halfway. If you don’t commit, it’s no big deal and we won’t talk about it.”
I sincerely want to thank these people: José Sant, Dennis Fairall (and his wife Janet), Melissa Bishop-Nriagu, Matthew Lincoln, Achraf Tadili, Dany Allard, Catherine Léveillé, Livia Barbot at Actiforme, Magalie Coleno (Pilates), Matthew Lincoln (and his wife Melanie Lincoln), Jean-François and Simon-Philippe at Action Sport Physio Repentigny, all the generous donors to my campaign Road to Tokyo 2020, all of my Oregon coaches, Athletics Canada’s medical staff and administrative team, my APAs over the years, Glenroy Gilbert, my family and close friends (you know who you are), my boyfriend, and all of the coaches that I encountered over 15+ years in the sport … I learned so much from each and every one of you.
I also want to thank all my sponsors over the years: Adidas, New Balance, Asics, Action Sport Physio, Actiforme, Tech Gym, Dossards Sportifs, donators to my campaign, Repentigny Chevrolet, g2gbars, XEndurance, Run Gum, Patricia Crépeau, Rebecca Gagné, Pelo Gym, ProGym Hochelaga, and Chiropractie Bruno Larrivière.
Take us back to the beginning, how did you get involved in athletics/track? Where did the competitive juices come from? What pushed you to be the best that you can be? Was there someone who inspired you?
I think I was born very stubborn and hard-headed and I never did anything halfway. It was either 100 per cent or zero. When I start something, I have to do the best that I can and I have to go until the end. I was a soccer player in high school, but our physical education program required a few cross country races and track events. That’s when I realized that I could compete with some of the guys and the older girls, so I realized that maybe I had the talent. My mom always put us in sports. I think my first sport was gymnastics when I was two years old. When I tried track and I was interested, she had me meet her coach, José Sant, who brought her to the Olympic level. He said “If you listen to everything I say and work hard, we can go really, really far together.” I slowly stopped playing soccer and started getting more into running.
Is there something about competing that you love, that people wouldn’t expect you to say?
Running has just always made me feel free. It’s simple and I love the idea of running against the clock. What I do will impact how I will do. Coming from team sports where the performance of the team doesn’t always depend on you, brought a different angle to a sport where it was all on me. Work hard and see what you can do. I’ve always wanted to excel at whatever I was doing. I was curious about testing my own limits and proving to myself that I could do something I never thought I could.
Looking back at your NCAA career, what was your greatest triumph and greatest achievement(s)? How did your time at Oregon shape you to become the athlete and person you are today?
When I got to Oregon, nothing turned out the way I thought it would. I was expecting to win a National Championship and I had set the bar so high for myself. I underestimated how changing coaches and my training routine would impact my body and career. It taught me to adapt to changes, to speak up for myself and to fight for my spot. I learned how to race different distances. I learned how to handle rounds. I learned how to run cross country and, a few months later, run a 4 x 400-metre relay. I forced myself to develop strengths in many areas. It taught me how to manage different personalities on a team and how to be a good team member. The NCAA is one of the toughest competition circuits. It’s very competitive, so it prepares you for the international level.
The 800 metres was your specialty, but you dabbled in other distances, including relays, cross country and a pursuit at the Montreal Grand Prix, throughout your career. How did that pay off when it came to performance?
It’s a double-edged sword. It forces you to work on yourself and to develop your strengths and weaknesses. Running more miles helps you develop those strengths and weaknesses, but the other side is that it affects your fitness for your main event. I knew that running cross country made me slower for the 800 metres in the winter, but ultimately at the end of the summer I was stronger for it because of the base I had in the fall. It’s a matter of finding what works for you. At first, I was doing too much of this or too much of that. It helped me to know that going into the different seasons what I responded well to and what I didn’t. It comes with a cost, and that cost is that you don’t really perform well for a while until you adjust everything in your training routine.
What is the most memorable moment, event or competition of your career and why?
I remember winning the Canadian Junior Championships three times in the 800 metres, so that is quite memorable. Another event that comes to mind is a relay that I ran in 2015 when I was at the University of Oregon and we went on to compete in Penn Relays. We did the sprint medley relay, and I was the anchor in the 800 metres. I got the baton in third and I just went on the hunt. I was just trying to chase people, and then we won. In the end, I caught the girl who was the National Champion at the time, and I was really proud of myself, because I had been stressing out when I found out I was going to race her. I don’t know how I did it. I have a hard time remembering the race. It’s one of those races where everything clicks and you go into a different state and, as soon as it’s over, you don’t remember most of it. The other one would be the 2016 Olympic Trials. Again, I was in fourth or fifth coming down the last straightaway and I just gave it everything I had and finished second. I was not expecting that at all.
What did it mean to pull on the Team Canada singlet/maple leaf and to represent your country?
The first thing that comes to mind is pride. When you wear the maple leaf on your chest, you feel like you have a responsibility to represent your country the best that you can. I’m so proud to be Canadian and to live in this country. In a normal race, you represent yourself and your coach. But when you get on the track at an international event with the maple leaf, you represent your family, you represent everyone in the country, so I guess there’s a huge responsibility with it, but it all comes back to pride.
You battled some injuries throughout your career. What drove you to persevere and battle back every time?
For me, it was knowing when I was hurt, that I still had a passion for the sport and the talent to go with it. When my body was telling me to stop, I knew that all of my competitors kept training and kept getting better. I know that everybody goes through injuries. It’s impossible to go through your whole career and not suffer an injury. I felt an urgency to get back out there. That urgency came from passion and from missing my daily dose of runner’s high. It makes you realize not to take the sport and this opportunity for granted. When something is taken away from you, that’s when you realize how much it matters.
What’s next for Annie?
In the short term, I’m teaching English to students in their first year of high school. Weekends and evenings, I work at the hospital. I am trying to get as much experience as I can. I am learning so much by being a teacher – learning about myself, learning about others and learning professionally. I’ve been learning for the past 15 years about how to get better as an athlete, but now I’m working on my professional skills. As for medical school – fingers crossed I get in. I will remain involved in the sport. I keep running because it was, and always will be, a passion and a therapy – one where I both lose and find myself.
Anything else you’d like to share?
When I was making the decision to retire, it was my body that made the decision and my heart … not so much. It was a process of acceptance. The best advice I have for somebody who doesn’t know what to do, and is thinking about the possibility of retirement, is not to put all of your eggs in the same basket. We are so, so, much more than just athletes and runners. There’s so much more to life than just sport. It forges character. It helps you get to know yourself and it’s an amazing and unique experience to be an athlete. Invest in education so you have a back-up plan and go all-in on what you decide to do. I would rather regret having tried something, than regret not trying it at all.
The other thing I’d like to say is that it takes a village to get to the level you want, so I have to thank a whole village for everything I was able to accomplish. It’s impossible to name every person. Every coach, every athlete I trained with taught me something, so I want to thank everyone who has been a part of my career.