Female leaders of Canadian Paralympic Athletes’ Council want to make a difference

Canadian Paralympic Committee

March 08, 2021

Jennifer Brown, Ina Forrest, Erica Gavel, and Alison Levine look to the future

women's day

They are high performance athletes, businesswomen, community leaders, and in one case, a PhD student. They are also four of Canada’s greatest athlete leaders within Paralympic sport. 

Jennifer Brown, Ina Forrest, Erica Gavel, and Alison Levine are all members of the Canadian Paralympic Athletes’ Council, comprised of seven elected athletes tasked with representing Canadian Para athletes and advocating for the best interests of the Paralympic Movement. For International Women’s Day, we checked in with each accomplished athlete to both celebrate their contributions and hear their thoughts on female advancement in Paralympic sport.    

The four athletes, currently preparing for the next Paralympic Games in both Tokyo and Beijing, agree a woman’s voice is needed to raise awareness on the pressing issues in Para sport both in Canada and internationally. They want to be one of those voices.

“We’re definitely seeing a shift with more and more women in higher positions,” said Levine. “When a female athlete sees a woman that’s part of the decision-making process it’s a comforting factor.”

“Women bring a slightly different view,” added Brown. “What I’ve seen in working with other women is they bring the proper amount and balance when needed and provide a bigger picture. That has really inspired me.”

Levine competes in the sport of boccia and is currently the No. 1-ranked player in the world in the BC4 category, a pinnacle she first hit in October 2019, a year that included her first major international victory. The 30-year-old Paralympic Games medal hopeful has an idiopathic neuromuscular disorder that causes weakness in her muscles. She joined the council to reinforce issues for high support needs athletes like herself.

“My life has been so shaped from Para sport that I was really looking at what I could do to give back,” said Levine. “I think I can bring a perspective to the council that perhaps hasn’t been there and give the feedback that is needed when thinking of the broader Para community.”

Brown, the discus throw champion at the Lima 2019 Parapan Am Games, has previous leadership experience from Athletics Canada’s athlete council. She says there is a major difference between a single sport and multi-sport council.

“There are a lot more considerations for sure and the learning curve was fairly steep,” said Brown, 40, who also works with the City of Calgary’s arts and culture department. “There are core challenges through each sport and a lot of intricacies. But I like the problem solving and trying to make scenarios work. It’s a natural progression for me because I wanted to be able to help beyond the sport of athletics.” 

Gavel, a member of Canada’s women’s wheelchair basketball team, says Canada has been a leader in pushing for gender equality.

“In Canada, for me, to strive for leadership positions seems normal,” the 29-year-old PhD student said from her family home in Saskatchewan. “I can thank the great Canadian female leaders who came before me for that. I never feel I’m at a disadvantage.”

It’s at the international level that Gavel notices women can be seriously underrepresented.

“That’s where you see the disparity between men and women, whether it’s coaching, sports science or administration,” she said. “It can be outrageous at times.”

Forrest, one of Canada’s best-ever wheelchair curlers with three Paralympic medals, including gold in 2010 and 2014, says the opportunities for female participation to rise at the Games starts at the grassroots level.

“The CPC’s Paralympian Search is an example of a great initiative to help people with a disability find a sport,” said Forrest, 58, who runs her own commercial leasing business in B.C. “It really shortens the process. When you start out on your own, it takes a lot of time, effort, and resources. That can be discouraging especially for women who can have work and family responsibilities tied around that.” 

Gavel agrees solutions need to be found to keep young women with a disability in sports.

“It’s a big issue,” she said. “We need to put them in an environment to succeed, particularly in those early years of involvement.”


Each athlete was also asked who they thought about first on International Women’s Day:

Jennifer Brown: “My late grandmother [Vicky Stewart] was a strong, quiet leader. When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she assured me I would be okay, it won’t beat me and I just need to take it one step at a time. Basically, it’s not about the big win but a series of small wins that will move the larger mountain.” 

Ina Forrest: “Billie Jean King has been an advocate and champion for women’s sports for 50 years. I remember her from my teens speaking out for women’s sports and equality. She was the first woman I remember in that role.”

Erica Gavel: “For me, it’s Catherine Gosselin-Després [executive director, sport at the Canadian Paralympic Committee], Lisa Thomaidis [head coach of the University of Saskatchewan’s women’s basketball team], and Heather Logan-Sprenger [her PhD supervisor]. I would not be where I am today without them. They’ve been so positive for me from a mentorship, technical and professional perspective.”

Alison Levine: “Stephanie Dixon [chef de mission of the Tokyo 2020 Canadian Paralympic Team and a 19-time Paralympic medallist in swimming] is someone that a person at any age can look up to. My mother, who is a nurse and my sport assistant [Roberta Fried-Levine] is an incredible human being.”

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