Colette Bourgonje sums up a few benefits of sport as simply: “Sport is an opportunity to move, have fun, and enjoy adventures.”
This is just one message the Canadian Paralympic Hall of Famer is hoping to impart on participants of Connection 2021. Bourgonje is one of several female Paralympians and Para athletes, both retired and active, who are lending their time to the unique June 5 and 6 event specifically aimed at introducing more women to Para sport.
Elisabeth Walker-Young, a retired Paralympic swimmer, will be co-emcee for the two days alongside TV host and Para athlete Camille Chai. Walker-Young also worked with the Canadian Paralympic Committee on the project as it was initialized in 2020, helping to develop its direction.
“Across Canada and globally, there are fewer women participating in Paralympic sport, so what can we do to try and shift that,” said Walker-Young, who earned six medals at four Paralympic Games. “There could be a whole ton of different reasons, but we do know that girls and women-only programming is successful in making programming seem more approachable and welcoming for women.”
Connection 2021, which is organized by CPC and funded by the Innovation Initiative component of Sport Canada’s Sport Support program, will be an accessible virtual event and feature various interactive workshops, panels, and chats with many female leaders and experts in sport, including from national sport organizations and the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Sport Institute Network. More information on the programming, athlete ambassadors, and speakers can be found at Paralympic.ca/connection-2021.
A total of 25 women will discover more about Para sport in Canada and the opportunities available to them.
Walker-Young believes this will also be a great step forward to learn more about the barriers that women with a disability face in sport participation, and how to break them down.
“There is lots of research around women and girls, what’s really missing is that disability piece,” said Walker-Young.
“We are just scratching the surface at addressing those barriers.”
Karolina Wisniewska, who will act as a moderator for a panel featuring multiple Para athletes, didn’t hesitate to commit to a role in the event. First, she believes in bringing more awareness to Paralympic sport, and she also is a great advocate for getting women of all ages involved.
“I remember growing up and not having heard of the Paralympic Movement, not knowing about any opportunities available to kids with physical disabilities at the time,” said Wisniewska, who retired a three-time Paralympian and eight-time medallist in Para alpine skiing. “That is still something that is very close to my heart, it feels like yesterday. I felt like a disabled kid in an able-bodied world, and so this is one avenue and opportunity we have to raise awareness.”
While one of the goals of the event is to bring more female athletes into Para sport, including at the high-performance level, Wisniewska just hopes for people to come away from the day with a positive experience.
“My goal is to make it engaging, fun, comfortable, inclusive, and welcoming, just make it a safe space for everyone, whether or not they end up doing anything beyond participating in that day.”
Walker-Young, who has taken on many leadership roles in her post-athlete career including as assistant chef de mission at the London 2012 Paralympic Games and chef de mission at the Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games, wants participants to find a place for themselves within the Paralympic Movement, which could be at the athlete, coach, or administrator level, or even just as a supporter.
Bourgonje’s passion for sport comes through as she talks about the many physical, emotional, mental, and social benefits it has provided her. The 10-time Paralympian in wheelchair racing and Para nordic skiing ultimately just hopes the women in attendance find their own sport path like she found hers.
“This is an opportunity for us [athletes] to give back, share experiences and stories, answer some questions the participants might have, and give them a chance to see that wow, there’s a lot of fun things to do out there,” said the 10-time Paralympic medallist Bourgonje, who today coaches cross-country skiing. “I hope they grab a hold of something and become physically active, and not just to be Paralympians, but for life, because sport is for life.
“The power of sport is really wide. Sport is more than just a game.”