Yes, she can

Inspiring and empowering women through sport

By Selwynne Hawkins, Sports Editor -- February 6, 2018

On Feb. 9, the Olympic Torch will complete its journey to the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium for the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. For the 16 days that follow, millions of Canadians, from as far as 9,000 km and 10 time zones away, will tune in to support the world’s best winter athletes. Among the viewers are a generation of girls who, if previous years are any indication, will walk away with full hearts and imaginations.

Every year, the Olympic Games face warranted criticism; they’re wasteful and frivolous, and place excessive strain on host cities and nations. For all of their flaws, however, the Olympic Games remain unmatched in one area: Their ability to inspire for young girls and women. The Games provide a perfect storm of national pride, compelling female athletic journeys, and incredible performances. They’re perfectly suited for casual viewers, as the high-visibility and event diversity make the Games an accessible introduction to a wide variety of sports—and the wealth of women competing in them.

Nachi Fujimoto is a member of Les Canadiennes de Montréal, the Montreal-based professional women’s hockey team in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Last season, she suited up for the Boston Blades, and has previously represented Japan at the international level.

Nachi Fujimoto, a diminutive defender on Les Canadiennes de Montréal, hails from an unlikely hockey hometown: Sapporo, Japan. Hockey flies far below the radar in Japan, and the Olympics provide key coverage—alerting young people to opportunities in lesser-known sports.

“In the Sochi Olympics [in 2014], the Japanese women’s team qualified, and hockey gained popularity,” Fujimoto said in an interview with The McGill Tribune, translated from Japanese*. “Before then, some people knew about the sport, but sports like baseball and soccer [were] much more popular. But when the Olympics came around, hockey gained popularity.”

Beyond simply exposing viewers to new experiences, the Olympics provide a unique opportunity to connect with positive female role models. With each iteration of the Olympic Games, a new set of heroines emerges from the sporting elite. The international success of women like Hayley Wickenheiser, Clara Hughes, and Christine Sinclair’s encourages new participants to try their respective sports. Strong female athletes play a vital role in encouraging girls to get involved in athletics, and this relationship can be leveraged to maximize benefits for young women.

Fast and Female is an NGO based out of Canmore, Alberta. Their mission statement revolves around fostering a happy and healthy sporting environment for girls, leading to continued involvement in an active lifestyle. With the help of over 400 ambassadors, they’ve brought inspiration and fun to girls across North America. The Fast and Female organization employs women at every level—mostly current and former athletes. Two members of their communications team—Erin Yungblut, a biathlete, and Una Lounder, a sprint kayaker—wrote to the Tribune about Fast and Female’s work.

Erin Yungblut is a member of the Fast and Female communications team. She has represented Canada on the international stage in biathlon.

“Fast and Female is focused on changing the culture for girls in sports to be more positive [so that] they don’t quit and miss out on the many lifelong benefits of sport participation,” Yungblut and Lounder wrote.

Fast and Female harnesses the star-power of elite athletes to keep girls in sports. These athlete ambassadors, who compete in sports ranging from fencing to speed skating, host “Champ Chats,” where girls have a chance to meet their sporting heroines, develop physical literacy, and interact with their peers in a non-competitive setting.

“Exposing girls to female role models is at the core of what we do,” the Fast and Female communications team wrote. “[Fast and Female ambassadors] are strong, positive women with inspiring stories, and by telling them and connecting with participants, they help empower the next generation of female athlete leaders.”

Una Lounder is a member of the Fast and Female communications team. She has represented Canada on the international stage as a sprint kayaker.

This cyclical transition from inspired girl to inspiring young woman athletes drives Fast and Female’s success.

“At my first-ever event as a participant [...] I got to ski behind Alana Thomas [a national team cross-country skier] and emulate her technique,” Yungblut wrote. “[I] decided that if I could sort of keep up with her at that moment, I [could one day] compete at her level [....Later, when I became an ambassador], I was leading a group of young girls around the beautiful trails [and I] realized that they were emulating me.”

Even outside of designated organizations like Fast and Female, it’s very common for strong female athletes to pursue leadership roles that impact future generations. Magali Harvey, a Canadian national women’s rugby player, has played a key role in the program’s recent international success. But, even while she continued to assert her dominance on the field, Harvey was encouraged to try her hand at coaching younger girls.

“When I joined the national team, we had a lot of opportunities to go to schools and to do some coaching clinics,” Harvey said. “To coach younger girls, especially, just to inspire them for better things.”

Harvey now sits in her first-ever head coach role with the McGill Martlets. Though rugby success remains her primary goal for her athletes, off-field goals are a priority at the varsity level, too.

Magali Harvey, who recently completed her first season as head coach of the Martlet rugby team, was a key member of the Canadian team at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup. For her contributions to Canada’s best-ever third-place finish, Harvey was named the International Rugby Board Women’s Player of the Year.

“As the head coach of the Martlets, my role is to make them develop their rugby,” Harvey said. “To give them as much knowledge as I can, and just to build their confidence so that, regardless of if it’s sport or life in general, that those players, those women, will have the confidence necessary in order to go for whatever it is that they want to go for.”

The highly-touted “intangibles” that girls stand to gain from sport are varied and diverse, but female athletes consistently rank confidence and tenacity as the most important takeaways. These are especially beneficial to the myriad of young girls who suffer from self-esteem issues during key development stages of their lives. Claire Carver-Dias, ex-synchronized swimmer and Olympic bronze medallist, credits sport for empowering her and giving her the self-assurance necessary to succeed outside of the pool.

“Sport has given so much to me,” Carver-Dias wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Much of my confidence and drive came from years of pursuing my athletic goals, often failing, then learning to quickly pick myself up and continue on. With the right set up, sport can be, and should be, the safest place to learn to fail well [....] These experiences have given me the courage to take risks, try things, put my name forward for leadership, [and] boldly approach business prospects.”

Through sport, girls learn to face failure and persevere in spite of it. Sport, at both high-performance and noncompetitive levels, provides young women with continuous challenges, and the constant exposure to adversity teaches girls how to rebound from big disappointments.

“Going to the Olympics was my biggest dream, but when I [wasn’t] selected, I didn’t know what to do,” Fujimoto said. “Through the years, I’ve definitely changed a lot, and now I’m in a place where I’m more focused on what I’m doing right now. I have the mindset that the present is the most important, so I’m not really thinking about what’s coming later or what’s already happened.”

Dr. Claire Carver-Dias (Ph.D. English from Bangor University) was a member of Canada’s bronze medal synchronized swimming team at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. She has since hung up her nose-plugs, but remains heavily involved in sport: She has coached Olympians in the art of speechwriting, served on various boards including the Coaching Association of Canada, and she was recently named the Chef de Mission for Team Canada’s delegation to the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Confidence, work ethic, and resilience are only a few of the many benefits girls can garner from early involvement in sport. Athletic activities can also provide a clear avenue for girls to stand up against restrictive societal pressures, especially opinions regarding so-called feminine behaviours girls should follow. While sexist attitudes remain prevalent across many major sports, female athletes like Harvey have shouldered some of the load by continuously proving themselves to be worthy competitors.

“People looked me up and down, they thought I was too little or too, even, pretty to play rugby,” Harvey said. “They thought I didn’t have the look for it [....] How do you react to that? You don’t. You just completely ignore it [....] Whatever their opinion is, you just shrug them off because [you’re playing] the sport that you love.”

As today’s heroines push for gender equality, they’re paving the way for future generations to pick up a ball, a stick, or a bat. By watching their role models excel in mostly traditionally male-dominated sports, girls learn to demand equal treatment for themselves. Therein lies the vital importance of strong, high-profile female sport ambassadors: By dominating in their respective arenas, they make it easier for young women to be fierce, competitive, and unapologetically persistent in the pursuit of their own objectives—sporting and otherwise.

But, there is danger in an excessively tenacious pursuit of one’s goals. While sports can be empowering and fun, it’s also important to acknowledge the immense harm high-performance environments can cause. Prioritizing social development goals over international achievements can be difficult for national sport governing bodies, which makes it easy for athletes to fall prey to dangerous success-oriented philosophies.

Despite the ways in which they can improve young girls’ lives, high-performance sports can be unhealthy, too; female athletes can struggle with unrealistic body-standards or obsessive attitudes. Lindsay Duncan, an assistant professor in McGill’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, has been involved with both high-performance and noncompetitive sports, which have given her a wide-angle view of athlete development. This perspective allows her to highlight the most important objectives for coaches and physical educators.

“[We have] to think of these athletes who are in front of us as not just, you know, here to do these technical skills and to learn [about sport], but as [people] that we should be thinking about, how we can contribute to their development,” Duncan said.

To Duncan, this includes an emphasis on healthy habits. As the coach for the McGill synchronized swimming team—a discipline known for problems with eating disorders and body image among its athletes, who are weighed on a regular basis—Duncan believes that the culture of the sport can be changed if people in leadership roles are willing to prioritize healthy habits.

Dr. Lindsay Duncan (Ph.D. Kinesiology from University of Western Ontario), an assistant professor in McGill’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, has been involved with sport since her early days as a swimmer. Since then, sport has played an active role in her life, inspiring both her research and her involvement as a board member for Synchro Canada. Duncan also serves as the Head Coach of the McGill synchronized swimming team.

“You don’t have to slim down, you don’t have to be stick-thin to be really successful,” Duncan said. “You’re going to succeed by showing off what you can do well. But it takes, I think, an explicit conversation about those kinds of issues. And not only one conversation, but repeated. All the time at practice, an open dialogue, and open conversation about what’s healthy.”

When done right, participating in sports can give girls the foundation for a healthy life. Enrolling girls in multiple sports from a young age can help them develop physical literacy and the skills necessary to enjoy athletics in the future.

An emphasis on fun—not success—makes sports accessible to all. A hyper-competitive sports culture works against itself. By forcing girls to participate in a competitive environment, coaches risk alienating them, thus reducing the number of participants available for long-term development.

“Some sports have the option to remain, sort of, at a more recreational level all the way through, whereas other sports [...] push athletes who might not be [...] all that competitive into that stream of things,” Duncan said. “It’s that sort of mismatch about what the goals are for those athletes that starts to cause a bit of a tension that might make them disconnect altogether. They don’t really feel like they have options.”

Though attention and rewards are only showered on high-performance athletes, the benefits of recreational sport far outweigh the importance of international success. And while the spectacle of the Winter Olympic Games looms large over the sporting world, it’s important to remember that there’s much more at stake than winning or losing.

“I want other young people to have the same opportunities [that I had] to learn and grow through sport,” Carver-Dias said. “In order for that to happen, sport has to be a space where we focus on developing future leaders and good citizens, not just strong, fast, and skillful bodies.”

An Olympic gold medal is meaningful, yes, but more meaningful is developing girls who are happy, healthy, and comfortable in their own skin. Sports teach girls lessons that extend far beyond the confines of a field, a court, or a pool—they help shape women who succeed whether the playing field is a boardroom, a studio, or a classroom. By introducing girls to positive role models and encouraging long-term engagement with play, we can raise them to the starting blocks with the confidence and inspiration they’ll need to race off into a lifetime of adventures. And, with international women’s sport centre stage in PyeongChang, the next generation of young female athletes will soon be clambering to enter the game.