Canadian female sporting heroes shine on The Social

As one of the most popular talk shows on Canadian television, it is commendable that the all-female cast of The Social address the quickly expanding relevance of women as sporting heroes. While there are still many obstacles to overcome on the road towards total acceptance for women in sport, the presence of the three athletic heroes that were part of the interview panel displays that the future holds tremendous promise.

With the effervescent Melissa Grelo and inquisitive Lainey Lui handling the interviewing duties, the result was a pleasant discussion with a group of women that cover a breadth of competition. From soccer goalkeeper Karina Leblanc to hockey blueliner Tessa Bonhomme, along with pugilist Mandy Bujold, each are highly accomplished women in their field.

(L-R): Karina Leblanc, Mandy Bujold and Tessa Bonhomme. Image obtained from Twitter

(L-R): Karina Leblanc, Mandy Bujold and Tessa Bonhomme. Image obtained from Twitter

The most obvious aspect of all three was their confidence. Each has accomplished so much, while placing women’s sport in a much bigger part of Canadian popular culture, their careers are symbolic of why girls in sport should keep competing as they mature.

As today’s generation of young women enjoy the chance to look up to a growing number of positive female role models, there are many redeeming qualities in the likes of Bonhomme, Bujold and Leblanc. Even young women that are not athletic can look at them and admire their ability to excel and challenge social convention.

Coincidentally, social aspects were also a key defining factor in the reasons that these women first became involved in sport. Leblanc revealed that she was shy during childhood, joking that she would not have had her current hairstyle (spiked with a streak of blonde near the top) in those formative years. She further revealed that sport filled a void as well, connecting her with other people. Bonhomme also attested to the social impact as getting to know people and connecting with them as key factors in her earliest sporting roots.

Having announced her retirement in the aftermath of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was held on Canadian soil for the first time, Karina Leblanc was one of the most underrated soccer stars that the country ever produced. Although the medal round evaded the ambitious Canadian squad, who were hoping to build on their fairy-tale run to the bronze medal at the 2012 London Summer Games, their effort was a tremendous source of pride, adding another great chapter to sporting Canadiana.

Bonhomme also appreciates the chance to compete in a world-class event on home soil. After a remarkable career with the Ohio State Buckeyes, Bonhomme landed a spot on the Canadian national team, capturing the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. During the interview, she mentioned how great it was for Bonhomme and her teammates to hear from parents how awesome they were after the victory in Vancouver.

Perhaps more impressive was her career following such heroic heights in Vancouver. From becoming the first-ever draft pick in the history of the CWHL Draft, to landing on the cover of The Hockey News, Bonhomme would be catapulted into celebrity status after winning the Battle of the Blades, the first female hockey player to do so. Currently with TSN (she once interviewed Will Ferrell with LeafsTV), Bonhomme has become a crossover star, with the likeable potential to become even more famous for her work as a TV personality than her empowering run as an elite athlete.

Proudly displaying her championship belt, Mandi Bujold is part of a tremendous change in the sporting landscape as women are now headline competitors in boxing and mixed martial arts. Holly Holm, who shall be immortalized in the sporting pantheon as the woman who beat UFC champion Ronda Rousey was a former boxing champion herself, having defeated the legendary Mia St. John.

In discussing her boxing career, one very visceral and sobering reality hit home for the guests, hosts and the remainder of the panel. Bujold had discussed how judges that were not deemed competent for male matches were assigned to serve in a similar capacity for bouts featuring women. For the viewer at home, a collective sigh of surprise (and perhaps shock) could clearly be heard as such conditions are demeaning and dehumanizing.

Later in the segment, Grelo made an excellent point of acknowledging that to be an elite athlete, hardcore training was essential, in essence, akin to a full-time job. Sadly, such effort has resulted with being compensated differently, one of the great gender inequities of the modern era. Leblanc had emphasized in the interview that the prize money for the FIFA Women’s World Cup championship team was tens of millions less than the male victors, a real-life example of the effort that lay ahead in the off-field fight for equality.

While there is no question that women in sport have to work harder to be taken seriously, such work will eventually bear prosperous fruit. For the future female sports athletes how grew up emulating the efforts of Bonhomme, Bujold and Leblanc, it will add to a proud legacy. Each one of them stirred the hearts of sports fans, making them proud to be Canadians, and for that, they will always have their gratitude.

Figure skating hero Tessa Virtue launches 2014 with reality series

After grabbing the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were known affectionately as Canada’s Sweethearts. As this dynamic duo looks to repeat as gold medal champions at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, their efforts are being immortalized on film.

Reality program “Tessa & Scott” made its debut on Canada’s W Network on January 2, 2014. Moir had disclosed to the Canadian Press that the filming of the program was a way for them to look back on their journey towards Sochi. Virtue added that the show did not affect their training and the two became friends with the members of the crew.

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With the program divided into seven episodes, the seventh and final episode shall air in February, right before the beginning of the Games. The program represents an adventure for the 24-year old Virtue, who provides fans with an all-access view into her day-to-day life.

Despite the pressure that comes with training for competition on the world’s biggest stage, accompanied by a full-time television crew, Virtue carries herself with remarkable poise. Considering that Virtue is working towards a degree in psychology at the University of Windsor, she certainly has the mental toughness to excel.

Having skated with Moir since 1997, the two would become the first Canadian ice dancers to win gold at the World Junior Figure Skating championships. Their gold in Vancouver was complemented by triumph at the 2012 World Figure Skating championship. With such a life-long relationship on the ice, the first episode of the series tries to answer the question of whether they have a relationship off it.

Appearing in Sportsnet Magazine's 2013 edition of The Beauty of Sport. Photography by Matt Barnes. Image obtained from: http://www.sportsnet.ca/the-beauty-of-sport/#section=15

Appearing in Sportsnet Magazine’s 2013 edition of The Beauty of Sport. Photography by Matt Barnes. Image obtained from: http://www.sportsnet.ca/the-beauty-of-sport/#section=15

For Virtue’s fans, it may come as a surprise to know that she began her athletic endeavors in athletics and ballet, rather than on the ice. At the tender age of nine, she was forced to decide between entry into the National Ballet of Canada or the choice to skate full-time with Moir. Ironically, Moir began figure skating as an initiative to improve his hockey skills. To further add to the irony, it was Moir’s aunt Carol who coached both of them when they started figure skating.

Enjoying time together at a summer fair in the opening of the first half-hour episode, it only helps to fuel the speculative fires. Although the most prevailing element of the program was certainly tension. Virtue and Moir are trained in Canton, Michigan by Marina Zueva, the former trainer to Russian pair Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov. Compouding their woes is the fact that Zueva also trains their rivals, American skaters Meryl White and Charlie Davis.

February 22, 2010: A jubilant Virtue and Moore proudly display the Canadian flag after earning the gold during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games (Image: PacificCoastNews.com)

February 22, 2010: A jubilant Virtue and Moore proudly display the Canadian flag after earning the gold during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games (Image: PacificCoastNews.com)

Such a balance is difficult to maintain when one must try to be focused yet graceful, despite the presence of their rivals in the same facility. The one key difference is that Virtue and Moir have also relied on the consultation of former Canadian ballroom dancing champion and TV personality, Jean-Marc Genereux. Although it may be awkward for viewers when Genereux suggests to Moir that he run his hand up and down the figure of Virtue in order to bring about the passion needed for successful ice dancing.

Later in the episode, Moir shows his possessive side when a fellow male skater asks Virtue if they could share a night out together. Suddenly, Moir gives a tongue-lashing to the interested skater. To the viewer, it would be easy to assume that he is carrying a flame for her. In true soap opera-like fashion, a later scene shows Moir embracing a lady with long dark hair at his front door in London, Ontario. Of course, this lady is not Virtue but another raven haired beauty named Cassandra.

Photography by Matt Barnes. Image obtained from: http://www.sportsnet.ca/the-beauty-of-sport/#section=15

Photography by Matt Barnes. Image obtained from: http://www.sportsnet.ca/the-beauty-of-sport/#section=15

Proceeding into the bizarre, such a scene makes it clear that whatever relationship exists between the two is truly complicated. While Virtue comes across a little passive, future episodes will only begin to unravel the story that exists between these two.

Although the TV spotlight may add more pressure or expectation, it is an element that comes with being the world’s finest. Fans can only hope that the outcome of the series does not lead to embarrassment for the two. Although a thirty-minute program does not scratch the surface enough to reveal every aspect of their lives, it sets a unique precedent in Canadian sport.

Not since the hockey documentary The Game of Her Life in 1997 has there been such an in-dept view into the lives of world-class athletes. While modern television certainly incorporates its sense of drama and sex appeal, all methods employed to keep the viewer returning, the creative elements are such that one only hopes it enhances rather than tarnishes Virtue’s status as one of Canada’s female sporting heroes.

Megan Imrie’s fund raising efforts as tireless as her training

As the Sochi Winter Games approach, the great tragedy of many athletes’ lives is the struggle to meet the financial requirements needed in order to make their athletic dreams come true. One of the most dedicated and a unique athlete for fund raising is Megan Imrie.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Photo credit: Getty Images

Competing in the biathlon, her interest in the sport began at the age of six. The Canadian Biathlon Championships were in her hometown and she was quickly hooked. When Maryam Bedard captured the imagination of Canadian sports fans as she won medals at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games, a young Imrie was part of an after-school group called the Biathlon Bears.

In addition to biathlon, she would also make her mark in other sports. In 2001, she was the Manitoba Ranch Rodeo junior champion in 2001. She was the provincial champion in cross-country running in 2000 and 2003 while she had the honor of bearing the flag at the 2007 Canada Winter Games (where she won two medals).

With the multi-million dollar contracts in professional sports, it is easy to assume that the golden goose is evident in all sports. The uncomfortable truth is that many athletes, especially female athletes, do not have such a luxury. Travel costs, team fees and equipment become part of the cost of competing.

Although the focus of their athletic endeavors should be focused on training and sharpening their skills, a huge chunk of their time is devoted to finding ways to earn money. The most famous resident of Falcon Lake, Manitoba, the 27 year-old Imrie has had to employ several methods in order to finance her dreams of competing in the Winter Games.

Photo credit: Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

Photo credit: Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

One was a recent horseback riding promotion in which an individual could pay to have the privilege of riding horseback alongside Imrie. The Rocky Mountain Soap Company introduced a brand known as “Megan Soap” as a way to support Imrie. Ads featuring Imrie can be seen online.

Compared to many European countries where funding for Biathlon is significantly higher, Canadian athletes have offered signed items and personal phone calls in order to make up for any shortfalls. As she spends close to $20,000 a year on training and equipment, Imrie also tapped into the influence of social media through the efforts of a website called Pursuit, where she successfully exceeded her fund-raising goals.

Heading into the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, the biathlon team took a rather uncommon measure in order to raise funds. Imrie and her biathlon teammates (Rosanna Crawford, Sandra Keith, Zia Kocher and Megan Tandy) were featured in a semi-nude calendar which was issued in 2009.
Titled Bold, Beautiful Biathlon, the calendar was a tremendous hit selling out very quickly. A sum of over $10,000 was raised via the sale of 6,000 units. Despite its popularity, a group of world-class athletes such as the five biathletes deserved much more funding, especially with the Games being on home soil.

There is no denying that Imrie is beautiful but she should not have to remove her clothing in order to raise funds. A world class athlete should not have to be admired for her body but for her athleticism and skill. With Sochi looming on the horizon, one cannot help but wonder how many other female athletes the world over are considering a calendar to finance their dreams of Winter Games glory.

The idea that biathlon did not have a title sponsor at the time of the calendar’s release was tragic. As a side note, the Whiteshell Trappers Association (of which her father Murray is a member) donated fur pelts to Imrie as a show of support for her Vancouver Winter Games goal. Dave Bewick of the North American Fur Auction also helped by sending a brochure to nearly 2,000 trappers in Manitaba with a special tag of Megan Imrie to attach to the pelt. With Imrie having grown up on trap lines, the gesture had tremendous meaning.

Every bit was essential as the good news was that Imrie qualified for Vancouver, competing in two individual events and the 4×6 km relay. Even though Imrie has worked hard in raising funds, she has also given back to her community. As an athlete-ambassador at Fast and Female in 2012, the Canmore, Alberta event featured Imrie and her teammates providing youngsters with advice on how to succeed as biathletes.

Sadly, 2012 also marked a crossroads in her career. Facing exhaustion and the possibility of over-training, she returned home to Falcon Lake to recharge the battery and sought comfort in the support of her family. Her return in 2013 brought with it personal bests in testing and training and the spark to succeed was rekindled.

The road to Sochi will be determined in 2013 as three World Cup races are on the horizon. A top-30 result in just one of the races will provide Imrie with the opportunity to compete in her second-ever Winter Games.

An admirable athlete armed with the perseverance to succeed, the reluctance to complain is nothing short of impressive. If any athlete had the right to be bitter, it would certainly be Imrie, but she quietly goes on with an ethereal serenity. Her hard work and dedication to growing her sport is an example of empowerment for women. Although no athlete should have to endure so much difficulty to raise funds, her tough as nails composure and remarkable dignity in the face of such adversity and overwhelming odds is what makes her a true sporting hero.