Changing the story for Canadian athletes: Leah Skerry at TEDxStJohns

By Brian Lemay No comments


Translator: Mirjana Čutura
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven My hands were dripping with blood. It was my first day in gymnastics class, but my gym was our family’s front yard and one tree. And like any aspiring athlete, I had a dream that I could be
an Olympic gymnast. I’d proudly run to my mom
and show her my torn, bloody hands because torn hands
were a sign of a true gymnast. And I was a pretty distracted little kid. Nothing could quite capture my attention
the way that gymnastics could. Sport has a way of capturing children. It takes mental, physical,
and emotional energy. The energy and drive
that I put forth to a worthy challenge has been a lesson
that’s served me my entire life. I remember the first day
I walked onto the blue-carpeted gym floor in my new pink-flowered spandex gym suit, ready to show the world
my newly mastered moves and feeling overwhelmed
by the opportunity. My love and skill for gymnastics
quickly developed, but over time, love, I learned, was hard work. I was going to gymnastics
more than I was going to school, and the injuries were a reality. Lucky for me, I had extremely supportive parents
that would often say, “You can be anything you want to be.” And I believed them. But in the world of sport, Mom and Dad, you’ve got to have the dollars
if you want to play the game. We’re talking about what it means to have, and in this country, there are thousands of athletes
with similar stories that do not have the dollars
or the support to make their dream a reality. These are what I call
“the forgotten athletes,” the athletes that are just below the line but have the potential,
passion, and true grit to see their dream through. But more than just being overlooked
or undersupported, they’re not seen or heard. And I think we ought to do
something about it because beyond the mental
and physical benefit that sport provides us, sport can unite a country and has the power to change the world. It impacts how we
and, more importantly, our youth define goals and values. Think back to when we watched
the Vancouver Games and how we all rallied for the same cause. Or take Elijah Porter, a little boy from a little island
at end of Canada called Newfoundland. A little boy that was so inspired he sent the only medal he’d ever won
to the men’s relay team after they were denied an Olympic bronze. Elijah even promised
that if he grows up and gets rich, he’ll donate money
to Canadian Olympians in the future. But Elijah, there’s a problem because, in this country, there’s a gap
between our expectations and reality when it comes to amateur sport. We tell these romanticized stories
of these top-tier wonderful athletes, but when the lights
of the Olympic Games turn off, the vast majority of these athletes
are left unsupported, except for small amounts
of support from Sport Canada. And our corporations? Well, they sponsor the most marketable
or successful athletes or cherry-pick programs
meant to introduce sport to youth. And while these programs are fantastic, there’s a major gap in funding between the introduction of sport
and elite amateur sport. And so … the only athletes that can currently
pursue their sport full-time are the ones at the top of the podium. Forget about the ones
who are competing, making finals, the ones who come in fourth. Forget it. They still have to find a way
to fund their career. How many people who are at the peak of their career have to find another way
to fund their career? We’re talking about people who are trying to be
the best in the world. Imagine if our top doctors
or CEOs or lawyers had to take a ten-hour shift
at Tim Hortons to fund their sport. So, what does it mean? It means Bianca Paquin, a 14-year-old boxer
from Halifax, Nova Scotia, has a world champion title but is funded by mom and dad. It means we run the risk that only the wealthy
can afford to partake in amateur sport. And there are three things
you need to know about amateur athletes. The first is – a lack of a little bit of funding
massively disadvantages them. On average, a competitive athlete spends
40,000 dollars a year to live and train. And 2,000 dollars was the difference
between Bianca making nationals or not. The second thing you need to know is that the impact that these athletes
have on our country is real. When we watched the women’s
soccer team’s performance at the Summer Olympics, I guarantee you
that inspired more young girls to get active, to get into sport,
and play soccer than ever before. And the third thing you need to know is that the stories of these athletes
that are just below the line, the ones that we never see on TV, their stories can inspire anyone. They’re heartbreaking and courageous, but they need help telling them. And is it realistic to think that our government bodies
have the capacity to tell the stories or fund all of the athletes
that have potential in this country? Probably not. But we can help, and I want to show you how. I work in web, and we build websites
for companies around the world. My business partner, Julia Rivard,
is a former Olympic paddler. Julia is hands down
the hardest working person I know, and I’m convinced that had she more time, she would’ve been at the top
of the podium. But Julia felt the pressure
of bringing in money for her family and retired from sport early. So you know where this is going. Julia and I sat down on a Monday night
over a bottle of wine and came up with the idea to merge
technology with the potential of athletes. The goal? Tell the stories of athletes
that are overlooked, under-supported, and are not seen or heard. Julia and I are both former athletes, so we get it, we understand the struggle
these athletes face, but we’re not the ones
we need to convince. The reality is we need athletes. We need the stories of sport heroes
to instill good in our lives. Imagine a world
without Christine Sinclair, Terry Fox, or Donovan Bailey. Oh, what a great country we live in. In its original organic form, the connection between
the crowd and the athlete was a simple matter
of community affirmation and, by extension, our self-affirmation. Players were our neighbors or friends. And so with this in mind, we took the online technology of today to expand the reach of good old-fashioned,
neighborhood door-knocking. You know, when you or your kid
or someone you knew stood at the liquor store
or went door to door, selling chocolate bars
to raise money for the team. And this was the inspiration for the non-profit we created
called Pursu.it. Pursu.it is a crowdfunding website
for amateur athletes. It’s a collection of athletes’ stories
from across the country, each with a personal video
and call for support. Athletes create personal give-backs as a way to say “thank you”
to their fans for their contribution. So Bianca, the boxer, for example, wrote a hand-written thank-you letter
and signed a bandana to anybody that donated
100 dollars or more. On top of putting together
these campaigns, athletes have to work hard
to get their stories out there into the community and beyond. Crowdfunding is a collective effort
of people from around the world to support a cause via the Internet. There is an athlete, campaign owner, an ask, through an open call, and the crowd, that’s you. We launched Pursu.it in October
with five athletes from across Canada. To date, we’ve had 15 athletes
on the platform, and together we’ve raised 120,000 dollars
to help make their dreams a reality. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) Thanks. And being an athlete on Pursu.it is tough, and yet it’s working. And now athletes
that couldn’t find funding before are finding that ordinary Canadians
are joining their team and are donating
as little as 10 to 1,000 dollars. One of my favorite successes from Pursu.it
is of Maxim Bouchard, a diver from Montreal. Maxim’s campaign reached as far as MTV, UK and Olympic diver Tom Daley, where the call to action on Twitter was, “Hot diver wants you to support
another hot diver.” Maxim’s reached his goal in 60 days, and it was 12,000 dollars. And thousands of people
from around the world shared his story. The one thing I’ve learned
from creating Pursu.it is that these athletes have incredible stories, and they can’t go untold. The great mistake we can make is to imagine the outcome
for them is winning gold. And while it’s the gold that drives them, it’s the journey that counts because we know sport teaches us
about hard work, courage, and perseverance. Anyone who’s ever lived for sport or has a child that’s in hockey,
soccer, basketball, rowing knows what I’m talking about. We want to give these athletes
a chance to go further in their sport. If we leave the story
of aspiring athletes behind closed doors, or we encourage them to pursue
anything less than their dream, we may never realize
our potential as a nation. But I think this altruistic
thing can work. I think we can stand behind
an athlete with no status and a small window of opportunity, and we can help make
their dream a reality. I think we can live up to the words
of a little Newfoundland boy, Elijah, who wrote in his letter, “We are Canadians, we persevere, we create better lives for each other.” So please, find an athlete
in your own backyard, and tell them there’s a way
we can fund their dream and that you are going to support them. Thanks. (Applause)

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