Heroes walk among us; they are in our midst everyday.
Heroes in our midst is a podcast about the power inside the heart, the human behind the story, and the collection of idiosyncrasies that both make us unique and bond us together through a common humanity.
Join us as we are inspired, as we learn and as we are challenged to be better by the heroes in our midst and the stories that they tell.
HUMAN series: Ep. 3 Resiliency
In episode three, Michelle Sawatzky-Koop, host of the heroes in our midst podcast and 1996 Olympian, sits down the Bisons football players Des Catellier and AK Gassama to discuss resiliency.
The fifth-year Catellier has been the team’s starting quarterback since midway through his second season. One of the hardest-working players in program history, he endured a partially torn MCL and a few losing seasons early on, but continued to get better every day. His work ethic and attitude motivate those around him, and that hasn’t changed during COVID.
Both on and off the field, AK Gassama has dedicated his life to getting one percent better every day. He knows all about resiliency, as his family moved from warn torn Sierra Leone to Gambia, and eventually Canada as refugees. As an athlete, he’s a student of the game, and that didn’t change when he tore his ACL early into his university career. His consistency and dedication in training paid off when he returned to the field in 2019, and he has a bright future ahead.
HUMAN series: Ep. 2 Making the most of NOW
In episode two, Michelle Sawatzky-Koop sits down with Jeffrey Bannon and Sean Oleksewycz, two pillars in the Manitoba football community.
Sean has coached and played at all levels of amateur football in the province. Currently the assistant defensive backs coach for the Manitoba Bisons, he’s known as a player’s coach and strives to help his players get a little bit better every day.
Currently the commissioner of the Winnipeg High School Football League, Jeffrey has been a coach, general manager and administrator of football in the province. While he didn’t grow up playing the game, he’s dedicated his life to learning the x’s and o’s and values the relationships, friendships and opportunities that the sport creates.
Both Jeffrey and Sean have been on the frontlines of sport during COVID-19. Their unwavering positivity, and emphasis on controlling what you can control has been a guiding light during difficult times.
HUMAN series: Ep. 1 Embrace your humanity
A two-time Grey Cup champ, Andrew is a man of integrity who’s battled through adversity his whole life. Despite growing up without a dad and having to switch schools in grade 12, he didn’t fold.
Andrew also took advantage of the opportunities presented to him. His grades weren’t up to par for university football, so he made a name for himself in junior instead. He won three national championships with the Vancouver Island Raiders, but more importantly, became a father.
The birth of his daughter Hazel enhanced his sense of purpose and increased his maturity. When he played for the BC Lions, he knew he was playing for more than just himself and his teammates.
“It was definitely an environment where I started to grow. I wasn’t perfect by any means, but [having Hazel] made a big difference in my life. It gave me a little more sense of purpose and reasoning to work as hard as I was, and to provide and be part of something bigger than just being Andrew Harris. Now, it was Andrew Harris the father.”
Andrew has been through the highs of victory but has also endured scrutiny and experienced loss. A failed drug test in 2019 took a toll on his mental health, but with the help of Dr. Adrienne TooGood, he got back on his feet.
“I had to kind of be vulnerable and talk to talk to someone, so I sat down and talked with Dr. Toogood. And I literally felt like I just cried the whole time for an hour there. And she just listened and just lifted me back up. It took a couple weeks, but it all kind of lined up perfectly with when I got back, you know, into the playoffs. I could be that leader again. And once we got to the Grey Cup, there was so much anger, excitement, pride, I felt like myself again.”
A dedicated father and a role model for many, Andrew’s message is to appreciate everyone for who they are, to celebrate the positives and to show compassion during times of trouble.
“We are all humans. And I think sometimes, we look at people as if they are inhuman. And I think the biggest thing is that it’s important to give everyone respect. When people are up or down, you know, just respect them and enjoy the good times and, you know, support in the bad times. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Episode #36: Michelle Sawatzky-Koop
Michelle is 5’6”, from Steinbach, a small city in rural Manitoba, and has a degree in Piano Performance from the University of Manitoba School of Music. Knowing only this, one may assume that this musical “short girl” who was “not from Winnipeg” would never advance further than a volleyball provincial team (if she could even make the provincial team). Well, when you assume you make an ass out of u and me. When one is around Michelle, it is best not to make any assumptions.
A 1996 Olympian in the sport of volleyball, Michelle now refers to being short as a blessing noting that, “When you have disadvantages in sport and life, you want it so much more, and you have to fight like a dog to get it. You have to go anywhere. I would have gone anywhere [to play club volleyball].” And go anywhere she did. It was a four-hour drive each way to practice for the first club volleyball team she made.
Of the path we all walk, she notes this, “All of our journeys are valuable. When I think about finding heroes in our midst, it doesn’t even seem like a daunting task. I’m incredibly blessed to have the Olympics attached to my name, but I have met many mothers, fathers, kids, and athletes who will never go to the Olympics, but they are heroes because [real life can be much more difficult]. I have been to the Olympics, and then I’ve lived real life and what I‘ve done since and in those realms seem far more heroic to me than anything I did on a wooden court. It taught me how I want to approach everything I want to do in my life and to not expect to get attention for all the hard work in between. You have to get your reward from what you pour into your journey, even if no one sees it.”
Tenacious, caring, willing to do the work, and a role model to all. We are proud to have Michelle on the Heroes team. She is, without doubt, a hero in our midst. Please enjoy Michelle’s episode.
Episode #35: Shannon Kehler
Like many, Shannon does not think of herself as a hero. In her words, “If I can be a hero to you, I am happy, but do I think I am a hero? No.”
Before Shannon walked through Steinbach Regional Secondary School’s doors and changed the life of Michelle Sawatzky-Koop and many others, she was a volleyball player from Flin Flon, a small town in northern Manitoba. Following a successful high school career and acting on a friend’s advice, she attended an open try out for the University of Manitoba women’s volleyball team was one of four rookies selected to play for the team. She played two years before transitioning to coaching, where she positively impacted the lives and athletic development of hundreds of athletes in junior varsity, varsity, and club volleyball settings.
As an athlete who came from both the north and a small town, she thought the gap between rural and city athletes was miles, but when she made the University of Manitoba team, she realized that the gap was not that big after all. Throughout her career, she not only taught all her athletes always to work as hard as they could, but she also demonstrated and proved that anyone from anywhere could make it as far they believe is possible.
Please enjoy our conversation with Shannon Kehler.
Episode #34: Nadya Crossman-Serb
“Be proud of who you are, don’t feel like you have to assimilate into one way of being, just be yourself and learn as much as you can about your culture as you can.” Nadya is a 23-year-old Métis/Libyan sprint canoer who has been paddling for 18 years. She has eight World Cup and World Championships medals under her belt and 12 national titles. She started paddling at the age of six when her Mom took up the sport. Since Nadya was at the paddling club too, she paddled as well. She was 17 when she made her first national team, and she would train and compete at the highest levels for five years until she retired in 2019.
Now free from the rigors of international competition, Nadya is coaching. She has partnered with her brother and others to start a not-for-profit organization (waterwayscanada.com) that uses paddling as a tool to re-connect Indigenous youth to their culture through the water and the land in a way that is similar to the experiences of the generations who came before them. In addition to her work with youth, Nadya currently views paddling as a way of adding goodness to her life. It is a way to connect to nature and feel the water without trying to be the best in the world.
Growing up as part of the Métis and Muslim community, Nadya often felt like she sat on the fringes of several communities, but when she sat in her boat, she felt like that was the one place she truly belonged and where she felt connected to something beyond herself. Please tune in to our conversation with Nadya Crossman-Serb to learn about the power of authentically being who you are while simultaneously chasing your dreams.
Episode #33: Kylo Harris
There is a piece of Kylo’s soul that belongs to Canada’s North. He grew up in Goose Bay, then a fly-in/fly-out community in Labrador, and spent the early years of his sport career in Nunavut. He tells us that three types of people move North, those that go to save the world – they last about three months. Those who go for the paycheque – they last about a year, and finally, those who go for the adventure. The ones who head North for adventure are not there for a specific purpose, but they are the ones most apt to ask, “how can we help out; where can we pitch in?” These are the people who change the world. Kylo doesn’t openly seek to change the world, but he does aim to create the best environments for those around him. He is also not one to say no to adventure.
Being open to both possibilities and adventure has served Kylo well and shaped his life in ways he never thought possible. From his choice of university (in Ontario far from friends and family) to saying yes to the North when his life in Toronto was not panning out the way he expected, to moving communities in Nunavut by snowmachine (a 3-day adventure with strangers), to accepting a position in Manitoba where he knew no one. Kylo has made the most of life simply by being open to the opportunities presented to him.
While not one of the founders of the Grizzlies program in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, Kylo was the first staff person with the organization and served as a volunteer coach with female soccer and boys lacrosse. The experiences Kylo had with the Grizzlies had a profound impact on him, and in the way he leads, in the way he coaches, and the way engages with everyone he interacts with. Passionate about his role as a sport professional and coach, Kylo also works quietly and tirelessly as a professional behind the scenes as a volunteer to create opportunities for athletes across several contexts, including indigenous teams, girls-only programming, development for smaller sports, and coach succession programs. He may not recognize that he’s changing the world, but he definitely enhances the world of everyone he engages with.
Please enjoy our conversation with Kylo Harris.
Episode #32: Leisha Strachan
Episode #31: Jocelyne Larocque
If we would simply list Jocelyne Laroque’s accomplishments, you’d probably agree that she’s a hero. But accomplishment alone is not what we’re looking for in our “heroes.” We want to know their story from the inside out, and Jocelyne’s got a great one. She grew up in a small town called Ste. Anne, Manitoba, and plain and simple, she just loved playing hockey and just knew that she wanted to play on the biggest stage possible. So, she dared to dream big, and it took her all the way to the Olympic Games and not just one – but two!
Most recently, Jocelyne was named the Manitoba Aboriginal Sport and Recreation Council’s Female Athlete of the Decade, an incredible honour and SO well deserved.
Jocelyne is proud of her Metis heritage and, no question is a “Hero in our Midst.”
We hope you enjoy the story of Canadian defenceman Jocelyne Laroque… as she takes us through the ups and downs of going after a dream and never, ever quitting.
Episode #30: Jayme Menzies
Episode #29: Donna Harris
Donna is a prairie girl who grew up in small towns in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. An RCMP kid, her family moved several times through elementary school and middle school. In addition to always feeling like the “new” kid, she was also one of the only students to blend a commitment to sport and music, a sometimes challenging combination that would prepare her for the balancing act that would become her life.
Ultimately choosing sport over music, Donna attended the University of Manitoba. For four years, she was a member of the Bison Track and Field team, where she competed in the 4X200m, 4 X 400m, and the 300m. When asked how and why she engaged in somewhat punishing training that didn’t have a game at the end of it, she tells us that the history of the program was such that you needed to show up and do the work to continue the legacy of Bison Track and Field, but also that when it comes to perseverance, she’s like a chocolate lab that will swim till it dies, in other words, she doesn’t give up easily.
After university, her journey involved working and coaching at the national level in sport. A decision to walk away from a national team coaching pathway coupled with illness from stress due to a life load that was out of control led to graduate research that uncovered the role of culture, recovery, and connection play in sustaining performance. The research, while rooted in sport, has applications across many contexts. One of Donna’s biggest takeaways from the research was the discovery that we usually see leaders (in the case of the research, this was coaches) as one dimensional. We don’t realize that there is a whole other dimension or dimensions to that person and a group of people who share that human, their human (partner, parent, friend, sibling, child) with the world, thus enabling them to lead or coach. When we learn to see people multidimensional, we have the opportunity to really see them, to understand them, and to connect with them. When this happens, we not only help them be at their best; we also uncover the heroes in our midst.
Episode #28: Dallas Ludwick
Dallas’ favorite quote is, “Be yourself. It’s the only way to be excellent at anything and to be a value to anyone else.” Without question, Dallas knows who she is, and she leans into her values as she tackles tough decisions and creates a training environment where athletes can be empowered and challenged.
A diver herself, Dallas retired from competition at age 17 and began coaching immediately. Through our conversation, Dallas talks about two different phases of her coaching career and the two types of experiences she has with results. In phase 1 of coaching, Dallas coached with a club, developed a national junior champion, and established herself as a highly competent coach. Phase 2 marked a return to coaching after an extended break when she traveled and worked as a photographer; the time away was taken because the club’s environment was incongruent with her values as a coach and a person.
You must be yourself . . . In phase 2, brought back to the sport by an athlete, Dallas became the head coach of her own club (she built up from a membership of just 2 athletes) and got an athlete “as close as you can get to the Olympic team as you can get and not make it.” The two experiences with results? Elation and devastation. Some days you get one or the other, some days you get both on the same day, and sometimes you get elation on the way to devastation. She blends the two by honoring each person’s journey and teaching her athletes to be proud of their work, even in the face of grave disappointment.
Please enjoy our discussion with our friend and hero in our midst, Dallas Ludwick.
Episode #27: Leah Kirchmann
After over 15 years at the sport of cycling and ten years racing professionally, Leah is still very much in love with the sport saying, “I love that the freedom you get from riding a bicycle. I’m free to go explore anywhere in the world, anywhere there’s a road. I can go to the mountains. I can go find beautiful places. I can go fast and push myself. I really just love cycling for that.” For those of you not familiar with cycling training and racing, this is saying a lot. Success in the sport requires punishing training and a sometimes-unforgiving demand on the body.
Leah’s path to cycling began with cross country skiing. A multi-sport athlete, Leah did cross country ski in the winter and cycling in the summer. This was a training pattern she maintained into her university years. She was part of a national team development program for skiing and was also part of the junior national team for cycling in both road and mountain bike. Ultimately, she chose cycling because it was a better fit with her school schedule, and there were more opportunities in cycling outside of the national team. In cycling, she could be part of a professional team. Her first professional contract started in 2010.
An alternate on the 2012 Olympic team, Leah dug deep and committed to earning a spot on the 2016 team, focusing on closing the gaps in any weak areas. She narrowed in on nutrition, sport psychology, and physiology and took every opportunity to be on her time trial bike (this involves painful training efforts) and to work on climbing. Six-months out from the 2016 games, she took a risk. She moved to a new country and changed up her coach and her team to race against the best every day. The risk paid off; she made the team and had a great Olympic experience in 2016.
Leah’s favorite quote is from Viktor Frankl, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances to choose one’s own way.” To learn how Leah is the living embodiment of this quote, please join us for our conversation with Leah Kirchmann, trailblazer, Olympian, professional athlete, and hero.
Episode #26: Hector Vergara
Hector has been offered positions all over the world, Miami, Costa Rica, and Mexico to name a few. He remains in Winnipeg as his kids won’t even move to a bigger home in another part of Winnipeg, let alone leave home for another part of the world. Part of what makes Hector so successful is the way he blends his life as an international soccer official with his family and his career in sport administration.
Hector Vergara moved from Chile to Winnipeg when he was 11. At recess at school, he and his two brothers would play soccer with other kids, but it was 3 vs 20 – the Vergara brothers versus everyone else! Hector excelled at all sports. When his brothers started playing for the provincial team, Hector moved into officiating. He was paid as a referee and he was not interested in working at traditional jobs like paper delivery or McDonald’s, telling us he preferred to get up and go for a run, not go to work.
Refereeing turned out to be a great choice. Victor progressed quickly through the ranks; at 22 he was the youngest referee in the Canadian Soccer League, at 26 he was officiating at nationals and then from there he landed at the international level. He retired from refereeing internationally 19 years later after 150 international matches that included World Cups and the Olympic Games. Part of what led to his success he tells us is that he never hesitated to do the right thing at any point in his career, even if, early on, that meant giving his brother a red card and sending him home!
Hector Vergara’s journey speaks to the dedication one must have and the challenges one must overcome in their quest for excellence. To learn more about Hector and his incredible story, please join us for this episode of Heroes in our Midst.
Episode #25: Dave Blatz
Every hero has a support crew behind them, an often-invisible team that enables them to be great. Dave Blatz is no exception. Dave is an athletic therapist. In 2018 he was working with Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes (Beach Volleyball) when they won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Australia. After winning they grabbed a cell phone and they called Dave’s family, saying, “Hi Bodie, hi, Campbell, hi Ellie Mae [Dave’s kids], this gold medal is for you. We want to say thank you for sharing your Dad with us. Hi also to Amy [Dave’s wife] thanks a lot [for sharing your husband.]” Part of the reason he can support some of the world’s best athletes is because his children and his wife are so willing to share him with Team Canada. Dave is the Director of Medical and Rehabilitation Services with Team Canada Men’s Soccer and the Head Therapist with Team Canada Baseball. He has also worked with the national teams for boxing and rowing and several other sports in multisport games settings (i.e., Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games). In 2008 he attended his first Olympics with Baseball.
Dave’s journey to the pinnacle of sport involves working as a golf pro, opening his own clinic, navigating relationships with challenging coaches, taking risks, leaning into opportunity, and embracing the chances he had to learn from everyone around him. A proud rural Manitoban (Steinbach) Dave’s story speaks to the dividends of both aiming high and honoring your roots.
Please enjoy our conversation with Dave Blatz.
Episode #24: Derek Ingram
Derek Ingram never dreamed he would be a coach, but when he found himself coaching the people he was competing against he realized that perhaps coaching people in golf was best done when he was not also playing against them.
The Head Coach of Golf Canada’s Men’s Team, Derek believes that a trusting relationship between the player and the coach is key. Without that connection it is impossible to make the technical changes required to get better. He loves people and has a unique way of dealing with them, he spends time getting to know his players and the players know that he genuinely cares about them. When asked to share advice with us he noted, “less social media and more time with people”, a testament to his approach, he walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to building relationships first.
Derek’s journey to a national team head coach position involves junior golf at Sandy Hook, Manitoba, a science degree in chemistry and walk on try outs at ten different schools in the US (spoiler alert he got five offers). We hope you enjoy our conversation with the intriguing and engaging Derek Ingram.
Episode #23: Alex Gardiner
Episode #22: Adrienne Leslie-Toogood
Adrienne knows that life is the one true sport that calls on all that we have and all that we are. When she works with someone, she sees it as her job to help them be whole and healthy and to love every step in their journey, both the good and the bad.
Adrienne’s journey from high school athlete to university starter to Olympic/Paralympic advisor was turbulent at times. The circumstances she found herself in often required her to figure out how to make things work on her own. She did not have a back up plan. If she did not make it work, no one was going to make it work for her. Along the way the community of sport (coaches, teammates, and parents of teammates) showed up to help her. Without sport, and specifically basketball, she would not have gone to university and without an injury at the end of her fourth year, she may not have pursued grad school. Through her journey she learned to see value in all people. She has watched those close to her struggle with mental illness and learned to never judge a person by just one part of who they are. She often reminds us that you never know what people have going on at home. You never know what a person’s story is until you ask them.
Now, a key advisor with many national team programs Adrienne brings her whole self to everything she does noting that, “If you want sustainable high performance, you have to create the space for people to be themselves and be able to bring their whole selves; to have the courage to invest their full selves.”
Please joins us for our inspiriting conversation with Heroes In Our Midst Co-founder, Dr. Adrienne Leslie-Toogood.
Episode #21: Rhiannon Leier Blacher
Inspired by the 1984 Olympics, Rhiannon started swimming at a club in Saskatoon at age seven. Her career would go on to span 27 years and include two Olympic Games and several national team appearances. But it almost did not happen. There were two occasions when Rhiannon wanted to leave swimming, and both turned out to be huge turning points.
The first, when she was 12, she stepped away and tried different sports and did different things, but she realized she missed swimming. This was a turning point because it was then that she realized that she was not swimming because of any outside influences; she was swimming because she wanted to be there. Her performance improved from then on, she qualified for nationals and she went to the University of Miami on a swimming scholarship. The second was not about quitting, but retirement. In 1999 her NCAA career was ending. Her coach from Winnipeg suggested that she could make the 2000 Olympic team if she dedicated herself to the year of preparation. Prior to that she says she never really believed she was good enough to make the national team – her best national ranking was fourth and to make the Olympic team you had to be top two with a qualifying time (she was almost 2 seconds off). Of this discussion she says, “ I think it was one of those things where, inside of me, it was always where I wanted to end up but I never really had anybody that said, “I believe you can.” And it was that little nudge, and it wasn’t a hard for him to nudge me because it was something I’d always really wanted. Really, in the end, it is just that belief that already the talent was there. I just needed someone to find it and fine tune it.”
Rhiannon’s success came through hours of hard work, a focus on the process, not the outcome and battles with vulnerability and emotional exhaustion. Now retired, she gives back by supporting current athletes as they navigate the emotional and physical loads that elite sport places on them. She recommends that whatever the options are in front of you to just go for it and give it a chance, but go all in – don’t do anything half assed.
Please enjoy our Heroes conversation with Rhiannon Leier.
Episode #20: Elliot Gray
Many of us are aware of what the term transgender means, but we really don’t understand it. Elliot Gray gets that, he notes, “I totally understand people who don’t understand how being transgender could work or how your mind could think that way. But you’re never going to understand. Just like I will never understand the lived experience of a person of color. I will never live that life. But I accept it, I celebrate what it is. You have your own unique experience that makes you, you.” He goes on to tell us, “I’ll never understand an extrovert. I don’t get how you’re energized by being at a party with 50 people. But I accept that you do, so you go and you, do you, I’m just going read on my couch. This is very simplified but being transgender is the exact same thing. I’m not going to shun that person for wanting to go to a party.”
Elliot Gray grew up playing sports and idolizing his big brother. As a young adult Elliot was known as Emma. Elliot competed on female teams and grew up as a girl, but something always felt off and not quite right. A talented rower, Elliot was a member of the national junior team and was the flag bearer for Team Manitoba at the Canada Summer Games in 2017. He went on to row for the University of Victoria and it was there that he started to confront the incongruence he always felt. Elliot recounted that experience telling us, “that’s kind of the point where I was like, Whoa, this is not right. I just remember every night; I was just so upset and every time I was in a [women’s] boat I just felt like a shell of a human being. It was just not what I wanted it to be anymore because I still loved the sport [but it just wasn’t me].” After the school year ended Elliot stepped away from rowing and took time to understand who he was. He returned to school the following year ready to live as his authentic self.
The journey from Emma to Elliot has been a lifelong process. Elliot has learned to love the man that he is and to feel love for role Emma played in his life. When asked if he would change his journey Elliot had this to say, “As hard as it is sometimes, I wouldn’t change it. Because people who go through whatever their unique hardship or challenges in their life constructively are some of the most amazing people . . . If I can be a positive influence in the lives of people close to me, the people I know who have experienced hardship and been a positive influence on my life that, to me, is the most beautiful thing. I don’t think I would trade that for having a slightly easier, or a lot easier time emotionally because I wouldn’t have the emotional depth that I do.”
To learn more about listening to yourself, fighting for your identity and accepting yourself fully, please listen to our open, honest, and brave conversation with Elliot Gray.
Episode #19: Chris Voth
When asked what advice he would provide to the world, Chris says, “Be yourself and be genuine. If you’re pretending to be someone, you’re not, it’s going to impact you. And it’s going to make things not as enjoyable. Also, then when people start to appreciate you for those things, it won’t feel as authentic because it’s not your real self. So, if you can, just be your genuine self and let things happen organically.”
Chris Voth is a talented athlete. Growing up he played lots of sports, but it was volleyball where he really excelled, and at every level. Chris has been a provincial champion in high school, a national medalist in university, a national team member and a professional player in the Champions League. The Champions League is a professional volleyball league where all the winners from the previous year go to play, for Chris it was the pinnacle of his career.
While playing volleyball professionally, Chris made the decision to come out as gay. He was the first professional male volleyball player to do so and he took this action because there were no athletes who were still playing and demonstrating that you could both come out and continue to play professionally. At the time, coming out was something people did once they retired, not something they did while they were still playing. Chris wanted to be a positive role model for others in the sport of volleyball. He told us that if he just helped one person, that would be enough. He also wanted to be able to let go of the fear of being outed and just show everyone who he was. The reaction to his story was humbling; it could not have gone better.
Chris’ advice comes from heartfelt, lived experience, “Be yourself and be genuine.” Coming out did have an impact on his playing career, but if given the chance to go back in time and not come out when he did, he says, “I would do it over 1000 times.”
Please join us for our engaging conversation with our courageous friend Chris Voth.
Episode #18: Emily Potter
Emily Potter has always been very competitive, some might say ultra-competitive. Whether we are talking about basketball, sack racing (an event at summer family fun days growing up) or ringette net minding (in her early years), Emily loves to compete and hates to lose. She is so competitive that, growing up, no one could talk to her after a loss, her parents had to just leave her alone. Fast forward a few years and Emily’s drive to succeed would land her spots on Canada’s national basketball team (her first national team was at U17) and with a NCAA team (University of Utah).
Emily’s family is tall, her mom is six feet, she and her Dad are 6’5”. She’s been playing basketball since grade seven, now 24 Emily says, “I love how different and multifaceted the game can be. There’s so many different ways to play basketball and different styles that I just haven’t gotten bored of it yet. There’s always more things and more skills to learn in the sport because there’s so many elements to it – this keeps me interested and engaged and excited to keep playing.” Her dedication to the game has been tested – she has been sidelined twice by ACL injuries and she has had to learn how to train in a way that works for her and to trust that her way will bring her success.
She tells us that, “greatness is not what you have, it’s what you give.” An important quote to remember in trying times and in good times. She reminds us that the accomplishments and material things we have are not as important as the people in our lives and our willingness to give back to others.
Please enjoy our discussion with Emily Potter.
Episode #17: Leanne Taylor
Everyday activities sometimes change our lives. Leanne Taylor had a day like that in 2018. She and her boyfriend went for a mountain bike ride at trails they rode all the time. During the ride Leanne fell off her bike, going over the handlebars. Her injury was instant. She experienced a spinal cord injury, dislocating T10 on T11 and immediately had no sensation or function in her legs. She would not walk again. An everyday activity had changed her life forever.
At first, disability felt like a dirty word, a word that did not apply to or describe her. Now, Leanne says her disability, like her brown hair, is just another thing about her. It does not define her or her happiness. Like her brown hair, having a disability is just one characteristic one could use to describe Leanne. The outcome of her accident was unfortunate and not great, but in her words, “we have such a short time that we get to be here on this earth and experiencing the things that we can. So, I think there’s so many experiences that I can still have. And in some ways, I was sort of thrust into this world of parasport. And that wasn’t an opportunity I had before. So even though I was definitely grieving a lot of opportunities that I had lost, I was saw this opportunity that I had and I was like, I just can’t let this go by because these people that are reaching out to me and trying to connect with me and show me this, they aren’t going to do that forever.” Leanne is now preparing for the 2024 Paralympics in the sport of Paratriathlon in the wheelchair class; her event is comprised of a 750m swim, a 20km bike (handcycle) and a 5km run (wheelchair race). Leanne entered her first race eight months after being injured and she is now ranked 13th in the world. Leanne’s story and her positive and tenacious approach to adversity, life and training will both inspire you and make you want to stand up and cheer.
To learn more about this Manitoba hero, please join us for Podcast #17 and our conversation with Leanne Taylor.
Episode #16: Chantal Givens
Chantal Givens is a Paralympian. She has one hand. Throughout her childhood Chantal’s parents treated her like a regular kid. She was encouraged to, and she liked to try all kinds of things as she was growing up. Her first competitive experiences came in the sport of diving, a sport she was part of for ten years, eventually competing at nationals against able bodied athletes (there was no para sport division). It was diving that would lead her to Triathlon, but not in the way you might think.
Chantal explains how she got into Triathlon, “There was a World Triathlon Championship in Edmonton, where I grew up and the organizers actually contacted our diving team to help volunteer at the event. I ended up handing water bottles out at the finish line to Simon Whitfield who had been the Olympic Champion. So, in the back of my mind, that was what I wanted to do next.” And do it she would, but the road was bumpy and full of challenges such as wrapping her training schedule around her job as a teacher and her role as a mom as well as modifying her bike so it was adapted for an athlete with one hand. She also experienced major injuries that almost cost her a spot on the Paralympic team in Rio, where Paratriathlon was making its Paralympic debut. In her words, “I did what I had to do,” including avoiding the occasional glass of wine because it may have delayed her recovery by an hour – and she needed every hour due to the proximity of an injury to the end of her qualification window. Chantal competed in Rio in 2016 and finished 8th. She did so by being adaptable and open to opportunities, an attitude she carries with her everyday as a mom, a spouse, a teacher, and an overall inspirational human.
Please join us for Podcast #16 to hear more of Chantal’s amazing journey to the Paralympics and beyond.
Episode #15: Colin Mathieson
Inspired by the athletes competing in the wheelchair racing section of the Manitoba Marathon when he was six years old, Colin got hooked on wheelchair racing at a young age. Born with Spina Bifida, a wheelchair was Colin’s primary mode of transportation and, it turned out he could move pretty fast! A sprinter, Colin competes in the 100m, 200m and 400m, he says, because after about 50 seconds he just gets bored. He likes events that are done in about a minute.
In 2019 when Colin won nationals in the 100m, he was more than double the age of his competitors. You see, that is what happens when you are still at the top of your game after over 25 years of competing. Colin earned a bronze medal in 1996 in the 4 X 400m relay at his first Paralympics. After appearing in the Paralympics four more times, he decided in 2018 that he was not yet done competing and he returned to training in search of a spot for 2020. We will have to wait and see what the future holds for Colin as the 2020 year was paused before the competition season could begin. However, given Colin’s ability to both compete and face adversity, our money is on him! There are very few athletes whose competitive careers have spanned close to 30 years.
At age 40 Colin now blends training with work (he completed a social work degree after returning to Winnipeg in 2012) and married life (he and his wife wed in 2011). He feels his life is an amazing and diversified portfolio. We could not agree more.
To learn about the courage it takes to tackle the ups and downs of an athletic career that spans more than a quarter century, please join us for our inspiring conversation with Colin Mathieson.
Episode #14: Bill Johnson
You may be surprised to learn that most elite coaches never plan on coaching. They get pulled into the profession by accident, through a serendipitous event or by happenstance. Bill Johnson was pulled into coaching wheelchair basketball because he played the sport with his brother. His brother had a disability, Bill did not. Able bodied people can play wheelchair basketball with teammates who have disability. When his brother moved away to play in the NCAA, Bill was approached by a women’s wheelchair basketball team to just sit in the gym while they played – a person who could simply be present in the gym was required a part of the contract. As he sat there while the athletes played, he realized that the team needed help, so Bill offered to write out some drills for them and suddenly a year later he was at nationals coaching a women’s provincial wheelchair basketball team.
Bill would go on to coach at several Paralympic Games and World Championships with junior teams and both the men’s and women’s national teams. In 2014 he was the head coach of the team that won the Women’s World Championship. His success is due certainly to his understanding of the game and his willingness to never stop learning (early in his career he travelled all over Canada and the US to learn from the best coaches – all on his own time and only for the purpose of expanding his knowledge). Now retired from national team coaching, he is the Executive Director of Football Manitoba and volunteers extensively on volunteer boards, with his children’s sport programs and with animal fostering programs.
Bill’s story is as incredible as his quiet heroism. We hope you enjoy our conversation with Bill Johnson.
Episode #13: Cal Botterill
When asked about what it is like to work with national teams, professional athletes and emergency room physicians, Cal will tell you that, “the stuff is the same, but the people are all different.” Adrienne will tell you one thing she has always admired about Cal is that he does what is right for the human being that sits in front of him. Cal is there for the people he works with, he speaks from the heart and he will tell you the truth, even when it may not be what you want to hear.
Cal grew up on a farm with five brothers and sisters. He told us that the only way to survive in that setting was to have humility, a strong work ethic, and to care for the people around you. He mentioned that humility is not a lack of confidence, but a quiet version of it, and, that having gratitude for your life and those around you is key. His knack for caring for others transferred into all his work. When he spoke about his ability to have an impact on teams and groups he mentioned that ultimately what he did was make people feel needed and excited about what they could contribute to the process and then he helped them understand what they needed to do to get better. Of course, this is a very simple explanation of the work Cal has done and continues to do, but the message here is that caring for those around him is at the heart of his work.
Upon completing his PhD, Cal sought out the five best sport psychologists in the world to learn the applied side of the job. He spent time with each of them and what he learned from that process helped him create his own style. Throughout his career he had the opportunity to work with several experts including Terry Orlick and Geoff Gowan.
Now, in the sunset of his career, Cal reminds us that there are no ordinary moments. Every breath we get is a privilege, so enjoy the moment. He also suggests that recovery is the key to sustainable performance telling us that, “looking after yourself first may be the most unselfish thing you ever do.”
An inspiring leader, proud father, and grandfather, engaging storyteller, and undoubtedly a hero in our midst. We hope you enjoy our conversation with Cal Botterill.
Episode #12: Tim McIsaac
When he was little and attending preschool and kindergarten Tim figured he was just like the other kids that he played with on his street; he’d even pick up books and pretend to read them figuring he couldn’t read them because he didn’t yet know how to read. He didn’t know he couldn’t read them because he was blind. His mom had to explain to him that he was not able to see.
While attending school at Ontario School for the Blind he was introduced to swimming and he took to it right away – he was better at it than kids in his class and in his school. Turns out he is one of the best swimming athletes in the world. Over his swimming career he dominated para swimming from 1976 through 1986 collecting 14 gold, four silver and five bronze medals at the Paralympics and five gold, four silver and one bronze at the World Games. In 2020 he was recognized as one of Manitoba’s greatest athletes of all-time. His formal swim training really began with the St James Seals in Winnipeg. He and his coach developed the technique were blind swimmers are tapped on the head as they approach the wall so they can complete their flip turn. Tim was the first person in the world to do it and he and his coaches introduced the technique to the world. The willingness of Tim to learn the flip turn and the openness of his coaches to innovate impacted not only Tim’s career, but the evolution of para swimming worldwide.
Tim advises us to take advantage of every opportunity to listen and learn from other people. We hope you enjoy learning from Tim in this episode of Heroes in Our Midst.
Episode #11: Joanne Vergara
“Go hard or go home” was Joanne’s mantra when she competed. It is safe to say it worked. At 16 she won three medals at her first Paralympics (a gold, a silver, and a bronze). Four years later she upped her game and came home with five gold. The youngest of four children in her family she was naturally competitive and keen to keep up. She loved swimming and it was a good fit for her as she is a bilateral below the knee amputee so sports that involved running and jumping were a bit more challenging.
Joanne had the ability to compete both in para swimming and able-bodied events. She attended the University of Manitoba and swam with the U of M swim team, qualifying for and competing at nationals (now USport then CIAU). Her accomplishments were achieved by recognizing that success would not come overnight – she set goals and took small steps every day to get her closer and closer to the top of the podium.
Retired from swimming and a mom of three teenagers, Joanne’s favorite sounds alternate between the peace of nature in her backyard in the morning and the wildly noisy chaos of her children in the house. She reminds us to worry less about what people think of you and instead focus on what makes you happy, what you want out of life and what you can give to others.
We hope you enjoy our conversation with Joanne Vergara.
Episode #10: Jared Funk
“It doesn’t matter where you are or who you are, you can make anything happen. It doesn’t matter what the limitations, whether it be you’re living in a rural area, or you have disability. They’re all just barriers that you can just shatter.”
Jared’s words ring true. He is a person who makes things happen.
In his graduating year from high school Jared was one of the top ten volleyball players in Manitoba. A trip to 7-11 changed everything for him when he was in a car accident where he was injured – he broke his neck. In an instant he went from having a 40-inch vertical to a zero-inch vertical. He spent the next nine and a half months in the hospital learning how to do everything again from scratch. While he was recovering, he was introduced to wheelchair rugby and loved it – in his words he “saw the guys in chairs, they smashed into each other, I was like this is awesome! So, I got into a chair and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Jared has gone on to represent Canada at three Paralympic games where he won three Paralympic medals (2 silver and one bronze).
To hear more about Jared’s amazing journey, tune into Heroes in our Midst podcast #10.
Episode #9: Joey Johnson
Joey Johnson has played wheelchair basketball for Canada at the Paralympic Games five times and has 3 gold medals and 1 silver from those competitions. For 20 years he competed at the highest level and was in love with the sport. Initially though, basketball and Joey were not friends. He hated basketball. He did not like the game and did not want to play. A diagnosis of Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease before the age of 10 changed his life and ultimately his relationship with basketball. Joey’s parents enrolled him in a youth program offered by Manitoba Wheelchair Sport Association and this program exposed Joey to a wide range of sport activities in an adapted form. It was through this program he was exposed again to basketball and found that he loved it.
Joey would go on to play in the NCAA, to play professionally in Australia and Europe and, as noted above to win gold medals at the Paralympic Games. Now retired from playing, Joey is transferring his wealth of experience to the next generation of players in his role as a national team coach. His story speaks to the power of family, the knowledge that there is always an opportunity to win and an understanding of the hours of work it takes to achieve success at the highest level (i.e., the work one does when no one is watching).
Please enjoy our conversation with Joey Johnson.
Episode #8: Vlastic Cerny
Vlastimil (Vlastic) Cerny has represented two countries in international swimming. Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and Canada. However, in grade three he was also identified as a talented hockey player through the extensive Czechoslovakia athlete search program, but he had already started swimming, so swimming was it. Now the head coach with Bison Swimming at the University of Manitoba, Vlastic’s road to international competition and coaching did not come without some bumps.
He made the Czechoslovakian Olympic team as an alternate in 1980, he defected in 1982 and was not able to compete in 1984. Of his decision to defect he notes “As soon as I started travel to the Western world, you know, you see different countries. I just knew that the system that we were in, this was not for me . . . for me it was an easy decision [at the time, but] not an easy decision to rationalize after and particularly as I got older, for sure.” He was finally able to compete at the 1988 Olympics for Canada. At the conclusion of his athletic career he transitioned into coaching and has since put athletes on national teams including the 2000 Canadian Olympic team. Currently he coaches Kelsey Wog, who shows great potential in qualifying for the next Olympic summer games.
To hear more about Vlastic’s journey, please listen to Heroes in our Midst, podcast #8.
Episode #7: Kelsey Wog
“She who has a large enough why can bear any how” is Kelsey’s favorite quote. The “how” that carries Kelsey into the future will likely look quite different than what she expected a few months ago, but given her commitment to process and her unwillingness to give up, we have no doubt she will get it done.
Early in the month of March 2020 Kelsey Wog posted the fastest time in the world in the 200m breaststroke and was ready and excited for Swimming Canada’s Olympic trials. However, ten days before the trials were scheduled to begin, COVID-19 hit Canada and the world she knew was paused. After that, the 2020 Olympic games were postponed and following that her training facility was closed. Was this a roadblock? Yes. Has it stopped her? No. Although she is just 21, she is no stranger to overcoming challenges – be it the cold water she associates with her early swimming experiences, or hating the breast stroke at first, to confronting anxiety and emotions that threatened her performance internationally or courageously confronting her coach about what she needed from him. Kelsey has learned to lean into the journey, to trust the process and to keep moving forward.
To hear our conversation with Kelsey and to learn more about her story check out Heroes in Our Midst Podcast #7.
Episode #6: Master Jae Park
Episode #5: Skylar Park
Skylar Park prefers to land hits to the head. A hit to the head gives you more points in a Taekwondo fight than a hit to other parts of the body. Funny thing though, she doesn’t see a hit to the head as violent. She explains, I’ll be talking to my friends and if we’re talking about, say UFC or sports like football or rugby, I’m like, Oh my god, I would never do that. It’s so violent. And my friends are like Skylar, do you know what you do? And I’m like, right, but I guess it was, second nature to me. So I don’t even think about it. But they’re like watch a video of you fighting, people are trying to kick you in the head.”
Born into the sport of Taekwondo, Skylar entered the sport at age two and had her black belt and the first of 14 consecutive national championship titles at age 7. Her Dad is her coach, her brothers are her training partners. She spars with her cousins. In 2016 she won the World Junior Championships and earlier this year she qualified for the 2020 Olympics, but that event, as we all know, has been postponed. The strong family connection has its pros and cons. Skylar reports that she probably spends way more time with her Dad and her brothers than the average 21-year-old, but, she says of having her Dad as her coach, “I know he is in my chair and he will never give up on me when I am fighting.”
When she started down the path of Olympic qualification she felt that it was her and her Dad against the world, now she says, “It is me and my Dad and we are going take on the world.”
To hear the complete conversation with this remarkable young woman, please listen to Podcast #5, Skylar Park.
Episode #4: Leah Ferguson
“I had a very tough practice in 2017 getting ready for the senior nationals and I remember running the sprints and doing the overload . . . and then laying on the mat in complete stillness, in my mind and in my body. It was then that it hit me, “This is why I do it.” I think a lot, I’m very cerebral and wrestling gave me stillness in a way that I didn’t know how to get without it. It was [during] one of my favorite training moments when I was laying on the mat and realizing, oh, this is why I do it. Like not for performance, not for the Olympics. But this is why I play as hard as I play, so that I can sit in the stillness and enjoy just being no one else. Got it.”
Leah’s journey back to a place of stillness required the courage to stand up to a bully and a broken system, the strength to fight for her dream and the willingness to be brave and create a training environment that allowed her to heal, to flourish and to define success on her own terms.
A three-time CIS (USport) Champion, Olympic team member in 2012 and an Olympic alternate in 2016, Leah is now committed to giving all her knowledge and understanding of excellence to Indigenous athletes; a community she is passionate about and where she believes there is much resilience, talent, heart and opportunity.
Leah Ferguson is without question a Hero in Our Midst. We are so grateful she agreed to join us.
Episode #3: Justin Duff
Justin Duff played volleyball for Canada, but he did not get there without being cut and spending time on the bench. He was cut from his JV volleyball team (he had never played before), he was cut from the Team Manitoba Canada Games Basketball team (when he was 6’6” with a 40 inch vertical) and he was not a starter in his first year of university volleyball with the University of Winnipeg. His volleyball development started when a coach at his school said to him, “Hey Justin, you could be good at this if you try. I am going to help you try.” When he was cut from the Canada Games basketball team, the staff at Volleyball Manitoba encouraged him to play volleyball telling him, “they would help him become the player he needed to be.” That player went on to represent Canada in volleyball at the 2016 Olympics in Rio as well as several other national team events.
Reflecting on his career, Justin is most proud of the shift he made from a talented, entitled kid to someone who was just willing to give his all and support the development squad. Recently retired, Justin is a now a Dad and MBA student. When asked for one piece of advice he would share he told us, “try to understand things that you have an issue with and don’t just dismiss them, you can learn something.”
We hope you enjoy our conversation with Justin Duff.
Episode #2: Janine Stephens
Janine planned on playing basketball at the University of Manitoba, but a chance meeting at a Karate class in the summer of 2000 changed all that when someone suggested she try rowing. After a rough few days that included a few bruises and some unplanned swimming when her boat flipped, Janine found her rhythm and made the 2001 Canada Games team for Manitoba on her way an 8th place finish at the Olympics in 2008 and an Olympic silver medal in 2012.
In her interview Janine tells us that she was never the strongest or the tallest or the post powerful, but that she could feel the boat and she was good at talking! Her strength was her positive attitude and her ability to make the boat go fast, regardless of who was in it. From others we hear that Janine was the heart of her teams, the voice that united them and the positive attitude that prevailed.
Now a full-time coach and mom of twin girls, Janine continues to impact the performance of athletes through her role as the provincial rowing coach for Manitoba. Please join us to hear Janine’s story as we uncover the Heroes in our Midst.
Episode #1: Chantal Van Landegham
Chantal Van Landeghem was in the pool before she could walk. Her Dad would take her and her sister to the pool to play and just spend time in the water. That early introduction fostered Chantal’s love of the water and contributed to her feeling at ease and at peace there. She dreamed of making a national team and going to the Olympics as early as age 5 and at age 12 she attended her first international competition as a junior athlete on Team Canada.
Fast forward several years and Chantal would join 3 teammates on the podium for Canada’s first swimming medal in 40 years and the first for Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics. A triumph for sure, but it was not without heartbreak. Chantal missed making the 2012 Olympic team by .01 of a second.
Now retired from swimming, Chantal is pursuing her PhD in Clinical Psychology and plans to work with athletes and others to support them on their journeys to being their best selves and accomplishing their goals. She loves that her career affords her the opportunity to give back.
We are excited to share the inaugural Heroes in our Midst podcast with Chantal Van Landeghem