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Heroes in Our Midst

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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Episode #6: Master Jae Park

Master Jae Park is the third generation of his family to be involved with Taekwondo. His father is a Grandmaster, he achieved his black belt at age 6, he coaches his daughter Skylar who has qualified for the Olympic Games in Taekwondo. But would you believe that a fall in his last speedskating race (a 400m short track event) changed the course of his life? If he had won, he would have stuck with speedskating, but he fell and finished last. He left that sport and, over time, returned to the sport of Taekwondo.
Master Jae Park was born in Korea, he immigrated to Canada in 1977 when he was almost eight years old. His family settled in Winnipeg. He had planned on going to law school but on a whim, and after years of discussion, he opted out of mailing in his application in 1993 and instead, partnered with his Dad to open TRP Academy. What was supposed to be a six-month trial turned into a successful Academy. Named for Master Jae’s grandfather, Tae Ryong Park is a thriving gym and Taekwondo Academy that trains hundreds of students and has produced an Olympic athlete and an Olympic coach. The Olympians in question are Master Jae (coach) and his daughter Skylar (athlete).
Master Jae’s journey includes a black belt at age 6 in Korea, speedskating in Winnipeg in -30 and now blending his role of being a Dad and an Olympic coach to his daughter Skylar. Please join us to listen to his full story as we continue to uncover the Heroes in our Midst.
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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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