By Martin Cleary
Ottawa is well recognized for its wealth of talented athletes in a full range of sports on the international stage.
But Canada’s capital is also acclaimed for providing key leadership at multi-sport Games.
They are the Chef de Missions. The leaders of the Team Canada parade.
If the athletes, coaches and managers are to have a successful Games, the Chef de Mission must provide proper support in areas like logistics, planning and communication.
During the past three decades, Canadian teams have been led by Chef de Missions from Ottawa like Michael Chambers (1996 Summer Olympic Games), Marg McGregor (2002 Commonwealth Games), Todd Nicholson (2018 Winter Paralympic Games) and Roger Archambault (2019 FISU Winter University Games). And Sylvie Bigras was on Canada’s leadership squad as an assistant Chef de Mission for the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Just as Ottawa continues to develop more and more successful high-performance athletes, the National Capital Region is now seeing athletes make the transition to leaders at a rapid pace.
Curling’s Lisa Weagle of Ottawa and weightlifting’s Christine Girard of Gatineau are two fine examples of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s next leaders in action.
On March 1, Weagle, a two-time Olympian, was selected to serve as the country’s Chef de Mission for the 2024 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Gangwon, South Korea.
A dozen days before that announcement, Girard, the 2012 Olympic women’s 63-kilogram weightlifting champion, was named the Chef de Mission for the Canadian team attending the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile.
“I want to be the one that keeps us together and helps people get to what they really want. The Games exist for (the athletes) so I’m there for them,” Girard told the COC’s Paula Nichols.
Girard originally won the 2012 Olympic bronze medal in her class. But after several of her higher-placed peers were disqualified for doping infractions, Girard became the 2012 gold medallist and the 2008 Beijing Games bronze medal winner.
“I just want to be the quarterback,” she explained. “I want to be there when (the athletes) come back. I want to be there to support them. I want to be there if they need an ear. Basically, just understanding what they’re going through because I’ve been there.”
Today, Girard is a mother of three children ages five to eight years old and works in occupational therapy, helping people on long-term disability return to work. She earned her Master’s of Health Sciences Degree at the University of Ottawa in 2021.
She also continues to care for her sport, which has been troubled by athlete doping issues for several decades. As a volunteer, Girard is doing her part to change the culture of weightlifting for the overall health of the athletes. That’s why she’s a member of the International Weightlifting Federation’s anti-doping commission and an education ambassador with the International Testing Agency.
As an athlete, she fully appreciates the time she spent with Olympic champion swimmer Mark Tewksbury, the 2012 London Olympic Chef de Mission, and Summer Games diving gold medallist Sylvie Bernier, the Chef de Mission at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games and assistant Chef in London.
“When you’re at the Olympics, you go through intense emotion in a world that most people don’t get. It’s not a natural environment,” Girard continued.
“And to be able to come back to the (Athletes’) Village and look at someone who gets it … if you’re happy, upset, you have trouble, you have issues, to just be able to have that connection of understanding to begin with and then build a relationship on top, it was so helpful and important to me.”
Eric Myles, the COC chief sport officer, said Girard has all the tools to be a strong Chef de Mission before and during the Santiago Pan American Games, which Oct. 20 to Nov. 5 this year.
“She is an incredibly accomplished athlete. She is an inspirational role model and a strong advocate promoting clean play. With her ability to build relationships and connect with athletes as well as her experience and her passion, Christine will be a great asset to Team Canada on the road to Santiago 2023,” he said in a COC press release.
Weagle, who represented Canada at the 2018 PyeongChang and 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, is eager to return to the team, but this time in a leadership role.
“Having experienced two Olympic Games as an athlete, I knew that I wanted to pay it forward one day and be part of the mission team,” Weagle said in the COC press release. “In many ways, it feels like I’m coming full circle, returning to the place where I had my first Olympic experience.
“My goal as Chef de Mission is to be there for the team in whatever capacity I can, whether it’s cheering on from the stands, joining in to celebrate a medal or personal best, offering support in a difficult moment or helping create a safe, supportive environment for athletes to achieve their potential.”
Weagle’s role as Chef de Mission in Gangwon will see her be a mentor, supporter and cheerleader for the Canadian athletes. That will be a familiar role for her. The Games are Jan. 19 to Feb. 1, 2024.
In the past, the former lead for the Rachel Homan curling rink was part of the coaching team for Brett Gallant and Jocelyn Peterman at the 2022 world mixed doubles curling championship, and she coached the Kaitlyn Lawes rink from Manitoba at the recent Canadian women’s curling championship.
A coaching consultant with Curling Canada’s National Wheelchair Curling Program and NextGen program, Weagle has supported Ottawa’s Emily Deschênes in the latter program. She also helps other student-athletes in curling as a volunteer board member with the Sandra Schmirler Foundation.
Weagle understands what the Olympics are all about. She knows it can feel like Disneyland, where ”everything is magical.”
Here is a section from the paper she wrote for the COC about her experience as an Olympic athlete:
“Every athlete who will compete in Gangwon dreams of standing on top of the podium with a gold medal, singing their country’s anthem. But there’s only three spots on the podium and three medals to be won. This means that a lot of athletes will go home disappointed.
“I was one of those disappointed athletes at both of my Olympic Games. My teammates and I just missed the playoffs, falling short of our goal of bringing home a medal for ourselves and for Canada.
“I won’t sugar-coat it. It was devastating.
“I remember feeling like not medalling was the worst possible thing that ever could have happened in my entire life. Before going to PyeongChang, I thought failure would look like a silver or a bronze medal. I had never even imagined the possibility of being off the podium.
“After we lost, I didn’t let myself cry until I got back to my room and then the floodgates opened. Through tears, I checked my phone and a message caught my eye. It was from a junior curler in Ottawa. She told me that she was proud of me, regardless of the result. That I was a role model to her and other athletes. That I was an Olympian for life.
“Although losing stung, her message opened my eyes to a different perspective. She was right: even without a medal, I was still a Canadian Olympian, an incredible accomplishment in its own right. I took some comfort in knowing I had tried my absolute best and never gave up.
“Some days, your best gets you a medal and some days it doesn’t. Depending on what side you’re on, it’s the beauty and the heartbreak of sport.”
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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